EVANGELINE – FACT OR HOAX? (March 21/97)

There are two sides to every story, goes an old truism. When it comes to history, however, there may be several descriptions of a well-known event that claim to be factual

Take the expulsion of the Acadians, for example. I have a file on the Acadians with several newspaper and magazine stories about the expulsion. One writer sympathises with the Acadians, another is anti-British, and yet another follows the middle road and attempts to present a balanced account of the event.

The writers obviously had axes to grind and may have been catering to certain groups when they prepared their accounts of the expulsion. And without a lot of research it’s impossible for average readers like you and me to determine which account is accurate and which is partly or wholly fictional.

The sad little saga of Evangeline, which occurred during the expulsion, may be another example of fiction winning out over fact. Thanks mainly to Longfellow, Evangeline’s tragic tale will forever be a part of local history. Yet there is some doubt that the events Longfellow described actually occurred or that Evangeline and Gabriel existed.

In 1955 Liberty magazine published an article by Munro Fry called “The Fantastic Evangeline Hoax.” In the article Fry claimed to have “demolished one of North America’s best-nurtured legends, the romance of Evangeline and Gabriel. Of course the magazine set the tone for the article by running a front-page lead that said the Maritimes’ most famous girl was a fantastic hoax.

In the article Fry wrote about visiting the heart of Evangeline country, St. Martinville, Louisiana, “where many of the Acadians exiled from Nova Scotia 200 years ago made their home.” There he found a massive and profitable tourist industry built around the Evangeline Legend. And he claimed to have found evidence that the story of Evangeline was a falsehood.

Fry found that other researchers – university scholars and church officials – had been to St. Martinville before him looking for an Emmeline Labiche, said to be the prototype of Longfellow’s Evangeline.

These researchers discovered, Fry said, that there never was an Emmeline Labiche and no one knows for sure who is buried n “Evangeline’s impressive tomb before which hundreds of thousands of tourists have sighed.” The tomb, Fry said, was donated by actress Dolores del Rio and her associates after a movie about Evangeline was shot at St. Martinville in 1929 (the movie has been restored and is now being shown in the province, by the way.)

Fry also gave the Louisiana version of Evangeline’s story – in which Gabriel eventually did meet the heroine only to tell her he was in love with another woman. However, Fry said this is a fabrication as well. There is no evidence of an Emmeline Labiche having lived at Grand Pre or in Louisiana.

In the same issue of Liberty was an article on the man who signed the order to exile the Acadians. The article attempted to prove that Governor Charles Lawrence was not the most black-hearted villain in Canadian history.

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