James Gill: How Cajun salmon came to England

In 1995 the Queen of England apologized to the Maories for the injustices of colonial rule in New Zealand.

Two years later her new prime minister, Tony Blair, apologized for the Irish potato famine. So long as the Brits were wringing their hands over ancient wrongs, the Cajuns had to be next in line. Lafayette lawyer Warren Perrin had asked the queen and her then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to apologize in 1990 for le Grand Derangement.

Finally, in 2003, a royal proclamation acknowledged “the trials and suffering experienced by the Acadian people during the Great Upheaval.” Blair suffered another fit of contrition in 2006, this time over the slave trade, so vicarious regret may be said to have been all the rage in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. And not just on the other side of the Atlantic. Perrin was inspired to approach the British government after the U.S. in 1988 admitted there had been no justification for Japanese internment during World War II.

That apology was an unusually handsome one, since it was accompanied by reparations, but money never was at stake in the Cajun case.

Perrin started out threatening litigation, but could hardly seek damages, given that the doctrine of sovereign immunity must be especially potent when the defendant is an actual sovereign. It was by no means clear which court might have jurisdiction anyway. Perrin let it be known that he would settle for an apology, a declaration that the expulsion of his forebears was illegal and a gesture of goodwill.

The cause became so célèbre that, in 1994, Gov Edwin Edwards appointed Perrin president of CODOFIL. Perhaps Edwards conveyed the news in Cajun French; he certainly could have. In 1997, at the invitation of French President Jacques Chirac, Perrin represented the United States at the World Francophone Summit in Hanoi.

Official apologies for the sins of long ago can seem facile and pointless, but, almost precisely 10 years after the royal proclamation was issued, Perrin is entitled to view it as a major vindication. He is old enough to remember when Cajuns were not always held in the highest regard and schoolkids were punished for speaking French. Back then nobody in, say, Erath could have imagined an apology would ever be forthcoming from the English crown for what amounted to a policy of genocide.

The deportation of the Acadians in Nova Scotia began in 1755, because the English feared they would prove treacherous in the French and Indian War, which had been underway for a year. It must be admitted that English fears were not entirely unjustified, the Acadians having refused to swear oaths of allegiance to the British crown that could have required them to fight fellow francophones. Some of the Acadians had taken part in guerilla actions in aid of the French.

The Acadians were nevertheless citizens of the province, and occupied some of its choicest land. The British drove them out in a display of breathtaking brutality.

As the royal proclamation had it, the deportation “continued until 1763 and had tragic consequences, including the deaths of many thousands of Acadians — from disease, in shipwrecks, in their places of refuge and in prison camps in Nova Scotia and England as well as in the British colonies in America.” July 28 was designated an annual “Day of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval.”

Some 3,000 of the exiles found their way to Louisiana, which would be a duller place today if they hadn’t. Indeed, such is the allure of Cajun music and cuisine that the brand has gone global. These days in England you can even dine on “Cajun salmon.” Try ordering that in Vermilion Parish.

If Cajuns have brought more fun to Louisiana, they have also played a huge role in its political history. Take, for example, the governors who descended from the victims of the Grand Derangement. The first of them, Alexandre Mouton, went on to become president of the Secession Convention, and thus got to declare Louisiana “a free, sovereign and independent power” in 1861.

That didn’t turn out too well, but Mouton went down in history as a pretty sound governor. History may be less kind to Edwards, but there is no question that Louisiana would have been unrecognizable today had his forebears stayed in Canada. For some reason the queen forgot to mention that.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.