As a child, I often thought that I would always live in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. It was where my friends were. It was where my family was. It was where my school and my church and all of the stores I had ever shopped in were. Mary MacQuarrie’s corner store…where I spent my allowances buying O-Pee-Chee hockey cards and Richie Rich comic books was just at the top of my street, across from the hospital where my mother and aunt and two cousins all worked. The cemetery, where my father was buried, was there, too. Glace Bay was the world as I knew it then. I wanted to live there forever.
Well, forever lasted until the age of 18. As my final years of high school passed and visions of a career as a writer took shape in my head, I discovered that to further my career ambitions meant that I would have to move away from Nova Scotia. So, I planned accordingly. I applied to university in Toronto and was accepted. So I spent the summer as an 18 year old saying goodbye to my friends and my family, graduating from my school, walking out of my church for the last time, making the rounds of all the stores and restaurants that I used to frequent and getting ready to leave my home. By this time, even Mary MacQuarrie’s store had closed. The time seemed right to leave.
With my bags packed, I boarded the Via train out of Sydney. We chugged past the Newfoundland ferry in North Sydney. We crossed the beautiful Seal Island Bridge and began climbing Kelly’s Mountain (The tallest elevation on Cape Breton Island). We passed the Gaelic College at St. Ann’s Bay and soon found ourselves in Baddeck (The former home of inventor extraordinaire, Alexander Graham Bell and his wife). An hour after that we were crossing the Canso Causeway and had left Cape Breton Island for the mainland of Nova Scotia. At that point, the waters of the Atlantic Ocean gave way to the endless forests of Nova Scotia’s upper mainland and then, into New Brunswick. After a night of fitful sleep, sitting up in an economy class chair, we arrived in Montreal. We changed trains there. To my eighteen year old self, Montreal seemed very big and a little bit scary, I have to admit. There were so many people there and they all seemed to be in a hurry to get to wherever they were going. I remember feeling relieved when I found the line of people waiting to board my train to Toronto. I joined it hours before departure. I sat there on the floor of the Montreal station and quietly waited. I must have looked very small, sitting there amid my suitcases. I sure felt small. But, time passed, as it always does, and soon I was on the Via train to Toronto. At Union Station in Toronto, my cousin, Brent, was waiting to meet me. He was not thrilled that I had two suitcases and a steamer trunk to navigate through the rush hour crowds. But, just the same, he helped me. We made it safely out of there. I had arrived in the biggest city in Canada. As I stepped out of Union Station and looked up at the shiny skyscrapers that stood watch, I knew that I wasn’t in Glace Bay anymore.
Although I didn’t appreciate it then, my arrival in Toronto made me just the latest in a long line of Cape Bretoners who answered the siren song of dreams of a better life in the big cities of Ontario or oil fields and big money of Alberta. Outward migration is part of the cultural history of Cape Breton. Many young people leave each year and only a very small number ever return in any sort of permanent way. Most leave because there isn’t enough steady work on an island as geographically small as Cape Breton. The fisheries have been in decline for decades. Coal production has ceased to be an economically and environmentally viable enterprise. Even the Sydney Steel Plant, in whose shadow my mother and her family grew up, had long since been shuttered, dismantled and paved under. So, the young ones leave in hopes of finding career fulfillment elsewhere in Canada. I left in 1982. In fact, I have been “away” for three quarters of my entire life. In those three quarters of a lifetime, I have enjoyed a fruitful career as an elementary school teacher. I have married and become a father. I have made new friends and have acquired new family members along the way. I am used to shopping in new stores and eating at new restaurants. My house is paid for. My neighbours are terrific. There is a beautiful beach just five minutes walk from where I live. My life “away” has turned out to be pretty good. But, the funny thing is, I still call Cape Breton…home.
There is just something in the blood of those of us who grew up there that we have taken with us wherever we have ended up settling. I prefer tea over coffee. I am drawn to tartan as a design aesthetic. But most of all, I still love the music of Cape Breton. I love the sound of bagpipes and fiddles. I try to see all of the Cape Breton-oriented musical acts that tour across Canada such as The Barra MacNeils, The Rankin Family, as well as Rita MacNeil and the Men of the Deeps, when she was alive and they toured together. Bringing a bit of Cape Breton to those of us from away is one way the connection to home is strengthened. The other way is to go back for vacation. My whole family and I go back home each summer and I do the same by myself in the winter. We go to see my mother and other family and friends who have stayed behind. But, as much as we do that, we also breathe in the salt air, we let the ocean’s water roll over our toes and, most of all, we simply bask in the beauty of one of the world’s great islands. Cape Breton Island will always be my home. It is part of who I am, even if I am far away from it for most of my days.
The hardest part about visiting Cape Breton Island is that, sooner or later, I have to leave again. Although my Ontario home is fine, I am always sad on the day that it is time to leave Cape Breton. Having visited Cape Breton Island over one hundred times as an adult, I know from experience that it is emotionally easier to leave by plane than it is to leave by car. When traveling by plane, all you see is the inside of the cabin, the tops of the clouds and, if changing planes, the inside of another airport such as Stanfield Airport in Halifax. You don’t get to experience leaving Cape Breton the same way you do when you drive your way out. When we drive for Ontario in a car, we re-trace the route I took as an 18 year old on the Via train. Knowing what I am leaving behind makes it tougher to drive past the Newfoundland ferry terminal in North Sydney. The beauty of the scenery as we cross the Seal Island Bridge and begin to climb Kelly’s Mountain is amazing, but it is tough to see it in the rear view mirror. Baddeck is always gorgeous and peaceful and is a place for staying a while, not passing through on the way to somewhere else. But, onward we go. Eventually, we arrive at the Canso Causeway and prepare to leave the island. We always cast a glance to the right, to the parking lot next to the Causeway proper, where I proposed to my future wife because I wanted Cape Breton Island to always hold a special place in her heart, too. And then, it is gone. We are off to the Nova Scotia mainland and then New Brunswick, Quebec and back to Ontario. The girls are always excited to get back to their home in Ontario. But each time we leave, a little part of my heart stays behind.
Leaving Cape Breton is something that many have experienced over the years. The lure of coming home is strong and the painful reality of knowing we have to leave again is something each of us feels. This has been true in Cape Breton for generations. It has also been true in the ancestral homeland of Nova Scotia, which is Scotland. For those who may not be aware, the words “Nova Scotia” translate as “New Scotland”. There is much about the geography and the cultural background of those who live in both places that are similar. In 1791, a Scottish poet named Robert Tanahill wrote a “lament” called “The Soldier’s Adieu”. It was about the emotional toll on Scottish soldiers who were forced to leave their highland homes to fight in wars in foreign lands. With Scottish culture such an integral part of the fabric of Nova Scotian life, it was not a surprise that “The Soldier’s Adieu” resurfaced just as World War I was in full swing and thousands of Canadian soldiers were flowing into Halifax to board ships that would take them across the Atlantic to England and onward to the battlefields of the Western Front. As these soldiers were taking wistful glances back at Halifax Harbour as they sailed away, “The Soldier’s Adieu” came to mind. Except this time, it was updated for the times and became known as “Farewell to Nova Scotia”. Even in times of peace, “Farewell to Nova Scotia” has been a song that holds a special place in the musical canon of Nova Scotia and of Cape Breton Island. When I was a child still living in Glace Bay, I used to hear “Farewell to Nova Scotia” sung by a lady named Catherine McKinnon on a CBC television show called, Singalong Jubilee. This show transitioned into another popular show called Don Messer’s Jubilee. Regardless of the show, Catherine McKinnon sang this song as if it was coming directly from her heart. Her rendition of “Farewell To Nova Scotia” became the definitive take on the song. So, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that for many years, whenever I drove my car across the island of Cape Breton as I returned to the real world in Ontario, I would do so to a soundtrack of the best of Cape Breton music. Catherine McKinnon’s “Farewell To Nova Scotia” was always one of those tunes that I heard as I drove across the Canso Causeway and off of the island. It is a song that makes me sad and happy at the same time because it is a song that is a fundamental part of who I am. And who I am is someone destined to always return home, only to have to eventually leave again. Maybe someday, I will get to return for good. Then, and only then, will “Farewell To Nova Scotia” cease to be a song that touches my heart.
The link to the video for the song “Farewell To Nova Scotia” by Catherine McKinnon can be found here.
The link to the official website for Catherine McKinnon can be found here.
The link to the official website for Cape Breton Island can be found here.
***PS: The photo at the top of this post is of Glace Bay Harbour.
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