August 15 is National Acadian Day. Choosing this day was one of the highlights of the first National Acadian Convention in Memramcook, New Brunswick in 1881. This issue raised important discussions. Delegates were exposed to several suggestions, but the debate mainly focused on the Saint-Jean-Baptiste, French Canada's national holiday, which is celebrated on June 24, and Our Lady of Assumption, which is celebrated on August 15.
Statue of Our Lady of Assumption
Supporters of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste agreed that a holiday common to all French Canadians would unite them around common objectives, facing the country's Anglophone majority. They were hoping to strengthen the ties between Québec and Acadia. Furthermore, since the 1860s, a movement to encourage Acadian parishes to celebrate the Saint-Jean-Baptiste existed in Acadia. Priests and laymen had introduced this practice. It was in Rustico, Prince Edward Island, that the first Saint-Jean-Baptiste holiday was held, at the beginning of the 1860s. Father Georges-Antoine Belcourt, the parish priest originally from Québec, had founded a temperance institute under the patronage of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, and each year members celebrated the birthday of their patron saint. Memramcook, Bouctouche, Miscouche and Baie-Egmont soon jumped on the band wagon. In 1881, a certain number of Acadian parishes had been celebrating the Saint-Jean-Baptiste for a few years.
Supporters of the Assumption, however, affirmed that the history and nationality of the Acadians was different than that of other French Canadians; an Acadian holiday was thus needed to re-enforce their national identity. The fact that France had been devoted to the Virgin Mary under Louis XIV's reign, at the exact time when Acadia was founded, is another reason which was used in favour of this particular holiday.
The time of year brought another element to the debate. The Assumption occurs during one of the busiest times of the year, haying season. For this reason, the national Acadian holiday would not get celebrated with the desired momentum, since a number of Acadians would be busy with the harvest. However, the Saint-Jean-Baptiste is held during garden planting time, another hectic time of year for the agricultural community.
Several speeches were delivered during the debate, including one by Reverend Marcel-François Richard, one of the Assumption's strongest supporters. His eloquent plea must have influenced the decision, since his proposal is the one which was adopted, without, however, having too much lead over others. Here is an excerpt of his speech:
"... In fact, it seems to me that a people who, for over a century of hardships and persecutions, was able to preserve its religion, language, customs and autonomy, must have acquired enough importance to affirm its existence in a solemn way; and this could not be accomplished better than by being able to celebrate its own national holiday... Allow me, at this time, to point out a few of the motives that will encourage you to choose Our Lady of Assumption as National Acadian Day instead of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Since Canadians have chosen Saint-Jean-Baptiste as their patron, it seems to me that unless you wish to mistake our nationality with theirs, it is crucial that Acadians choose a particular holiday. It is important to stress that we are not descendants of Canada, but of France. Consequently, I see no reason why we should adopt the Saint-Jean-Baptiste as our national holiday... We must choose a holiday that reminds us of our origin. I am even going to go as far as to affirm that the Assumption has always been, and must always remain, National Acadian Day, since Acadians are descendants of the French race. Louis XIII vowed to give his empire to the Blessed Virgin and he wanted the Assumption to be the kingdom's national holiday. However, not long afterwards, he sent colonists to take over Acadia. They did, however, have to bring the customs of their homeland along, and if unfortunate circumstances prevented them from celebrating their national holiday in a regular manner, it is true that the national devotion of the Acadians is their devotion to Mary." [Unofficial translation]
Reverend Richard was also influential in the selection of the Acadian flag at the second National Acadian Convention in Miscouche, Prince Edward Island in 1884.
("Un peuple à unir", special issue of La Petite Souvenance to mark the Acadian flag's Centennial, 1884-1984, published by the Société historique acadienne de l'Île-du-Prince-Édouard.)