Pascal Poirier

Pascal PoirierPhoto: Septentrion's Banque d'images
Pascal Poirier
Photo: Septentrion's Banque d'images

Pascal Poirier, considered to be one of Acadie’s most influential writers, was born 15 February 1852 in Westmorland County, Shediac, New Brunswick. He was the twelfth and last son of Simon Poirier and Henriette Arsenault, whose ancestors had important roles in the first Acadian settlements in Canada. Simon Poirier was a farmer with strong family values, teaching his son to “always keep your word; it is the rule in our family” (Beaulieu 9, my translation). Young Poirier had a flourishing childhood in Shediac where he played sports, sang, learned to play the piano, and participated in theatre. Upon the completion of his primary education at Shediac Public School, he enrolled at Collège Saint-Joseph in Memramcook in 1864 (Graves 52). This was the first year the school opened (Doyle 103), and it was soon to become one of the most important schools in Acadie. It was also the first iteration of the Université de Moncton.

At Collège Saint-Joseph, Poirier studied Latin and Greek, French literature, philosophy, and history. One of his philosophy professors and founder of the college, Reverend Camille Lefebvre, had a science background that piqued Poirier’s interest in biology, botany, geology, and astronomy (Gérin 49). Father Lefebvre, who desired to make leaders out of his students, was astonished by Poirier’s “intelligence, various talents and strong personality” (Beaulieu 11, my trans.), qualities that led to several academic awards throughout his time at Collège Saint-Joseph. Later in his career, Poirier wrote Le père Lefebvre et l’Acadie (1898), a work dedicated to the professor who became his hero and biggest supporter. Poirier graduated with a Master of Arts in 1872 and, with the help of Father Lefebvre, was recommended and appointed to Postmaster of the House of Commons (Doyle 103).

Poirier lived permanently in Ottawa from 1872 to 1885. Around 1873, he became a member of l’Institut canadien-français d’Ottawa, rising to the position of president in 1881 (Gérin 50-54). The city otherwise proved to be fortuitous, providing him with essential academic resources like the parliamentary library to begin research about subjects that interested him, such as Acadian history (Ouellette 52). In 1874, Poirier’s first major work, Origines des Acadiens, was published, which was a response to Benjamin Sulte. At a conference in Ottawa, Sulte had argued that Acadians were a degenerate population that could be confused with Indigenous peoples. In Origines des Acadiens, Poirier argues that Acadians must not be confused with other ethnic groups, arguing further that Sulte represents the general ignorance that French citizens have regarding French Canadians. The book was well-received and, said Arthur T. Doyle, “made a significant contribution to creating a greater awareness among Acadians of their common heritage” (103).

Around this time, as well, Poirier wrote Les Acadiens à Philadelphie, a play that was later performed in Ottawa (1 June 1875) and in which Poirier himself had a role. The play was a tragedy in five acts about the Great Disruption (Lord, et al. 17). While Poirier did not take his own acting career very seriously (Perron 10), he once wrote that

Le théâtre d’un peuple est, en outre, le miroir le plus fidèle de ses mœurs et de son histoire intime. Dites-moi la scène et les chants populaires d’une nation, et je vous dirai, mieux qu’un archéologue, quelles sont ses mœurs et son histoire. (Poirier, “Le théatre” 195)

Toward that end, and seeing an absence of knowledge resources about Acadie, Poirier wrote many articles about Acadie and the Acadian language in the 1870s and 1880s that were published in French Canadian journals, such as L’opinion publique, Revue canadienne, and Les Nouvelles soirées canadiennes. With encouragement from Père Lefebvre, he also started working on a complete Acadian history.

During the summer of 1876, Poirier made a trip to visit all of the Acadian areas of the Maritimes, including northern New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Cape Breton, arguing for “the necessity to unite and maintain links between the diverse Acadian groups to assure their development” (Gérin 51, my trans.). When he could, he endeavoured to develop French education resources, including French night class and libraries (Beaulieu 38). In 1877, for example, he applied for and received a grant from L’alliance française to improve French education in Cape Breton, one of the first such efforts in that area. Over the course of the following years, he also travelled to archives in Ottawa, Halifax, Boston, Paris, and London for research (Gérin 56). During this time, he also attended the first Convention nationale acadienne (1881), being especially influential in choosing the date of the Acadian holiday: 15 August, the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

In 1884, Poirier became the secretary and then president of La société d’assomption, where he remained for twelve years (McLean xxxix). The society’s purpose was to instill a rallying spirit to address the loss of hundreds of French-speaking Canadians who were moving south of the border each year. The intent was to counter the Americanization of Canadian and French-Canadian communities (Gallant 54). In 1885, a vacancy occurred in the Canadian Senate, that was a political opportunity, thought Poirier, for the government to establish some equality between the French and English. Recognizing the need for an Acadian, French, and Catholic influence in the upper chamber, Poirier wrote:

Although speaking in no official capacity, I am in a position to state that the French Acadians of New Brunswick have been made to believe that the first vacancy in the Senate would be filled by one from their numbers and that they now expect it. This is simple justice to them. (qtd. in Beaulieu 17)

As a result of this letter and other machinations, both public and guarded, Poirier became Acadie’s first senator on 9 March 1885 (McLean xxxix). His appointment was met with widespread support and enthusiasm in Acadie. Poirier, in turn, acknowledged the help of John Costigan and other influential Canadians who advocated for his nomination.

Though he entered the Senate with high hopes, his influence was limited. “It was certainly not because he was at a loss for ideas or that he had not political interest,” wrote Gérard Beaulieu, but “because, all his life, he was involved in other activities that seemed more important or that corresponded better to his personality” (34, my trans.). In short, he was less at home among legislators than among his own people, preoccupied always with attending to the well-being of his community. One of the activities that Beaulieu is referencing is Poirier’s advocacy in the religious community, an area of vital importance to Acadians. For the next twenty years, together with Pierre-Amand Landry, Poirier strove to install a French Bishop in the Acadian community. This effort was largely reactionary, as a long line of disparaging English Bishops had made up the ecclesiastic power in Acadie (Beaulieu 41). Poirier and Landry’s efforts led to major conflicts with the Maritime episcopate, the Apostolic delegate in Ottawa, the Congregation for Propagation of the Faith in Rome, and the ecclesiastic hierarchy in Ireland. To manage these conflicts, Poirier stepped down as president of La société d’assomption for several years (Doyle 104). The Maritimes’ first French Bishop, Edouard Alfred LeBlanc, was appointed to the diocese of Saint John a few years after Landry and Poirier’s advocacy (Beaulieu 42-47).

Throughout the rest of his career, Poirier focused on Acadian history and language, though also remaining active in the Senate until the year he died. In 1902, he was commissioned by La société royale to explore and report on the ancient English and French fortresses in Acadie (Gérin 58), publishing “Louisbourg en 1902,” a piece that reflects on the Seven Years War and asks the government to conserve the buildings he studied. That same year he was made Knight of the Legion of Honour of the French Republic, an honour that recognized the substantial work he did for the Acadian community (McLean xxxix). Antonine Maillet, perhaps Acadie’s most influential writer, captured her community’s respect for Poirier by including a reference to him in her novel Les confessions de Jeanne de Valois. Her character Jeanne says of Poirier:

A visionary who, just when we were becoming aware of our special identity, opened before our very eyes the treasure-chest buried for almost three centuries in Acadian soil. He revealed to us, and encouraged us to reveal to the world, the riches of our heritage, the originality of our patrimony. (107, my trans.)

In 1916, Poirier visited the Magdalen Islands. In Voyage aux Îles-Madeleine, he poetically evokes that land and its mythos in a tone that is characteristic:

Imaginez une ronde fantastique; dansée par une théorie de jeunes filles tenant dans leurs mains de longs rubans qui se déroulent harmonieusement à leurs pieds. Ces jeunes filles, ce sont les îles, grandes et petites—je n’ai nommé que les plus grandes—qui constituent le groupe de la Madeleine, et les rubans capricieusement déployés, ce sont les dunes de sable fin qui bordent le bas de leurs roches de verdure, longues et flottantes, et qui les relient les unes aux autres. (Voyage 9)

While many of Poirier’s works are non-fiction, he never missed a chance to write creatively when he could. In 1924, he visited Labrador, publishing “Les sauvages de Labrador” in Les annals de l’institut canadien-français d’Ottawa. His Labrador trip stemmed from a growing interest in Indigenous language as it influenced Acadian language. The result of this interest appeared in “Les vocables Algonquins, Caraïbes, etc. qui sont entrés dans la langue” for La société royale in 1916.

Despite a fire in 1916 that destroyed approximately 1200 pages of his research, he completed and published two career-defining works: Parler franco-acadien et ses origines in 1928, which included a 3000-word glossary of Acadian words (Ouellette 53), and Le glossaire acadien, serialized in the journals Le moniteur acadien and L’évangeline (Baudry). For these significant scholarly contributions, he received a Gold Medal for literature from the French government in 1929 (Graves 52). As a final statement, Poirier started writing about his own life and Acadie in 1931. Those memoirs can be found in the Pascal Poirier Fonds at the Acadian Archives in Moncton. Poirier died on 25 September 1933 at his home in Ottawa at the age of 81. He is buried in Shediac, New Brunswick.

Madison King, Winter 2020
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Poirier, Pascal. Glossaire acadien. Moncton: U Saint-Joseph, 1977.

---. Le parler franco-acadien et ses origines. Quebec: Imprimerie franciscaine missionaire, 1928.

---. Le père Lefebvre et l’Acadie. Montreal: Beauchemin, 1898.

---. “Le théatre au Canada.” Nouvelles soirées canadiennes. Quebec: L.H. Taché, 1886. 193-98.

---. Les Acadiens à Philadelphie. Ottawa: La salle Gowan, 1 June 1875.

---. “Les Acadiens déportés à Boston, en 1755.” Memoires de la société royale du Canada. Ottawa: J. Hope et Fils, 1909.

---. “Les vocables Algonquins, Caraïbes, etc. qui sont entrés dans la langue.” Memoires de la société royale du Canada, Série III. Ottawa: J. Hope et Fils, 1916.

---. “Louisbourg en 1902.” Memoires de la société royale du Canada, Série II. Ottawa: J. Hope et Fils, 1902.

---. Origine des Acadiens. Montreal: Sénécal, 1874.

---. Voyage aux Îles-Madeleine. Montreal: n.p., 1916.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Baudry, René. Le glossaire acadien du senateur Pascal Poirier. N.p.: L’évangeline, 1952: n.pag.

Beaulieu, Gérard. Pascal Poirier, premier senateur acadien, 18521933. Ottawa: U of Ottawa P, 1971.

Doyle, Arthur T. Heroes of New Brunswick. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1984.

Gallant, Patricia. “La Société l’Assomption.” Revue de la société historique du Madawaska 12.4 (1984): 54.

Gérin, Pierre M. “Chronologie.” Causerie Memramcookienne. Moncton: Institut d’études acadiennes, 1990. 49-69.

Graves, James. C., and Horace B. Graves. “Vol. III Senate Members (1867–1967) and Lieutenant Governors of N.B. (1784–1967).” New Brunswick Political Biography. N.p.: n.p., 1966. 52.

“The Hon. Pascal Poirier.” Parliament of Canada. Government of Canada. 3 Feb. 2020

Lord, Marie-Linda, Denis Bourque, et James De Finney. “Une atlas littéraire: une aventure entre le réel et l’imaginaire.” Paysages imaginaires d’Acadie. Moncton: Institut d'études acadiennes, 2009. 10-23.

McLean, Charles Herbert. “Poirier, Pascal (Hon.) (Senator), M.A. (1852–1933).” Prominent People of New Brunswick. N.p.: The Biographical Society of Canada Ltd., 1937. xxxix.

Ouellette, Marcel. “Pascal Poirier.” Revue de la société historique du Madawaska 12.4 (1984): 52-54.

“Pascal Poirier House.” Canada's Historic Places. 7 Sept. 1985. Parks Canada. 3 Feb. 2020

Perron, Judith. Présentation. Les Acadiens à Philadelphie. By Pascal Poirier. Moncton: Les Éditions d’Acadie, 1998. 7-10.

Raoul-Jourde, Marie-France Garcia. “Antonine Maillet and the Recognition of Acadian Identity.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. 238. Amsterdam: Gale, 2010. 111-134.