Acadian actress Viola Léger died on Saturday, according to a release from Carol Doucet at Le Grenier musique.
Léger was 92.
Her most notable role was the character of La Sagouine, a humble Acadian cleaning woman. She played the role more than 3,000 times in the play by Acadian author Antonine Maillet.
“She has always been one of my greatest friends, and certainly, the greatest actress that l’Acadie has ever known,” Maillet said in the release.
The release goes on to say that Léger’s start in acting began accidentally, when Maillet, before launching her book, asked Léger to perform a few excerpts.
Maillet said Léger had an instinct for the role while having never acted before.
“She had the talent of an actress,” Maillet said. “I didn’t have to tell her, ‘Hey, do it this way or do it that way.’ She knew immediately how to do it. That’s what I called a talent.”
Léger’s first performance of the play was in 1971, followed by performances in the U.S., France and Belgium in both French and English.
Maillet said she brought representation for Acadians to those countries.
She believes that the character of La Sagouine never could have remained as popular for as long without Léger.
“When Viola played other parts, other roles in other plays, they always recognized La Sagouine in her acting.”
Léger spent her summers from 1993 to 2016 at the Pays de la Sagouine in Bouctouche, where she played the character.
But her acting didn’t stop at La Sagouine. She performed over 30 roles during her career, including plays, films and television shows.
In 1985, she started her own theatre company, the Compagnie Viola Léger. In 1999, she created the Viola Léger Foundation, which awarded scholarships to actors at the beginning of their careers.
Léger also served in Canada’s Senate from 2001 to 2006. She also taught high school literature and drama for 15 years.
She earned a range of awards and honours over the years, including theatre awards, the Officer of the Order of Canada in 1989, the Order of New Brunswick in 2007 and four honorary doctorates.
École élémentaire Viola-Léger, an elementary school in Ontario, is named after her.
In 2017, Léger suffered a stroke, which led to her withdrawal from public life. Up until the summer before the stroke, she continued to play the role of La Sagouine in Bouctouche.
Flags at Bouctouche town hall were lowered to half-mast on Sunday.
Aldéo Saulnier, the mayor of Bouctouche, said Léger is leaving the whole community with good memories.
He said he remembers when the show first opened with Léger as the lead.
“I was impressed to see how the people were admiring her,” said Saulnier. “The first year in Bouctouche we had quite a few people from Quebec and Ontario and the states that were coming down here to come into the Pays de la Sagouine — they wanted to hear La Sagouine.”
Le Pays de la Sagouine posted a tribute on their website, praising Léger for giving hope to Acadie.
“Suddenly, on a stage, there was a character crying out for the truth who was saying aloud what people were quietly thinking,” said the statement, translated from French. “Viola Léger did not play La Sagouine, she was La Sagouine.”
National, local impact
After the news of Léger’s death, Minister of Official Languages Ginette Petitpas Taylor took to Twitter to praise the late Acadian actress.
“Never has Acadie had a more faithful ambassador than she for whom La Sagouine was not only the role of a career [and] a lifetime, but also represented a great symbol of pride for all Acadians,” she wrote.
The Société Nationale de l’Acadie also took to Facebook late Saturday night to pay tribute.
Martin Théberge, the president of the society, said in the post that he sent his condolences to the family on behalf of Acadie as a whole.
The post said Léger reminded Acadian people that they could “move forward by enriching themselves from the past and the great common sense of their ancestors,” translated from French.
Caraquet MLA Isabelle Thériault tweeted in French on Sunday that Léger gave Acadian people “a voice, a breath, a reach.”
“Exceptional actress, extraordinary ambassador, she was for all of us an inspiration and a symbol of tenacity,” wrote Thériault.
René Cormier, independent senator for New Brunswick, tweeted that Léger offered an “invaluable legacy,” adding that she will “remain one of our greatest cultural ambassadors.”
Moncton’s Jac Gautreau worked as an artistic director on shows Léger was in. He produced a movie about her life in 2015 called Simplement Viola.
“I got at that time a really more in-depth understanding of who she was,” Gautreau said.
“I already knew at that point that she was a great actress and a great ambassador for l’Acadie. But understanding her journey, getting there, was a really enlightening experience as well.”
He said Léger showed Acadians what was possible by being authentically Acadian and carrying an Acadian character forward.
He said for Acadian artists, Léger’s story allowed Acadians to believe “maybe me, too.”
Gautreau said Léger was a lovely person who cared for everyone involved with creating a production. He said she didn’t have a big ego and understood what was needed to give a performance.