“In my day, the rich kids ate bologna and the poor kids ate lobster.” – My mother
It wasn’t my first visit to the Maritimes, comprised of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. I have fond memories of sitting in a field of wild blueberries, gorging myself until my hands were blue and my dinner ruined; collecting sea glass on the shore, searching for the rare blue “jewel”; and step dancing to the celtic fiddle at a kitchen ceilidh (pronounced kai-lee).
My roots are planted in the Maritimes. My great-grandmother was an English immigrant, arriving in Halifax in the late 1800’s before settling in Cape Breton. My mother grew up here and her mother before. It’s through them I was introduced to the toe-tapping music of the Rankin Family, Ashley McIsaac, and the Barra McNeil’s, to the food drawn from the sea, and the kitchen party culture that has been a large part of my life.
It’s also where I developed my fear of swimming in the ocean. I was 10 or so, bobbing contented in the surf, when my mother came tearing down the beach, screaming for me to get out of the water. She’d seen a fin – nothing more than a dolphin but convinced at the time it was a shark. There are great whites off Nova Scotia, including one with it’s own Twitter account, and after seeing Jaws, well . . .
As I drive through Cape Breton, I’m greeted by the names I heard in my youth – Glace Bay, Sidney, Ingonish – the places of my mother’s own formative years. I try to find her house again, but it’s been so long and they’re all painted white and I’ll have to go back with someone who knows.
Fortress of Louisbourg
Because I’m headed in that direction, I continue west to Louisbourg, home to Canada’s first lighthouse. It’s pretty much a given that visiting a fortress will require climbing a hill. The Fortress of Louisbourg is the only exception I’ve come across so far, situated on the lowlands of the Atlantic coast of Cape Breton Island. Louisbourg was founded in 1713 by French colonists as a fishing and trade port, then fortified against the British threat to protect the entrance to the St. Lawrence and the fishing banks to the north. The Fortress was besieged by the British in 1745 and returned to France a few years later as a bargaining chip in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle. It fell again to the British in 1758 and the fortress was dismantled.
Designated a National Historic Site in 1920, one quarter of the fortress was reconstructed in the 1960’s with the assistance of unemployed coal miners, and built using traditional french masonry techniques.
Stepping off the shuttle from the visitor’s centre takes us back in time to life in the mid-1740’s. We’re greeted by Mr. Deroches who invites us into his sod-roofed home and tells us about life by the sea and the area outside the Dauphin Gate where the fishermen cleaned, salted and dried the cod. Inside, French soldiers patrol the streets where villagers in period dress sell fresh rolls from the King’s bakery, the bread made in the stone oven just as it had almost 300 years ago. In the distance, there’s a volley of gunfire from a musket-firing demonstration. The cannon’s are quiet that day, still early in the tourist season, but will explode to life come July when guests can train to be a cannoneer and light the fuse.
It’s in my exploration of the village that I come across a small plaque dedicated to Marie Marguerite Rose, one of more than 300 slaves who lived within the fortress. Born in Guinea, Africa, Marie Marguerite was sold into slavery at the age of 19 and served the Lappinot family as a domestic until freed at the age of 38.
The history of slavery in Canada is not well known, school lessons focussed mainly on the American slave trade and Canada’s role in the underground railroad. In reality, there were approximately 4200 aboriginal and black slaves in the colonies prior to abolishment in 1833, mainly domestic servants to the elite, some who’d come north from the US with the Loyalists. Of those, Marie’s story is unique. Emancipated, she married an aboriginal free man and became a well-respected tavern owner in Louisbourg, the same town in which she’d served.
The history is still downplayed, the plaque indicating that Louisbourg was not a slave town but a town with slaves. I’m not sure I see the difference.
(Anyone interested in learning more about the slave trade in Canada should read Marcel Trudel’s Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage )
Leaving the Fortress, I turn west towards Baddeck on the Cabot Trail. Staying at the Bear on the Lake Guesthouse is as close to spending a weekend at a friend’s cottage as you’ll find, with its large back deck over-looking the Bras d’Or lake and fire pit in the yard. The clouds have rolled in and I spend a rainy afternoon on the laptop, catching up on the rest of my life.
As the sun sets and the clouds disperse, the fireflies appear, their bodies flashing like twinkle lights in the trees. Living in British Columbia, I’d forgotten the fireflies that had captivated me as a child, the memories of chasing them through the fields and capturing them in glass jars resurfacing, the sight bringing back the same sense of wonder held in simpler times.
I’ve come to explore the Cabot Trail and the Scottish side of my heritage. While travel guides recommend 3-5 days to take in the beaches, the towns, and the East Coast hospitality along the Trail, I only have one to spare before heading to Halifax to meet with my aunt. The 298 km drive winds it’s way along the coast, rising to scenic vistas, carving through the Highlands forest and hugging the rugged coastline. It is undeniably one of the most beautiful circle tours in Canada, particularly in the fall when the leaves turn crimson and gold and the Celtic Colours International Festival, a nine-day celebration of the history, art, music, dance and stories of Cape Breton Island, is in full-swing.
I start in Baddeck at the Alexander Graham Bell museum. Known for inventing the telephone, Bell imagined wireless communications almost a century before the first cell phone. Many of his inventions were tested on the Bras d’Or Lake that borders the town, including the Silver Dart, the first powered heavier than air flight in Canada that took place February 23, 1909, and was reenacted on the same lake 100 years later. The museum is filled with originals and replicas of Bell’s inventions, including his contributions to improving the lives of the deaf.
Following the signs printed in both english and gaelic, the road takes me north to the Colaisde Na Gàidhlig (the Gaelic College). Cape Breton Island is considered the Celtic Heart of North America, the traditions brought over by the 50,000 Scottish celts who emigrated to Cape Breton passed down through the generations and kept alive in the people who live here. The college has been educating students in Scottish culture for 77 years with weekend, evening, and summer courses that include celtic music, dance, language and arts. I can step dance a little but the extent of my gaelic is “céad míle fáilte” (a hundred thousand welcomes) and there’s no way to improve it in my short time here. I settle for a visit to the Hall of Clans and the gift shop before continuing northwest.
It’s at a pullout overlooking Ingonish that I meet an Asian family who’d come from Montreal to explore the east coast for the first time. Pulling in behind me, they notice my British Columbia plates. I am the first person they’ve met who has driven across the country and are surprised to find I’m travelling alone. We talk a little and, after taking a number of photos with the family, I continue on my way thinking of the young woman who called me her “hero”.
I’ve heard similar comments in the past when I’ve travelled alone; words like “brave” and “courageous” that hang on me like an oversized wool sweater. I don’t see myself as particularly brave, far too familiar with all the times I let fear hold me back. My mother was brave, raising three kids on her own and putting herself through university while working full-time. Her words from decades earlier come back to me, spoken wistfully while overlooking another ocean on another coastal highway. “I wish I’d done more of this when I was your age.” At my age, she’d already had three kids.
The road takes me north to the Highlands National Park where I stop for a bite and a hike along the board-walked Skyline Trail that overlooks the coast and gives a bird’s-eye view of the highway. The camera’s been left behind, the desire to explore having abandoned me in favour of nostalgic mental wanderings. It would be nice to have my mother there, to ask all the questions I never thought to when she was alive.
I don’t stay long. It’s back on the road and heading south along the west coast of the Island. At Margaree Forks, I make a right and follow 19 to the Glenora Inn and Disillery, Canada’s only single malt whisky distillery, where I’ll be having dinner at the Washback Pub. The pub hosts Cape Breton music every day from 1-3 and 8-10 and I’m in the mood for a little celtic fiddle. It’s my first time and the food doesn’t disappoint – a starter of Drunken Scallops followed by Linguine allo Scoglio and a shot of Battle of the Glen, named for the court case brought (and lost) by the Scotch Whiskey Association.
The music has boosted my spirits but it’s been a long day on the road, so I purchase a bottle to take home with me and head back to the hostel to get a good night sleep before heading to Halifax.
Westray Miners Memorial
There’s a pit stop I have to make in New Glasgow on my way to Halifax. At the end of Park Street stands a memorial to the miners who perished in the Westray Mine explosion on May 9, 1992, and I’ve come to pay my respects. For many years, coal mining was the lifeblood of Cape Breton, producing 7 million tons a year at the height of its industry. My own grandfather spent time working the mine in Sydney before moving the family west.
Westray is a story I know well, having shared it many times with managers and supervisors in my former life as a safety manager. Despite concerns raised by workers, the union, and government inspectors, particularly with respect to the management of explosive coal dust, little was done by the company to address the issue. Eight months after Westray opened, an explosion ripped through the mine, killing 26, the youngest only 22 years old. The public inquiry that followed uncovered serious safety violations, including the use of broken equipment and spark-producing equipment, failure to properly train supervisors, and intimidation if workers spoke out.
It’s been 25 years since the unnecessary tragedy at the Westray Mine that led to changes in legislation so that any person “who undertakes, or has the authority, to direct how another person does work or performs a task” could be held criminally responsible for the deaths and serious injuries of workers. Since the new law was enacted in 2004, charges have been laid in 8 cases.
Justice Peter Richard, who conducted the inquiry, summed it up best in his report. “This is a story of incompetence, of mismanagement, of bureaucratic bungling, of deceit, of ruthlessness, of cover-up, of apathy, of expediency and of cynical indifference. It is a tragic story with the inevitable moments of pathos and heroism. The Westray story is an event that, in all good common sense, ought not to have occurred. It did occur – and that is our unfortunate legacy.”
There are no large mines in operation these days, but there are many sites throughout Cape Breton that honour the men, boys, and ponies that worked the coal. Visitors can get a taste of that life at the Miner’s Museum in Glace Bay where retired miners guide guests down into the Ocean Deeps Colliery. If you happen by in the summer, you might be fortunate enough to hear the stories of mining life kept alive in song by the Men of the Deeps.
Food of the Gods
One of the best things about the Maritimes – other than the music – is the seafood. I am not a “foodie” by any stretch of the imagination, my relationship to food akin to gassing up my car. Lobster is a different story.
Lobster is not food. Lobster is a gift from the gods, its rich meat slightly salty and tantalizingly sweet. The thought of ripping into the succulent flesh of a fresh, steamed Atlantic lobster drove me forward through the worst weather and a few moments hydroplaning on the highway through New Brunswick.
I head down to the Halifax waterfront, the haunting caterwaul of bagpipes in the distance. I am one of the few I know who enjoys what is to me the sound of “home”. I am even more pleased to discover the piper is a girl of about 16, playing for tips to make enough money to pay her way to a piping competition. I drop a five, admiring her dedication in the sweltering 31° heat, and continue towards Salty’s restaurant.
It’s all I can do to keep from licking my lips as I eye the tanks with a lascivious gaze and order a 1 1/2 pounder, along with an ice cold Alexander Keith’s. The waiter brings my kit to the table – nutcrackers, pickers and a plastic bib. I have no need for the bib, well practiced in the art of cracking claws, and push it to the side.
The Italian sailors at the table across from mine look slightly shocked as I indecorously rip the claws from the lobster’s body, tearing them apart at the joint and pushing the meat out with my fingers. Watch and learn, boys! The claws are first and, with the initial juicy bite, I enter nirvana. The legs are next, the flesh sucked from the straw-thin limbs. I save the best for last – the tail – held in my hands as if in prayer, and squeeze, cracking the softer shell of the abdomen, then split it open, revealing the firm underbelly that is my prize for all this work.
Shells tossed haphazard in the bucket, I sit back and polish off my beer, watching the city lights come to life as the sun begins its descent. I am not sated, this one taste only whetting my gluttonous appetite.
After dinner, I head to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic a couple of blocks away, the admission free that evening. The Museum depicts the nautical history of the Harbour, from sail to steam to naval warships, as well as the fictional creation of Theodore the Tugboat, a Canadian cartoon character that engaged children in 80 countries around the world during its run. A life-sized version of Theodore still thrills the children along the harbour front.
I was long past the cartoon stage of life when Theodore graced the small screen, so my interest leans to more tragic stories, particularly the Collision in the Narrows exhibit.
On the morning of December 6, 1917, at 9:06 am, Halifax harbour was devastated by the largest man-made pre-atomic explosion when two ships, one carrying more than 2500 tons of ammunition destined for the European front lines, collided in the narrows. The fire that lit up the Mont Blanc as it drifted towards shore drew onlookers to the waterfront and their ultimate demise. The shockwave from the explosion was felt over 200 miles away and, by the time the smoke cleared, almost 2000 were dead and another 9000 injured. The Mont Blanc’s anchor remains embedded in the earth where it landed 2 1/2 miles from the explosion site.
The exhibit depicts the stories of tragedy and heroism, including that of Vincent Coleman, a train dispatcher who’d been made aware of the deadly cargo and telegraphed the railways to stop the trains into Halifax. “Good bye” were the last words he ever tapped out. The photos of the devastation from the explosion and the resulting fires that raced through the wood frame buildings are reminiscent of war-torn Europe during the same period.
December 6, 2017, is the 100th Anniversary of the explosion that rocked the city. For those in the area, a memorial service will be held at Fort Needham Memorial Park that morning.
For many of the immigrants who made the transatlantic journey to their new home in Canada, Pier 21 in Halifax harbour was the first stop. The old immigration building that welcomed newcomers from 1928 to 1971 has found new life as the Canadian Museum of Immigration.
The stories are what interest me, written by visitors and shared on baggage tags hanging in the Exhibit halls or part of the audio displays on the first floor. My favourite story is of the first time an immigrant tried Canadian “mustard”, finding it unappealing to the pallatte. The reason? It was actually peanut butter they were tasting for the first time!
While there, I take a version of the Citizenship test that immigrants to the country are required to pass before becoming citizens. I’m curious how much I actually know of my own country and take pen to paper with a sense of trepidation. The questions cover the history, politics and culture of our country and I pass with only one mistake (the answer was “all of the above”).
While we pride ourselves on our diversity and open door attitude towards immigrants and refugees, this was not always the case as detailed in the panels of the Canadian Immigration Hall. One of the more tragic stories is that of the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying 907 refugees, the majority of whom were Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Despite having secured travel documents to Cuba, only 28 were admitted, the remainder turned away. After attempts to find safe haven in the United States and Canada failed, the ship returned to Europe. War had broken out during the voyage and while some were able to find sanctuary in other countries, a third of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.
The archives on the main floor are busy as families seek to learn more of their ancestors who came through these doors and other ports. I realize how little I know about my own history and my aunt can only help so much. “We didn’t talk about that stuff,” she tells me during our visit.
In September 1864, representatives from the British colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and PEI gathered in Charlottetown to discuss the creation of a Maritime union. Representatives from Ontario and Quebec crashed the party to promote the idea of a larger union comprised of all the British colonies. On July 1, 1967, those initial discussions, dubbed the Charlottetown Conference, led to “confederation by consent” and the country of Canada was born. Ironically, PEI didn’t join the union until 1873, after British Columbia, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories.
It’s early as I make my way through the quiet streets of Charlottetown to Province House , intending to climb the steps worn by time and pay my respects to the forward thinking forefathers of this country, only to discover . . . it’s closed for conservation work! What bureaucrat’s bright idea was it to close the birthplace of Confederation during Canada’s 150th?
All is not lost, however. The Confederation Centre for the Arts next door is hosting the Story of Confederation, complete with a replica of the confederation chamber and the Park’s Canada film “A Building of Destiny” that tells the story of our country’s birth.
History lesson over, I head down Richmond Street where the Confederation Player’s , dressed in historical garb, are posing for a photo shoot in preparation for the upcoming tour season. I find myself chatting with Bill Watters, owner of Northern Watters Knitwear and Tartan Shop, while we watch.
“I came here in 1991,” he tells me with a devilish twinkle in his eye. “You only have to pay the toll when you leave the island. So I’m still here!” He invites me into his shop where my eye is drawn to the oiled wool sweaters I’ve lusted after for years. They’re made in shop using antique Swiss knitting looms that can take years to master and are a fascinating display to watch. My birthday’s coming up so . . . I splurge (I won’t tell you how much) on a cream coloured pull-over that will be my saving grace once I get to the Haida Gwaii. These sweaters beat fleece for warmth any day!
My wallet a little lighter, I head north to Cavendish and the home of my childhood heroine. From the moment she graced the pages of Lucy Maude Montgomery’s first book in 1908, Anne of Green Gables captured the heart of readers around the world, her stories as revered today as they were then. I was no different. Feisty and wilful, in Anne I found a kindred spirit.
A trip to the homestead is a return to my childhood and, after visiting the house, I stroll the “Haunted Woods” and “Lover’s Lane” as my heroine had in Montgomery’s imagination. It was Anne’s stories of friendship and family that sparked my love of books and I would disappear into the fictional world that seems so real here on the Island, the farms and fields not much different than they were then.
Time moves slower here on the Island, the rush and chaos of the highways and cities left on the mainland side of the Confederation Bridge. It’s a place to stroll and I pick up a Cows ice cream (sea salted toffee) and head for boardwalk at Cavendish Beach where I spend the rest of the afternoon buried in the stories I loved as a child.