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  • Newfoundland
    – When French fishermen joined Acadian settlers
Boutte-du-Cap Park
Boutte-du-Cap Park, at Cap-Saint-Georges, Newfoundland (author Tango7174, CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

In the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Francophones are very much in a minority situation (0.5%). They are concentrated, however, in three main regions, namely the Port-au-Port Peninsula, the capital of St. John’s, and Labrador. The Port-au-Port Peninsula, on the west coast of Newfoundland, is home to the three historic villages that make up the heart of the French-speaking Newfoundland population, that is Cap-Saint-Georges, Grand’Terre and L’Anse-à-Canards.

The genesis of these three communities dates back to the 19th century when Acadians from Saint-Georges Bay settled on the Port-au-Port Peninsula joining French fishermen who resided there. To better understand the reasons for this singular rapprochement, we must go back to the previous century, in 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht was signed. France had just ceded its colony of Plaisance to England renouncing all territorial rights it had on the island of Newfoundland. But it did retain a right to fish and dry on the north coast of the island, without being allowed to winter on the island or build permanent settlements.

Map of the Port-au-Port Peninsula
Map of the Port-au-Port Peninsula, Newfoundland (author Muckapedia, CC BY 3.0 license)

In 1783, the Treaty of Versailles moved the French fishing zone to the west coast of the island including the Port-au-Port Peninsula, but any French colonization remained in principle illegal. Yet, it was at Point Sable (Sandy Point) and Saint-Georges, the sole sheltered harbor in Saint-Georges Bay, that the first Acadians settled in the late 18th century. The site seemed ideal, isolated from the instabilities caused by the Franco-British conflict in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Acadian migration continued, still more or less lawful, peaking between 1820 and 1850, from Cape Breton Island (formerly Isle Royale) and the Magdalen Islands. By 1850, the Acadians in Saint-Georges Bay outnumbered the English-speaking settlers. There were also some French. Who were they?

The French of Newfoundland

For the seasonal cod fishery in Newfoundland, shipowners recruited fishermen in Norman and Breton ports, but also semi-seamen and mid-peasants from the poorer hinterland. The crews were supplemented by mosses and novices who were trained before serving in the Navy. Was life aboard fishing boats or ashore on banks too painful? The prospect of mandatory military service unbearable? Or the attraction of farming a fertile land irresistible? Some fishermen deserted, undoubtedly motivated by the absence of police in Saint-Georges Bay, where they were part of the French majority. It was in the second half of the 19th century that the Acadians established relations with the numerous French deserters who had settled in the Port-au-Port Peninsula. For the most part, these fishermen were former Breton peasants who founded families by marrying Acadian women, forging a traditional Franco-Newfoundlander culture.

Who was the first Acadian in Saint-Georges Bay?

It could be a man named François Benoit, born around 1764 in the Malvinas Islands (then ephemeral French colony) of Acadian parents in exile transported to Saint-Malo in 1758. He would have married Anne L’Officiel on July 20, 1790 in the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. She was the daughter of Henri L’Officiel, the first French settler in Saint-George Bay. The two spouses probably already lived in Saint-Georges Bay. (sources: Gary R. Butler and genealogical site Geneanet, tree of Karen Theriot Reader).

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