Article: Fort Edward important ‘piece of the puzzle’ for Acadian history in Nova Scotia

Article on Saltwire by Carole Morris-Underhill, March 15 2022. Click here for original article.

WINDSOR, N.S. — Buried underneath the oldest wooden blockhouse in North America lies the ruins of a church that was destroyed to make way for a military encampment.

Dating back to the 1700s, Fort Edward National Historic Site in Windsor is well known for its role in various war-related historical events and its involvement in creating the oldest, continuously-run agricultural fair in North America. Its role in the Acadian expulsion, however, is often overlooked or just mentioned in passing.

But the area holds much meaning for the Acadian community.

Marie-Claude Rioux, the executive director at the Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse, wants to see her people’s history better highlighted. She’s concerned with West Hants Regional Municipality’s plan to sell lands adjacent to the fort site for the development of apartments.

“What we fear, right now, is that by selling the lots that are adjacent to Fort Edward itself, we will lose — again — part of our history,” Rioux said.

In the 1680s, French farmers began relocating to communities that would later become known as West Hants. They diked the tidal marshes along the Avon River and farmed the region. They forged strong relationships with the local Mi’kmaw. In 1722, they constructed Notre-Dame-de-L'Assomption at Fort Edward Hill, one of two Acadian parishes in the area. The other was Sainte-Famille in Falmouth, which was built in 1698.

According to the results of a Phase 1 archaeological resource impact assessment by Jonathan Fowler, the arrival of British military presence upset the status quo. Fowler’s summary noted that in 1750, Charles Lawrence established Fort Edward on the site of the parish church of Notre-Dame-de-L'Assomption.

“The British deported 981 Acadians from Pesikitk in 1755, using Fort Edward as a base of operations and a prison,” the report reads.

New England immigrants, often referred to as Planters, settled in the region following the Acadian expulsion, taking up residency on land that was once farmed by the French.

Fowler noted that in 1997, “Parks Canada archaeologists conducted cultural resource management excavations beneath the blockhouse floor and exposed a layer of charcoal and burnt daub slighted by the trench into which the blockhouse foundation had been laid.”

Due to the presence of daub, archaeologists believe it pre-dates the mass deportation of Acadians and likely represents part of the church that was destroyed. The site is located about 30 metres from the northern end of the property that West Hants is looking to sell.

If a priest’s house was located near the church, as was the case at St-Charles-des-Mines at Grand Pré and at the mother parish of St-Jean-Baptiste at Port-Royal, the location is unknown at this time. Furthermore, evidence of an Acadian cemetery there “is also something of an open question.”

Fowler’s report indicates the area is still a “poorly understood ecclesiastical site.”

However, the Acadian connection could be an important tourism driver as the Acadian population exhibits “a high degree of interest in heritage and genealogy. The presence of a church site at this location represents a significant cultural resource and a potential driver of additional visitation to Fort Edward National Historic Site,” his report notes.

Fowler presented his findings to West Hants council on March 8 and spoke of the “narrative richness” and the “connections to great global events” that Fort Edward has, with the Acadian diaspora being one of many.

Rioux was quite interested in the report and presentation and attended the committee of the whole session in person. She says people are just starting to realize the true scope of what happened to Acadians in Nova Scotia.

“But the importance of Fort Edward, specifically, is little known — little known by Anglophones, but I have to say that it’s even little known by Acadians too,” said Rioux.

“You have to understand that historically, Acadians were forbidden to learn French and to have French schools. On top of that, (learning about) history was forbidden,” she continued.

“We’re just starting to learn about our history,” she said, noting Fort Edward plays a role in understanding what happened centuries ago.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle that is so important to the narrative of the Acadian history, the importance of the Acadian people in the founding of Nova Scotia and Canada.”

Tourism over apartments

Following the committee of the whole meeting March 8, Rioux wrote the municipality expressing the federation’s desire to see the municipally-owned land be considered for community use instead of selling it for profit. The land in question once housed Windsor’s outdoor swimming pool.

Rioux explained that the Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse was founded in 1968 and serves as the official spokesperson of the Acadian and Francophone population of Nova Scotia, which is comprised of 29 regional, provincial and institutional organizations.

Part of the federation’s mandate is to safeguard and promote the cultural heritage of their ancestors.

“As you are certainly aware, the Windsor to Digby area of the province has a network of historic sites that tell the story of the Acadian people, from their initial settlement through the deportation and beyond. Fort Edward is an important part of that chain of our history,” she wrote to council, noting that the federation is concerned that if the municipality sells the former pool site without further archaeological investigation that it “would result in another instance where the presence of our people on these lands is simply erased.”

In an interview, Rioux said there’s a real opportunity to work together to develop the Fort Edward site and the federation would be willing to get involved should council change its mind on selling to a developer.

“I think it would be quite sad to see that public lands, surrounding Fort Edward, which we know is likely very rich in artifacts and parts of history, would be just sold to build apartment buildings without further investigation,” said Rioux.

She said the area is poised to become a bigger tourist destination if the community and council invest in it.

In 2024, the World Acadian Congress in Nova Scotia will be held in the southwestern part of Nova Scotia and Rioux said Acadians will want to travel and visit the sites that have special meaning — like Grand Pré, Port Royal, Fort Anne, and George’s Island in Halifax.

“And why not Fort Edward? It is in the same network,” said Rioux, noting the property deserves to be included in the Acadian narrative.

“I think it’s another opportunity that the council would miss, really, by not providing the proper amenities for Fort Edward. It doesn’t even have washrooms. For me, you have to start with that and then build on that.”

In a previous presentation to council, members of the West Hants Historical Society indicated they would like to build a museum or tourism facility on the land the municipality is looking to sell to tell a complete history of the site. It would be a facility that would offer washrooms — which they feel would draw more tourists.

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