In the fall of 2012 and in 2013, we collected stories from Pomquet seniors. They told us what it was like to live in Pomquet during the 1920s through to today. The story below is by May Bouchard. May is now 97 years old, and she has been recognized for her work on behalf of the Acadian community and women’s rights. On October 26, 2002, she received the Order of Canada for being a “woman of action, a tireless volunteer and a model in her community”. She was also awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, and various certificates of merit and appreciation.
May speaks on many topics related to growing up in Pomquet during the 1920s and 30s: changes in communication and transportation, Acadian history and the first Pomquet families, the support given by the Mi’kmaq to the first settlers, daily life during the Depression, farming, work in Boston, the importance of community members helping community members and the general store, the school, the influence of the young priests. She also describes her community work after she turned sixty on behalf of seniors, the Acadian language and culture and women. May mentions how sad it will be if we lose the old wisdom.
Changes in Communication and Transportation
I think an important part of the life today is all about changes in communication. We cannot think about our lives without talking about changes in how we communicate. The changes started with the first telephone and continued on from there. We call it communication, but we are also talking about changes in transportation. There were changes in everything when human technology came along. We went from the oxen to the horses and then to the cars.
I was around ten years old when I saw my first car, and it must have been around 1930. My two sisters and I saw the first car pass by on the roads of Pomquet. We could hear it coming because the older cars made a lot of noise. You could hear them come down the road from a long way away. Whenever we heard them, we’d run to a big rock we could sit on, and the three of us would sit and watch the car go by. Charlie was the man who had the first car in Pomquet. He was one of two brothers that never married. One year, he returned to Pomquet from away with a car with a little rumble seat in the back. I think it was a Ford that came out in 1928. The car was used for traveling up from Boston.
What needs to be understood is how we adapted to all these changes. When I talk to people, I talk about the changes that have happened since I was young, when I was on the farm milking the cows to today. Today we have this myth that we have five different kinds of everything. I think when I talk about change, it’s very important to remember what I lived through, and the years that I was conscious of what was happening around me.
I remember when I saw the first radio, and you know what – we had no radio in Pomquet for the longest time. But there was this guy who was a boxing fan and he wanted to listen to the Jack Dempsey against Gene Tunney boxing match broadcast from New York. Well, he had put antennas on his house that almost reached—I don’t know how high— to get radio reception into Pomquet. We all visited his house. We all had the one side of the ear phone. He had about three or four of these ear phones that he had bought. And we listened for the first time to the radio. The sound was not that good but we could really understand what the announcer said. I must have been around fourteen and fifteen before there were other radios in Pomquet.
Changes have really affected all of us in Pomquet. We went from going around in our horse and buggy to get to mass to getting there by car. In the early days there were places where the horseS would eat all along the road. Before the horse and buggy, we would walk. There was no money for bicycles and biking was not the thing done in Pomquet. I think bicycles were very expensive, and there was no money to buy a bike. I don’t think they were like they are today. It would be funny now to look at a bicycle that was 80 years old. They must have them somewhere. But to go to town, we would walk to the station and take the train and then take the train back and then walk to my place. The station was located a little bit further out past the railroad track. It was very close to the road.
Now when the trains did not stop, and there were trains that did not stop, the mail train did not stop. It was unbelievable. They had this thing with a hook on the end, and then from the train they would put a bag on that hook. Then they would take down the bag and that was how our mail came in. We always had to go to the station to check our mail. Ruth’s grandmother’s family had the post office and their house is where everyone went to get their mail. They had a small little room set aside as a post office. When I got to be about thirteen and fourteen, I remember we used to flirt with all the boys who were there. We would all jam in there waiting for the mail.
May’s Version of Acadian History
I was thinking of telling you the story of my family – from the real beginning – from Jean Doiron. The first Acadians after 1604 went to St. Croix Island. Then most of them died of scurvy because they didn’t have vegetables. They learned from this history because afterwards they were very careful about what they ate. My family on my father’s side and on my mother’s side were among the first settlers. My mother is a Broussard, so I am a distant relation to the famous Joseph “Beausoliel” Broussard. He is the primary reason so many Cajuns live in Louisiana today. Broussard first led the Acadian resistance to the British with the help of the Mi’kmaq. Later he asked that his families be deported to the same location and not be separated. He was imprisoned in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1764. Eventually he was allowed to leave. He went to New Orleans in the early spring of 1765. It’s interesting – when Lorraine and I went to Louisiana, we were treated like royalty because Beausoleil is such a hero there.
At first, my ancestors lived what is now close to Windsor. Windsor is not really Grand Pre – it is a bit before. At the time of the Expulsion, they were hearing stories that the English were coming up, so my family said “whoa”. Quite a few families got together and decided to go to Prince Edward Island (PEI) because at that time the island was still French. They walked there with their oxen and everything they owned on the oxen’s backs. They walked to Pictou and then crossed over the water from there into PEI. But then they were the poorest Acadians living in PEI. My family members died out at the hands of the English or were captured. The English sent many of them to the Jersey Islands where they were put in English Prisons. In 1761, five families came back to Pomquet from the Port of St. Malo in France.
There was the Deon (DeYoung) family with two daughters, and one of the daughters was married to a Broussard. And the other daughter was married to a Doiron. In Pomquet today, you still see many relatives of the Deon and Doiron families. There was also the Lamarre and Vinsan (Vincent) families. The last family was the Vincent family but there are not many descendants. Recently, there was one Vincent still living in Pomquet named Lydia but her husband is dead. They have a son too. Then there are two daughters not married. So the name still exists. But the Broussards are here. The Deons are here; the Doirons are here; the Melansons are here and the Vincents. The Melansons came a little bit after the very first families. After that the Benoits came from Tracadie. So that is the history of Pomquet in terms of the main families that settled here.
We don’t know if the first five families were from Cheticamp or if they crossed St. George’s Bay to come here or if they came from Arichat. These were the settlements and then there was also Tracadie and the Mi’kmaq. We really are not sure where the families first came from when they first settled. In the Pomquet Museum we have the paper they received from the government giving their second generation descendants their land in a formal way. In 1789, the following men had been living in Pomquet for sixteen years and they asked for larger land grants: Joseph Doiron with his wife and nine children, Simon Vinsan (Vincent) with his wife and nine children, Joseph Broussard with his wife and four children, Pierre Deon with his wife and five children and Louis Larnard and his wife. The first generation just settled and took the land. The second generation was granted their land from the government and the map showing where this land was situated is also in the museum. Six generations have now settled in Pomquet.
How the First Settlers Survived
I had an uncle who was a born historian. He died when he was 92 and I was very small. His memory up until the day he died was very sharp, so he remembered much of the past. He told us that our ancestors would all be dead if it hadn’t been for the Mi’kmaq. A lot of things the Acadians know today the Indians showed them how to do. They showed them how to take care of the babies. My great-grandfather had 11 children and not one died. My grandfather had nine children and not one died. They didn’t die because the Indians were there to help them raise their babies; otherwise they would not know what plants to use or pick or what kind of medicine a person should take to cure what kind of sickness. For example, they knew what kind of plant to use to cure colic and for this and that. The early settlers learned everything from the Mi’kmaq. They also learned what they could and could not eat. It’s important to bring all these stories out. It’s all a mix of good and bad, but if you take the best, it’s all about loving thy neighbour as you love yourself. The way the Mi’kmaq treated the Acadians when they first came to Pomquet is like this. Without the Mi’kmaq, the first five families would have moved out or died. They had nothing to begin with.
I think the Mi’kmaq showed them the medicines to use to keep their babies healthy, and they showed them how to keep their babies close and to carry them on their backs. We have gone through changes in our own child rearing practices. There was a generation when Lorraine, (one of May’s daughters), was born when mothers were told not to hold their babies when they cry. Mothers were told to put the crying baby in a crib, give him or her a bottle and let him or her cry until he or she stopped. I couldn’t believe it. I never let my children cry, and I never listened to those experts. I thought what they taught us was bad. But people go through crazy times and believe crazy things. People don’t realize that what they are being told to do is crazy.
The Mi’kmaq showed us how to take care of our babies the right way. My uncle used to say that the Indian women would show them how to take care of their babies because they were from another culture and because they had a lot of knowledge about medicinal plants. They knew what to pick and how to boil or prepare it to give to a baby who had cramps. Now people realize how much they knew. Not long ago, I worked with this student from St. Francis Xavier University. She is a doctor today. She did a whole lot of work on traditional medicines, the natural foods and natural plants we can find in Pomquet. Now she’s a doctor in Northern Ontario. What she studied is now integrated into modern medical studies.
I went out around Pomquet Beach to look at different plants with her. It was very interesting because the Mi’kmaq used to know what plant to use for certain ailments. Let’s say you wet your bed they had something you could take. They would boil it and you would drink it before you went to bed. It was supposed to help us and stuff like that.
I was brought up during the real depression from the 1920s to the 1930s. The farmers worked really hard to survive, but the thing is beside their hard work, we also had a general store. Everyone owed their soul to that general store because the store owner sold the families flour on credit. So everyone had bread. They also could get sugar, tea and shortening. Any of the stuff we had to buy belonged to the man who owned the store, a Benoit. Every farm was mortgaged. Benoit was the only person who would give you flour when you had no money. No one else would do that. Now he turned out to be a miser, or at least everyone called him a miser. But if he hadn’t been there, everyone would have died of starvation. If he hadn’t been there, we would have had no bread. He used to live in the house near the train track where Virginia now lives.
But otherwise everything else came from the farms. We had our own hens; we had our own wool from the sheep; we had our own beef. We had horses to do the work. We went hunting for rabbits and deer. We also had fish and eels. We could tell you so many little stories from those days of my childhood. Sharing the little stories together gave us a chance to put a little humour in everything.
One story that I tell a lot is about my sister and me going with my uncle to fish eels. Grandmother would say to us, “Go and fish eels for dinner”. Then we all went. There were five or six of us, counting my sister and me. We would wade into the water, and the eels would just swim around our feet. Can you imagine? We had bare feet. My sister decided to wash one of the eels we had caught because there was mud in the bottom of the boat. She put it in the water and it escaped. We all laughed so much.
But it was unbelievable how resourceful our parents, grand-parents and great parents were. It is unbelievable how they got along and how they were so organized. We always had food on the table. We always had plenty of food and good food too. We lived on potatoes. We also grew potatoes, turnips, and carrots. We had big gardens. We grew parsnips too, but they did not last all winter. We put all the vegetables in sawdust in the basement. There was a kind of cold room down there. Actually most of the vegetables didn’t really last all winter even though they did last a long time.
To preserve the onions, the women would salt them. In Pomquet salted onions were very important. A cook in Pomquet would not be a cook if she didn’t put salted onions in everything. At the hall when they made their Fricot, they had to have onions. But they would not keep them inside because the people would say “oh no”. So we had to put them in little bags. We put them in little bags and tied them. The bags were made of cheesecloth.
We should write about the women of the time because they worked so hard. My grandmother would wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and then go to bed at around seven or eight o’clock at night. After she woke up at 5 in the morning, she would say her beads – her prayer beads. Then she’d make the fire. There was always kindling beside the stove. Everything was ready for her to make the fire because everything had gone out during the night because there was no heat during the night. Then she would say her prayers while the fire was burning.
My grandmother would start working at six in the morning to prepare all the meals, wash the wool, and card it. She would also spin it. She did all those chores and she made her own bread. Making one’s own bread was normal. And she did all the cooking. And she had her own family to look after and my family of four children. My mother died when I was seven, so we lived with my grandmother. I had a grand aunt who wanted to take me and that was what happened at the time. They would separate families. But my grandmother said “No I’m keeping the four children.” So we were brought up the four of us together. Antony was the baby; he was two years old when our mother died. Antony later married Julia.
But my grandmother’s first job was to send the men out to work. She’d cook a meal because these men were going out to work in the field or cut wood, and they had to have a very large breakfast. I can describe a typical meal my grandmother prepared. She would have taken the salted pork in the brine from downstairs the night before. Brine just comes back to my memory, and then she would have soaked it all night to get the salt out and then she would cook that. Sometimes it would be apple sauce she would put with it, and sometimes it would be cranberries that she would put with it. When the men got up, they would have big chunks of bread and a serving of a main meal like this to eat. They needed a big meal because they were going out to work and they would work very hard. After she fed the men, then she had to empty the chamber pots in the outhouses. I don’t think she made the beds. We’d make our beds or the beds would stay undone. But she didn’t have time for that. Then she would come downstairs and sweep the floor and clean up the dishes. Then we would come home from school for lunch and we were always ravenous – so hungry. We ran from school to the house, and we could eat just about anything. So she would make dinner and then supper. For dinner she would put on a great big pot of potatoes. For supper, she would cut the potatoes up and fix them with something else such as little pieces of meat or stew. That’s what we ate for supper. My grandmother was from Harve Boucher and she was not a tea biscuit maker. She would make the dough but not cut it out into small biscuits. She’d put the dough in the pan and we would cut them out tic-tac-toe style. She made them with baking powder but this wasn’t the baking powder we use today. When I grew up, there was no baking powder. It was made of soda and cream of tartar.
When I was growing up, we were eleven in the house. The thing is my grandmother had lots of work, but there was no paying work for men. The men were working in the woods or on the farm, and we were four children. I guess most of my memories deal with three generations of women. I can remember the daily life of each one, my grandmother was first generation, I’m second generation and Ruth is 3rd generation. But when I was growing up, there was also three generations of women in the house. Mother and grandmother all lived in the house and sometimes great grandmother. The women would sit and spin the wool. They had these cradles made by the carpenters and the runners were made in wood. The grandmother would knit and with her foot rock the baby.
I remember so much about my grandmother. She cooked the Sunday dinner, but before she cooked it, she had to kill the hen. She had to kill the hen on Saturday for Sunday dinner. Most of the time this is what happened because we always had about fifty hens. There was a turnover of new young chickens. The old ones were tough and we had to make soup out of them. We didn’t even consider putting them in the oven. We didn’t cook those little roosters in the barbecue. We didn’t think of anything like that. Instead we made Fricot with them. Every other kind of meat we would roast in the oven, but we had no idea of putting a chicken in the oven.
I tell stories all the time about my grandmother because she was not a chatty person and did not talk much about herself. The only story about her youth she would ever tell was that three of her brothers died in two weeks of diphtheria. She would tell us that story, but otherwise she would not tell us what it was like when she was young. So now I keep talking to my kids and my grandkids and everyone. I tell them everything I can remember about my grandmother.
When our family members first came down or back from Boston, Boston baked beans came back with them. Because when I first went to France, you couldn’t find beans in a can like we eat them today. The beans came from the English in Boston. We got a few recipes from the States such as Washington pie. Quite a few things that we eat come from Boston. The girls went to work in Boston and they worked as cooks or as maids. That’s where and when they brought back favorite recipes to Pomquet. We started to eat a lot of food that came from there.
When I grew up, my uncles were home and their friends would visit. The men would be into other things beside knitting and sewing. They’d go and get wild ducks, kill them, bring them home, cook and eat them. They would go and play tricks on the neighbours. You see they were about nineteen and twenty. They were around that age when you get into trouble.
But everyone, worked together as a community. Say you didn’t have enough potatoes to put in the ground. How we used to help each other! We had no money to go buy potatoes, seed or whatever. All that we owned had to be switched or shared from one family to another. Then when one farmer was sick, all the others would go and do his work. We still help each other in this way. Not that long ago, Jean, my cousin next door, was in need. His house burned down, and in maybe three weeks only, they built another house for him.
Central Supply would supply the wood today, but before that they used to have a mill. There was a mill in South River and one up on the Cove Road. They would take the wood there and then it would be made into lumber. You couldn’t just cut a piece of wood and then build a house with it. All the wood had to be dried. It would take a whole year to dry out. When the Pomquet Mill closed, then we went to South River.
Horse power was very important when I was growing up. We had the strongest horses in Pomquet. We called them Queen and Prince. Anyone who got stuck in a ditch would come and ask us to bring these horses over to pull them out. One of my uncles went to work with some Dutch people. He brought back this beautiful mare that had three colts, and these were our horses. We kept them for the farm work because they were so strong. In our time, there was a stallion in the pasture that could be used for breeding. Our parents would not let us be there for the births even though they would let us watch the eggs being hatched.
We also had an old mare, and we’d get on her to bring her up to the spring and an old well for a drink. We didn’t use a saddle or anything like that. We just held on to the mane. We had our little Bessie. One day I remember that John was there, and I said, “John, can I take Bessie? Can I bring Bessie?” And he usually told me, “No, she’s too dangerous.” But this time when I asked, he must have been fed up with me always asking, so he said “okay.” He got me on Bessie and she started galloping. I was holding on to the hair of her mane, and my backside was going bong, bong, bong. Then she finally stopped when we came to a field of grain. I was able to get off. I remember this old dog that we loved who died on us. She was very old, apparently she was 25 years old when she died. She died of old age, and they buried her below the road there. We would go and put flowers and a cross on her grave. We put everything we could think of on that grave, and we would pray for her.
When everyone had horses, community members would provide stalls and shelters for horses that came from away. People who came from elsewhere would bring their horses to these stalls and shelters. They would find a little oats they could give to their horses, and they would stay there until the horses had finished eating.
When I grew up, we had no bales…. loose hay, loose hay in the mows. I know all about hard work. Then we had to jump on it to get it down to fit in more hay. There’s another thing that my grandmother brought me. We were eleven in the house, and she brought up my family, four kids and I never saw her run or hurry or say I am tired; whereas today, with buttons you push all the time, everyone is so tired. Do you hear that too?
I remember how the community switched over from horses to tractors. Not everyone could afford to buy a tractor at the same time. One person would have a tractor and a baler, and he would go around to every farm and he would also have a wood cutter. This reminds me of another funny story Flora used to tell. The man with one of the first tractors was an odd man, and he was into every kind of machinery. And everything was always broken. He would have the tractor, he would have the machine for the grain, and he would have the wood splitter. His attention was always being taken up with something. Something was always breaking. So he would take out a bottle of holy water, open it and pour it on the machine. He’d say, “now you work – you son of a bitch.”
I remember getting this holy water myself. Well, I was nine or ten when I first went for it by myself. We started around six and seven years old when we used to go a lot with my grandfather. The collecting of the holy water was another very interesting thing about life in Pomquet. We’d all go for holy water. We would go the first of May. We had to get it before sunrise, and we had to collect our water going the opposite way from how it was running. When we took this water in this way, it became holy water. In my time, the water was blessed by the Blessed Virgin. Before that the water was holy because of Jean d’Arc. She was a pagan. When the priest asked her what she did when she was young, she said she went for water on the first of May. It was considered miracle water. It has since changed into a Christian thing, but before that it was a pagan ritual. We brought the water back home, and then we gave some to the pigs. My grandfather would give some to the cattle. We kept some bottles in the house, and when it would thunder, the holy water would protect us.
What did we do when we were young? What do I remember? I told you about the water, Joan of Arc and the Druids. How did this pagan practice come to Pomquet through Christianity – explain this to me. A long time ago they had changed it and said that it was blessed water by the Virgin Mary. When we got it, it was not the Druids or miracle water of the Druids. And stuff like that and how people change how they think about things always amazes me.
But most of the families were so used to the idea of working away. People could not make a living on a farm so they had to go. My grandfather had eight boys so they had to go out and earn a living. I think for such a long time when I grew up, and we were living on the farm, there was no money around. Usually a boy, who would have spent three or four years in school, would be taken out of school. His parents got him out of school to have him work on the farm and then go to Boston. The young men would come back from Boston, put their hand in their pocket and take out a handful of money. We did not have a bank then and these boys were something. That’s money for you. It gave them power.
People did not deal with money very much because they did not have any money. Benoit, he owner of the store was also involved in the exchange of everything that we could grow in Pomquet. Like I’ve already mentioned, if someone was out of potatoes, the neighbours would give them each a bag. Pomquet was a very good community, a very friendly, very generous community. Everyone would share. We were a very sharing community. We just had to buy flour, sugar and tea. Benoit would provide these or we would go to Antigonish. But you would have to have money in Antigonish because you would never get credit there.
My grandfather went to work in Boston. He married there, and my father was born there. My two grandfathers and two grandmothers went there and got married there. According to the law until I was 21, I was an American citizen because my two parents were American citizens. But after 21, I was no longer an American citizen because I was born in Canada. I was always a Canadian that was just how they did it during those times.
Pomquet people made money in Boston as carpenters. We still have lots of carpenters in Pomquet. Anyone who wants who wants to have a nice house goes to the Renie’s or goes to the Melansons or Stephen up on the hill. Pomquet is known for its carpentry. The men are known for their carpentry just like the women are known for their cooking and their hot biscuits. But when I was growing up, we all worked very hard. Men were muscled. We were all in shape. We were adults at 14.
A typical day for me was that I’d wake up and have breakfast. The teacher lived at my place. The teacher was my aunt and she taught me from grade one to grade eleven except for one year when she was sick. So my siblings and I would get up. At home my aunt never acted as if she was a
teacher. I went to school in Monk’s Head. So we would run to school every morning. It’s a very interesting thing. In winter we would bring our lunches. We would use those round boilers, and we put them on the stove to heat the water. The caretaker had made a piece of wood, and he had made holes in the boiler and he put it on the stove. He’d fill the boiler up with water and put all our glass containers of soup or stew over it, so our food would have a chance to heat up through the morning. Then we would have hot food for lunch. The adults back then were very inventive.
But in summer we would run home and play “auntie over”. We’d throw the ball over and then the others would catch it and run back. We always played with the three families together. We played ball a lot. We played a game call “here we go round the mulberry bush”, and then we would tag each other. I know this game was based on old English folk lore. I often wonder how these traditions came down to Pomquet.
My grandparents were mortally afraid of water. We would never be allowed to swim. We didn’t go swimming that much. We’d go out to the harbour, and we used to go swimming in the harbour. When Mary was teaching, we would dress up as little Acadian girls and go sing at the Highland Games. To get to Antigonish we would walk to the station with my aunt. She was a teacher so she had a little money sometimes. This was when I was 10 or 11 or 12, when they dressed up. And then there was MacDonald from Truro and he used to inspect the teachers and he was pro French and he really wanted French books. He thought that we should speak both languages. We did speak both languages very easily, but he thought we should learn French, being we were French.
People May Admired
When I lived in that house, my grandmother had eight boys and one girl. Now this girl grew up to be a teacher. Most girls in Pomquet went to work as maids in Antigonish, but she won a bursary from la Société Acadienne, which was like insurance money today. She won a bursary and it was very interesting; my grandfather took her to Arichat, brought her to the causeway, and she got on the boat. On the other side there was a horse and buggy to bring her to the convent where she had the bursary to study with the nuns. She studied there until she went to normal school. Now, she taught me from grade one to the time I left school in grade 10 and 11 and she was the influence of my life; it was unbelievable. She taught me everything. And she was not just a person who had knowledge out of books, she was so smart and she had sixty pupils.
I’ll tell you what a year was like with her. When we first got into school, in the fall in Heatherton they had a fall fair which they called “exhibition day” and we would bring a bunch of flowers; we would bring vegetables, and we would bring anything we made and get prizes for them. It was a farming thing and there we heard and gave demonstrations every year. The demonstration was on things such as how to take care of the separator that separated the wool, and then another year, it was how to take care of some other kind of equipment. In different years we learned different skills. We had two students who would tell us what it was like to work a separator -stuff like that. That was in September. And then came the Christmas concert and the sixty pupils were in the concert. She would never leave one student out. Sixty people were on that stage. One would be the decorator. One could be a tree. Then after that, we went out to other schools for debating. So we’d leave by horse and buggy and we’d go to Heatherton and we’d win, myself and my sisters (they were one year older than me, but we were like a trio). And then we would win in all the schools in the county until we got to St. Andrews where there were sisters. The judge was the inspector of schools, and he would always give the prize to the sisters from St. Andrews, and that was not fair. We thought it was not fair. We may not have been as good, but we thought we were as good.
That was the debating contest, and then in the spring it was the dramatic contest and there would always be a play. Now, one year, say, it would be Cinderella. Okay now, Cinderella was pretty and had beautiful skin, because it was a health thing. What do you do for your health? I think it was sponsored by the Red Cross or something to do with that theme. Cinderella had beautiful skin because she had to eat vegetables from the garden, whereas the two step sisters had marks on their faces. They had pimples and stuff because they only ate cake. That was our dramatic contest and that was our year in school. We learned all these things along with reading, writing and arithmetic.
I think one very important thing she gave all of her students was their ability to be on a stage and perform and this would get them out of their shyness. You know these country girls, these country boys… I think this was very, very good for them. You know. That’s where I am different. For the fact that I do have confidence because I might not be good at some things, but I know I’m good at other things. I don’t know what happened in my house with the three of us sisters and our brother too. I don’t know where we got that confidence in ourselves. My sisters feel the same.
My aunt was a teacher but she never spoke a French word. It was English in school and English books and when I was in grade six, I read and then I noticed I could understand what I was reading. Before that, I would read the books and not understand a word. Then I was in about grade five or six and I understood what I was saying. We were not exposed to English. When we went to town, Mary would be speaking for us. And later on, it became very not okay to speak French. We would go to stores and were told to “shh, stop speaking French.”
We still do that. We always speak English.
First memories are usually when you are terrorized or really afraid. As a rule, that often happens. My father and mother had decided to move to Boston and my sister was about two years old and I was about three. And Monroe, Margot’s father, was with us. The reason I know I was not mistaken was because Monroe was with us and I asked him, “Am I right?” and he said, “Yes, I was with you and your mother.” My father had gone to Boston to fix the house. Everything was ready for us and then Monroe accompanied my mother with the children and we took the boat from Yarmouth to Boston. So here we are on the boat, and when the women would come on the boat, they would give them flowers. They would give them a big bouquet of flowers. Here my mother is with a big bouquet of flowers, and Monroe was holding me and my sister’s shoe was untied (we had little booties). And he put her on the railing to tie her shoe and then I had the fright of my life because I imagined her falling into the water and drowning. It was all in my head. It just struck me that she could have fallen and drowned because the boat was just leaving. That stuck in my memory.
My other memory was, we were in Boston. My grandfather had visited my sister and me. He brought us to see— it was Christmas— the manger at the little church. So he took us, one on each hand, and we went there and we looked at the manger, and then he brought us to the altar and we each said a prayer, and we had big things to pray about. And then we started walking back and then my grandfather said, “May what have you got in your hand?” I had stolen a little sheep from the manger. This was my first theft and wasn’t he wise about it. Some other person would have said: “That’s terrible, that’s stealing”…..But he was such a wise man, Xavier. He said, “That does not belong to you. That belongs to the Christ Jesus. We never, not ever,” and I remember as if it was yesterday… he said that “We never, not ever, take anything that belongs to other people when you don’t ask. Now we are going to bring it back.” So we walked back and I put the sheep in its right place and we walked home. I was about three or four years old. I could not have been much older because we came back to Pomquet when I was not yet five. My mother did not like Boston, she did not like it at all, so we moved back.
My grandfather was a philosopher. My grandfather was really an unusual man. When I think of him today, his way of thinking was unbelievable. His thinking might have influenced us and he was very close to us because when we were growing up we had no mother. My father was out to work. We got up every morning, kneeling at his chair, as if he was God or something, to say our prayers. And then when we had company over, he’d have this great, big chair. There was a space between the chair and the wall, and we would go and lie down there. And can you imagine, children being so welcome? No wonder, we developed the confidence we had. No one ever said anything to us because we were the poor little orphans. No one had anything against us because we were orphans. And if you want to know what children who were told, “You are not right” are like… we were the product of no one telling us that we were not okay. Everyone told us we were okay. The atmosphere was that we were always okay. And then they would just tell us, “You don’t do that.” They would not say, “You’re bad for doing that.” They would just say, “You don’t do that,” instead of…yelling at us. I tell the story of when I stole the lamb to show that that man was very intelligent because after that I understood that he could have said, “because stealing was such a big sin.” He could have said that, and here I had stolen and he didn’t give me heck. For me that was wisdom.
Father Chisholm was an old priest. And every year he would have a student priest from StFX, someone that was going to be a priest with him for two months. Who do you think they were? They were these beautiful Scotch men with red hair and who do you think were our heroes? We just adored them. And they were not held up as beyond us like Father Chisholm. They would play sports, and they would go swimming in swimming suits. The old ladies were not that happy seeing the young priests in swim suits. One of the student priests was an athlete; he was a champion athlete, one of them. Father Nash was his name, and after, he became parish priest in Tracadie. But when we were 13, 14, 15 years old, can you imagine how we liked them. Those were our heroes because we had no television. We had no radio, we had no papers, and no newspapers. The boys that were around, we thought they were great, you know.
Leaving Pomquet and Returning
I was 16 when I went to Montreal. So then everything kind of changed. It wasn’t a big shock. I don’t remember being shocked. I got a box in the mail… and on the beach, that old house that’s falling to pieces, there was a Joseph who lived there. He had picked up May flowers, put them in moss, put them in the box, and sent us that. We still came home a lot, almost every summer because my uncle was a policeman. He was married there and they had children, and then we’d come to Pomquet for two months to live with his wife and she was bringing up her children. So there was me and my sisters and my aunt, and then we came here in this great big house and the barn with these children. When I think of it today, it was just wonderful.
From 16 years old to 1980, I would still come to Pomquet a lot. We never really left. It has always been my home. It was great, because when my husband and I retired, Julia and Anthony were building their new house, so we took the old one. I was 60 when I came back, and that started this merry-go-round. I think my strength comes from holding my own with men. I met a man at Arichat the other day when we went there. “Oh, God”, he said, “I remember you in meetings fighting for a cause.” I created an equal relationship with them.
It’s a long story, but when I came back to live in Pomquet, it was Trudeau time. Trudeau had said that Canada is a bilingual country. When I came back, everyone had decided to go bilingual. Money was coming out of Ottawa for the French; you would not believe how much. Then the Fédération Acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse was also founded.
Michel de Noncourt was the one who worked for the Fédération Acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse in Pomquet, so you can imagine how we moved and worked together. Michel would say: “May, they are having a meeting. Would you come with me?” And then from there they founded the Federation of Nova Scotia Acadian Women, the Fédération Culturelle Acadienne de Nova Scotia and Conseil Scolaire Acadien Provincial and everything came from this and it just blossomed out. I was already on a pension. I was already old. I would go to these meetings and say, “When are you going to take care of the older people? How are you going to take care of us old people?” And the guy that was president, he said, “One day, May,”( he was in Halifax), “You and your old people. I want you, the tough and well-known woman from Acadian Nova Scotia to come up, and we will write our bylaws.” Okay, so we wrote the bylaws for the seniors and so this is how it all came to be. The group was redesigned because everything was so traditional and we had to think of something that was very different. Regroupement des Aînées et Elders of Nova Scotia came together and that is our name today and we travel all over the place, men and women. The men were French teachers from places like the Baie St. Marie College, the Université Sainte-Anne. The men were very present in everything. But then we have our women’s association as well.
To begin with, because French was really disappearing, I think the first thing was that we would conduct all our business in French and then it would be for women. It’s unbelievable what we did for women. I’ll give you an example. When we met together the year before last, we had this play on how to deal with Alzheimer’s and things like that. That’s how we make people conscious of women’s rights and women’s needs. And abuse and what is abuse? I was with the Naomi Society. I was one of the founders of the Naomi Society for Victims of Family Violence when it started in Antigonish. I came back in 1980, 33 years ago.
Things have changed a lot in 33 years. A lot, a lot, a lot…… the basis of all forward motion is to see a problem and then to try to solve it. You see something should be done. I’ll give you one example. I came back and was going to Antigonish and in front here, there was an old monument that was falling down with a thing on it, and it was a veterans’ monument. Now, two guys in my class died overseas. Two. Of the seven pupils in my class – two died. It just broke my heart. I almost cried and I could have done that for the rest of the time. I could have done that. So then there was veteran, Venedam, who had spent four years overseas and he was what you think a veteran is and he was driving the school bus for a while. I called him and said “Rudolph, aren’t you ashamed that the legion or whatever…? Look at that monument we have no more respect for our dead overseas.” He said, “You are right.” and I was always forming committees. “We are going to form this committee. You be the president. I’ll be the secretary. And Father Peter will be the treasurer.” So we talked to Father Peter and we said, “You know Father Peter, he is hard to resist.” So we got after everybody, and everybody came to find the site for a new monument because the old site was not a nice place. It was not a respectful place. Then we found the site, and then we collected money and held fundraisers such as bake sales. We and Father Peter did this and there it is a monument… and that’s how things get done. Someone has to feel that it has to be done otherwise you don’t say, “Oh, we need a community centre.” So who’s working for it? Is it someone that needs it? Is it someone that’s going to profit from it? Is it someone that’s going to work?
I’ve been to an awful lot of meetings. This guy that came from Ottawa, from the army, said, “Go into any community…. any community, any group, you get two leaders and right away or not very long after, you are going to know who those leaders are and you can really find them in Pomquet.” And then these people are leaders— and about 7 or 8 percent of the population will go to them and help them out and work with them, he said, and the rest, they just watch the parade go by. And that’s a community and that’s a group. And you can go anywhere and in any direction and that’s what you’ll find.
Our school came about because people wanted that school here. Because in Antigonish the leaders of education wanted all the French to go to Antigonish. They wanted a French school that would serve the county in Antigonish so all of the French students would be moved over there. And the school in Pomquet would only be English with French starting from grade four because, you know, that is how they do it, that’s what happens…. It’s kind of funny. There were two Scotch people, including the one that was in charge of the education board in Antigonish, and here we are in Pomquet and we have to fight for our French school. It was the beginning of l’Ecole Acadienne… they wanted it in Antigonish and we wanted it in Pomquet. That was a fight. We would go in front of the school board and at the end we went to Halifax and it happened to be a French man in charge there so he said yes and we got our French school. But it was a fight and there were people against us and the fight. They were negative because a lot of them thought that if they had a French school only they would not be able to read and write English. And it was because, you know what they say— being afraid stops us from doing a lot of things. They were really afraid and we had to understand their fear that if they didn’t speak English in school they were out. At a French only school they had started already in New Brunswick, the students in grade four spoke better English than French in grade four, with the English that surrounded them. And this is what is happening here.
For change to happen, they have to say, “What’s going on?” and look at goings on and bring to everyone’s attention other examples, make them look at other examples. The reason the housing did not work in Antigonish is that we don’t have enough people to go into the housing. Just look at what is going on today— the old one died when she was still home, Bernadette… and think about it! Say you are at home, and you have a pension and you are living a life with your children or alone and you get someone in to do your work and pay them so much. The government should be getting money because, you know, I was always on the board for the RK then, and for anyone to get in there it was $3,000 a month, that’s what it costs. I should call and see because they do take in people and care for people for a month if the family wants a vacation or whatever. I would find out how much they would charge me today. For then it would cost a lot. You look at what the environment is— you have the cooks, you have the cleaning, you have this and that. When you finish paying for all that, there is not too much money left over.
Housing for seniors would have to include both Pomquet and Heatherton….. I’ve sat on that committee for two or three years and I know this to be true because the demand is not large enough in Pomquet. And in Pomquet so many seniors live at home… You take the Melansons that were here playing cards last night… their mother is living with them. She’s 92, but they take good care of her and they have someone in to take care of her when they are not home. I think in Pomquet a lot of people do that. Like Bernadette Landry stayed home, and she died at 96. Annie stayed home with the children all around her, going to bingo and for food and that’s Pomquet. There is one man who is retarded, a male, he is 92, and I used to do his laundry and bring him food… but now he is in the hospital. He broke his leg and now, with him, it’s finished. Simon brought him his food every night, his supper. So people take care of people. It’s a very strong community, Pomquet. It’s very strong and they better not be against you. Better not have them against you. Unfortunately, the community is split in two. Like some people in Pomquet would never walk in here, and some of the one’s here would not talk to the ones who would not walk in here.
You know when you look at the Bible and you talk about Jesus and people getting along and loving each other… and “Our Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others”… Well, the thing is, people do not understand. They will go to church and say the Lord’s Prayer every day, but they will not practice it. And this is what is happening now with the choir. There is a split.
And it all started with those darned elections that they had. It got the people aroused. And unfortunately, it created a very bad feeling. County elections can do that. Remi Deveau is an example. It’s the 2nd time the county elections have split the whole community. Eight years ago this guy was our counsellor and everyone went to vote and he lost but the priest never went. The priest does not go and vote because he does not want to take sides for one or the other. He is a parish priest. Because the priest did not go to vote, this guy never stepped foot in the church again. His father-in-law died and he stayed outside the church. So, as you can see, some brains are really warped. And you can’t help that. You meet them and I meet them and you make do with them.
Even Father Peter, you know, he has his likes and dislikes and people do their little things… and so he comes to sit at the table and I ask him, “Did you?” and he hasn’t got a mean streak in his body but he will always ask, “Did you pray this morning, did you ask for forgiveness?”
Cultural Similarities that Exist in All Acadian Communities
We just went to Louisiana, Loraine and I, and we really looked into the language. The language has almost disappeared, but now they have four or five teachers from Québec down in their schools to revive the Acadian. The Acadian stronghold in Lousiana is LaFayette. That’s where everything is happening. New Orleans, you can go anywhere and you don’t find any French. There would be French baguette, this and that, French music and they would sing French songs, but not be able to speak the language.
But language is key. In my opionion, it is a shame like in Pomquet that all the Acadians marry these nice Dutch guys, and the children two generations after do not speak a word of French. They might have a grandmother that does speak the language and it would be so easy… When I was young, I used to work and live with an old Scottish lady that would speak to me only in Gaelic. She could not speak English, and she could hardly speak English. She spoke Gaelic. I came out of there and I spoke Gaelic. A lot of things I could say in Gaelic because when she was talking to me, she kept repeating words.
Say this child comes out of this reserve or an Acadian goes out and speaks only French. When I left Pomquet and only spoke French, I just went to Antigonish and nobody understood me. That’s why the language has disappeared. I believe that eventually English will become at least the second language in most parts of the world. Even in India, with all those people, English is the second language. Well, you tell me anything that is not being directed with money. English is the language of power and money.
But the thing is now, I go to France. My son-in-law is a millionaire, he inherited houses and other things from his parents, which is not money in his pocket—it’s things. And now he is getting rid of them and the taxes… unbelieveably, 80% goes into tax. I often talk with him and I say. Okay, if people realize today that one person is a millionaire, and someone else is on relief, or whatever, but they both have the same television. Maybe the millionaire has a little better mattress. But you can get a mattress, and then you have the same kind of chair and when you go to the grocery store, maybe you will not buy the fancy things, but you get your carrots and you get your cabbage and you buy a little meat, even though it might not be as good. Then, tell me, what does the millionaire have that the poor person or ordinary person does not have today? Before it was very different— millionaires might have a boat, a nicer car that won’t break down on the road. And that’s what we talk about. We talk a lot. They live like poor people and they are millionaires.
In Pomquet it was not the rich that would give to the poor except the man who had that store that sold the flour. He was richer. He had the store. That was the rich giving to the poor. But otherwise you shared— it was sharing.
When I left Pomquet, there was no electricity. When I came back, we had electricity. But the farming has gone. It doesn’t pay to be a farmer any more. You have to have a big, big farm. We were looking at these immense farms with these big silos, these great big farms. Is the big farmer any happier with his great big farm? I am sure he has more troubles in his head than the small farmer that got his hay and put it in the mow. When they both lie down and sleep, who would sleep the most peacefully? I don’t think the big farmer has taken the right turn. There’s still some farming at Ruth’s old house. They cut the hay and the wood. That’s about it for the real farmers. There is Joe Rennie.
Now, there was a time when these flower children came to Pomquet. I was very present but I wasn’t one of them. But I think they had the right idea. One of them that was very active in this was Barbara Hayes. A lot of our generation is from that generation.
I think what is lost is that we are too much on the computer and not enough engaged in something real, like when we get together all these women and we exchange our stories. Now, especially children… I have a small boy in front of my house, he comes home and he never goes outside. He goes inside and this is what he does. He loses exercise, but most likely, his brain will be full of whatever. They are more exposed to knowledge, though. When we went to school of course, we just had reading, writing and arithmetic.
People want to watch violence on TV. It’s always been like this. But then before that it was cowboys shooting each other. The big problem today is not what they are watching, but the fact that they are sitting in front of a TV or computer and watching all this. In our time, we did not have these things, and we did not sit. I don’t think my kids would have sat in front of a TV for a long time. I think that’s the difference today. They spend too much time in front of the screen. They might be wiser. They might be more educated. What it does morally, I don’t know.
There is also the fact that the church is not there as much for moral teaching, so you have to have another source to say it’s not right to do this; it’s not right to do that. But you see everything turns against you in the end – everything. Look at the priests, what we thought was the Catholic Church. In French, they would say, “If you are not in the church, you will not go to heaven.” And that was very, very wrong, you know, but that’s the way it was.
Losing the Old Wisdom
Where we used to go and pick these useful plants, the land has changed. Where we used to pick berries is not the way it once was. Everything is outgrown now. Overgrown… it’s only the cranberries that still survive. The old hay fields are now full of bushes. They are not fit for anything. You know in the morning we watch French programs and they are talking about corn. Now they are growing corn to get oil for cars. In Paris, they already use corn oil in the cars. And in France, they are going into this corn thing and they are using the land that is supposed to be used for growing vegetables and everything else we need to feed people. You know in France they don’t eat corn. They didn’t have the right kind of corn—the corn you could eat, the kind they had was for the cattle.
I don’t buy tickets but if ever I won a million dollars I would just turn Pomquet around. I’d change Pomquet. My Pomquet would be full of beautiful farms. It would be a beautiful place where you could walk, and I’d take very good care of our forests. Certain parts of our forests already have beautiful walks and I would build more walking trails. That is what I would do if I was a millionaire. I’d have small farmers and have a community store and if the farmer had a little bit of carrots left, he’d put them there. A little bit like the market in Antigonish. And the ones that run out of certain things could go to the store and barter or make an exchange for what they need. Like it was at the beginning, and it worked!
Talk about junk… as an example, every morning now we look out a big window in the kitchen and admire the view. So many people get up in the morning and don’t even think that it is pleasant to look at this beautiful landscape. They forget to enjoy small things. They think if they have a great big car or if they have whatever, it will be enjoyable. That’s a change.
I take my cousin that was a teacher in Pomquet for an example. Every morning, she got up and got her six children out of bed—made the lunch, sent them out with breakfast, found their clothes, found their shoes and so on. Then she was a teacher, and went out and taught all day. Now that was more activity than my grandmother had. We often talk about this. We think our grandmothers had hard lives. Our mothers were very busy and had a lot of work but it wasn’t a stressful thing. Everything came with our generation. Today they have to hurry and then Saturday comes around and they have to bring their children to dancing lessons, to tennis…. Each child is going to music lessons. That’s their Saturday and now usually before there was a Sunday – a day of rest. Not anymore. Sunday, she is out doing her shopping she’s getting ready for Monday morning. And that’s the woman of today… and we are supposed to be working for women to have a better part in our society. And we just missed the boat.
In Antigonish they just created a Men’s Health Unit. The men have gotten together to form an association. I have been preaching for the need for this for the last thirty years. We are not taking care of our men. When a man abuses a woman, he is the unhappiest person on the earth. And three or four women can get together and even the playing field or say, have another man give him a punch each time he does that but this does not change anything. Because it does not go by the law, it goes by how he feels. Now it’s not because we didn’t try.
I was in the AAs and you can see when we got here I was quite active with Al Anon. They had made a steering committee for men, so like when we went to court… I should talk about that. They would go to court and then us women would go and sit behind the woman and tell that judge you dare not send this man to prison. They went to court because they had abused their wives and the judge would send them to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or a doctor. They had everything to support them to change their ways. All these people who were working for nothing to support these men, because I was always saying it’s not the women we have to think of because they’re broken. We have to take care of these men before those woman are broken. It’s like a vase… and once that vase is broken, boy… you can use all the glue you want but she will never be the same, never be the same. It would be a dream of mine, to see that things have changed for the better, but that’s not how things are. Now, this steering committee— the men, not one of them would come in and have an attitude of “I’m sorry,” not ever. “You don’t know her. She can’t cook, she can’t do this, you do not know.” That was the attitude and this day I was in court behind this woman and I was with another. We were walking out, and I knew Mac Isaac because he had taken care of our house and everything. So you know, he said, “May, how are you?” and then, “What are you doing here?” and then he said, “Don’t tell me you’re supporting these crazy women.” I almost hit him. I said you are very lucky that I did not hit you. He said, “You know that they cause marriages to break up.” I said, “I’ll tell you something. I think the marriages were broken up before. But when Paul beats me up, I won’t come to you for help.”
“What do you think is the most important thing you did in my life?” I’m asked. What do you think I say? The most important accomplishment of my life – this medal, this cross, I have a full wall. I say, my family. I really gave that time and that’s what women do. From the time I just stayed at home, I was a stay at home mom. I didn’t go out to work. I didn’t do anything. My youngest was 12 years old when I went to work because my husband was on strike. I think that’s the most important thing. It’s not only children, it’s parents, it’s the extensions, extended families, even friends…..unbelievable, children’s friends.
We forget the importance of the word love. We forget we love people and I think people forget. There is the thing of getting the best part of a person. When you are with one person, he can be a thief… but when he is with you, he will be another person.
Last week Lorraine came to stay with me. Now, like every morning I have someone sitting at that table and the work doesn’t get done. Nothing gets done. We’re just drinking tea. It’s Elizabeth, it’s Julia, it’s enjoying life, taking time to enjoy life. You don’t do it in front of people if you have to work. There’s a lot of things I’m no good at at all and I accept that.
Christmas 1930 (transcribed by Lorne MacNeil)
I was raised by my grandmother. In 1930, I was 7 years old. Things weren’t very good. “There will be no Christmas this year,” my grandmother told us. “Pere Noel is poor up there at the North Pole, the same as we are here.”
I don’t even remember if there were any candies. We got up Christmas morning and under the tree were scribblers and pencils and crayons! I don’t know if you can imagine now, how happy we were to get a little package of crayons.
“Grand mere! Pere Noel came!”
“Yes, he did, and he’s upstairs in bed sleeping!”
Well, what happened was that my uncle was working for the Sisters of Notre Dame at that time. He made $40 per month. Later I would work for them for $10 per month. He took the train home from Antigonish to Pomquet, probably around 10 at night. Then he walked, I suppose, the five miles home with all these presents. It was my uncle who had bought the scribblers and pencils and crayons.
Can you imagine a better Christmas?
Article by Lise de Villiers. All photos by Lise de Villiers.