For the last 50 years, educator Muriel Roy, Catholic priest Anselme Chiasson and banker Martin Legere have been the unassuming generals in the campaign to preserve the French language and culture of the sizable Acadian community in this English-speaking Canadian province.
So successful have been their efforts that French President Jacques Chirac recently traveled to this cradle of Acadian culture and presented all three with France's Order of Merit.
You might think this is the sort of event that would be widely celebrated next door in French-speaking Quebec, where provincial leaders propose to break away from Canada and create their own country. But when it comes to the Byzantine politics of Quebec separatism, nothing is simple or straightforward.
Truth be told, a recent resurgence of the Acadian community here in Atlantic Canada presents something of an inconvenient development for Quebec separatists, putting even more emotional distance between Canada's two largest French-speaking communities.
All along, the Quebec separatist argument has been that the Canadian model of one country, two languages is a hollow promise that will lead, inevitably, to the gradual extinction of French language and culture in North America.
But if 300,000 Acadians in New Brunswick can preserve their culture and language while remaining under the Canadian flag, it stands to reason that 6 million French-speaking Quebecois could surely do the same. That not-so-subtle message was hammered home this month by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien as he played host in New Brunswick to the biennial meeting of La Francophonie, the Paris-based organization of 49 countries and territories where French is spoken by the majority or a minority of the people.
This history of Canada's two French-speaking communities began to diverge with the British defeat of the French army in North America in 1759. While the British governors seemed content to rule the large French community in Quebec, British officials in Nova Scotia ordered the mass expulsion of the French settlers. In the diaspora that resulted, some Acadians returned to France, while others fled to the southern United States, forming the basis of the Cajun community in Louisiana. Still others took refuge in remote areas of northern New Brunswick.
According to historian Maurice Basque, director of Acadian studies at the University of Moncton, this diaspora mentality continues to define the Acadian personality. "Like all minorities, Acadians have needed to compromise in order to survive--it's a daily business with us," Basque said. "In Quebec, where the French-speaking community is large and constitutes a majority, they can afford to take a more confrontational approach."
"We have a different history, a different culture, a different view of being Canadian," explained Roy as friends and relatives waited to get a peek at the medal Chirac had pinned on her dress, right next to her Order of Canada pin.
Like most Acadians, Roy does not support Quebec's secessionist movement. For them, the Canadian government has been a protector against the sometimes hostile policies of the English-speaking majority in New Brunswick. And Acadians wonder how long the federal government would honor its commitment to bilingualism if Quebec were to secede, taking with it nearly 90 percent of the country's French speakers.
Over the years, other differences in outlook have developed between the Acadians and their French-speaking neighbors.
While Acadians thank the Catholic Church for helping to keep their culture alive over the last century, modern Quebeckers have largely turned away from a church they blame for conspiring with the English elite to keep them backward and poor.
Acadians bristle at the sometimes condescending attitude that many Quebeckers still display toward them.
Michel Venne, the deputy editor of Quebec's leading separatist newspaper, Le Devoir, says the difference in mind-set between the Quebecker and the Acadian is summed up nicely by a recent controversy over the name of the city of Moncton, where this year's Francophonie meeting was held.
Shortly after the city was selected, the head of the staunchly separatist Saint Jean Baptiste Society in Quebec suggested that New Brunswick find a name for the city other than that of the British general who carried out the expulsion of the French-speaking Acadians. But Acadians, said Venne, would have nothing to do with it.
"For the Acadians, it is enough to take quiet revenge knowing that they have finally triumphed over their oppressors," Venne said. "Quebeckers prefer unconditional surrender."