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Proceedings of the Standing Senate Committee on
Legal and Constitutional Affairs

Issue 2 - Evidence for November 6, 2002

OTTAWA, Wednesday, November 6, 2002

The Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, to which was referred Bill S-5, respecting a National Acadia Day, met this day at 3:30 p.m. to give consideration to the bill.

Senator George J. Furey (Chairman) in the Chair.


The Chairman: Honourable senators, the purpose of today's meeting is to consider Bill S-5, to consider a National Acadian Day. Our witness needs no introduction. Senator Comeau has a statement to make regarding Bill S-5.


Senator Comeau: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to appear before your committee. I must say I find it quite intimidating to testify before the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee. I would like to make a few comments to put the bill in context for you.

National Acadian Day goes back to 1881. It was chosen by approximately 5,000 Acadians during the first National Acadian Convention in Memramkook, a small village close to Moncton, a town former Governor General Roméo LeBlanc refers to as his native community. It was the first symbol of Acadia and as a people the Acadians recognize it as such.

Acadia is made up of a uniquely North American people. The inhabitants of Acadia recognized themselves as a people when they arrived in North America. This people does not need a territory nor an independent government. It is not attached to institutions, buildings or structures. For this reason, the lack of tangible symbols has led to a deep attachment to our intangible symbols: our national anthem, the Ave Maria Stella, and the Société nationale de l'Acadie, the national association that is our mouthpiece, our historic dates such as 1604, 1713, 1755 and of course, our national holiday, August 15.

Acadians survived during several centuries in spite of some horrible events. In Canada, however, they never became victims and never will feel like victims.

Acadians are the most ardent Canadian advocates. The passage of this bill will be a gesture of respect and recognition of the Acadians for their social, cultural and economic contributions. Symbolically, it is very important that it be the highest institution in the land, Parliament, which includes the House of Commons, the Senate and the Crown, and not a minister or the Cabinet, that will proclaim this national holiday.

Parliamentary recognition will be a symbolic message that this national day will not be excluded from the calendar of holidays published by Heritage Canada, as was the case for several years, and will send a message to Census Canada, which also excluded Acadian nationality from the census questionnaire. Currently, the census questionnaire includes 25 ethnic minorities or nationalities and completely excludes Acadians, the first Europeans to settle in Canada.

Senator Beaudoin: In 1881, the Acadian people celebrated its national holiday on August 15. What kind of recognition did this represent? Is this the first time that a bill is tabled, federally or provincially?

Senator Comeau: This was a convention, the first one, where Acadians met as an official people. It was a very special event, as the 5,000 or so Acadians had never gotten together before. Modern means of transportation did not exist. Acadians from all over Canada travelled to Memramkook to discuss the future of Acadians as a people.

Senator Beaudoin: Calixa Lavallée wrote O Canada around 1880. Is there a connection there?

Senator Comeau: No. At the convention, discussions took place among the Acadians, some of whom felt that choosing another date, one different from that of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste holiday, might divide French Canadians and that they should perhaps adopt the same date as the Quebecers. Finally, they decided that they constituted a totally distinct people, that they were neither Quebecers nor French Canadians but Acadians. They wanted their own holiday as they did not celebrate Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day.

Senator Beaudoin: Which had in fact been celebrated for a number of years by then.


Senator Pearson: This bill refers to a ``National Acadian Day''; however, there are Acadians who live outside of Canada. Will they be given the opportunity to know about it?

Senator Comeau: The day would be proclaimed by Canada, of course. However, the name of the day, la fête nationale des Acadiens et des Acadiennes, provides that the day is for all Canadians. We do try to encourage Acadians outside of Canada to be a part of the festivities.

Senator Pearson: How many Acadians are there outside of Canada?

Senator Comeau: In Louisiana there are approximately 1 million people who consider themselves Acadian. In the eastern states, there are about 300,000. In Quebec, there are over 1 million people of Acadian extraction. In other provinces of Canada, I am unsure of the number, but it would be large. New Brunswick has over 300,000 Acadians. Nova Scotia has about 45,000 Acadians who still speak French, but there would be many more who no longer do. In Prince Edward Island, there are around 5,000 Acadians. In Newfoundland, the numbers are rather low.


Senator Joyal: I was trying to conciliate, in my mind, the National Acadian Day and the national French Canadian day, June 24 which is a holiday because it is recognized as a national holiday.

I am trying to understand how the Acadians perceive this holiday, which has been recognized by the Government of Quebec over the past 20 years as Quebec's national holiday. However, at the Canadian level, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day remains the French Canadian holiday. I would like to know how you identify with this French Canadian holiday on June 24, since according to what you say, in 1881 you did not identify with that celebration.

Senator Comeau: Acadians had not up till then identified with that holiday, and still do not today. We recognize that French Canadians have adopted that day as their national day. But for the Acadians, that holiday never had the same significance.

Senator Joyal: So, there is no Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island or elsewhere?

Senator Comeau: No.

Senator Joyal: And yet, that society had branches as far away as New England, where immigrants of French- Canadian origin settled.

Senator Comeau: The equivalent for the Acadians would probably be l'Assomption, which started a business which was eventually called l'Assomption mutuelle. It was launched in New England.

Senator Joyal: At the time, it was basically a mutual aid society or charitable organization. To your knowledge, is there a comparable act in Canadian government legislation which recognizes June 24 as the French-Canadian national holiday?

Senator Comeau: No. I reviewed the legislation, and there is no comparable act. However, there is federal legislation concerning the Worker's Mourning Day (Bereavement Day for Workers) on April 28; the National Day of Remembrance, in regard to violence against women, on December 6; and National Child Day, November 20. This would be the first time Parliament would recognize a national holiday for a group.

Senator Joyal: You use the term ``national holiday.'' For Quebecers, the terms ``nation'' and ``people'' are politically charged, fraught with sociological significance. When you talk about a people, there are characteristics or features that allow one to conclude that a given group is a people.

In the bill you are introducing, when you use the words ``Acadian people'', are we to understand that this refers to the descendants of the first French colonists to have settled in Canada, in the beginning of the 17th century? An Acadian to my mind is a descendant of the first group of French settlers who settled in Port Royal, Canada's easternmost point, in the beginning of the 17th century, settlers who always felt connected to the area in spite of the deportation we are familiar with. In other words, today, you would not necessarily become an Acadian just because you immigrated to this part of Canada. To be an Acadian, you must be able to trace back your lineage through centuries, to your origins in this most eastern part of Canada, in the eastern part of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence, if one defines the territory as broadly as possible, excluding Newfoundland. Is that what we are to understand as a definition of the Acadian people?

Senator Comeau: If you go to the church in Grand Pré, which has now become a museum, you will find the names of all the people who had settled on the old Acadian tracts of land in Acadia at the time of the deportation. You will see names such as Comeau, Thériault, Leblanc, Robichaud and many others. Those are the names of the people who lived in the regions of old Acadia, which included parts of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and, I believe, a part of the United States.

However, if you visit some areas of Nova Scotia or New Brunswick today, you will find Acadians named Smith, MacAuley, Leblanc and others. There are Leblancs who became Whites, for instance. There are many Irish and English names, as well as names of other origins, immigrants who became Acadians, quite simply. The question does not even need to be raised. Those who claim to be Acadians, are Acadians. Acadians are not attached to concrete things. They have no territory, no government, no budget. An Acadian is an Acadian because he feels he is, in his heart.

That is why I was saying that the Acadians are the most ardent Canadians you will find anywhere in Canada. You might think that the opposite would be true, but the Acadians are deeply Canadian. They are Acadians as well, of course, because they feel that in their heart. They know they cannot have a government, a territory or a country, so they do not go chasing rainbows as some Quebecers do. What interests us is to maintain our Acadian heritage, the heritage of our people.

If you ask an Acadian where he is from, he will often answer that he is from the Annapolis Valley. It is rare that Acadians will answer that they originally came from France. You will find the same phenomenon in Louisiana, where they will answer that they are from Nova Scotia. They will almost never say France. They always say that their ancestors came from Nova Scotia. This is a people that is not attached to a territory.

Senator Joyal: I was trying to understand this from the point of view of a Canadian citizen, since this will become an act of the Parliament of Canada. Whether they are in New Brunswick, Quebec, Saskatchewan or Newfoundland, if people read this legislation, they will want to understand what we mean. It is our responsibility to ensure that from now on, this holiday which will be recognized on Canada's calendar, since we will be talking about the National Acadian Day, will be the holiday of Acadians throughout Canada. That is how I interpret the word ``national.'' It is national in the sense that it is celebrated at the Canadian level and not only in the part of the country we were talking about before.

Senator Comeau: Yes, it is national.

Senator Joyal: You said that you can be named Smith or MacAuley and be Acadian. I understand that if your name is Smith, it is because you have been assimilated into the Acadian culture, into the Acadian way of life, the Acadian language with its wonderful accent, into Acadian customs, traditions and history. There is a kind of assimilation that occurs. This is comparable to the Quebec phenomenon where there are Johnsons who are Quebecers and no one can tell them that they are in fact Irish. They have been assimilated and are considered to be the same as those of French- Canadian origin. They have completely integrated this identity as a cultural choice.

In the definition of Acadian people, I was trying to understand whether the definition contained in the bill expresses that also, because it is an extremely important element for the future of the Acadian people, in the context of immigration.

The Minister of Immigration, in a previous statement, said that he was in favour of enriching communities that are faced with assimilation through the contribution of immigration. I imagine that when we have the December statistics from Statistics Canada on the assimilation rate in our country, this will certainly be a topic the Senate will want to examine. It is an extremely important factor in the future of our communities. I was trying to see whether the definition you give is inclusive, allowing us to include this additional group of people who freely choose to make the cultural choice of identifying with the Acadian group.

Senator Comeau: There was a debate in the past as to what would happen to Acadians who have lost their French. This is one of the challenges we must examine subsequently. Prince Edward Island is a very good example of a place where there were many Acadians just a generation ago, francophones who became assimilated.

However, many of these people still consider themselves to be Acadian and it is up to us to recognize that they are. If they feel Acadian, they are. We should perhaps go and see these people and try to find solutions, because one of the key characteristics of a nation is of course its language. Just as for any other nation, the key characteristics are a people, a language, a culture, a religion, a common history, but if you lose one of those elements, does this mean that we are no longer Acadians for all that? I do not think so.

How do we reintegrate these Prince Edward Island Acadians? There are also other areas where assimilation is taking place, but it is very critical on Prince Edward Island. You will be able to see this when we have the statistics from the next census because the number is close to 5,000, which is the magic number. We may have some unpleasant surprises.

That is the reason why I mentioned in my preamble that the Acadians were not included in the census. Indeed, 25 groups were listed: Somalians, Vietnamese and many other groups, but the Acadians were not. Many Acadians who have lost the language might still want to self-identify as Acadians. But if they do not have a choice on the census, the number of Acadians on Prince Edward Island will not be accurate. This is a problem.

Senator Nolin: Some of you must have had the pleasure of seeing Senator Léger personify the Sagouine, and explain how her character responds to a census questionnaire in which she is asked whether she is a francophone Canadian. She answers that no, she is an Acadian, but she does not know where to put her reply on the form. That is a good way of explaining things.

I want to get back to this difference with the French Canadians, and the famous June 24 holiday. You told us that historically, in 1881, there was a political decision — in the societal sense of the term — to not identify with and not celebrate a holiday which was the French-Canadian holiday.

But what is the origin of this desire for differentiation? In your preamble, you were right to list culture and customs, in addition to language. It is, rather, in reference to those two other elements of the list that I would like to hear you explain the difference.

It must go back very far in the history of Acadians in America. There were francophones who had settled in this area of North America, and further to the east in the Maritime regions. This differentiation must go back very, very far. This was not a political decision, but the result of many customs which led to this population you represent.

Senator Comeau: It could very well have started very long ago, as you say, because until 1881 there were very few contacts among French Canadians and Acadians, with the possible exception of the north and northeast part of New Brunswick. But aside from that area, there were very few contacts with French Canadians.

Senator Nolin: The communities.

Senator Comeau: Of course, you can understand the reason.

In the Maritime provinces, we had very few means of communication, even amongst ourselves. But at least the Acadians all knew each other. The Saint-Jean-Baptiste holiday was not celebrated.

Senator Nolin: It was not? It was not part of your traditions?

Senator Comeau: No, this holiday was not among our traditions. On Saint-Patrick's day, we were Irish. We celebrate that day, we wear a green hat and forget about it the next day. We were aware of course that French Canadians celebrated that holiday, but it was not our day. In 1881, the debate was difficult for the people of the time. Take the August 15 holiday —

Senator Nolin: Is it a religious holiday?

Senator Comeau: Yes, it is a religious holiday. Even nowadays, Acadians are very religious and they recognize the importance of the church in the development of their people. The Church has always been there for the Acadians. Without the Church, we would probably have been completely overcome. The Assumption was our holiday, of course. We recognized that if we had joined up with the French Canadians and chosen a holiday, it would have been Saint- Jean-Baptiste Day and that probably would have been better politically.

Senator Nolin: You recognized, politically, that that tradition did not recognize your difference.

Senator Comeau: The national Acadian holiday, that is the big difference.

Senator Corbin: I think that you are right to want to mark the importance of the Acadian contribution to the evolution of our country through this type of initiative. Our colleagues may not be aware of the fact that as opposed to Quebecers, Acadians never lived under the seigneurial system, which was abolished in 1855. This is a fundamental distinction in the evolution of the Acadian people. Moreover, Acadians were not given land to encourage them to stay here, as was done under the French regime in Quebec. At the outset, there were very few of them, but they multiplied in great numbers.

That may be one of the distinctive factors in the settling of these Europeans from western France in North America. Many of our Quebec friends forget that the first French colony in Canada was established in Acadia. Thus there are symbols of origin that are very important, not only for Acadians but for Canada as a whole.

I will refer you to the text of the bill for my next question. In the ``whereases,'' the first reads as follows:

Whereas the Acadian people have contributed, for nearly 400 years, to the economic, cultural and social vitality of Canada.

Would it not be appropriate to cite a date rather than the number of years, which is somewhat imprecise, because there was this departure from Acadia? There were events and historical dates which are, I believe, historically recognized as founding dates. In 1604, Champlain discovered Quebec, did he not?

Senator Nolin: No, Champlain went to your part of the world.

Senator Corbin: Yes, you are correct. I am 68 already and memory fails me. In fact we are going to be celebrating that in New Brunswick.

Senator Nolin: Your birthday?

Senator Corbin: No, the building of the Champlain habitation. The celebration is supposed to take place in two years.

I think it is important that other Canadians recognize that just as in the US, the arrival of the Puritans was an important event, the arrival of the Acadians here, who built the first European settlements, was an event of great magnitude — and I say this with all due respect for Aboriginal peoples, who always befriended the Acadians and cooperated closely with them both in peace and in war. I say this also with respect for the Vikings who settled at L'Anse aux Meadows, but who found the climate too cold for their liking.

What could we do, Senator Comeau, about the 400 years? Should we include a specific date?

Senator Comeau: That is an excellent idea, since the Acadian people has been making its contribution since 1604. In 2004 we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Acadia. There will be major events throughout Nova Scotia, from one end of the island to the other, in several places. Why not include the date in the bill?

Senator Corbin: I said that the Acadians had never lived under a seigneurial system. However, in New Brunswick, there were seigneuries, under the French regime of the time. Land was granted by the King; the Seigneur distributed parcels of this land. I believe all of that disappeared in 1713.

I will make a comment and stop here for now because I believe everything was said during the debate by the various parties concerned. I was in the Boston area two weeks ago and in that area as in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island, there are many Acadians. What surprised me is that I was asked whether we had approved the bill. Thus, Boston-area Acadians are interested in this bill. I let them know that it was currently being studied by the Senate and that the Canadian Parliament would make a decision subsequently, but that it had excellent chances of being passed this year. I simply wanted to add that to your comments. Although this concerns the Acadians of Canada first and foremost, the Acadian diaspora throughout North America has an interest in this bill.

Senator Comeau: I am proud to hear that.


Senator Bryden: Mr. Chairman, it is almost 6 p.m. Will Senator Comeau be available to come back? I understand that we will hear from some other witnesses. I do not want to miss the reception for Senator Nick Taylor, who is a very significant and well-liked member of our Senate. The reception starts at 6 p.m.

I have a number of questions that I should like to ask. As a New Brunswicker who grew up among Acadians, I heard some statements that need to be clarified, and that is why I want him to come back. For example, you said that Acadians do not have land. However, not too long ago we had an Acadian Party that dreamed of having land, of carving L'Acadie out of the province of New Brunswick. That was at the same time as the nationalist program was going on. Things have been done by Acadians, and others, that have made that, hopefully, no longer necessary.

I also wanted an opportunity to discuss whether ``National Acadian Day'' is an appropriate term. If we are trying to create recognition of an Acadian celebration day across the country, and if that is to be as a result of a federal bill, would a better title not be ``Acadian Day in Canada''? The word ``national'' bothers me.

Senator Comeau: We must be very careful about that because in 1881, the Acadians chose ``la Fête nationale de l'Acadie.'' If we wish to honour their symbols, we should not start changing names. It would be better to quietly scrap the bill than to change what they have been calling ``National Acadian Day.'' It would be just like changing the name of St. Jean-Baptiste Day. If that will be a problem, it would be best to quietly back off and kill the bill early.

Senator Bryden: That is why I think we need more time.

Senator Smith: Are we going to adjourn?

The Chairman: I will be governed by the committee.

Senator Joyal: I want to support Senator Bryden, Mr. Chair. I do not think we can deal with all of these issues now.

Senator Beaudoin: I agree with that.

The Chairman: We will adjourn now and invite Senator Comeau to return at a future time. At that time, perhaps we will also have an historian to make a presentation to our committee.

Senator Smith: Will we have a backgrounder from research? Does the Secretary of State have carriage of this with regard to how they react to these requests? We are not talking about a statutory holiday. Will there be background material?

The Chairman: We can properly ask those questions of Senator Comeau.

Senator Smith: I do not want to do it tonight.

Senator Joyal: The Department of Canadian Heritage will be able to do that.

Senator Smith: I think they should be invited.

Senator Beaudoin: There are historians who have a good sense of the history of Acadia. I remember a conference on the Acadians in the time of Senator Hébert. It was a very good conference. For example, there is the question of the two dates. Your ancestors and ours came from France, but not from the same establishment. This is your thesis.

The Chairman: Senator Comeau and I can discuss some of these issues, and at our next meeting, we can present some of that information and hear from an historian.

Senator Baker: I know that the committee has given you authority, as committees normally do, to hire research staff to work on legislation coming before the committee. I think that you should immediately, if you have not already done so, hire a lawyer with a degree in French law and English law who has some experience as a litigator to give us some information to enable us to speak about the upcoming bill.

The Chairman: You mean Bill C-10.

Senator Baker: Yes. I find it completely inadequate, dealing with the people we normally deal with, because they are not up to date on the law. We are being told that questions of colour of right and so on do not matter.

Mr. Chairman, we could suggest names to you, as we all know people, but they must be experienced in litigation and they must have a law degree in French and English. There are people here who can do the work. We should task you, if you have not already done so, with getting someone so that we can have an exchange with these people to do the necessary research work.

Senator Nolin: Mr. Chairman, I was quite aware that this question would arise tonight. When you say we do not have available individuals with certain qualifications, are you talking about the library?

Senator Baker: No. When I read the material from the library, I see sentences that are obviously quotes from someone who gave them information — you know what I mean. The chairman has the authority, as I understand it —

Senator Nolin: Do you already have the authority?

The Chairman: That is correct.

Senator Baker: If you could do that, so that we can have a discussion with whoever is found, because this will be upon us fairly soon.

Senator Nolin: I wish to offer the experience I had with the Special Committee on Illegal Drugs. We decided, for financial reasons, to use the resources of the library a lot. I must tell you that our best research was from the library. The better the expert, the bigger the bill. I do not know how much money we have in the budget for that, but if we have only $5,000, forget it.

If I understand correctly, and we have the authority, I think we should go to the library, talk to the various people in charge — and they are very good people. I have a list, if you want to see it.

The Chairman: If I was reading Senator Baker correctly, he was not in any way, shape or form taking away from the ability of the library researchers.

Senator Baker: That is correct.

The Chairman: However, since we have a fairly complex bill, I think what Senator Baker was trying to say, and he can correct me if I am wrong, is that, rather than rely on the opinions of representatives from the Department of Justice, who have drafted the bill, with respect to some of the finer legal points, it would be helpful to the committee if we had an outside consultant. I believe that was the point.

Senator Baker: Mr. Chairman, I spoke of ``colour of right.'' We must have someone examine this subject thoroughly from the viewpoint of legal justification. These things are not in the materials that we normally receive — the library does excellent research work — and I do not mind that. However, what I am saying is that there are certain sentences that arise that say, for example, that colour of right does not deal with the law; it only deals with fact. I am sorry, Mr. Chairman, that is not correct.

Senator Pearson: My experience on this committee is not nearly as long as that of Senator Beaudoin, but I must say that partly by asking lawyers to appear as a witnesses, we obtain much of this information without debate. The people here have the kind of background to ask the questions. I do not think I would be at an advantage by a consultant telling me something. I want to make up my own mind by listening to the number of people that we bring before us. That has been our experience.

Senator Nolin: However, if we can have, in parallel to hearing witnesses, sound research on a specific question that we are asking, that is also helpful. That is why I am telling you that those resources are available. Maybe we are not asking good questions; that may be the problem. Perhaps the scope of what we are asking is too broad.

Senator Beaudoin: This issue is already before the steering committee. I have listened carefully to what has been said. I could not agree more on this. We have already prepared a proposed list for this committee, but we have not yet made a report. We will do that soon, I am sure. However, this question will certainly be taken into account. I agree that some terms are of concern; however, each legal term is always analyzed in this committee. We operate carefully. Senator Baker has brought this to our attention and it is a good point. In terms of ``colour of right,'' Senator Baker is correct. However, every legal term will be taken into account.

The Chairman: Senator Baker, to answer your question, the steering committee will make a proposal with respect to your suggestion. We will bring that proposal to the next meeting, and if it is the wish of the committee, we will proceed in that direction.

Senator Baker: Mr. Chairman, I always find that litigators, people who must spend their time examining case law and who know how to do that, are always more dependable than people who do not.

The committee adjourned.

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