Situated beside a beautiful harbour on a rolling plain below a gorgeous range of mountains, Chéticamp is a lovely Acadian village of nearly four thousand inhabitants. On the boundary of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, it serves as Inverness County’s western gateway to the park. In addition to its magnificent site, the village offers full tourist services, including two beaches, a golf course, museums, whale-watching cruises, guided tours, horseback riding stables, fly fishing, and some of the best dining on Cape Breton Island. It is known for its hooked rugs and allied crafts and for its dance and many musics (traditional Acadian and Scottish, classical, choral, country-western, bluegrass, and jazz). The annual Festival de l’Escaouette celebrates its rich culture during July and much of August, with its high point the Gala Festival on National Acadian Day, celebrated on 15 August.
Long before it became a community, Mi’kmaq Indians camped in the area around Chéticamp while on hunting expeditions, but left no known evidence of any permanent settlement. Their name for the place, Aotjatotj, however, stuck; translated as ”rarely full”, it refers to the wide sand banks which were usually above water and which effectively closed off the north end of Chéticamp harbour to any boat that could not be dragged over them. Over time, this name went through several forms from Ochatis to Le Chady to Le Grand Chady to Le Chady Grand to Chedagan to Chatican to Chétican to Chéticamps to Chétifcamp before attaining in 1815 its current spelling of Chéticamp.¹
In the 1750’s, drawn by the then abundant and lucrative cod, fishermen from the Basque Country and Brittany, soon followed by merchants from the Isle of Jersey, established summer encampments including wharves, cabins, and storehouses at La Pointe on the south end of Chéticamp Island. By 1782, two Acadian families are believed to have been living year round in the area. In 1785, a sizable group of Acadian exiles joined them to found the community; most of these exiles were originally from the east and south of Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) or from Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island) or descendants of those who had originally settled there, but had been dispersed to the four winds by le Grand Dérangement (the ”Deportation”) in 1758,² when the English expelled them from their long-established farms and settlements. In 1790, after a change of policy, the Crown granted 7000 acres (2833 hectares) of land to the heads of fourteen of the Acadian families then living in the area; known as Les Quatorze Vieux (”The Fourteen Old Men”), they subdivided the lands amongst themselves, settling mainly in the back country around Petit-Étang and further south at Le Platin, Plateau, and Pointe-à-la-Croix (Point Cross). The present day village’s location was not initially the choicest of locations because of the blockage of the north end of Chéticamp Harbour. It was not until 1874 that the current harbour was dredged, making it accessible and attractive to business and inhabitants alike; even after dredging, however, the harbour still remains no deeper than 8 m (25 ft)).
The life of these early pioneers was hard; from soil inhospitable to wheat (all flour had to be imported and bought from the Jersey merchants), they scraped by with subsistence farming supplemented by plentiful game and seasonal fishing under a monopoly tightly controlled by the Jersey merchants who owned all the boats and fishing equipment and who, after taking a heavy initial tithe on the catch, paid for the rest only in chits redeemable at their company store. Buying low and selling high, they kept a large part of the population indebted to them and in grinding poverty through much of the 19th century. Accustomed to helping one another with farm work and construction, a strong coöperative movement, fostered by activist clerics, took root and eventually led to the breaking of the fishing monopoly early in the 20th century and the gradual and substantial improvement of living conditions. From fishing, the movement spread to credit unions, merchandising of staples, and craft coöperatives, the latter allowing the creators of the amazing hooked rugs for which the area is world-famous to profit from their work. In the first four decades of the 20th century, gypsum was mined and shipped from the docks in Chéticamp Harbour; this activity ceased for good in 1939. With the opening of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park in 1936, tourism began to take on an ever increasing importance in the economic life of the community; today, following the collapse of the fish stocks, it is the principal industry.
Isolated and remote in the early days, Chéticamp had no permanent cleric until 1822, being served by a succession of missionaries who made the long and dangerous trip from Arichat, Tracadie, or the Magdalen Islands, annually at first and then more frequently as the community continued to grow. Two chapels were built in Le Platin, the first a log church constructed in 1800 and the second, a wooden one, built starting in 1810. A stone church replaced the second chapel in 1861, but proved to be too small for the growing community; it was demolished and its materials were used to construct the current church, Église St-Pierre, built on a hillock next to the harbour in 1892.
While its isolation forced the community to rely on its own resources, it also allowed it to preserve its language and its heritage without challenge from the Gaelic- and English-speaking communities further south. Although today nearly everyone is bilingual and, in summer, one hears more English than French spoken on the streets, one only has to attend the Gala concert during the Festival de l’Escaouette to understand how strongly the community still holds on to its language, religion, traditions, and its rich culture. CKJM, the community radio station, a coöperative like so many other local instutituions, also does much to keep both the language and the culture alive (and helps to keep Gaelic alive as well, broadcasting an excellent Gaelic program each Saturday that is now being picked up for rebroadcast in Scotland’s Gaelic-speaking areas). The world-famous dance troupe La Swing du Suête is justifiably the pride of the community and serves to pass the traditional Acadian dances from one generation to the next while also mastering a wide range of more modern dances. La Fête de la Mi-Carême (”Mid-Lenten Festival”) continues to be celebrated in the Chéticamp area, preserving a centuries-old French tradition that has been largely lost elsewhere; visit le Centre de la Mi-carême in Grand-Étang to explore this ancient tradition, see short theatre pieces giving glimpses of this rich cultural celebration, and experience the interactive exhibits. And music of all kinds is made by the community’s many talented musicians; over the years, contact with the Gaelic communities to the south has attracted many Acadian players to Scottish traditional music: Arthur Muise is as respected as a traditional Scottish music player in the Scottish community as he is in the Acadian. It also brings many Scottish musicians to Chéticamp: the large, very knowledgeable, and appreciative audiences at the Doryman’s Saturday afternoon cèilidhs draw the best of the Island’s traditional Scottish musicians and step-dancers.
I have spent many happy hours in this beautiful area. If you have not yet visited it, I hope this essay will encourage you to do so; if you have, I hope the photos I’ve selected recall to your mind many pleasant memories.
Victor Maurice Faubert
2007 February 13
¹ See Chéticamp: History and Acadian Traditions by Father Anselme Chiasson, Breton Books, Wreck Cove, Nova Scotia, 1998 (ISBN 1-895415-29-2), p. 6. He also says that the local Acadian pronunciation remains Chatican, in spite of the missionaries’ respelling. This highly readable history is full of fascinating insights into the history and culture of the area and its people.↩
² The expulsion of the Acadians in mainland Nova Scotia took place, of course, in 1755, starting 11 August at Fort Beauséjour; that in Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island did not happen until after the fall of Louisbourg, in July of 1758.↩