Little Giants

Acting out: A once-controversial cultural endeavour is now a revered celebration of Acadian heritage and an economic mainstay of Bouctouche, N.B.

It’s hard to imagine now, but one of New Brunswick’s most popular and successful cultural and tourist attractions, Le Pays de la Sagouine in the tiny community of Bouctouche on the province’s Northumberland shore, almost ended before it began. That was in 1992, when some local community leaders took umbrage to the way the theatrical event portrayed the Acadian heroine as poor and uneducated. Others thought the new amenity would steal business away from other hospitality enterprises in town.

But vision prevailed over skepticism, and today the summer-long celebration of Acadian culture and humour – based entirely on novelist Antonine Maillet’s celebrated 1971 book La Sagouine, which consists of 16 monologues delivered by a female protagonist sharing her insights on raising a brood during the Dirty Thirties – is a vital economic anchor for this part of the province. “We get anywhere from 55,000 to 85,000 visitors a year, from all over the region, Quebec and even the United States,” says the event’s director, Marie-France Doucet. “Certainly a lot of bed and breakfasts, motels and inns have been built to accommodate the people who come. And other tourism attractions, such as the Irving Eco-centre, were actually created since Le Pays.”

Indeed, according to an on-line writeup in 2007 by Erin Schultz and Paul LeBlanc, the site’s former director, “The development of Le Pays de la Sagouine has had a profound impact on the community of Bouctouche and the province of New Brunswick. A recent economic impact study found that, as one of the most prominent tourist attractions in the province, the site has contributed significantly to the economic growth of the entire region. Everything in the town has come to revolve around La Sagouine… Before Le Pays de la Sagouine was built, there were perhaps a handful of bed and breakfasts in the entire town, but now there are dozens. Other significant tourist attractions have also opened in the region. Business owners, who were initially concerned over the construction of a competing business area, now credit the site for their increased success.”

Moreover, Schultz and LeBlanc reported, “Le Pays de la Sagouine also provides summer employment to approximately 150 people every year. The facility has developed a close relationship with the nearby University of Moncton, which provides an excellent source of seasonal employees. A number of art and theatre students spend their summers working at Le Pays de la Sagouine, practicing their trade and gaining valuable experience, and many of the actors continue to work there after graduation. Thirty or 40 additional staff, many also students, are hired in the food and beverage facilities or as interpreters and guides.”

Not bad for a town whose resident population is 2,400 on a good day.

In fact, the success of Le Pays (whose facilities and offerings include theatres, a canteen, a gift shop, a dinner venue, and most crucially actress Viola Léger as La Sagouine, herself, and a troupe of eight comedians) is, like the history of the Acadian people, a tale of resilience and adaptability. In 2008, its restaurant burned down and was rebuilt. Yet, says Doucet, “Last year, we doubled the number of bus tours. We also started a show in English which, this year, plays every Sunday evening. We now have a lot of Anglophones, and we offer English-language tours.”

With an annual operating budget of some $3 million (65 per cent of which is generated by the facilities; the rest comes from private sponsorship and government grants), Le Pays remains an indefatigable part of the broader provincial community something its early detractors, now fans, would never have imagined.

By Alec Bruce

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