Moncton, New Brunswick

Canada’s huge. It should come as no surprise that I can even feel like a foreigner in my own country sometimes. Yet…it is surprising! And awesome! If anything, it tells me how little I know and how much more is left to be seen.

But by “foreign”, instinct usually leads to Quebec, and rightfully so. Some Quebeckers I’ve met appreciate Canada but cannot identify with it or do not feel like a part of it (regardless of whether they side with federalism or separatism). It brings the question though, what does it mean to feel Canadian?

That’s not a question I’m seriously aiming to answer right here on this blog. But it leads me to New Brunswick. The Maritimes are perpetually ignored in Canadian news (well, they ARE tiny…), and even measured to this standard it feels like NB gets even less attention than Nova Scotia or PEI. That’s really quite a shame, because there’s plenty on offer here, even if it isn’t exactly the most touristy place.

Alright, backtracking a bit. I’m here on my way to Newfoundland, and I’d readily admit to considering passing through NB completely – well, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m intent on visiting my friend Mathieu. After meeting him in Morocco three years ago, connecting me to Aubin in Benin last year, and having a series of missed connections, it only felt right to come for a visit armed with a big case of beer.

Well, that 12-pack of Boston’s own Samuel Adams certainly wasn’t the only thing we had. Given his tip, I timed my visit for la Fête nationale des acadiens, celebrating the Acadian nation every year in early August and culminating on the 15th.

This leads me back to the whole “foreigner” thing. New Brunswick is the only bilingual province in Canada (if you’re thinking Quebec, their only official language is French; if you’re thinking NWT or Nunavut, well, they’re not provinces), and that’s due to the large Acadian population, descended from French settlers in the 1600s.  They’ve fought hard to retain their culture, heritage, and most of all, language – despite their cultural identification to Acadie rather than France, after the British were handed control of New France in the 1700s, the Acadians refused to swear to the crown and were deported to France, Louisiana (where they became “Cajuns”), and mostly other French territories of the time. Some stayed and hid, while some returned years later finding their land gone and taken. Their numbers dwindled and so did their influence, as the British commandeered the dominant culture.

As Mathieu and his friends tell me over the course of my stay, French speakers were treated as second class citizens virtually until the 1970s, with francophone areas consistently poorer and less developed than anglophone ones. They’ve worked hard to reassert themselves – the province is now bilingual, and you can receive your schooling, your services, and do business entirely in the language of your choice. (Or both!)

New Brunswick as a whole is about one-third francophone, but with a significant portion of the Acadian population on the east coast, virtually everyone I ran into in the Moncton area spoke French first, with virtually unaccented (though at times spotty) English second to accommodate the provincial majority or just the lazy folks (ahem, me). Street signs and signage in general is comically large, being displayed in two languages.

The language and identity thing gets a little more complicated. (I lost count of how many completely unrelated conversations I had that ended up on a tangent and becoming a discussion on language!) Their brand of French is not the one you’d hear in France or Quebec, and in particular, Chiac, which is spoken in the Moncton area, is like French with a heady mix of English words reappropriated to a similar, though not always the same, context. (To me, it’s disorienting but relatively comprehensible.) Language “purists” in Quebec in particular frown upon it, but in the same breath that they complain of laws encroaching on the language of their identity, why condemn what is legitimately also a language that belongs to another group’s identity? And not to mention the small fringe anglophone groups calling for the removal of French as an official language in New Brunswick…oi.

Anyway! That whole long explanation was just to give some context for all the tricolour Acadie flags flying around (which to me looks like the French flag with a big asterisk on it, but actually stands for their patron saint, the Virgin Mary). Yes, plenty of New Brunswick and Canada flags around too, but none as plentiful as the Acadian one, at least in this area of the province and around this holiday. Flags in windows, flags on bandanas, flags on keyrings, flags on lawns. The general sentiment I got from talking to people: proud Canadians, but proud Acadians!

Again, what does this mean in terms of feeling Canadian? It brings to mind (in a lesser way) how I straddle being Canadian with being part of the Chinese-Canadian community (or rather, how I’ve kind of avoided it in the past in a misguided attempt at “integration”). With Acadie, there’s such a strong sense of community – a local press in French, a push for the arts (film and music in particular), and the fact that everyone seems to know and run into each other all the time, even in a “big” (for Canada) city like Moncton. Where it goes further though…is the general sense of invitation for everyone else to just go along with it and share in the culture. No exclusions! You don’t speak the language? No worries, they’ll switch for you. Not Acadian? Have a drink anyways!

Okay, so what did I actually do in Moncton? Heh. Well, so there’s actually a couple touristy things after all, though pretty much everything is outside the city. Magnetic Hill, the “rolling uphill” optical illusion park-turned-zoo that I went to when I was like 8 or something…euhhh no thanks. What I really mean though are the tides. Along the beautiful Fundy Coastal Drive, past the expansive mud flats and gently rolling hills, three things are worth seeing twice, and indeed I did: the chocolate-coloured Petitcodiac River running between Moncton, Riverview, and Dieppe; the utterly alien Hopewell Rocks; and Cap Enragé, with its lighthouse precariously perched on a beautiful cliff. With some wacky weather and some of the highest tides in the world (up to 17 metres high in places), everything looks completely different in a matter of hours. This applies even on a different coast: having gone to Shediac (home to the world’s largest lobster sculpture!) one day with Mathieu and the next with his girlfriend Monica, walking to swim the warm waters of Parlee Beach went from a matter of maybe 20 steps to a good, long and flat 500 metres in low tide.

As for the timing of my visit, there were events galore – plenty I missed (like the traditional noisemaking Tintamarre), but more than enough to appreciate, like Dieppe’s International Kite Festival full of some seriously impressive acrobatic flyers, or the free Acadie Rocks concert in downtown Moncton that even featured Lisa Leblanc, the most nationally (Canada-wide) prominent name in a sea of Acadian artists.

And of course, who can forget that 12-pack? That was barely even a prequel to a barbecue thrown by Mathieu’s cousin (and also impressively rising performing artist) Raphaël and his girlfriend Mireille in honour of 15 aôut. Or the concert. Or the beach. Or the random starlit campfire Monica and Mathieu decided to start on the side of the river within Dieppe city limits. Oh dear.

Lastly, in an attempt to answer the question of feeling Canadian (“unforeign”) in New Brunswick: Being bilingual in shampoo ingredients. Saying sorry all the time.  Unintentionally apologising to inanimate objects. Kilometres on the road, Celsius on the thermometers. Ridiculously long driving distances. Heavy wallets full of loonies and toonies. General contempt for the current government and their million “Action Plan” signs. Yup, it’s good to be home.

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