Heart of Louisiana: Grand Pre

Published: Jul. 20, 2016 at 1:38 AM CDT|Updated: Dec. 20, 2016 at 8:52 PM CST
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(WVUE) - About 250 years ago, the very first Acadian settlers arrived in South Louisiana to start a new homeland after being exiled from Nova Scotia. Today, the site of that mass deportation is a World Heritage Site.

It was through the genius of early French settlers in an eastern corner of Canada that this farmland took shape and a North American culture was born.

"There are some principles about the trait of these early settlers that make you love them because they forgive their individuality for the good of the community," said Acadian tour guide Richard Laurin.

Laurin is a descendant of those original Acadian settlers in Nova Scotia.  He helps others from around the world rediscover their Acadian roots.  This is the site where so many of those French-speaking villagers were deported by British authorities.

"They didn't know where they were going by this would've been the last image that they would've had of their beloved Grand Pre before they were expelled," Laurin said.

The center of this memorial cross points in every direction, a reminder that the Acadians were sent to both sides of the Atlantic and Louisiana.

"You can just picture them here with the farmland and all the water," Acadian descendant William Babin.

William and Karen Babin are from Folsom, Louisiana.  His ancestors were among those deported in the 1750s.

"You try to envision exactly this is the site where they put them on the boats and everything, exactly what happened, you know, and what their feelings were going to be because they had no idea where they were going," William said.

Grand Pre, Nova Scotia, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that recognizes both the culture and the ingenuity of those first Acadians.

This coastal farmland, more than 3,000 acres, is all below sea level. And it's land that was created by the original Acadian settlers in the late 1600s.

The tides here are among the highest in the world, with a range of 30 to 40 feet, twice a day.

"They accomplished the impossible to hold back the tides and to be neutral also," said Francois Gaudet.

In the hours when the tide was out, the Acadians would build dykes and create dry land and slowly push back the sea.  And they relied on the rain, snow melt and a simple drain called an aboiteau to flush out the new land.

"When the tides are low the water is funneled through the marsh so the water drains through here naturally and it goes back to the ocean," Gaudet said. "And when the tides change about six hours later, the waters come up and presses this closed so it just goes in one direction so the water doesn't come back in."

"The fact that Grande Pre was inscribed by UNESCO on the world heritage list means that it's important for all of humanity," Claude Degrace said.

Degrace, the former manager of the Grand Pre site, lead the effort to get the World Heritage designation.  He said this site speaks to the resilience of the Acadian people, who were deported and robbed of their land, and then in the 1920s returned to this site and rebuilt the old Acadian church of Grand Pre.

"They re-appropriated the land from which they were deported in a peaceful way with the local people," Degrace said. "The local community basically was the one who invited the Acadians to come here and build a memorial."

Near the church, a stone monument built from the stone foundations of the early village marks the site of the original cemetery.

"You will see tears from a lot of people," Degrace said. "You will see tears from people - especially from people from Louisiana.

The old levees still hold back the giant tides. This farmland, and a rich Acadian culture, have defied the odds for the past 300 years.

Inside the memorial church are inscriptions of the family names of the Acadians who were deported in the mid-1700s.

You can find out more about Laurin's Acadian Tour company in Nova Scotia by clicking here.

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