The president, Louis Cormier, made a proposal at the annual meeting held on February 24, 1971, that an Acadian Festival lasting two or three days be created. The Exhibition would then become one component of the overall event which might also include evening entertainment, dances, and acts featuring special guests.
The membership agreed to study the project which had the capability to take the Exhibition in a completely new direction, and appointed a committee which included Louis Cormier, Cédric LeClair and Cyr Gallant.
Antoine Richard had been hired in 1970 by the St. Thomas Aquinas Society as sociocultural development officer. Mr. Richard had managed to bring a group of people together to form the Evangeline Tourist Association, with a mandate to draw up a plan of action for tourist development in the region. Among the many ideas suggested at its first meeting on November 1, 1970, was that of “an Acadian Festival running for three or four days in conjunction with the Agricultural Exhibition.” That evening Antoine Richard was installed as president of the Tourist Association, and Louis Cormier chairman of its Development Committee.
The Exhibition board decided to go ahead with the creation of a festival to be held on August 27, 28 and 29, 1971. They agreed that the agricultural exhibition component should be held over two days – the Friday and Saturday – while the Sunday would be reserved for social and cultural activities. They also decided to keep the Acadian Festival’s accounts separate from those of the Exhibition.
Thanks to the new federal student employment creation program, Opportunities for Youth, George Arsenault was hired as Festival coordinator. With help from the Exhibition Board and the collaboration of several organizations in the region, not to mention the contribution of many volunteers, a modest program was drawn up which included the Miss Acadian Festival contest; a few short performances on the grounds by local artists, a closing show featuring New Brunswick Acadian singer Donat Lacroix; a lobster supper; and the Bill Lynch Show midway. The program also included visits to the Acadian Pioneer Village, livened up for the occasion with people in period costume.
This first Festival went quite well, although the event did not attract as large a crowd as the organizers had hoped and it finished up in the red.
While the first Festival was organized under the umbrella of the Agricultural Exhibition Association and the chairmanship of Louis Cormier, such was not the case for the second one. During the winter of 1972, the administrative and financial functions of the two events were separated when the first executive committee for the Acadian Festival was appointed. This system continued until 1992. That year (1972) the two organizations mutually agreed to advance the double event to August 4, 5 and 6, in order to take advantage of the crowds of tourists visiting the Island at that time of the summer. This second Festival proved noteworthy for the attendance of a substantial number of people from Cap-Pelé, New Brunswick. On Sunday, these Acadians from the mainland arrived in fishing boats and cars, bringing along their artists who gave well-received variety show on the Exhibition grounds.
The change of date, however, did not suite the agricultural fair people. The beginning of August was just too early for the farmers, so the event reverted to the end of the month to coincide with the Labour Day weekend. The third Festival was an unequivocal success and managed to eliminate its deficit position. That Festival also enjoyed the benefit of special funding from the 1973 Centennial Commission which supported celebrations marking the centenary of Prince Edward Island’s entry into Confederation. The organizers used this money to upgrade programming, but there still remained the need for sufficient volunteers to organize all these planned activities successfully.
Raymond Bernard, who was secretary of both the Agricultural Exhibition and the Acadian Festival, played a prominent role in the fledging Festival’s survival. In the spring of 1973, he distributed a letter to every household in the region, in which he urged people to get involved in the organization of the third festival. He reminded them from the outset that the Acadian Festival was created to raise the profile of the region’s Acadian culture with outsiders, as well as to support one of the oldest agricultural exhibitions in the province. He stressed that the two events had been planned to complement, not to compete against, each other. He continued:
From a financial point of view, maybe the Acadian Festival has not been an unparalleled success, but that was not its goal, which is really to work for the blossoming and the survival of our Acadian culture…
The Acadian Festival Committee cannot carry out these plans successfully unless the people in the region become more involved in the operation of the Festival. Everyone should make this their business, and not just the affair of a small group of people.
We are united by our language and our culture. We have our own unique school board. Why then can we not rally to support our Acadian Festival, and work actively together to make it a real success?
Raymond Bernard’s impassioned letter did mobilize more volunteers. As a result, the 1973 Festival was able to offer a fuller program including a sports day, better entertainment, a mass held on the water, and a parade. The success of this third year energized the organizers and boosted enthusiasm for the event, so cementing its future.
The Festival continued to improve, with new activities added to the program almost every year, such as the fiddling and step-dancing competition (1974), the Djâble dans l’corps party night (1976), and the car rally (1978). The organizers soon decided not to rely on the Bill Lynch midway to entertain the crowds. The therefore had to face the challenge of coming up with original activities which would not only appeal to people of all ages, but would be different from anything found at the other festivals and exhibition in the province. As a result, the pet show (1976), a number of games and competitions (1977), and eventually the woodsmen’s competition (1985) and the very popular pole-climbing show (1988) made their appearance in the program.
The organizers clung strongly to the cultural aspect of the Festival and the predominant place of the French language in its activities. The concerts attracted large crowds, and for a number of years the closing show has filled the Evangeline Recreation Centre to capacity. Over the years, many Acadian artists have come from off the Island to perform but the local Island artists in particular reaped its benefits.
In 1979 the Festival was fortunate in being able to mount a first-rate, professional-calibre show using local artists – and all in French. This show, entitled Les gens de par chez-nous (People from around home) and directed by Lucien Gagnon, a professional artistic director from Montreal, gave local artists much-needed confidence and inspired them to present acts worthy of bigger stages. Ever since then, the closing show has almost always been reserved for the cream of Island Acadian artists such as Angèle Arsenault, Gameck, Panou, Jeannita Bernard, Acadilac, Barachois, Marcella Richard, Celtitude, the La Cuisine à Mémé company, and many others.
There is no doubt that the successful launch of the Acadian Festival Propelled the Agricultural Exhibition into a new era. This venerable but at the same time vulnerable Acadian fair expanded in 1971 from a one-day exhibition into two days, when it obtained great benefits from the publicity and the many additional activities organized by the Festival.
It was not long before the high calibre of this great end-of-summer Acadian event became known, drawing visitors from across the province and elsewhere. Over the years the proportion of Acadians hailing from south-eastern New Brunswick has increased significantly, which has helped to augment the Festival’s francophone and Acadian atmosphere.