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If Emile Benoit, the famous Francophone fiddler, were alive today, he'd be proud of his nephew. Bernard Felix is teaching a new generation of Newfoundlanders how to play French-influenced traditional music on accordions.

Bernie Felix plays traditional music on his accordion
Bernie Felix plays traditional music on his accordion
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Bernie lives in Black Duck Brook, one of 24 tiny communities on the Port-au-Port Peninsula on the west coast of Newfoundland.

Getting to Black Duck Brook

We traveled to the Port-au-Port Peninsula, a triangular chunk of land jutting into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on an Adventure Canada Newfoundland circumnavigation cruise. Black Duck Brook is located at the narrow northern tip of the peninsula.

Kevin Major, onboard author and historian, used to live in Stephenville NL, just 15 kilometers (nine miles) across the isthmus joining the peninsula to the mainland. In his presentation about Port-au-Port to cruise passengers, he explained why the area has historically had the highest concentration of Francophones in Newfoundland.

French culture

According to Major, they came in two waves. "The first arrivals were Acadian farmers and fishermen from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, who settled here in the late 1700s."

The second wave was comprised of fishermen from Normandy and Brittany, who were allowed to stay here temporarily because two treaties gave France the right to fish along "the French Shore" until 1904.

"Some of them jumped ship and settled here, mostly on the west side of the Port-au-Port Peninsula," he said.

Chez les Francais de L'Anse a Canards sign on French Centre
Chez les Francais de L'Anse a Canards sign on French Centre
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll


Today, Black Duck Brook is also known by its French name, L'Anse-à-Canards. Kevin Major recalls how the use of the French language began to fade because the education system and radio broadcasts were English.

"I remember that our neighbors, the Whites, originally had the surname LeBlanc. Others who were named LeJeune, became the Youngs. And the Benoits became Bennetts."

Local dialect

It wasn't until the 1970s that there was a revival of the French language. Because Port-au-Port is isolated from the rest of the French-speaking world, Francophone residents speak a dialect no longer used elsewhere.

"We don't speak French like people in Quebec. They don't understand us," said Linda Formanger and Genny Barron, two local ladies who were serving coffee in the French Cultural Centre.

Genny Barron and Linda Formanger in French Centre
Genny Barron and Linda Formanger in French Centre
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Emile Benoit

As the French language returned, there was a resurgence of traditional Newfoundland French music. One of the people who helped keep the music alive was Emile Benoit, according to Newfoundlander Gerry Strong who met the musician in 1977.

"Emile Benoit was born on March 24, 1913 in Black Duck Brook. His great-grandfather came from St. Malo, France, and settled in Newfoundland as a fisherman," he said to passengers during a lecture on our ship.


Emile used to watch his father Amedée imitate his grandfather Henri's fiddle-playing by rubbing one piece of kindling against another while singing the tunes.

The first fiddle that Emile owned was a stick with a piece of string that his uncle made for him. He mouthed the tunes, did twists and turns and even summersaults with it.

When he received a real fiddle as a gift from his Uncle John, he practised until he was good enough to play at weddings and local concerts.

Gerry Strong explained that Emile worked as a fisherman, logger, blacksmith, dentist and doctor to support his 13 children. "He did more than fiddling," he quipped.

Emile Benoit's fiddle-shaped headstone
Emile Benoit's fiddle-shaped headstone
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll


At the age of 60, Emile Benoit became a professional musician, playing by ear from his repertoire of nearly 300 songs at clubs and festivals. He traveled to Louisiana, England, France and Norway, often playing the fiddle for passengers during the flights.

"When I met Emile, I was amazed at the stories he told about how he composed his tunes," said Strong. "He wrote a tune called Flying Reel that was inspired by the sound of jet engines." (He also created different versions of traditional folk tunes from other musicians.)

Emile Benoit passed away on September 2, 1992. We visited his grave marked by a fiddle-shaped headstone in a picturesque cemetery in Black Duck Brook near the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Franco-Newfoundlander flag

We then walked for 20 minutes along a country road, lined with wild strawberries and yellow dandelions, to get to the French Centre (Chez Les Francais). The Centre's director, Robert Felix, welcomed us and the other Adventure Canada passengers and invited us to enjoy a performance by his brother Bernie and three of his students.

A red, white and blue Franco-Newfoundlander flag was draped behind the stage. A composite of the French tricolor and the Acadian flags, it featured two yellow sails, one depicting a spruce branch and the other the pitcher plant flower (the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador).

Bernie Felix and student Kingston play traditional Newfoundland music in Black Duck Brook
Bernie Felix and student Kingston play traditional Newfoundland music in Black Duck Brook
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Music lessons

Bernie Felix gave credit to Mark Cormier, principal of L'Ecole Notre Dame-du-Cap, who invited him to begin teaching accordion lessons in 2007 to keep the culture and tradition alive. He obtained a grant for five Hohner Erica accordions to start the program.

He now gives 110 students group lessons and teaches five students privately for one hour a week. Three of these very talented teenagers—Kingston, Chloe Briand and Harrison Vallis—performed toe-tapping tunes on their accordions, accompanied by Bernie on his guitar.

NL accordion tunes

The young musicians awed the audience with the folk tunes emanating from the instruments that are sometimes called squeeze boxes. We wanted to get up and dance.

Bernie Felix also couldn't resist the urge to dance while he played the accordion. His feet blurred as he tapped them in rhythm with the fast reels.

Bernie Felix taps feet while playing accordion
Bernie Felix taps feet while playing accordion
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We were surprised that he didn't dance off his chair. "Just like riding a bike," he said afterward, catching his breath.

Black Duck Brook music festival

Before we left, we asked Harrison Vallis where we could hear traditional Newfoundland music the next time we visit Port-au-Port. He told us about the Black Duck Brook Festival (Un Plaisir du Vieux Temps) held annually since 1988 on the second weekend in August. "Up to 1,000 people come here to dance and hear local musicians perform," he said.

Until we can return for the festival, we'll watch and listen to the incredible accordion-playing of both Bernie Felix and Harrison Vallis on YouTube. Some of the jigs that they perform are the ones that Bernie's Uncle Emile played on his fiddle, such as Tootsi Wootsi and Christina's Dream.

Emile Benoit would be pleased to know that Bernie Felix and his students are carrying on his musical legacy today.


Adventure Canada

Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism

More things to see & do on Adventure Canada Newfoundland Circumnavigation cruises:

Francois Newfoundland - How to Get There and What to See and Do

Little Bay Islands Newfoundland Outport Tour - Before Resettlement

Lookout Trail Hike - Gros Morne National Park Newfoundland

Fogo NL Tour and Marconi Site Wireless Interpretation Centre

Newfoundland Beer, Iceberg Vodka, Screech and Berry Wines