Acado-Russian Dolls

By: | Post date: August 27, 2009 | Comments: 3 Comments
Posted in categories: Countries

It’s true, the initial obsession with Franco-Canada is somewhat wearing off; it was remarked at the pub last week that I went a full 20 minutes without mentioning Quebec. Because my downtime has been taken up with adventures in the language of War of Troy and Chalcocondyles (of which more at The Other Place), I haven’t delivered yet on the postings I’ve already pledged; so I’m catching up summarily.

The grand emotive defence of multiculturalism I was building up to may not end up here, because much of it ended up as a comment on Angry French Guy’s blog. The thread ended up substantive, even if people kept their own perspectives (and I think I was the only one close to saying multiculturalism is good in its own right). It was a thread substantive enough to draw approving comment; in no small part because it didn’t get the attention of the resident fanatics.

So that doesn’t go here. But several weeks back, I had a couple of exchanges with Acajack on Acadian identity, both driven by me trying to get the context behind Acadieman. Round about here.

“Acadian” is not the terminus of identity construction in New Brunswick francophonie: things keep being layered and nested there. That explains why in Series 2 of Acadieman (which is not online), the war is not between Quebec and Canada or the US and New Brunswick, but North New Brunswick and South New Brunswick. It also explains why the roving news reporter of TV Acadie in the series does *not* codeswitch into English—and sounds like he needs a volume control.

Now, identity is a messy construct. What you are is defined by what you’re not, and there’s a whole suite of criteria you can use to define yourself against Y, and with X. If things go smoothly, you end up with a concentric sequence of identities, some of which are more important to you than others, and most of which define a hierarchy of people you feel kinship with. I will now self-indulgently illustrate with two sets of identity I can lay claim to.

  • I’m Animal, You’re Vegetable Or Mineral
  • I’m Human, You’re A distraction out my car window that goes “moo” or something
  • I’m Anglophone, You’re only intermittently intelligble to me
  • I’m Commonwealth, You’re American
  • I’m Australasian, You’re British
  • I’m Australian, You’re a New Zuhluhnduhr.
  • I’m Victorian, You’re from One Of Those Other States
  • I’m Melburnian, You’re from Regional Victoria
  • I’m Zone 1 (just), You’re Even More Suburban
  • I’m from South of the Yarra, You’re from the Urban Enclave
  • I’m from Oakleigh, You’re from Somewhere With Trams
  • I’m Walking Distance to Oakleigh Station, You’re Lost In South Oakleigh Suburbia

or else:

  • I’m Grecophone, You’re Less Burdened With the spectre of Our Ancient Ancestors
  • I’m Greek, You’re Cypriot
  • I’m Cypriot, You’re Greek (but that’s not the side I was acculturated in)
  • I’m Diaspora Greek, You’re Metropolitan Greek (and oh, the frictions in that which only the diaspora notices)
  • I’m Second Generation Greek, You’re First Generation (in this context, Greek is *not* the in-group language: it’s the parents’ language)
  • I’m an Islander, You’re a Mainlander (a cultural split in Greekdom deeper than gets acknowledged)
  • I’m from Crete, You’re from an island with less machismo
  • I’m from Easternmost Crete, You’re from the rest of the island, with more machismo. (E.g.: You’re the guys firing pistols at Our weddings, and goat-rustling as a bonding ritual; Our criminality is limited to eloping and distilling moonshine)
  • I’m from Zakros, You’re from some uncouth mountain village like Ziros. (Zakros is in the mountains too; but we’re not uncouth, dammit)
  • You thought Zakros was a seaside village? No, that’s Lower Zakros. That’s where we keep the Minoan antiquities and the tourists. I’m from Upper Zakros (where people actually live)
  • I’m from Patela (“The Flat Bit”) in Zakros, You’re from the Village Square bit (where people mostly live now)

And so forth; I’ll stop before drilling down to clans and families. Of course, all that was two or three sets of identity assertions, not one, and that’s part of the complication. Depending on circumstance, people can lay claim to a different concentric circle. People can also lay claim to a completely different suite of concentric circles, if they have access to it; and because the world is a much more complicated place than they used to be, they now can access it. The world is a complicated enough place, that you can at times even hold mutually exclusive identities—because exclusivity is harder to achieve now. And identity is reified enough that people can object to the rigidity of a binary identity, which itself constitutes an identity. You say “I reject binary gender imposed by Society”, I hear “I’m one of those genderfuck people, and You’re Strayt”.

But to go back to Acadia, the fact that Francophonie there is not as contiguous or clear a majority as it is in Quebec complicates Acadian identity. The French colonists mistitled the whole region after Arcadia (which is another reason I like the concept of Acadia, since my favourite language is spoken in Arcadia). The English, after their ethnic cleansing, split it up into New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia; so that already divides Acadianness up. Though since the major ethnic cleansing happened in Nova Scotia, while the forests of the New Brusnwick backcountry offered the fleeing and returning Acadians shelter, there isn’t a strong Francophone element now outside New Brunswick.

But in New Brunswick itself, there is a clear difference between the North and the South. In the traditionally Acadian North, bordering with Quebec, French is the majority language, and outsiders can still be assimilated into an Acadian identity, as Acajack reports. So being Acadian is a majority identity, and has a hegemony over the local society. In the South, French is more marginalised, which is why Chiac is possible there (and why Acadieman’s codeswitching is so provocative). Being Acadian is on the way to becoming something more marginal in the South: something that survives, but is no longer running the society, as local colour rather than the default colour. A few generations, and it’ll be Maine, if it isn’t already: lots of French-Americans, but not a lot of French in the public sphere.

Acajack’s choice of terms is to call Acadian a “social” identity in the North, vs. an “ethnic” identity in the South. The differentiation makes sense: hegemony versus minority. And that is the popular way of using “ethnic”, as a marked but marginal cultural presence, as opposed to the default culture. But default culture is still a culture (yes, Virginia, even Anglo-Canada is a culture). The North construct of Acadian identity may assimilate Japanese Acadians; but that does not mean that it has transcended ethnicity, and is some sort of rainbow melting-pot like the US aspires to be. So while being Acadian means very different things in the two regions, based on different power relations, one identity version isn’t less grounded or more generic than the other.

The different takes on Acadian identity means that unlike Quebec, which has an articulated and uncontroversial notion of Quebecoisness (and 90% of the province), Acadianness is contested. Franco-Quebec has set out to build itself as a nation, and has marshalled all the tools of the State to do it. It has not completely tuned out Anglo-Quebec, but it hasn’t really been held up in its quest by West Montreal either; and whatever the feelings of the populace about federalism, it’s clearcut to them that they are now a nation in all but constitutional recognition.

That hasn’t been the case with Acadia; and with French spoken by only a third of New Brunswick, it can’t become the case: the pronvincial government of New Brunswick cannot be identified with an Acadian nationalism, the way the Parti Québécois could; and Ti-Louis’ success in making New Brunswick officially bilingual is a very different kind of victory than Ti-Poil’s success on the public use of French.

That may make Anglos think Acadian assertions of identity are somehow “nicer” than Quebecois assertions. But “nicer” goes with “unthreatening”. New Brunswick bilingualism is a attempt to brake assimilation, but it’s a more belated attempt than anything Quebec had to do; assimilation is where Moncton is heading, and a more dilute sense of Acadianness is inevitable, as less and less distinguishes Francophone Monctonians from their Anglophone neighbours (some of whom used to speak French).

From over the Quebec side, Angry French Guy notices Acadia, and its lack of an identity strong, centrally asserted and contiguous, and refers to it as a “State of Mind of a nation”. Its borders and boundaries are fuzzy: Acadia is not New Brunswick, but both bigger than New Brunswick, and smaller than it. AFG was probably thinking of the lack of national trappings, when he called it a State of Mind of a Nation; but Acadia is also a State of Mind of a Nation, because Acadieman and Danny Thibodeau are not identical, and do not construct their Acadianness identically.

Danny Thibodeau is the roving reporter character in Acadieman. He’s a real person, a local musician, who in real life is even more hirsute than his cartoon counterpart (4th photo down). And in the cartoon universe, his ideology is not noticeably different from his Moncton TV Acadie anchorman, Gerry Cormier (also a real person). He spoke of the Quebec Mur Separatiste in the newscast before Gerry did.

There are two things noticeable though about how Danny speaks in the show. First, while Gerry is just as Chiac as Acadieman, Danny does not drop any English into his dispatches that I noticed. That’s not unrelated to the fact that Danny is not from Moncton: he’s from North New Brunswick, where French reigns still.

The second is that Danny sounds like a caricature French lumberjack with the volume turned up to eleven. As the comments to the Acadieman website point out, he doesn’t *actually* sound like that in real life:

AcadieMM: De plus, si tu savais vraiment de quoi tu parlais, tu saurais que l’Acadien moyen de Moncton ne parle pas comme Acadieman, mais que le personnage ne fait qu’utiliser un maximum d’expressions chiaques dans chaque phrase. Comme les Brayons ne parlent pas comme Danny Thibodeau, qui lui-même ne parle pas vraiment comme dans l’émission (je le sais parce qu’il m’a enseigné en 8e année).

Moreover, if you really knew what you were talking about, you’d know that the average Acadian of Moncton does not talk like Acadieman, but that the character is just using the maximum number of Chiac expressions in every sentence. Just like Brayons don’t talk like Danny Thibodeau, who himself doesn’t really talk like he does on the show (I know because he taught me in 8th grade).

He’s still teaching, btw: I guess New Brunswick’s a small place.

But Danny does have a distinctive accent, because he’s not just North New Brunswick: like AcadieMM points out, he’s Brayon. Brayon is yet another Russian doll to add to the constructions of identity in Acadia. The Brayons actually had an independent republic going for a few months, Wikipedia tells me, set up by an American adventurer; but the territory was remote enough, and in an ill-defined border region between provinces, for them to get away with it.

I don’t know anything about the distinctive Brayon culture, and to what extent they sound in real life like caricature French lumberjack with the volume turned up to eleven. But a lumberjack from somewhere where everybody speaks French with the volume turned up to eleven (including the Japanese immigrants) is going to have a different understanding of what it means to be Acadian, than a mumbling slacker in a Moncton Home Hardware, who mixes “anyhoo” in with his French, and advises his angry customer driving while yelling on the phone that “c’est right dangereux, ça”. [End of the embedded vid, but the whole thing is worth your time.]

The temptation is to say that the Chiac identity is somehow less authentic than the Brayon. But of course both are real Acadians, in different ways, and there’s a reason the show’s creator picked the latter to wear the Acadian flag T-shirt.

34% Francophone Moncton in Chiac country, and 98% Francophone Edmundston in Brayon country, are not at war. They share Acadianness, and they both assert it to whoever will listen. But a New Brunswick civil war was a premiss in Season 2 of Acadieman; and Dano Leblanc didn’t come up with that idea out of nowhere: it reflects a real tension. It’s an interesting tension: it plays out some of the old concerns on how to build nationhood, and what criteria you get to set to join in the nation. And it’s played out, as an active debate complete with animation, in a microcosm.

There’s an even greater tension though than North/South in New Brunswick—although it’s the logical conclusion of that tension, and North and South take sides in it. That tension is on whether Anglophone Acadians get to claim that identity. That gets murkier and messier yet, and it goes to a separate post. In fact, it’s already spawned a side-post that has taken a life of its own…


  • Wm says:

    I, even more maliciously, think of the proverb “τίς πατέρ’ αἰνήσει, εἰ μὴ κακοδαίμονες υἱοί;” I've never been brave enough to wave that in front of a modern Greek claiming co-identity with the Ancient Ancestors.

    In my defense, I also get cross at my fellow Americans who use the words "we" and "the founding fathers" in the same breath. "Really? Which part of the Bill of Rights did you compose?"

  • opoudjis says:

    @ William: in response to which, I can only cite approvingly Richard Feynman's verdict (end of my linked posting).

    There's a real sadness to that, a real sense of never measuring up to the marble the Ancient left around the countryside. (The folk traditions talked of Hellenes as pagan superhuman giants, who toppled over like dinosaurs: my peasant ancestors knew what the marble told them too.)

    That sentiment translates all too often into braggadocio—which a people confident in its achievements doesn't need to resort to…

  • Wm says:

    I'm Grecophone, You're Less Burdened With the spectre of Our Ancient Ancestors

    Ok, that made me laugh genuine lols — several times.

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