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  • Edmundston
    – In Madawaska, the French language knows no borders
Madawaska River
The Madawaska River and the Bernard Valcour Pedestrian Bridge in Edmundston (Photo credit: J-M. Agator)

The city of Edmundston (population 16,600) is located at the confluence of the Saint John and Madawaska rivers in Madawaska County, New Brunswick’s most westerly. Aroostook County (in the State of Maine) is closeby, to the south, on the other bank of the Saint John River, and Témiscouata County (in Quebec) is only 20 kilometres to the northwest. Today, Edmundston is the most francophone city in New Brunswick (94%) and in Aroostook County, about 15% of the population reported speaking French at home (US Census Bureau). This French-speaking fact is already exceptional in the United States, outside of Louisiana. The small American town of Madawaska (4000 inhabitants), located opposite Edmundston, on the south shores of the Saint John River, is more than 60% French-speaking! To understand this cross-border coherence, we need to go back to June 1785 at the founding of this francophone community of the Upper Saint John made up of Acadian and French-Canadian settlers…

The very first Acadian and French-Canadian settlers, led by Joseph Daigle, an Acadian, left Pointe Sainte-Anne (now Fredericton) and ascended the Saint John River. The British authorities promised them land on the Upper Saint John River, upstream from Grand Falls. These families chose to leave Pointe Saint-Anne, where they had settled, worried about their future in the face of the massive arrival of Anglo-Protestant Loyalists. They landed on the south bank of the Saint John River, not far from the actual Saint-David church in Madawaska, Maine, where Joseph Daigle planted a cross, as a sign of hope for the future. This is how the colony of Madawaska was founded, taking the Etchemin (or Malécite) name of the nearby village of First Nation people…

At the same time, another stream of immigration took place from the province of Quebec. Acadians came to find their parents or to more easily obtain fertile land and wooden lots. For the same reasons, French-Canadians joined the colony from the St. Lawrence River valley. In 1790, the New Brunswick government granted the first parcels of land to 52 Madawaska settlers, on both sides of the Saint John River. The mother parish of Madawaska was established in 1792 under the patronage of Saint-Basile le Grand. Its chapel was erected on the site of the present church of Saint-Basile (present-day Edmundston). However, as early as the 1790s, while the young colony of Madawaska was taking off, New Brunswick and the future state of Maine were disputing the exact route of their Upper Saint John River borderline…

A theoretical line on paper

Entrance to the international bridge
Entrance to the international bridge over the Saint John River in Edmundston (Photo credit: J-M. Agator)

This border dispute was only resolved in 1842 by the choice of the Saint John River as the international borderline, thus cutting the colony of Madawaska in half. What did the population do? People quietly continued their business as if nothing had happened, disregarding the border. It is true that the terms of the 1842 treaty were carefully chosen to disturb as little as possible the region’s economic activities in regard to agriculture, forestry, trade and commerce. In fact, as historian Beatrice Craig points out, Madawaska remained for a long time a “march of progress”, that is to say a territory claimed softly by the two powers, where local interests prevailed. Thus, it was not until 1921 that the first (and current) international bridge connecting Edmundston and the city of Madawaska was built. Prior to that date, there were a number of ferries to cross the river, but without customs officials or identity checks. The international boundary was nothing more than a theoretical line on paper…

Carrying Place Monument
Carrying Place Monument, at the beginning of the Témiscouata portage trail, at Notre-Dame-du-Portage, Lower Saint-Lawrence River (Photo credit: Jeangagnon, license CC BY-SA 3.0)

How to explain such a situation? Let’s go back to the 19th century… At that time, the physical and human geography of the region were the first determining factors. Navigation on the Upper Saint John River, above Grand Falls, made it easier to communicate with Quebec rather than Fredericton, New Brunswick’s capital. In 1784 and again in the 1820s, the British authorities rebuilt the old Portage trail between Rivière-du-Loup and Lake Témiscouata which linked Quebec to the Maritime provinces via the Madawaska River. This Portage trail was mainly military and postal for the British, but the merchants of Madawaska made great use of it. This is what determined the British authorities to offer land to Acadian and French-Canadian settlers to help maintain this strategically important route. But that’s not all…

The Portage Trail also facilitated migrations from the St. Lawrence River valley. Even on the American side, Madawaska remained overwhelmingly French-speaking and Catholic until the 20th century. Even today, the two French-speaking cities of Madawaska and Edmundston maintain close ties. In January 2018, these twin communities did co-sign a historic resolution expressing their shared vision of the new international bridge that will connect them. They affirm their desire to facilitate the circulation of recreational vehicles such as snowmobiles while promoting the culture and history of their Acadian region. Everything suggests that the authorities of both Maine and New Brunswick will take this into account, while work on the international bridge is expected to begin in 2021.

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