Debbie Doiron Martin wanted to learn more about her family’s past, so in 2017, she started a Facebook group called Our Ancestors in Photos. She hoped to create a platform for people like herself — descendants of exiled Acadians who had settled in West Baton Rouge Parish — to swap photographs, exchange stories and reconnect with relatives.
The group took off and now has more than 300 members. As it turns out, many of them are distant cousins who can trace their lineage back to seven shiploads of Acadians who arrived in Louisiana in 1785.
On Sunday, Martin and four of those long-lost cousins — Billy Hebert, Lucy Landry, Douglas LaBauve and Frank Foret — hosted the second annual Acadian Heritage Celebration. Over bowls of hot jambalaya, people crowded around tables inside an activity building at Brusly’s St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, poring over old photographs, family records and history books.
Though West Baton Rouge Parish is officially designated as part of Louisiana’s Acadiana region, its place among those 22 parishes is often overlooked. Organizers of the heritage celebration believe that’s why their event — as well as the Facebook group that inspired it — is so important.
If young West Baton Rouge Parish residents aren’t taught about their Acadian ancestors, Martin said, “after we’re all gone, there’s not going to be anyone carrying that torch and keeping our Acadian pride alive.”
The French-speaking Acadians lived in the colony of Acadia in New France — today known as the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. The British began deporting the Acadians in 1755 as they fought the French in the Seven Years' War.
Some Acadians were sent to British colonies in the present-day United States. Others ended up in France, including a group of about 1,500 who would eventually take advantage of an offer from the king of Spain to sail back across the Atlantic Ocean and settle what was then the Spanish colony of Louisiana in 1785, Hebert said.
Among those 1,500 Acadians were the ones who landed in Brusly and surrounding areas, he said. They would go on to help set up and worship at the Catholic church where Sunday's heritage celebration took place.
Significantly, the event fell on July 28 — which Queen Elizabeth II proclaimed in 2003 as a day commemorating the expulsion of the Acadians.
Today, there are more than 200,000 people of Acadian descent worldwide, Martin said.
“What they meant as genocide, instead it expanded us,” she said. “It shows that resilience of the Acadians. They came back stronger than ever.”
Still, over time, many Acadian customs have fallen by the wayside. Sunday’s event featured some of them: traditional fiddle music, dancing and a Tintamarre — a parade that both mourns Acadians who died in the expulsion and expresses joy for relatives who were separated during exile but later were able to reunite.
The Tintamarre practice is popular in Canadian provinces that were part of Acadia but is uncommon in Louisiana. During the celebrations, Martin said, participants typically yell: "We still exist!"
The Acadian story is better known in Canada than in Louisiana, said Daniel Blanchard, a historian who gave a presentation at the event. He has been on a quest to raise awareness of the Acadians’ plight since 1999, when a World Acadian Congress meeting was held in Louisiana and he attended.
“The fire was lit, and it ain’t ever been put out since,” he said. “I couldn’t believe the story. I had heard from my father, ‘Well, we’re Acadians. We came from Canada — Nova Scotia.’ That’s about all we ever heard. The story is magnificent. It’s tragic. It’s glorious.”
Most importantly, Blanchard said: “It’s our story.”