© GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MARY MACKAY
P.E.I. Acadian author Georges Arsenault has just released the bilingual book, The Acadians of Summerside, which was published with the collaboration of La Belle-Alliance Itée and La Grande Marée. The book focuses on the accomplishments of this often forgotten segment of Summerside’s population.
One new book is letting the working class heroes of the rich Acadian community in Summerside finally shine.
For 150 years, Acadians have been a vibrant part of this increasingly urban centre, and now through extensive research and more than 100 photographs, author Georges Arsenault details the evolution and growth of this distinct community.
“It’s just been off the radar . . . . I said it’s about time that the story of that community be told because it’s really the biggest urban Acadian community on the Island and there is about one-third or more of the Summerside people who are of Acadian descent, either wholly or partly,” Arsenault says of his bilingual book, The Acadians of Summerside, which was published by La Grande Marée with the collaboration of La Belle-Alliance Itée.
Summerside started out as a small Loyalist rural community called Green Shore in the late 1700s, but when the Queens Wharf was built in 1840 and some big shipbuilding yards moved in, it became a prosperous commercial centre.
“There was all kinds of work, so a lot of people came, including the Acadians, starting in the 1850s mainly,” Arsenault says.
Many settled in the west end of Summerside, which was also heavily interspersed with those with Irish roots, resulting in intermarriages between the two Catholic populations.
However, of that 30-plus percentage of the Acadian population, a little more than five per cent can claim French as their mother tongue.
“It was always very difficult to keep the French language alive in Summerside. There were no institutions until recently to help families keep the language alive in the home,” Arsenault says.
“It was not easy to keep French alive in the family over the second and third generations because there were no French schools (in Summerside), and until the 1970s, speaking French was looked down upon.”
“So there was a big inferiority complex associated to that. And most of the Acadians in Summerside belonged to the working class. For a long time there were few Acadian professionals in Summerside that would fight for the use of the French language in the St. Paul’s Catholic Parish or try to obtain French education for their children.”
However, there were times when the Acadian leaders in the community took a stand, such as one instance at the local Catholic church.
“Around 1960, a group of Acadian leaders asked the parish priest for a sermon to be given weekly in French at one of the Sunday masses. He refused even if one of the curates was an Acadian French-speaking priest. He was not allowed to speak French at church, even though a good number of the parishioners were French-speaking and Acadian,” Arsenault says.
“So the group sent a letter to the bishop and the bishop spoke to the parish priest. He was very mad that they had done that. So one Sunday, from the pulpit, he accused the Acadian leaders of being communists, subversive. He compared their movement to Khrushchev and Castro. He really came down on them.”
The Acadian leaders persisted. They went back to the bishop, who subsequently mandated the priest to allow at least one sermon on Sunday in French.
One common practice early in the era of Acadian resettlement from the rural areas of the province to Summerside was the changing of French surnames to English versions.
“For example, many Aucoins or Poiriers who moved from Miscouche or Mont Carmel to Summerside became Wedges and Perrys. It was a way of integrating more easily into the community,” Arsenault says.
“Take, for example, the former town councillor Andy Perry, owner of Andy’s Seafood, who had been a renowned rumrunner (in the early 20th century). He was a young boy when his family moved to Summerside. In Mont Carmel he was known as André Poirier and in Summerside the next day he was Andy Perry.”
The book also includes photos and summarizations of many of the Acadians who helped shape Summerside into the city it is today.
“I tried to show the evolution of the community and to highlight those who contributed the most: the first Acadian to sit on town council, the first Acadian mayor, the first Acadians to teach at public schools and things like that,” Arsenault says.
“However I didn’t want the book to be only that. I wanted the book to be about the Acadian community at large. Many of the photos are those of ordinary people: cart drivers, midwives, fishermen, barbers, veterans, children, large families, etc.
The Acadians of Summerside book also explores Acadian associations, community involvement, French-language education, sports and more, all of which now have been brought forth so that the Acadian influence in Summerside’s history can be recognized and appreciated.
“I think it’s a good way to make people aware of the presence and of the contributions of the Acadians to the city of Summerside. The history of a town or of a city is not only the story of the commercial, political and religious elites. It is also the story of the working class. That was important in this book because the majority of the Acadians in Summerside were of the working class, so you can’t ignore them.”
Acadians have been a part of the fabric of Summerside for more than a century and a half, Arsenault’s summarizes at the end of the book
“Acadians helped build and populate the city, they have given it life and they have celebrated it. Their culture and language have made it richer.
“It is hoped that this book will not only shine a spotlight on these contributions but also strengthen the pride of the Acadians of Summerside — be they French speaking or English speaking.”
AT A GLANCE
The Acadians of Summerside, written by Georges Arsenault was published in collaboration with La Belle-Alliance Itée and La Grande Marée.
It features extensive research and more than 100 photographs that detail the evolution and growth of this distinct urban community on P.E.I.
The book is available at Bookmark in Charlottetown, Centre Belle-Alliance in Summersdie and Acadian Museum in Miscouche.