When Katherine LeBlanc and Danielle (d’Entremont) Tsimiklis were growing up, hearing and using Acadian words was commonplace and comforting.
As parents, the best friends wanted their own young children to feel connected to their language and culture. But being a minority population in Halifax, they were concerned about the challenges.
In addition to not living in a largely Acadian community, the pair both have English-speaking spouses. So last winter, they found themselves discussing unique ways to keep their kids connected to their roots and to the Acadian language.
“My kids go to the CSAP (French language school board) schools. They’re definitely learning the standard French. But what about these more Acadian words that really come from your upbringing,” Tsimiklis said in an interview.
“These are words that we heard from our grandparents growing up, and they’re not necessarily words they learn in school. How can we use them in our homes? But also, what’s a way to celebrate that and make them more up front and centre.”
Characteristics typical of 16th and 17th century French
In a 2019 article published in the Canadian Encyclopedia, Philip Comeau notes that many varieties of Acadian French differ from other forms spoken in Canada. It’s considered “quite traditional” in its form and structure.
This is in part due to the fact Acadia was cut off from France in the early 18th century.
“Even during the French colonial period, contact with people from France, including colonial administrators, was limited,” Comeau wrote.
“As a result, Acadian French has characteristics that were typical of the French spoken in the 16th and 17th centuries, but that have disappeared from the French spoken by other communities across North America, France and beyond.”
A desire to share those words, create something that resonated with other Acadians, and raise awareness more broadly led to a brainstorming session. Out of that came an idea for a small apparel business and a passion project LeBlanc and Tsimiklis call Hardes des Acadiens (Acadian clothing).
“We came up with this long list of different expressions and different words, things that we hear very often,” Tsimiklis said. “It’s not things we hear speaking with all Francophones. These are very specific to our families and to our culture.”
‘So many beautiful Acadian words’
Launched last Tuesday, their Hardes des Acadiens apparel includes designs that incorporate the Acadian flag. But their hoodies, tee shirts and other items also feature Acadian words they commonly heard and used growing up — words like astheur (now) and berlicoco (pine cone).
“It was hard to actually limit ourselves, to not go crazy with the designs, because there are so many beautiful Acadian words that we wanted to feature,” LeBlanc said.
“But we started with a few that we really like that meant something to us and our families, and that we used in our language growing up and now.”
For LeBlanc, it was “berlicoco”,” a word that holds special meaning because of a family story. Her favourite item is a t-shirt with that word in a turquoise script. She said it’s simple and serves as a conversation starter.
Tsimiklis’s favourite design features a seagull wearing a top hat emblazoned with an Acadian flag.
“I used to spend huge chunks of my summers in Pubnico and we would often stay with my grandmother. She lived right across the street from Sea Life’s fish plant. I have this really strong memory of hearing seagulls swarming,” Tsimiklis recalled.
“That design really resonated with me. It’s Acadie, going to visit my grandmother, hearing the language, hearing the seagulls in the background. And, of course, we’d spend a lot of time on the ocean and going to the beach. I have really good memories of that.”
‘Sometimes you forget’
Le Village Historique Acadien de la Nouvelle-Écosse (Historic Acadian Village of Nova Scotia) in Lower West Pubnico describes how Acadians from each region in the world have accents unique to their geography. The museum’s website notes how those accents can distinguish from which area of France people originated.
But it also highlights how the language includes some words not used in “standard” French.
“Not only do Acadians pronounce some words differently, depending upon the region, but they also use words unique to their culture,” notes the museum’s website.
“An excellent source of these unique Acadian words can be found in the book by Yves Cormier, “Dictionnaire du français acadien”, published by Edition Fides.”
That Acadian French dictionary was well-used by LeBlanc and Tsimiklis, who frequently referred to it as a resource.
“We’ve been in Halifax so long that sometimes you forget what is Acadian French and what have you been exposed to through other cultures and languages. And it all gets intermeshed over time,” LeBlanc said.
“So sometimes through this project, I would stumble upon words and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s an Acadian word,’ because it had slowly faded away from my language over time.”
Both women hope their apparel line helps foster broader conversations around linguistic insecurity. They recall the “lost” generation. These were Acadians whose parents didn’t speak French to them for various reasons, including shame about their language and unique patois.
LeBlanc remains hopeful that things are changing for the better.
“Reflecting on my own experience, there were periods in my life where I was less secure in the Acadian language. I felt more insecure about the way I spoke, and I almost felt like I had to adopt different ways of speaking,” LeBlanc said.
“Now that I’m older, I’m like, ‘Oh what was I thinking. This is great.’ And I want people to feel pride in it. It’s our way of sharing our pride in the culture. But I hope it also gets other people to not feel insecure about their language.”
Tsimiklis has similar sentiments.
“There are times when I’ve felt Acadians have been pushed aside a bit,” she said. “To the point about linguistic security, you find yourself reflecting back on those moments (of insecurity) and thinking, ‘Well, that was silly. We actually have a lot to be proud of.”
While Tsimiklis said they went into the venture as “a fun thing” to do and without expectations, the response has been both encouraging and overwhelming. Acadians, francophones, and anglophones from across the Maritimes and the country have reached out to them.
“We really didn’t realize what kind of reaction this would get. I hope that people like our designs and I hope that we instill a sense of pride for those Acadians or honorary Acadians or anybody who is just interested in Acadian culture,” Tsimiklis said.
“Maybe it will even generate some interest in Acadian culture from people that didn’t know about it. That would be a really cool thing, sharing our culture with people wondering ‘Who are the Acadians?’”
The new business is also a source of pride for Tsimiklis’s four children. Ranging in age from eight to two, her older children excitedly shared the news with their friends and teachers. Her oldest even created a few sample designs.
‘Feel proud without shame’
Because LeBlanc and Tsimiklis both work and have families, they’re starting small.
But they’ve already discussed eventually creating a children’s apparel line, finding a way to incorporate Acadian food into their designs, and participating in next year’s Acadian world congress taking place in Nova Scotia.
“I think it’s important to have the confidence to celebrate your Acadian culture and then put it out there and feel proud of it without shame. I think it’s a shame that sometimes Acadians feel that linguistic insecurity, and that’s what I want to come out of it (apparel),” LeBlanc said.
“When I see, for example, the support that we had … from all over the Maritimes, I see that other people are celebrating Acadian culture. I hope that that’s an indication that it will be the same for my sons.”