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The last time I was in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, I was 16, on a trip with my family in a camper van. The region was gorgeous, but being a teenager, I did not appreciate the depth of the experience. This year I returned and was bowled over – the wild beauty was intact, the seafood delicious and the people I met were quick to smile and have a chat.
This time, instead of camping with my folks, I joined a group tour and stayed in inns and hotels. Our focus was delving into the area’s cultural traditions – Gaelic language, music and dance, Mi’Kmaq Eskasoni First Nations ceremonies, arts, crafts, and history. I even met someone with a Vietnamese story to share.
Mi’Kmaq Eskasoni Cultural Journeys
“Welcome,” said Giselle Stevens as she ushered our group onto Goat Island, an hour’s drive from Sydney on Bras d’Or Lake.
Giselle, a member of Eskasoni First Nation (a community within the Mi’Kmaq First Nations) and guide with Cultural Journeys, was dressed in a traditional, soft caribou-hide dress. As she led us along a 2.3 km trail we stopped to read the interpretive panels explaining the Mi’Kmaq way of life. “The government gave us some goats many years ago, but they were eating our gardens and even our houses, so we brought them to this island and that’s how it got its name,” she explained. At the first station on the trail we met Lindsay Paul, an elder, who showed us how a favorite food, eels, were caught. “Special spears that are very long go down through the lake ice and into the mud where the eels hibernate during winter. It’s easy to pull them up,” he said.
We tried our hands at baking bannock, a type of biscuit, over an open fire, were smudged with the cleansing smoke of white sage, cedar, tobacco and sweet grass, drummed, danced and attempted to play the complex game of waltestaqun with bone buttons, sticks and a wooden plate. “I played the game with Prince Philip when he came to visit with the Queen,” recalled Sugar Poulette, one of Cultural Journeys’ animators. Suddenly, she looked up and began to sing softly in the Mi’Kmaq language. “That’s an eagle overhead. We believe they are sacred. They are the closest creatures to God and can send our messages to him,” she explained.
Highland Village Museum
Peak migration to Cape Breton from Scotland was in 1873 when the Gaels were turned off the land because the British thought it would be better for raising sheep and hunting. “They called it the Highland Clearances,” said Colin Watson, our guide at the Highland Village Museum where we stepped back into living history. Walking up a hill, he showed us a small hut built of rock with a grass roof. “This is how they used to live in Scotland,” he said. The rest of the village was Cape Breton-style pioneer homes, a church, school and a blacksmith’s
shed. Wandering through the buildings, we spoke with interpreters in period dress going about the tasks of daily life. In one home oatcakes and tea were served as we watched step-dancing and listened to lively fiddle playing. At the school, Colin had us sit at the tiny desks. “Children were punished for speaking Gaelic and not English, so the language began to die out,” he informed us. Thankfully that has changed. “In Cape Breton we now have a government office of Gaelic Affairs and the language is coming back.”
Celtic Music Interpretive Centre
Music is the life blood that pumps through the veins of people from Cape Breton and at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre we were introduced to different styles of fiddle music including a march, strathspey, reel, waltz, jig, polka, clog and hornpipe. “In Scotland in the 1600s the main instrument was bagpipes. The fiddle was introduced by the British and the Scots ended up playing it as they did the pipes, with lots of trills and drone sounds,” explained Donna Marie Dewolfe, one of the centre’s resident musicians. As well as an exhibit covering Cape Breton’s famous fiddlers, there was a space to try your hand at the instrument. I declined, but a member of our group took a stab at it and sounded pretty good. There was a lunch-time ceilidh (folk music and dance) in the centre’s café and as I munched on a buttery fresh lobster roll, Donna delighted us with fanciful fiddle tunes.
The northeastern part of the island is where Cape Breton’s French-speaking Acadian population lives and at Grand-Étang Harbour we popped into the Mi-Careme Centre. “Mi-Careme means mid-Lent. It’s a celebration we have in the area every year,” explained Monique Aucoin, president of the centre’s board of directors. Half-way through the 40 days of Lent, villagers don disguises and visit their neighbours who try to guess who they are. A party ensues with all Lent’s forbidden pleasures – sweets, meat and alcohol. “The original idea was to be unrecognizable so the priest couldn’t get angry with you,” Monique explained. The centre was built in 2009 as a sustainable tourism initiative after the town’s main employer, the fish plant, closed. We explored the permanent exhibit, nosed around the gift shop and learned how to make masks before breaking for tea in the homey cafe.
Trois Pignons Rug Hooking Centre
Arts and crafts abound on the island and we saw many rug hooking shops along the Cabot Trail. At Trois Pignons (Three Gables) Rug Hooking Centre we learned the tricks of the trade. “It takes practice and patience, that’s why no young people are interested,” explained our guide Yvette. I tried it out at a table set up for visitors and had to agree with her. It was hard. My favorite gallery in the centre was dedicated to Elizabeth LaFort, a local woman who specialized in hooked portraits of presidents (and first ladies such as Jackie Kennedy), astronauts, popes and royalty.
A Vietnamese Connection
Raymond LeFort, our tour group driver, was a fountain of information on the trip. Originally from Cheticamp, he was a retired language instructor with the Canadian Coast Guard College in Sydney. “In 1995 some Vietnamese English teachers from the Vietnam Maritime University in Hai Phong and the Maritime Technical College in Saigon came to our school for two months to improve their international seafaring language skills,” he explained. The next year Raymond was selected to deliver audio visual equipment to the schools in Vietnam. He remembered the trip fondly. “I was able to see Ha Long Bay, which was so beautiful,” he recalled, “Plus, I really enjoyed the food.”
Rich in experiences and history, Cape Breton proved to be full of cultural surprises. I was so glad to see it again with adult eyes.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Eskasoni Cultural Journeys: eskasoniculturaljourneys.ca
Highland Village Museum: highlandvillage.novascotia.ca
Celtic Music Centre: celticmusiccentre.com
Mi-Careme Centre: micareme.ca/en/
Les Trois Pignons: lestroispignons.com
WHERE TO STAY
Castle Rock Country Inn, Ingonish Ferry: castlerockinn.com
Islandsunset, Belle Cote: islandsunset.com
Silver Dart Lodge, Baddeck: silverdart.com
Iona Heights Inn, Iona: ionaheightsinn.com
Cabot Links Resort, Inverness: cabotlinks.com/lodging
Maison Fiset House, Cheticamp: maisonfisethouse.com