Maillet, Antonine

Degree conferred: Doctor of Letters (D.Litt.)

Orator: Patterson, Stephen E.

to be Doctor of Letters

There is more than one Antonine Maillet. The one who stands before you is the accomplished and much honored Acadian novelist, playwright, folklorist, teacher and scholar. She is the one after whose name the UNB library catalogue lists fifty-seven entries. She is the writer whose plays, novels and short stories have won rave reviews in Montreal and Paris, and whether in French or in English translation, have entertained readers and theatre-goers throughout Canada and the world beyond. She has received some of the highest literary honours in Canada and Europe, including the Governor General's Award, Officier des Arts et des Lettres de France, and Commander of the Order of Cultural Merit of Monaco. Since 1989, she has been Chancellor of the University of Moncton.

But there is another Antonine Maillet. And about her, I must confess, I had to rely on an informant from her hometown of Bouctouche, an old woman who claims to know her well. At first I had great difficulty understanding this old woman. She spoke a dialect of the French language that only vaguely resembled the French I was taught in school. It was fractured French, not what we used to call Diefenbaker French, which nowadays probably should be called Preston Manning French, but rather it was the uneducated French of the Acadian shore, amazing in its syntax and unique in its vocabulary, frequently punctuated by profanity and peppered with unrepeatable vulgarities.

I say she was old, but in fact she was still a working woman, her appearance unkempt but perhaps befitting her occupation. She was a scrubwoman. All I did was ask if she knew Antonine Maillet and thereafter she did all the talking, interrupting herself only occasionally to wring out her mop or half-heartedly push it over the linoleum. Of course she knew Antonine Maillet. Everyone in Bouctouche knows Antonine Maillet. Sweet girl, wonderful family. She could have grown up to be somebody. She could have done anything she wanted. She could have been a nun or she could have been a cleaning woman like me, she said, pointing out proudly that she had scrubbed floors in Radio-Canada and the Assumption. But no, the girl from Bouctouche went off to schools in Memramcook, and then Moncton, and they jammed her poor head full of all kinds of nonsense. And then, man Dieu, she went to Montreal and Quebec City, of all places. Wicked cities, full of professors, and writers and artists and God knows what else. Well, I interjected, those are the cultural centres of French Canada; didn't it make sense for someone who wanted to be a writer in French?

Well what did I mean by French, she asked. Bouctouche folk ain't completely French, can't say that: the French folks is the folks from France, les Francais de France. We're even less Francais de France than we're Americans. And we ain't French Canadians either. French Canadians live in Quebec. They call 'em Canayens or Quebecois. But how can we be Quebecois if we ain't livin in Quebec? We live in Acadie, 'n we're supposed to be Acadjens. So that's what I have to say about nationality and about language.

She told me a whole lot more, some of it stories she had heard from her father and grandfather about the Expulsion of long ago; a lot about what she thought of elections and politicians (thank God, she said that they only come around every four years; and if they come earlier, she said, you can always tell something is wrong); and while she rambled from story to story, from Acadian fishing shack to Sunday mass, and from picking blueberries to playing cards, she also managed to tell me a lot about Antonine Maillet. In fact, as critical as she appeared to be about this Bouctouche girl who had moved away to cavort with Montrealers, I detected a barely concealed admiration for her and what she was doing. And conversely, I came to realize that despite the fame and the laurels that have come to Antonine Maillet, she has a lot in common with this old woman.

I told her that UNB was going to give Antonine Maillet an honorary degree. Holy Mary, she said, what does she want with another degree. Her head must be hurting with all that learning. But, she added, if I ran into her in Fredericton, tell her to come on down to see her in Bouctouche and she'd cook a nice chicken stew and poutine rapee. I asked her her name and she refused to tell me. Everyone in Bouctouche knows me, she said; they call me la Sagouine. Anyway, she said, leaving me with some homespun advice, remember that when you're dead, it's for a long time, so try not to die before ya pass away.

This old scrubwoman has taken up so much of my citation that there is little left for me to say. Except that, for Antonine Maillet, life is a metaphor. Truth frequently comes masquerading as simplicity, and wisdom as innocence or even ignorance. In her evocative writing, she has laid open the accumulated genius of a vibrant Acadian culture. What appear to be simple stories convey the indomitable spirit of her people. More than anyone else in our time, she has captured the language, values, and places of Acadie, and spread them before an admiring world. She does us honour with her presence here today.

From: Honoris Causa - UA Case 70, Box 3

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