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Costas Halavrezos

Costas Halavrezos

Costas Halavrezos of Dartmouth has one of the most mispronounced—butchered might be more accurate—names among Maritime personalities. But if many East Coasters have trouble getting their tongues around his decidedly Greek moniker, they have no problem identifying his “buttery” voice, as one caller described it when Costas announced in 2010 that he was retiring as the host of CBC’s Maritime Noon after 23 years.

Despite all that time on the air, the listeners who didn’t know Costas personally wouldn’t really know that much about the man. And, as Costas explains in his story, that was intentional.

“I was on every day,” he says. “Why would I blather about myself? The person you’re talking to—it might be the only time they’re ever on the radio because of the circumstances of the story. It’ll certainly be memorable for them. Very often people are nervous—even if it’s something they know about. The host’s job is just to make them comfortable, conduct the interview, get the information out. That’s it.”

However, when we sat down to talk to Costas, the tables were turned and he graciously opened up about his own life story. And it’s fascinating.

Costas’s father grew up among peasants in the Greek mountain village of Agios Stefanos, left school as a boy to travel with his sister to Egypt for work, and eventually joined the Greek merchant marine during the Second World War. “He had quite a few adventures and close calls,” says Costas. That included surviving being torpedoed and having the ship he was on sink in 12 minutes, a story that Costas relates in some detail.

His mother was “Miramichi Irish” and grew up on a small subsistence farm in Semiwagan Ridge, N.B. She moved to Saint John as a young woman and met Costas’s father while she was working as a waitress in The Paradise restaurant.

Costas recalls essentially growing up in his father’s eatery in downtown Saint John. He says Nick’s Coffee Counter was a “real classless society” that catered to everyone from politicians to prostitutes. Only occasionally, if someone was drunk and said something inappropriate, would Nick Halavrezos grab him by the scruff of the neck and the back of the belt and give him the bum’s rush out onto the sidewalk.

Costas regales us with tales of growing up “Irish Catholic” in Saint John, attending St. F.X. University, travelling throughout Greece and England for a year, working as a young man, drifting into radio work and more. He doesn’t pull any punches when explaining why he left the CBC in 2010 or when assessing the state of the public broadcaster today. But he insists his life wasn’t defined by his radio work.

He and his wife—respected reporter Jennifer Henderson—live a relatively quiet life on a leafy Dartmouth street. He’s grown grapes, sold spices and wrote a book titled Seasoned: Recipes and Essays from The Spiceman. He plays bass in a band called the BBQ Kings, does voice-over work and just started a podcast called Book Me! in which he interviews Atlantic Canadian authors and illustrators.

But it all started at Nick’s Coffee Counter …

(Were you born in Saint John?) Saint John, New Brunswick. Boxing Day 1947. My father was Greek. He was from Crete, the island of Crete. My mother was Miramichi Irish.

(Can you tell me a little about your father and how he landed in Saint John?) He was in the Greek merchant marine during the Second World War. He had quite a few adventures and close calls. They were mostly doing the North Atlantic run. But they went elsewhere in the world too. He stopped in Halifax, Sydney and Saint John various times in the first few years of the war. They’d meet the small Greek communities and then get back on the boat again. I think they were probably in dry dock in Saint John for a little while, so they got to know people there better. But he knew people in Halifax too.

He was on the Mount Taurus, a ship in a convoy that left from the Bedford Basin in November of 1942. I think they picked up a few more boats in Sydney. And then, somewhere past Greenland, they were torpedoed. He was one of the survivors. And the survivor boat, even though they were more than halfway across the Atlantic, came back to Halifax. This was the end of ’42. There were huge Allied losses at sea.

(And when they escaped, was it only a few from the ship?) There are a lot of details, unfortunately, I didn’t get from Dad. A site that I found indicated 40 survived from the Mount Taurus and only two died. His best friend, Theodore, escaped. He was the telegrapher, a guy I eventually met in 1971 when I went to Greece for the first time. Lovely man. Big, big gregarious guy. Huge elephant ears. Anyway, Dad was supposed to have been in the engine room that day. But he and this other guy switched shifts. And of course, they got the torpedo, bang, right in the engine room. The ship went down in 12 minutes. He jumped out of his bunk or wherever he was and ran up to tell his friend Theodore, said ‘Get off, get off!’ Theodore was sending a Mayday signal! They were in a convoy. Everybody could see that ships were getting torpedoed by the U-boats, you know. What are you going to do? So he and Theodore and some other guys escaped.

As I say, he’d already had other adventures. On one of the earliest trips out, they went to Dakar in Senegal in Northwest Africa. The French government fell and since Senegal was a French colony, it was taken over by the Nazi-compliant Vichy government of the day. So any Allied ships in Dakar were held under harbour arrest by the Nazis or their French collaborators.

So you can imagine North African temperatures—being trapped on a ship there. They could go ashore now and then. But just ridiculous temperatures—over 100 Fahrenheit and things like that. But people were getting sick. There were people with malaria and there were parasites. It was pretty grim, I guess. But they actually escaped by boat one night, out past whatever kind of barriers they had at the mouth of the harbour, and got out into the open ocean. It was kind of a rowboat, I think, and then they went with the currents. They were actually picked up by a British ship and taken to South Africa and then they were transported to London, where their shipping line had an office. So he was up to London in time for parts of the Blitz! You know, just ridiculous. That was near the beginning of the War. I think it was late 1940.

Costas’s father Nick Halavrezos in Queen Square, Saint John.

(Did he tell you any particulars about how many people were on that rowboat?) No. If he ever did, I can’t remember.

(Did he expand at all on the effect of being torpedoed?) No. Happy to be alive of course. But looking back, he eventually developed dementia. And he had what they call several ‘insults’ to his brain over his life. He may have been concussed when the boat was torpedoed. Later, in the 1950s, he was in a car accident—a head-on collision. He was a passenger, in the middle seat in front. The guy next to the door was killed. And my father was in a coma for, I think, three days. So definitely concussed there. And a lifelong, heavy smoker. All the things that predispose you to developing dementia.

(What were they transporting in the Mount Taurus?) Supplies. I really don’t know. Obviously, England wasn’t getting anything from Europe.

(When the survivor boat came back here, that was it for him for the duration of the war?) Yeah. The survivor boat landed here (in Halifax), probably through Pier 21 or something. But he decided to stay in Canada. That was it. His nine lives were running out. (Costas laughs). He considered staying here but then went over to Saint John and he got offered a job there with a couple of Greek guys, the Nicholas brothers, who ran a place in the centre of Saint John. Just called Nicholas Brothers. Then he worked and saved. He met my mother. She was working in a restaurant next door called The Paradise—a waitress in Paradise! So they started going out. I don’t know exactly how soon they started going out, but they were married December 28th ’46.

(Nicholas Brothers, was that a restaurant?) They had a lunch counter. But it was also a variety store. Cigarettes and sundries. All and sundry. You know, soda fountain, sandwiches, magazines, newspapers. It was a great place. I remember it from when I was a kid. It was still operating. Right at the centre of town on King Square.

(Would he have had much English?) Not a whole lot. He had smatterings of several languages which you pick up. He told me his friend Theodore—whenever they landed in a port—was the charmer. He always kept a little notebook and he’d take it out at their table in a restaurant when they’d spot a couple of women. Theodore would go over and say, ‘Excuse me, I don’t speak much English. What is the word for this?’ And he’d point to something, maybe in his book or on the menu. He’d charm them and then eventually they’d get together. Dad was Theodore’s wingman, I guess.

(Your mother was from the Miramichi?) Yeah. Her parents had a little farm in a place called Semiwagan Ridge in the area called Barnaby River, which is one of the tributaries of the Miramichi. But she had come to Saint John in her early 20s.

(Was it odd that they would get together, him being not long removed from Greece?) I’ve no idea. I get the feeling that there was a pretty lively social scene in Saint John during the War. I was recently listening to a documentary I scripted 30-some years ago. It was about the art scene in Saint John in the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s. I got to interview a lot of people who were involved. Not just painters. There was a writer and teachers and someone running the theatre guild and a guy running a gallery and so on. But they talked about the ’40s and the War years. Saint John was a port, so there’d be regular dances attended by soldiers and sailors. People were getting together at house parties and all that kind of stuff. A steady stream of people on leave and people from other countries. You’d meet people in restaurants or in King Square and invite them to the parties or the dances.

Costas’s mother Hilda Mary (Bohan) Halavrezos, who was from Semiwagan Ridge, N.B.

(Where was your father from?) A little mountain village. I’ve been to it several times. Up from the southeast coast of Crete. Agios Stefanos. It translates as St. Stephen. It’s funny—one of those weird coincidences—I was born on St. Stephen’s Day.

(Did you know much about his childhood?) Well, they were peasants. It was subsistence living. They were living in the mountains. You know, they grew their own grapes and vegetables and foraged and had some sheep. There’s a fantastic beach at the foot of the mountain. I don’t know how long it would take to go down by donkey because I’ve driven up to the village by car, and it’s a long, winding drive. Wonderful stuff down there on the coast these days—greenhouses and tavernas. There might have been more work down there back then. But it was just subsistence living up in the village when my father was a child, really. Pretty tough.

There was a period when he was young … there was a friend of the family who had a shop in Alexandria, Egypt. There were seven kids in my father’s family, and he and his younger sister, Athena—the next in line—basically were shipped off to Alexandria to work with this guy. There were too many mouths to feed. They were in their early teens I think.

(That means no school?) He had gone for a while, whatever schooling there was in the village. You can only imagine. He was born in 1909. But he and his sister Athena learned Arabic in Alexandria. I stayed with her a few times. Wonderful woman. In Athens, they had a little dry goods shop in the foothills of the Acropolis—she and her husband, Politimos. But there were a couple of cafés she pointed out in Athens where a lot of Arabic-speaking people gathered. And she would cruise by. She was always interested in eavesdropping on them, especially if they had anything to say about her. (Laughter).

(So when you were over in ’71, your grandparents wouldn’t still be alive?) No, they had died in the late ’60s. I have a picture of them out there on the stairs. My grandmother looks like my father in a black dress. Their faces are exactly the same.

(How did your aunt relate to you when you went over?) Oh great. She and Dad were very close. I was her brother’s son. I was golden. He had been over the year before—1970—the only time he ever returned to Greece. He visited all his brothers and sisters.

They had been out of touch for years because of the War. He had done his compulsory military service shortly before the War up on the border with Albania, and then he got into the merchant marine. And Athena ended up working as something like a nurse’s assistant in—well, at the time it was under British mandate—Palestine. And they never made contact for years because he didn’t know where she was, and she didn’t know where he was. She told me she thought he was dead. Which would be a fair assumption in those days, considering the odds. They didn’t reconnect until 1946. Somehow, by mail, the connection was made. He may have sent something back to his parents in Crete, and word must have got back to her in Athens. By that time, the postal service must have been restored, because Crete had a very hard time during the War. She was telling me, ‘I couldn’t believe it. I was so happy. My Nikos was alive.’ She just loved Dad and the feeling was mutual.

(Of course, they would have been close, travelled together.) Yeah, yeah. And she was a really feisty woman, a real firebrand and a fireplug of a woman. Short, stocky. She’d bang you on the shoulder, you know, as a greeting. She was very, very kind to us. Jennifer and I, about a year after we got married, finally got around to having a proper honeymoon, because we’d only taken a few days off in 1984 and then gone back to work. We went to Greece in ’85. Athena was living in Athens at that time and her husband Politimos was still alive.

Costas’s parents Nick and Hilda Mary (Bohan) Halavrezos.

(You would have had other relatives there, but she was the main contact?) Yeah. They had two daughters. One of their daughters, Litsa, has remained … she’s sort of my closest relative, the one I know best. I last saw her in 2012.

I briefly touched down in Athens in 1971. Litsa and her sister Maro and their friends ran me around town and down to Corinth on the bus for a few days. But then I took the ferry to Crete and stayed with my cousin Katina and her husband Bobbis and children and her mother Irini—my father’s sister—on the south coast in a town called Ierapetra. It was my base. That’s where I learned whatever Greek I have, because I had time on my hands, Greek-English grammar books and lots of opportunities to practice. I would help out at the dry goods store that Bobbis operated right on the town square. Met people my age from Canada and all over the world, who were hitchhiking around. The locals were still buzzing about the hippies hanging out in the caves and beaches in Matala along the coast to the west of Ierapetra. Joni Mitchell had been among them, about a year before.

Katina’s brother, Michael, had come over to Canada in the 1960s. Dad sponsored him and he lived with us for a while. The hope had been that he would work with my father and eventually take over the lunch counter business. He didn’t want me to continue in the trade—it’s exhausting—and I wasn’t inclined to, either.

Michael stayed. He didn’t take over my father’s business, unfortunately. But he worked in Saint John and is still living. So I stayed with his family. That was great. I learned a lot of Greek. I’d go hiking up the mountains nearby or go hitchhiking around Crete for a week and return.

(How long were you there?) I was there until about Christmas, nearly three months. And as I say, I travelled around and got to know my way around Crete a bit. Then I went back to Athens just before Christmas that year, so I got to know the city quite well. I took classical guitar lessons, twice a week, and was coming along pretty well. And then forgot everything by not practising.

I think it might have been St. Patrick’s Day when I left Athens and went to England by train. I had a friend from Saint John, Tony Lamport, who was studying sociology in Southampton, and I ended up spending about six months in England.

(When you were with your relatives, that’s when you learned most of the Greek you have?) Yeah, yeah. (You didn’t learn any from your father?) Well, no. A few words but that was it. There was no conversation. My mother didn’t speak any, so …

(What was the feeling you had your first time there in Greece?) Oh, I felt very comfortable with it, you know. I loved the way of life, the social aspect of it—going to a café, and having big family meals every night, and living outdoors a lot because the climate was so good.

Nick and Hilda Mary Halavrezos were married on Dec. 28, 1946.

(And your father’s name again?) Nick. (What was his full name?) Nikolaos Kostas, probably with a K, it was spelt with, because there’s no letter C in Greek.

(And your mother’s name?) Hilda Mary Bohan. She grew up as Hilda, but she hated the name, and eventually went by Mary. (And she came from more or less a subsistence farm?) Yeah. My grandfather worked in the woods in the winter as well. Between farming and working in the forestry industry, that’s what he did. William Bohan. Lovely, gentle man.

(Did you know your maternal grandparents?) Yeah. We never had a car, so we used to go up by bus and visit when I was a kid. Once I was shown how you got eggs from chickens. I marched in the next morning and—not knowing—lifted off these hens to get the eggs. Created quite a stir. The family wondered what was going on in the henhouse. It was me lifting these poor hens off, flipping them out of the way. Lucky I didn’t get my eyes pecked out. (Laughter).

(Your father being Greek, was there any question of acceptance there?) Not that I know of. My maternal grandfather would come down to visit us in Saint John from time to time and he and Dad got on very well. (No culture clash?) No, no, no. You know, Dad was a hard worker and treated my mother well, so that was all right as far as my grandfather Bohan was concerned.

We finally got a TV. Probably the last family in the apartment house. We were not early adopters of things. I mentioned my Dad was in that car crash. While he was in hospital—he had quite a long convalescence, he was in for about a month—he had a TV in the room. He got hooked on TV. (What year would that have been?) I think it would have been ’58 maybe. Thereabouts. Anyway, I remember it was new to us and my Grandpa Bohan was down for a visit from the Miramichi. I remember him sitting there watching the test pattern before the shows came on, smoking his pipe, watching the old Indian-head test pattern. (Laughter). And he was a lovely man, too, my grandfather. Very gentle. Big strong guy.

(Would he have used horses in the woods?) Yup. There’s a David Adams Richards novel—I think it’s his best—The Friends of Meager Fortune, that’s it. It really pivots on the last year they were doing horse-driven log drives. The trucks were coming in the next year. Some people were already using trucks, but it was sort of this last drive. And it’s this big allegorical thing, really paralleling the crucifixion of Christ.

(But being set in New Brunswick, it gives you this sense of what it was like?) Oh yeah. And the thing about bringing a full load of logs down steep hillsides with a horse-drawn team in the winter… what could go wrong? (It’s not for the faint of heart.) No, no. So my grandfather was of a generation … he would have been involved in all of that.

There was a period during the ’30s when some of them went down to the States to stay with relatives. My mother was in Waltham, Massachusetts, went to school there for a couple of years, and she was staying with an aunt and an uncle. I think another brother went down and I think my grandfather got some kind of work there too. I’m not really sure how many of the family went down.

(That wouldn’t be uncommon for people to be going down to the Boston area.) Oh, not at all. You know, when I was growing up, I thought Boston was made up of aunts and uncles. Everyone I knew had aunts and uncles in Boston. From Saint John, especially, being a very Irish city, there was that connection, too.

(Right, and you’re relatively close.) Oh yeah. Well, the CP train used to run from Saint John down to Boston. You went up to McAdam, New Brunswick, crossed into Maine, and then it either cut south through Portland to Boston or northwest to Montreal. That’s how we travelled. And Halifax used to have a Boston boat. I think there used to be a Boston boat from Saint John, too.

Costas’s maternal grandparents William and Josephine (McDonald) Bohan.

(What year did your father start the lunch counter?) I think it was after I was born. I remember the original Nick’s Coffee Counter. It was around probably ’49, ’50. He had that for a while.

I remember being there and I remember the neighbourhood. The butcher shop, the pharmacy. It was across the railway tracks that terminated at the grand Union Station, just a few blocks away. And then the land he was on was expropriated. He found another place to rent—not far—on City Road, just across the Wall Street bridge over the railway tracks. Next to a fire station and across from where there’s a big Irving station now. He kept the same name, Nick’s Coffee Counter. He had that running until the mid ’80s.

I really grew up in the lunch counter on 31 City Road. Fourteen stools, I seem to remember, and no booths. But along one wall, opposite the stools and counter, there were magazines, newspapers, weeklies, tabloids, comic books. There was a rack of pocketbooks, and then there was a small counter with penny candy and chocolate bars on the other side. And a pop cooler. The free candy and pop wrecked my teeth. Bananas—we always had bananas for whatever reason—and a set of scales to weigh them. But I spent a lot of time there.

(And if you were there, were you working even as a young person?) I was, as my father would say, ‘eating the profits.’ No, I was helping out. Which became important when I got into the spice business after I retired from CBC. But I’d take back the empty bottles and keep the cooler stocked and change the magazines. New, updated magazines would come twice a week, so I’d take down the old ones and put up the new ones … after I gave them a good scan.

And it was a wonderful education, because I had completely unsupervised reading. Any moment I had, I was over there and checking out the stuff that interested me. It killed me of course, when I was a teenager, that we didn’t have a car, because it was the heyday of all those car magazines and customizing cars and Motor Trend and all that kind of stuff. I kept up to date with all the cars. Dad just relied on taxis.

It was the ’50s then and it was funny because only about a couple of miles away there was the big strip—Rothesay Avenue—where all the car dealerships were. It was hot and heavy in the ’50s because the economy was growing and they were affordable and I guess gas was cheap. There was a new model every year that looked very different from last year. So the guys would come in on their break—the salesmen—and have coffee or lunch or whatever. And you could see there was a real competition to see who could sell Nick his first car, because everybody else had cars. They knew when he went home—he’d leave after the noon rush. He would start at six in the morning when the longshoremen would come in. There’d be about three breakfast rushes, you know, depending on shift changes at different jobs. And then there would be a lull and then there’d be a lunch break rush. But about 1:30, he’d leave and go home and have a nap for a couple of hours and then come back. So he usually took a taxi home. But the (car salesmen) would come for coffee and they’d say, ‘Nick, give you a ride home? You want a ride?’ He’d say, ‘Sure.’ ‘We got the Buicks in, really nice.’ All that kind of stuff. Or they’d show up at nine o’clock at night and, ‘Give you and the family a ride home?’ I remember getting those rides. But he never bit.

Nick and Hilda Mary Halavrezos with their first child Costas William Nicholas in early 1948.

You know, he was working seven days a week when I was quite young. And then he cut it back. He would close Saturday afternoon and night. He’d take me to the harness races at Exhibition Park on Saturday afternoon. But he was still coming in Sunday until one o’clock. So yeah, he was working seven days a week.

(And would he have somebody else cooking.) No, he was the cook. There’d be one waitress and she might make up sandwiches, get the coffee, make the fountain Cokes, scoop the ice cream. They had one of those Campbell Soup machines. I don’t know if you’ve seen one, but it was a sort of insulated metal cup and you’d pour in the can of soup and push it into a jack. It would heat up really fast. Basically, a kettle for one bowl of soup.

But he did a daily special—I remember in the early, mid ’50s, it was 75 cents. One day the special would be roast beef with the vegetables cooked in the juice, and then there would be roast turkey, and then there would be pork chops usually done in a sort of tomato-onion sauce. Friday was always fish. It was either harbour salmon—because you were still allowed to catch Atlantic salmon in the harbour back then—or halibut. And it was all 75 cents. So for people who didn’t have much of a lunch break, they’d just come in and (say), ‘Dinner.’ They knew what it was. I used to make the signs.

(You didn’t have to worry about choice.) No, you didn’t have to think. There were other things. If they wanted a western sandwich or club sandwich, a steamed hot dog or a hamburger, he had all that stuff. But the dinner was the daily special. It was great and he had a huge following. It was very, very, very busy there.

(But if he was having roast beef or turkey or something like that, that’s something he would put on in the morning?) Yes, he’d slow cook it in the oil-fired oven. So it was just melt-in-your-mouth by 11 o’clock. (And he’d still be making the breakfasts?) That’s right, yeah. A lot of customers. It was a busy, busy place.

(And he would have done the cleanup?) Yup, yup, yup. He cleaned the floors every night. When we closed at nine o’clock, he got out the mop. And in the winter, he’d mop several times during the day, too.

(He was there six in the morning?) Until one or 1:30, then go home and have a nap for a couple of hours. (He’d be there until nine?) Yup. And we would, too. My mother would be there helping in the evening. It was quieter. But Saint John was still very densely populated at that time, so there were a lot of people in the neighbourhood who came for the milk and bread and cigarettes and coffee or a piece of pie. Kids to get their comic books, you name it.

(Your mother, she didn’t work outside the home other than that?) Right. She helped out at the restaurant. And there was just my sister and I. Just the two of us. Georgia’s three and a half years younger than me.

(Like you say, it was usually always busy. Was he comfortable financially?) You know, he was very frugal. We didn’t have a car. We took the bus or taxi or walked. I certainly didn’t feel we wanted for anything. He used to say the coffee paid for my college education.


Nick Halavrezos and his son Costas in King Square, Saint John in the summer of 1948.

We lived in an apartment until sometime in the early ’60s. One of his customers was also his lawyer for what little legal work he had to get done. Great guy. S. Roy Kelly. Right out of the 1930s—his office was quite something. Lovely man. Anyway, he was always saying to him, ‘Nick, you should look for a house.’ So he called him one day and told him there was an interesting place coming up at a tax sale for the city. It had been a turn-of-the-century drug store on the street level on the corner of Richmond and Prince Edward Street in the East End, just down the hill from the Cathedral, and then there were two big apartments above, the two floors above. It was a brick building. He went down during his nap break and he overheard someone make some slur remark like, ‘What’s that damned Greek doing here?’ And that was it. He got stubborn and decided he would bid on this thing—against these people—and got it.

I don’t think they had all the checks you have these days on your ability to pay. They probably had some. Anyway, he didn’t have the money saved to buy the place. He rented his lunch counter space from a Mr. Rodgers and his unmarried sister who lived in a very gloomy, but well-furnished apartment upstairs. But Mr. Rodgers had quite a bit of real estate in town and he really liked my father, you know, appreciated that he’d done well with the business and took care of it and was a fine, upstanding fellow. So he gave him the mortgage. He lent him the money—a private mortgage. So that was it, and all of a sudden my father has a property for the first time. God knows, what age would he have been then? He’d be around 50.

(Any little anecdotes stand out about the lunch counter?) Well, it was a great foundation for working in public broadcasting because you have absolutely no choice about who comes through your door. It’s a real classless society when you’re in that business, which is great. It was a large part of your social life, just the people you meet coming in the store and the regulars. You have to be very comfortable with the arithmetic of business, buying and selling things, keeping track of inventory. Talking about different classes, just down the street where City Road became Station Street, that’s where the whorehouses were. So occasionally, either the clients or the operatives would be up at the lunch counter.

(And your father would treat them all the same?) Yeah, yeah. Unless someone was drunk. I remember him giving the bum’s rush to guys—literally, what they call the bum’s rush—a couple of times. Someone would be at the counter—on a stool and drunk and say something inappropriate—and Dad would not say anything to him. Wouldn’t warn him. He’d come up behind him, grab him by the back of the belt and by the back of his jacket collar and give him the bum’s rush and throw him out on the sidewalk. (Laughter). But it was only a few times that I saw him do that. (It was all done in one fell swoop.) Oh, yeah. The guy didn’t know what hit him.

The sand and banks suggest this photo was taken at Mispec Beach near Saint John.

(And when did broadcasting become an interest for you? Was that early on?) No, it was later. (You went to St. F.X.?) Yeah. I was going to take English. I went to register in the lineup. First of all, they looked at my name—Costas William Nicholas Halavrezos—and they assumed I went by Nick. And the person registering me said, ‘So your name is Nick, right?’. I said, ‘OK.’ (Laughter). I was very deferential in those days. And then I had applied for English. They said, ‘Well, you’ve got good science marks. I think you should go in honours physics.’ I said, ‘OK.’ So I ended up in honours physics for three years.

(And that was?) Sixty-five. (It was basically decided …)…on the spot for me. I was 17 when I went and turned 18 later that year. By the third year, in 1968, I was down in Antigonish doing my summer of research in the department, nominally helping a physics professor. A really brilliant guy. Dr. David Pink. Got his doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford. But I just realized physics was not for me. I had no passion for physics. I greatly admired people who did. By the end of the summer, I told him, ‘Look, I really want to go on into English.’ He understood. He was a very well-rounded, well-read guy. He was doing all kinds of international collaborations in England and Germany, but he understood. He didn’t try to talk me out of it. Someone else who was more forceful and less empathetic might have talked me into staying, but I know I wouldn’t have been happy.

So my fourth year, I took all arts courses—four English and a history and a philosophy. But I still had so many science courses that I got a B.Sc. Then I went back for a fifth year and just took, again, four English courses, a history and a philosophy. I graduated in ’69 but I went and finished in ’70. At that time, I thought I would be heading for an MA in English. But I got out and worked.

(So that wouldn’t have given you an arts degree?) Right. It was probably a few courses shy of an arts degree. I had almost enough credits, but, hey. So I worked for a year, mostly substitute teaching around Saint John. Then I worked in a drug crisis centre and youth hostel the summer of ’71 in Saint John. And then that fall—I’d saved up enough money—that’s when I went overseas. I seem to recall the one-year round-trip ticket to Greece was less than $300.

(And you would have been gone a full year?) The fall of ’71 to ’72. It was roughly six months in Greece, six months in England. After visiting my friend Tony Lamport who was studying in Southampton and meeting some of his friends, I went up to London. Met up with my pal John Gillis from Saint John and we went hitchhiking to the south. A German woman in a van picked us up, gave us several coffee and brandies at her place, and told us about a friend who was leaving his job as a barman at a country pub. So I ended up working there—the Silver Plough in Pitton—outside of Salisbury for a few months. Then I went up to London for the summer. Met up with my friend Mike McAfee who was taking a summer course in London and we went hitchhiking around Ireland, too. That sort of stuff.

(Working in the pub, was that kind of like being back … were you comfortable in that?) Yeah, it was comfortable. And it was different from the lunch counter, obviously. I was selling alcohol. But getting to know that part of British rural society was fascinating. And the country pubs have different hours from city pubs. There were two rooms at right angles to one another, separated by a wall—one for visitors and one for the locals. There was a restaurant attached to it, too. Yeah, it was a lovely, lovely place. I’ve been back there a couple of times. On my day off, I used to walk into Salisbury along the path through these ancient, planned beech forests. Catch the free organ recital in Salisbury Cathedral. It was interesting. Some visiting friends of a friend from Canada—Sandy Moore and Jim MacSwain—and I played some guitar tunes and sang at a village fair. I remember doing John Barleycorn and some Neil Young. Probably some Crosby, Stills & Nash. And years later, we all ended up in Halifax.

I liked staying in one place for a while, as I did in Crete and Athens. You really get to know so much more about a place and its people from just getting into the rhythms of daily and weekly life and finding out what goes on. In Athens, one of my chores—when I was staying at Athena’s—was to take the empty bottles down to the guy around the corner who had all the big wine barrels and fill them for the two big meals of the day. Again, my aunt and her husband still had two daughters at home, and his brother lived upstairs. So there were six of us for the midday meal, after which Athena and her husband took a power nap before returning to their store, and then a late supper. That’s also when I realized that what Dad had been replicating with his afternoon nap in Saint John was the siesta that everyone takes in Greece.

Nick Halavrezos’s birthplace Agios Stefanos, Crete in 1971.

Early in the morning, Athena would leave for their shop in the centre of Athens. But first, she used to drop the daily dinner off at the baker’s. The potatoes and carrots would be cut, the onions, and tomatoes, and garlic, and whatever the main ingredient would be … it might be chicken. There would be a lineup of women at the baker’s. The day’s baking would be done and the oven’s high temperature would begin to taper off. So basically, the prepared meals the women brought in big pans would be slow cooked. It would be just right by about one o’clock. And Athena would leave the shop early to pick up the hot meal from the bakery and bring it home. Because they didn’t have a stove in the house—just had a couple of little propane burners, I remember, in their little kitchen. (That would be ideal. You wouldn’t have the heat of the stove.) Exactly. And there’s a lot of the year when you really don’t want the heat of a stove in your home in Athens. (Would they charge something for that?) Yeah, I think there was a nominal fee charged by the baker.

(Would they have wine?) Yep, wine with the noon meal, wine with the evening meal. Evening meal tended to be late, you know. (And the siesta, that would be during the heat of the day I guess?) Yes, exactly.

(Why did you choose—or did somebody choose it for you—St. F.X.?) That’s a good question. Because there’s a story there. I was accepted at St. F.X. and Dal. There was quite a pipeline from the school I went to in Saint John—St. Malachy’s—and St. F.X.

(Was that a religious thing?) Yeah, it was a Catholic boys’ school. I was brought up Catholic. Irish Catholic, specifically. It was a brand of Catholicism. You know, there are Italian Catholics, there are Spanish Catholics, there are French Catholics. So, it was Irish Catholic in Saint John. It was a major port of entry for ships bringing immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine in the 1840s. Anyway, we didn’t do Broadway productions in the spring, we used to do these St. Patrick’s Day plays. There’s quite a store of material written. I think they were written in the States—in Boston and New York—for the Irish populations there, these original musicals with big casts. You wonder where a lot of the stereotypes come from? I remember one song called Shamrocks, Shillelaghs and Shenanigans—‘Put them all together and you’ve got an Irishman.’ I remember being in one production where there were gypsies on the outside of town. A local Irish girl and a gypsy guy get together and everybody’s opposed to it, of course, but eventually love reigns supreme. And they get married and all the people have a big, big party. Kind of like Romeo and Juliet without the bummer of an ending.

Grade 1 and 2 boys on the steps of St. Malachy’s Memorial High School in Saint John. The boys were posed there but their school was down the street. The future longtime voice of Maritime Noon is in the back, third from the left.

Anyway, I was offered a modest scholarship to St. F.X.—I think $400 per year. But I was accepted at Dal, too, and I guess I was kind of an outlier, because I was more curious about that. A Iot of friends were going to St. F.X. I’d never been to Antigonish. I’d been to Halifax maybe once with the school band. I decided to go (to Dalhousie). My father wasn’t happy.

So I was uptown in Saint John one day. I was walking through King’s Square and I ran into Father Dolan, a priest I knew. And he says, ‘How are you doing?’ ‘Great, great, Father.’ ‘So, you’re going to St. F.X. in the fall?’ And I said, ‘Well, actually, no. I’ve decided to go to Dal.’ ‘Oh, really, really? Listen let’s go over to the Riviera restaurant’—which was just across the street, next door to where Nicholas Brothers used to be. I remember we had a grilled cheese sandwich and he talked with me. Again, I was very deferential and it was the time it was—1965—and he said, ‘Look, I know the registrar there. I’ll ask him to hold your letter in abeyance for a week while you think this over.’ So I caved and wrote Dal and said I wasn’t coming and wrote St. F.X. So I ended up at St. F.X., taking honours physics under an assumed name. (Laughter).

(Any regrets?) Oh, no point in having regrets. You can imagine, but what’s the use? What happened if you’d taken another choice? I really don’t know. Things worked out OK, I’d say. Aside from that three-year speed bump of taking honours physics.

(We were talking about your time after university and you said you’d done some substitute teaching.) Yeah. When I came back from Greece, I did a bit of that. And then I started doing contract work for the National Film Board, which was interesting. They called it audience relations. I had different projects, short-term projects, two or three months, to take out new films to target audiences. It might be some animation films or documentaries. It was mostly—not entirely—Atlantic productions, but national productions, too. And there would be some themed contracts I’d do.

The NFB contracts were great because they enabled me to travel all over the Atlantic Provinces and get to see places I’d only known as names on the map or in the news. And that came in very handy later on when I was working with Maritime Noon. I’d actually been to all these places.

I made a lot of contacts in that period because I’d have to make arrangements beforehand for these screenings. And then I would take the films around—16-millimetre films and a projector—and show them to a group, talk, and answer questions and discuss what we’d seen. One contract involved a couple of films about the Cree in Quebec who were being affected by the big James Bay hydro dam project. One was about their lifestyle, living on the land. The second was more about the negotiations with governments and possible environmental and social effects on their way of life. So I took that and screened it at every reserve in the Maritimes. That was really eye-opening and stood me in good stead for years afterwards. Because when else is a white guy going to get around to every last reserve in the Maritimes?

And then there was a community newspaper started up on a grant called The Echo—in Saint John in the mid-70s. I was writing several columns for that. But somewhere in there I had been interviewed by someone who was freelancing for CBC. It was a friend of mine, Irène Guerrette. And I said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ There wasn’t a CBC station in Saint John at the time so she was doing interviews and sending them up to Fredericton. They did a show for Saint John from Fredericton. Sore point, of course, because Saint John was the biggest city in the province and we didn’t have our own station. Fredericton and Moncton did. She said, ‘Maybe they’re looking for freelance stuff.’ So, long story short, I got myself a tape recorder and started doing interviews and reviews and all that. I’d do it on cassette and put it on the bus and the bus would take it up to Fredericton and they would dub it from cassette to reel-to-reel. I know this sounds like ancient stuff. So I started doing that, too. Again, all freelance work.

(But was that something you would’ve had a comfort level with right from the start?) I was interested in trying it. Now the other thing, I became a single parent in 1974. I had a young son at the time, named Nick, after my father. So freelancing worked OK. My parents were very supportive. I could take him to their place if I was going to be out of town for two days or something. My girlfriend at the time, Lu, was also wonderful with him. That was great to have that help. The freelance thing worked OK. I was just trying to get by.

A photo of Saint John kids in an abandoned car that Costas took in the 1970s.

(That would have been your main gig at that point?) A little bit of everything. I’d get National Film Board contracts, doing stuff for radio, writing for The Echo. I worked at a daycare for a year. It was always pretty tight, financially. But CBC finally opened a station in Saint John in 1978. I had been freelancing for a few years, and I wasn’t just doing stuff for Saint John. I had started doing things for regional—and occasionally national—shows. Anyway, they knew me, they knew my work, so I was interviewed. I was hired as a producer for the new station to do the noon show. That was my first full-time job at age 30. I’d been working continuously, but never had a full-time job. It was a new experience, having a regular paycheque.

(Producer, what did that involve?) Well, finding stories, getting them to air. Writing. Editing tape. Directing the show. We had two co-hosts originally, George Jordan and Leslie MacKinnon. George lives here now and Leslie is semi-retired. She’s retired from CBC. She was a national reporter for a long time. Anyway, they were on the noon show. It was a half-hour show called Radio Noon One. The two-hour block between 12 and two was broken up into Radio Noon One, which was 12 to 12:30. And that was all local. Six local stations in the Maritimes had that. Radio Noon Two was from 12:30 till one and it was out of Halifax—like one regional show—and it was hard-core resources, you know, the hog prices, the lobster landings at various ports, all resource industry stuff.

They had two co-hosts in Halifax. And then from one until two was Radio Noon Three. That was an arts program out of Halifax—regional. Jim Bennet was hosting it. Jim’s still alive. Lovely man.

Anyway, I was doing the Saint John Radio Noon One—12 to 12:30—and we jammed a lot in there. We did three original stories a day. And then at one point, they started an afternoon show out of Saint John, a four to six show, so I began producing that.

(Not both?) No. It coincided with the time they decided they would regionalize the whole Radio Noon thing out of Halifax, from 12 to two. So I was then producing the new afternoon show—an urban four to six show—which was fine. Stan Carew was co-hosting with Jacqui Good. But then when Stan went to Halifax, there was a position open, so they hired a fellow who was a good technician in the station until they could interview for a permanent co-host. The first round of interviews didn’t yield an obvious replacement for Stan, who had been very good on-air. Meanwhile, the co-hosting thing was not working out very well. Technically, a genuinely co-hosted show is very tricky. The timing and pacing are of the essence. There has to be good rapport between the hosts and everyone has to be sharp about giving and getting the cues. It wasn’t quite working out. So we hobbled along for a few more months. I decided I’d apply (as host). And surprisingly, I got the job. That’s how I got into hosting. And since I had been producing, I already had an idea and vision of how things were supposed to flow and sound, and how I could execute it. I was co-hosting with Jacqui Good, who was also a good friend. Then she left with her partner for jobs in Winnipeg and I co-hosted with a great guy named Jeff Collins from Newfoundland. The show did really well in Saint John.

And then in 1985—Jennifer and I married in ’84—I was recruited to work in Quebec City. I got the job to host a new afternoon show they were starting up for all the English-speaking communities that weren’t on Montreal Island, from the Ontario border to the Gaspé and the Magdalen Islands. So we were in Quebec City from ’85 to ’87, and our son Al was born there in ’87. But professionally, I wasn’t really happy with the situation there. There were some great people, and we keep in touch. I love Quebec City and Quebec culture. But I just felt the CBC station in Quebec City was like the broadcast arm of the English rights group Alliance Quebec. You know, it wasn’t objective enough. It was just a little bit too promotional and I was really uncomfortable with that.

I told you I was hired for the startup of this new afternoon show. I was working as a newsreader on the morning show with Jennifer Fry while they hired a producer and researcher for the new show. But a week or two after I arrived, Jeannette Kelly, who was doing a network show called Radio Active about the music of the French-speaking world, announced she was going on maternity leave. And they asked me if I’d do it. It was a two-hour network show, once a week. Luckily, they hooked me up with a really good, very knowledgeable guy named Jean Beauchesne who was the researcher. But he also was the programmer for the Festival d’Été—the wonderful 10-day summer festival in Quebec City—and he knew a ton about music. He also taught philosophy at one of the junior colleges. Anyway, interesting cat. It was a good pairing. We became great friends. A busy time, you know, doing the five three-hour (afternoon) shows a week plus this two-hour network show that had to be researched, scripted and pre-recorded.

(And you had a general interest in music?) Yeah, always. (You play bass?) Yeah, yeah. Pretty basic, though. (Did you take music lessons as a young person?) Yeah, took piano lessons even though we didn’t have a piano. I used to go after school to practise at the convent of the Sisters of Charity. Then from the convent, I’d go down to the lunch counter and do my homework, have supper and handle the candy counter until nine o’clock. (Costas laughs).

(Was that a deferential thing? Were you told you were going to lessons?) No, I was interested. You know, a lot of friends were taking piano lessons. I always enjoyed learning music. And then I was in school choirs in junior high right through high school. In the high school band I took up saxophone.

Costas and his sister Georgia with what’s-his-name at the Manchester Robertson Allison department store in Saint John in the 1950s.

And I didn’t mention the jukebox at Nick’s Coffee Counter. There was a completely mixed bag of stuff on there. Everything from pop music to the birth of rock and roll, old-time country music—Kitty Wells—and even some classical pieces. (How often would they get played?) The classical? Mmm, now and then, now and then.

The guy came in—Joe Stephens, nice guy—and changed the 45s every couple of weeks, and I was always interested in the B sides. I knew what the hits were. But some of the flip sides, they intrigued me. (And you or your father would have no influence on what records they had?) No, I would ask Joe, and I’d make some requests. He’d get things from time to time if he could—a new Elvis or something, new Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis.

(And did you play in any rock bands as a young person?) No. That came much later. I was in the school band made up of students from three high schools. We had a concert band. It was fun. We did some annual band trips. We went over to Maine in early June, up to northern Maine towns. They had marching bands in uniforms. We were the only band that played sitting down.

(So you were in Quebec City and you weren’t too comfortable with the atmosphere?) Well, its relation to the anglophone lobby group Alliance Quebec specifically. The guy working on the morning show was clearly grooming himself for the position of president using his on-air presence to buff up his brand. And to nobody’s—not to my surprise for sure—he ran for it and became president of Alliance Quebec. Absolutely, their issues should be covered. But the way they were covered—uncritically—irked me.

So I made a call to Halifax to see if anything was opening up. Turned out there were several openings in ’87 because people were retiring. So I was hired here and went to work on the noon show with Elizabeth Haines. It was a two-hour regional show. The first hour was mainly resource industries, and the second hour was just becoming the full-time phone-in.

(Why was it Halifax you were interested in?) Well, it was a regional centre. There was lots going on at CBC Halifax, lots of radio programming. My wife Jennifer is from Nova Scotia. She’s originally from Brookfield—near Truro—and her parents, Turk and Vera, were here in Dartmouth. I had met her when she was working in Saint John for ATV. Unlike me, she went to journalism school. She wrote for The Barometer right out of high school. She went to King’s and then took the one-year journalism program at Carleton. After Carleton, she went to Calgary. She worked for a TV station out there, which was not the direction she was heading in at all. But it was a job. And then she got hired in Saint John, which is where I met her. As I say, her family was here. They hadn’t seen much of her for several years. She has a big extended family. Her aunts and uncles and cousins, they’re all pretty much in Nova Scotia. You know, we had lived in Saint John for a few years, and then we were in Quebec, and it was good to get back home in the Maritimes.

(And was it called Maritime Noon then?) No, it was still called Radio Noon. But I remember we had a little contest to name it. Anyway, someone—a blind woman from Yarmouth, I believe—came up with Maritime Noon. It seemed to make sense. Said it all.

(It wasn’t a new format?) No. As I say, I think they’d been kind of experimenting with the second hour phone-in or expanding it. And they already had some people who became regulars and who are still on—people like Marjorie Willison and Bob Bancroft.

(Did you get any feedback on how you were doing as host?) The ratings were doing well. Hate to sound like Donald Trump, but the ratings were improving. (Laughter). I don’t know how much of it was due to me, though. We had a good team. That was the main thing. We had correspondents in each of the three provinces who contributed and were doing original stories. We used to have two people in P.E.I., but Mac Campbell—the late Mac Campbell—was the fisheries expert for the region and he really covered the three Maritime provinces on all fisheries issues. Very, very knowledgeable. And John Jeffries at the time was doing the agricultural side of things in P.E.I. Then we had a guy in Fredericton, David Malcolm, who would do all the resource industries—it didn’t have to be resources, he could do other issues—in New Brunswick. And we had someone up in Sydney, different people over the years.

And then they decided that they didn’t want to do a co-hosted show anymore. They wanted me to anchor the show and Elizabeth to be a mainland Nova Scotia correspondent. And then they got her to become the Sydney correspondent. So she moved up there. The way it evolved was that we had one correspondent in each province.

(Sounds like there was quite a bit of emphasis on resources at that time.) Oh, there was. You know, the urban issues get covered to death in the morning and afternoon shows. They really don’t get out in the field much. We just didn’t want to do redundant stuff.

You use your human resources to work on longer-term things, so they don’t necessarily have to have something up every day. We chased interviews that I would do in Halifax, of course, but the correspondents were getting great original pieces from the field. Short radio documentaries or what we call ‘talk-tapes,’ where they would be in their studio, talk with me and introduce clips of interviews they’d done with people involved on various sides of a story.

And the regional format is a great platform. Let’s say our New Brunswick correspondent did something on an innovative health program in that province. Well, the other two from Nova Scotia and P.E.I. would chip in because they’re in different jurisdictions. They’d compare and contrast and write up something for their colleague so the regional audience would get an overview. And that generated audience feedback. Because there’s a lot more in common in the three provinces than what separates us, I think. It was good.

A photo of an older woman in Saint John that Costas took in the 1970s.

A regional show makes a lot of sense because the populations are what they are in the Maritimes. When you pool them in a regional show, you have a big enough potential audience to draw for the phone-in. Private radio stations started having local phone-ins because they’re cheap to do. But you’ve only got a portion of the radio audience in one town, and the rest of the people might be listening to music on other stations. The competition in a local market doesn’t really leave many people for your phone-in. So the privates would get the same people calling every day. And there are some people who feel their opinion is important about everything. (Costas laughs). These would be men. Certain men. That’s what kills local phone-in shows. And they’re open line very often. They’re not focused. Ours were always focused on a topic. So that forced you to think about it before you called.

(Talking about your format, there was always an expert, someone on?) There was always a guest. It was never just me with an open line. Always a guest. (With their theme or their expertise?) Yeah, yeah. And, you know, someone might have a new book out. It was usually non-fiction, because non-fiction would be about a theme or topic which people might be familiar with. As opposed to fiction—which I love—but people would not have read the book. It’s new, so they couldn’t call in with their comments about the story or characters, could they? The exception was Timothy Findley. Whenever he had a new novel, he loved doing phone-ins. He had a following because he had quite a number of books out by that time, so he always stopped in. He was originally trained as an actor and he loved the high-wire act of fielding questions. (And he would do that when?) Whenever he was in Halifax. He’d come and do our phone-in show. And (the show) eventually got a very good reputation with publishers because it was a structured phone-in. We never had to state any rules or anything. Over time, people got the idea that this is not a show where you call in with half-baked ideas and rant. Sorry, yeah, you might once but …

(Would you gently train people or not so gently?) You know, they listened. Radio has listeners. They listen to the tone of a show. They pick up on it. I was fortunate to have a long string of good producers who built on what we had. Good content is the key. A range of content. Radio for grown-ups.

(Was that a conscious thing on your part?) Well, I think the whole show’s premise was that this was a place to discuss things. I’m not a shock jock. (Costas laughs). Never could be. Not interested. I was always interested in the long game, building an audience and being known as someone who was fair with guests, but still able to ask reasonable questions on behalf of the audience. There would be interviews, say, in the first hour. I’d be doing interviews along with the reports of the correspondents. And over time, people figure you out. They have their idea of who you are and they become part of it … very much part of the show’s culture.

People seemed to like what we were doing. And it wasn’t just me. It’s a team. We had a producer, an associate producer and our correspondents, and it worked really well. Of course, there was turnover over the years. I was there 23 years on Maritime Noon. But even through different producers, there was a real continuity there in approach. I mean, we’d try different things, make slight changes to the show, tweaks. But it was good.

And then when they axed our correspondents and told us we were going to have two staff—a producer and I in Halifax, and a shared technician—for a one-hour show for the region, that was that. (Costas laughs). That’s not living up to the CBC mandate. You can’t reflect the region to itself with two people sitting at desks in Halifax. It cannot be done—sorry—you have to have people out there dedicated to going out and getting stories in all three provinces.

(How long would that have been before you retired?) Oh, I retired the next year. I agreed to stay on until this one-hour format came in. My producer Deborah Woolway and I were there. And it was just terrible because we both had this institutional memory of the show—what it was, what it did, what it had accomplished. It was a successful program and we had built an audience. And then to do this. I felt it was dishonest to be picking up a paycheque because we weren’t fulfilling the CBC’s mandate.

(And you weren’t going out on a high note career-wise.) Yeah. On a personal level, it was not gratifying at all. We seemed to alternate. You know, you’d be so depressed about it, what was going on and what you were being reminded of what you couldn’t do. So you’d try to cheer up the person who was feeling low. It was pretty dismal. It was really awful.

(What year did you retire?) I retired in 2010. And my producer, Deborah—who’s eight or nine years younger than me and a great journalist—retired within a few months, too. She really didn’t like it.

(So that was during the Harper years.) Well, it didn’t have to do with Harper so much. In fact, there had been cutbacks ever since I was hired at the CBC. (Costas laughs). I was hired in ’78. I was just remembering a particular incident when the director of New Brunswick—of radio and TV—called a closed-circuit meeting with the three stations in early December. And he said, ‘Don’t go overboard buying presents this Christmas. Don’t buy a car. Certainly don’t buy a house.’ That’s how he opened. That was in the early ’80s and it continued. There were big cuts during the Chrétien years and not just at the CBC. There were cuts to all kinds of public things. So that’s all I knew. My whole career, there were cuts to the CBC.

Making music in Hampton, N.B. in 1973.

But this was of a different order. There was the guy who was head of the CBC at the time, this megalomaniac called Richard Stursberg. Really offensive person. You know, it was all about TV and ratings and he basically hounded the director of radio out of her job. Radio didn’t bring in ad revenue, so he considered it a liability. He was apparently very abusive towards her at meetings. She left and then he took over radio budgets.

So, they basically just siphoned the gas out of the tank of radio. And they put all their eggs in the basket of TV ratings. That’s when you started getting all the reality shows. And this was the period when this guy hired Jian Ghomeshi, who was a fellow megalomaniac, and going after the big American market. The morning show hooked up with PRI (Public Radio International) in the States and the content shifted. And it’s still that way. Tom Power (host of the CBC national morning show Q) is a good guy and a good interviewer, especially with musicians. But I don’t know whether I’m in Kansas or where the hell I am when I listen to that show, with all the concentration on pop culture.

The shift that occurred then, it was a real cultural shift within CBC. It was not a good one. It doesn’t follow the mandate. It’s not delivering to Canadians. (Do you ever get a sense that changes like that could be reversed or would be reversed?) I’ll believe it when I hear it. I think The Current is doing excellent work. Cross Country Checkup is pretty good.

But is it radio for adults or not? Or is it all pop culture all the time? Or recycling podcasts instead of doing original work? Is it all these self-absorbed first-person things instead of getting out into communities and finding out the stories of people you’ve never met before and sharing those?

You gotta get out of the building. You have to get out of the city sometimes or dig more deeply in the city and not just have the media following each other on a couple of obvious stories. Who’s doing the original stuff? It’s like why go out to a club if the only bands are doing covers of hits? If you were never going to hear another local band that was doing original stuff, would you go to a club? I wouldn’t.

(Your approach to hosting is to keep yourself out of it as much as possible other than to move things along. Where did that come from?) I found it worked. It’s always about the content. It’s ridiculous the prominence you get if you’re on-air as a host. Basically, I was a civil servant. I happened to be on-air on radio. But I was doing a job. And the job was to talk to people about things that had happened to them or things they knew a lot about and share that with the audience and ask questions that a reasonably intelligent person listening might ask. That’s all. You’re working on their behalf. You’re working for the audience.

I was on every day. Why would I blather about myself? The person you’re talking to—it might be the only time they’re ever on the radio because of the circumstances of the story. It’ll certainly be memorable for them. Very often people are nervous—even if it’s something they know about. The host’s job is just to make them comfortable, conduct the interview, get the information out. That’s it.

I finally talked CBC, at one point, into letting me develop a course for radio hosts. Because there’s this feeling that people are born—not made—as hosts. Which is ridiculous. It’s a trade. There are a lot of things you really do need to know and need to think about if you’re going to be a host. If you’re an egomaniac who just wants to be on-air—whether it’s radio or TV—that’s another thing, that’s what drives you. But you’re supposed to be serving the whole audience.

The course was mostly for people who would be filling in as hosts for the first time, say, in the summer when the regular hosts are away. Management might get someone from the newsroom or someone who’d been a researcher or whom they thought might be acceptable on air. The people on the course seemed to be happy to stop and think about this thing they were going to do, instead of just trying to replicate whatever the host they knew had been doing.

A photo of a young couple in King Square, Saint John that Costas took in the 1970s.

Again, I would reinforce that it’s not about you. You’re going to be well-known regardless. They’ll know your name. You don’t have to tell them what your favourite hockey team is, how cute your kids are, the witty thing your friend said, whether you’re straight or gay, whether you have a cat or a dog—any of that stuff—because it makes you too particular. The listeners start to put these personal revelations together. It’s like a mosaic. For instance, they figure, ‘Oh yeah, so your favourite hockey team is this.’ That means the people out there who have 19 other favourite teams really don’t like yours, so they don’t think you’re going to give them a fair shake. Or, more seriously, if you’re going on about your kids and how wonderful it is having them—a big event and all that kind of stuff—what about the couples struggling to try to have a child at home? Do they need to hear about that? And will they think that they will get a fair shake or that you will empathize with them when you’re interviewing them about this thing that’s very critical in their lives?

It’s true what McLuhan said about radio—it’s the ‘hot’ medium in the sense that listeners are very engaged. They’ve only got your voice to go on. They don’t know what you look like. If you start painting the picture for them, they won’t necessarily get a good likeness, but they will form an impression of who you are.

But if you’re not giving a lot about yourself—if your talk is all about the subject matter—that’s where they tend to focus. Then they’re judging you on, say, are you fair, are you asking good questions. Basically, the matters of the trade. I think that’s what matters for a radio host, especially if you want to be at it for a good long time and create a show that people want to be on or know that it’ll be a good experience when they listen. Or if it’s an accountability interview, you won’t be out there leading the crowd with pitchforks about a particular issue. You know, you’ll listen to all sides of it and you’ll ask challenging questions.

(You have a distinct speaking voice.) Well, it’s distinct because I was on the air. You’re conscious of it on air—modulating your voice, and so on. You can’t be shouting into the microphone. (Costas laughs). You can play with voice it to a certain extent. It depends on the circumstances.

(But would you have access to old tape? Would you be able to hear yourself back in the ’70s?) Oh yeah, there are some old cassettes down there in the basement rotting away. (Would you sound different? Would that have changed?) Not a whole lot. I’m older so the register’s a little lower. That’s about it. You know, when Peter Gzowski started, was that a radio voice? No. But because he was on the radio, that became a radio voice. People define it based on who they hear. For a long time, women were not prominent as hosts because they weren’t deemed to have radio voices. Well, now we have plenty of female hosts and commentators, so it’s all normalized. It’s great. Listeners will decide which voices or personalities they like. That’s always subjective.

(Can you tell me how you got into the spices?) I’ve been going up to Montreal for more than 50 years—ever since Expo ’67. My eldest guy, Nick, is a very good cook. And I noticed he had this brand of spices in distinctive cans. Épices de Cru in French. Spicetrekkers in English. He took me up to the Jean-Talon Market where he bought them. I originally bought a few spices and blends I was familiar with, like Madras Curry and Herbes de Provence. I really liked them. And then on other trips, I started getting blends I’d never heard of before. And they had a good website with recipes. Now these are whole spices. You have to grind them yourself. It was so different from the ground spices, which, God knows, have been knocking around through middlemen for three or four years before they show up in some generic packaging. It was a world of difference in flavour. And they had spices in kits and I would get them as gifts for friends.

Costas’s children, from left, Maria, Nick and Al.

So I was familiar with their products. About the second day I was retired—since I had no plan—I wrote them a letter and I said, ‘I really love your products. I got to know them when I was up visiting the kids. Have you ever considered selling them out East?’ So they wrote back and said, ‘Thank you for writing a letter. We don’t get many letters anymore. But the answer to your question is, no, we’ve never considered selling spices out East. But next time you’re visiting your children, let’s get together and talk.’

So we did. It’s a couple, Philippe and Ethné de Vienne. Really interesting couple. He’s a Montrealer. I think his parents were from France, but he grew up in Montreal. She’s from Trinidad. They met at college and got married and they had a catering business. He was trained as a chef and then they got into a catering business. And she was a model in her 20s after college. She was actually getting modelling gigs and he would go along with her sometimes to these exotic locations and he’d go to the market and check things out. Always interested in the foods. And he worked in Mexico for a while too—Oaxaca—and they started making their own blends and then making blends for other people in the food industry that they knew.

Then they decided they’d go into the spice business and they got a retail outlet, this place in the Jean-Talon Market. And it took off. At the time I went up to meet with them in the fall of 2010, I was really thinking of just representing them. And then I thought, ‘A lot of people don’t use whole spices and grinding them. Maybe they need a little hand-holding.’ And I thought, ‘You know, I have this background selling stuff to people across a counter and maintaining inventories and making bank deposits and all that. So yeah, I could give that a try.’ And I wanted to do something completely different. I didn’t want to go looking for other kinds of radio work. It was funny, my identity was never based on being on radio at all.

I decided while I was up there, ‘I’ll give it a try.’ So I got the initial order and shipped it down. And within a couple of weeks—by December—I was selling spices at the Brewery Market. And I had a lot of help from my friend and neighbour Ruth, who has a background in library sciences among other things. She’s retired, so she had time and she really pitched in a lot more than I expected. I thought she was just helping to get me started, which was great. But she came with me to the market every Saturday and sold spices for the whole first year. And as I found out, she’s a great saleswoman.

(You don’t do the spices anymore?) No, I wound that up selling at the market at the end of 2016. I kind of wanted my weekends back. I hoped by that time a market for the spices had been established here—in Halifax at least. I told people where they could go to get them.

(So, no problem filling your time now?) I don’t have enough time. (Costas laughs). I audition for voice-over work now. There’s a site that’s a broker between people who want audio work done and people who’ll do it. So I started doing that in 2017. You sign up and get set up technically with a microphone and a recording interface with your laptop. You know, I’ll do ‘middle-aged senior citizen.’ And it could be anything—documentaries, an ad, an internal presentation, an awards ceremony, just about anything. (And it could be anywhere?) Anywhere in the world. The company is based in London, Ontario but they’re international. My friend Doug Barron—he plays drums in our band, the BBQ Kings—has been at this for a long time, so he’s built up a clientele. I’m a newbie. And I’ve just started doing a podcast for Nimbus Publishing called Book Me!—interviews with Atlantic Canadian authors and illustrators and anyone involved in publishing.

Costas celebrating his 70th birthday at The Resolutes Club in 2017 along with BBQ Kings lead guitarist Rob Hutten and Al and Maria Halavrezos.

(Did you want to discuss the kids a little bit?) Nick is the eldest, born in ’74. And Al was born in 1987 when we were in Quebec City, just a few months before we moved here. And Maria was born in 1991.

Nick is a server in Montreal. He’s been up there since 1993. He’d worked in the restaurant trade here a bit after high school school. But he’s a professional waiter and a very good cook. They’re as thick as thieves, the three of them. It’s hilarious. They love taking the piss out of us. The more they can tease, the better it is.

(And Maria, what’s she doing in Toronto?) She’s a copywriter with an ad agency. That’s all she was really interested in. She’s very involved in music. She’s in a women’s choir called Cantala and they went to New York in April of 2018. There’s a guy called Eric Whitacre. He’s a big choral composer, you know, the Sting figure. Gorgeous blonde hair, just a little bit of stubble, a very engaging guy. Very down-to-earth, too, as it turns out. But he’s quite a dramatic-looking character. He’s built up quite a repertoire of choral music. Anyway, her choir was selected. Choirs auditioned from all over North America. He assembled 250 voice choirs for the first and second half of his program at the Lincoln Center. Jennifer and I and Nick went down to be supportive. It was quite something. My first trip to New York and it was a fantastic, fantastic program. Very, very entertaining.

(With you and Jennifer in journalism, none of them dabbled in that at all?) No. And they received no encouragement. (Costas laughs).

They all love music. They’re all good writers. They all love to dance and goof around together. Al got an undergraduate degree in percussion at McGill. He graduated in 2009. He got his nursing degree in 2018—so now he’s a nurse. But he’s played in a reserves band in Montreal—Les Fusiliers de Montréal—for quite a while. That’s where he met his partner, Myriam. She plays euphonium. He’s moved up in the ranks and he’s now a sergeant in the reserves and still playing.

He was doing a lot of refereeing of basketball games, too. Al’s always had a knack for making money from the things he likes to do. He loved basketball, but instead of deluding himself thinking he was going to the NBA, he started refereeing back in high school and he got up to a fairly high level with the junior college games in Montreal.

Costas’s family at home in Dartmouth in 2017. From left, Nick, Maria, Al, grandson Louis, Al’s partner Myriam and Jennifer.

Myriam’s a teacher. She teaches at a school for profoundly handicapped children and it’s in the public system. It’s not a private school. Very interesting, a different approach. But she’s a music teacher, not a music therapist. She deals with each individual kid and finds what in music interests them. It might be beating on something or it might be singing or whatever, and she sort of crafts something for that kid to do and works with them. There have been a lot of breakthroughs. It’s a very different model. Here, we have full-on integration in the regular school system and a lot of teachers and even parents had issues with that. They have integration in a lot of the public schools, too, in Montreal. But this is a stand-alone school in the public system. It’s really interesting stuff.

And they got involved in sports, Al and Maria. We’re here in Dartmouth, within a block of Lake Banook. So Al got into kayaking and Maria got into canoeing. And they both did very well. But that’s damn hard work. Down there at six in the morning, paddling. And training year-round. They played other sports too. Al played basketball and Maria played soccer. But they both got into paddling and, good God, the training. The weight training, the fitness, the running, and then the competitions.

Al and his partner, they won a national event one time. Set a Canadian record. His partner—who was a better paddler than he was—was the golden boy. Literally, he looked like this young Robert Redford and he had it all. He was doing very well academically in science. Of course, at that level, you’re training in the winter. You go down to train in Florida. His father went to wake him up to catch the plane. He was dead. Some congenital heart thing. And it really just shattered that whole cohort. (What was his name?) Mike Schaus. And it was just a few months before Al graduated. When Al did his senior recital for his music degree at McGill, he dedicated it to Mike.

And then Maria was in canoeing. The other thing is, both men’s and women’s kayak are Olympic events. Men’s canoe is an Olympic event. But women’s canoe is not. (Costas laughs). So she was determined to go as far as she could and to promote women in canoe. She and another gal here in Dartmouth—Jenna Marks—qualified to compete for Canada in all these other events in the C-2—the two-person canoe. And a week after she graduated from Grade 12, they were in Rio for the Pan American Games, and they won. Then they had the world juniors on Lake Banook. They won for Canada on that. Jenna has gone into filmmaking in animation. So they competed at a really elite level.

But Maria made a decision. She knew what was involved if she wanted to continue competing … that incredible amount of training. She just wanted to get on with her life. So she does some coaching, some training of dragon boaters now, which is different.

(When you were in your teens and getting ready to go to university, working at the lunch counter, that wasn’t in the cards from your parents?) I had no idea what to do. My father wanted me to be a doctor. A lot of immigrants want their kids to be doctors. But I wasn’t interested in being a doctor. I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to go on to university. So just drifted into it.

(But from their point of view, there was no way you were going to take over the business?) No. And it was funny, when I was producing the radio show, my father couldn’t really get a handle on what I was doing. Producing was kind of hard to explain. When I got on air, then it was fine. Then he got it, you know, what I was doing. Now you’re on air.

(Was there some pride there?) Yeah, I think so. Because it was recognizable. (Would he say anything or was it just kind of understood?) Oh yeah, he said, ‘I heard you on the radio the other morning.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so, Dad, I’m on in the afternoon.’ ‘No, no. I heard you, I heard you.’ ‘No, I’m not on in the morning.’ He thought it was me. (Costas laughs). I said, ‘I don’t think they replayed anything from the afternoon.’ He might have been half-listening and they mentioned the name as a promo for the afternoon or something.

But, you know, when people would tell him that they heard me or something, that would register with him. That mattered. But it was just expected that we do well and apply ourselves at school. Basically, we were kind of lower middle-class economic status and I never dared to dream about being a doctor or a lawyer or anything. I always assumed that was sort of in families—families of doctors or dentists or lawyers. It never crossed my mind that I could do that. (Would that have changed when you started university?) Not really. I was in university then, taking physics, then English. You’re in the middle of all that. A lot of it is the social whirl and your classes and studies. But again, anything else—like a profession—seemed so remote.

The Halavrezos family at McLaren’s Beach on the west side of Saint John around 1952. They used to take a taxi out there on some Sunday afternoons.

(You kind of drifted into things and eventually landed a position which makes you known regionally. Does that say that sometimes we’re too focused on what kids should do straight out of school?) Yes. I’m not one of these ‘follow your dreams’ people at all. I’m just so tired of hearing that. Go out and do something you’re interested in. But do it. You really do have to apply yourself. It’s not just because you want to be something. You have to work at it.

Mary Campbell

Mary Campbell

Mary Campbell possesses that quick, cutting sense of humour that seems particular to the place that was once called Industrial Cape Breton. Most importantly, she can tell a story against herself. However, Mary also happens to be a serious, seasoned (not old!) journalist who has worked in Halifax, Prince Edward Island, Montreal, Toronto and the Czech Republic’s capital city of Prague. She was in Prague for several years.

In her story, she recalls in detail flipping her car into a snowbank in rural P.E.I. and then taking a photo of it for the newspaper she worked at, fainting while covering a surgical procedure in Montreal and being caught by the anesthesiologist, and getting hired as an English teacher by a Zimbabwean man in Prague because she was wearing a Cape Breton T-shirt.

Eventually, Mary returned home and in 2016 founded the online newspaper called the Cape Breton Spectator. On the publication’s site, she writes, “My needs are not great—my only extravagances are quality paper and cat antibiotics—so it won’t take too many subscribers to keep this enterprise afloat. Anything I earn beyond the bare necessities will pay freelance writers and photographers: I’m fond of the sound of my own voice, but not that fond.”

Mary also happens to be one of the “Highlander Campbells.” Her parents John and Dolores, several uncles and aunts, and a number of “non-Campbells” published the radical Cape Breton Highlander newspaper in Sydney from 1963 to 1976. Its prospectus stated, “There will be no hesitation to become involved in controversy if the outcome holds promise of constructive achievement for Cape Breton.” Mary, who was born in 1964, recalls growing up in that environment and the influence it had on her later life and work. That could well be the prospectus for the Spectator.

In her story, Mary mentions Tim Bousquet, publisher of the online Halifax Examiner newspaper, which like the Spectator is independent, adversarial, subscription-based and advertising-free. The two publications now offer a joint subscription. Bousquet writes, “Campbell is everything a journalist should be: inquisitive, dogged, and unafraid. Even better, she’s wickedly funny.” That describes Mary Campbell—and the Cape Breton Spectator—to a T.

This is only a short introduction to Mary’s much longer story.

To read Mary’s compelling life story in her own words—interspersed with plenty of great photographs—please consider subscribing to Backstory NS for just $40 per year (tax included). That includes 26 in-depth stories per year from notable Nova Scotians based on old-fashioned personal visits. There’ll be a new story every two weeks, and the entire collection will be available to our subscribers to read and reread whenever you wish. Your valued support will ensure these stories are collected and shared for years to come. Thank you.

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Sister Dorothy Moore

Sister Dorothy Moore

Sister Dorothy Moore’s family lived in Membertou—“the unknown section of Sydney at that time”—the entire time she was growing up. However, as a young girl, she ended up staying in a number of different communities to get an education. And that was an education in human nature—cruel and loving—as much as it was a conventional school education.

In her early years, she attended the one-room schoolhouse in Membertou. During that time, the Indian agent picked young Dorothy Moore to attend residential school in Shubenacadie. She was there for two years. “I don’t have happy memories of residential school,” she says. “But I survived it and it’s part of my history.” Some 75 years later, she still has vivid memories from that time, from being beaten with a ruler and a pointer on her first day in the classroom … to receiving a beautiful doll from her family for Christmas and never being allowed to hold it … to sitting alone outside the imposing structure and trying to remember the layout of her cozy home back in Membertou by sketching in the dirt with a stick.

“I was number 44,” says Sister Dorothy in her story. “There’s some things you don’t forget.”

After two years in Shubenacadie, she returned to Membertou, but the school there only went up to Grade 6, and Dorothy Moore was an intelligent girl who craved further learning. She ended up attending a new school in Eskasoni for Grade 7. But then she decided to return home and go to St. Joseph’s School in Sydney. No other Mi’kmaw student had attended a Sydney public school and her parents discouraged her from doing so. But she was headstrong. “I always say I was the first one to jump the … Membertou fence,” she says.

Grade 8 went well. But Grade 9 was a different story. In a dramatic incident Sister Dorothy recalls in her story, she was told to “go back to the backwoods where you belong” and was kicked out of school. But she persevered and found a spot at a boarding school in Mabou, where she stayed for two years. She returned to Sydney for her final year of school, becoming the first Mi’kmaw student to attend Holy Angels High School.

From there, Dorothy Moore became the first Mi’kmaw nun—again against her parents’ wishes. She went on to earn a teaching certificate, bachelor’s degrees in arts and education, and a master’s degree in education. She was a teacher and principal for decades, the native education co-ordinator at Cape Breton University and the provincial education department’s director of Mi’kmaw services.

Her honours include the Order of Nova Scotia, the Order of Canada, and three honorary degrees.

Sister Dorothy’s mother Mary Eliza Sylliboy was raised on a successful farm in Whycocomagh. But her father Noel Moore grew up poor. He and his mother were two of the approximately 125 people forced in the 1920s to move from Membertou’s original location along Sydney Harbour to its present location. Despite early struggles, he became a successful entrepreneur in the floor sanding business. And he remained fiercely proud of his culture and insisted his children speak Mi’kmaw. When he died while working at the age of 79 in 1974, Sister Dorothy said she became a “born-again Mi’kmaw” who has “never stopped working for my people.”

Today, at the age of 85, she lives alone in a duplex on Alexandra Street in Sydney, on Membertou’s doorstep. But the monthly planner she keeps next to her recliner is chock full, she’s on the road almost every day and she’s still working hard for her people.

This is only a short introduction to Sister Dorothy’s much longer story.

To read Sister Dorothy’s compelling life story in her own words—interspersed with plenty of great photographs—please consider subscribing to Backstory NS for just $40 per year (tax included). That includes 26 in-depth stories per year from notable Nova Scotians based on old-fashioned personal visits. There’ll be a new story every two weeks, and the entire collection will be available to our subscribers to read and reread whenever you wish. Your valued support will ensure these stories are collected and shared for years to come. Thank you.

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Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard of East Preston says she tends “to remember the really horrible, hard things.” And having grown up Black in Nova Scotia in the 1950s and 1960s, there are plenty of such things to remember. Particularly difficult was the late summer of 1965 when, at the age of 12, she both lost her father in a horrific car accident and “left the comfort and safety” of the segregated Partridge River School in East Preston to attend the integrated Graham Creighton High School in Cherry Brook. Adding to her burden at that time was the fact that she had an altercation with her father on the morning of the day that he died. She tells that story in haunting detail.

However, anyone who knows Senator Bernard knows that she also has a keen sense of humour. She’s a natural storyteller and even when relating a sad or disturbing anecdote, she tends to lighten it with laughter.

She knew what she calls “the taste of poverty,” especially after her father died, leaving her young mother to raise “a family of 13” including her own 10 children, a godchild and two grandchildren. However, the Thomas family was not alone. As Senator Bernard says, the people of East Preston—which was settled and built by people of African descent—“come and support” when there’s a loss or tragedy. Her widowed paternal grandfather William Benson Thomas was especially helpful. And a young Wanda Thomas drew strength and inspiration in particular from her mother Marguerite and her maternal grandmother Inez Slawter.

Despite experiencing depression and racism at a young age, Wanda Thomas excelled in school. And with the help of a man named Don Denison, she enrolled at Mount Saint Vincent University at age 15. However, she wasn’t ready for university life. She “flunked out” in her first year and got work at a Dalhousie University cafeteria by calling into a radio phone-in show.

After two years, she was given a second chance at university, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a PhD. She made her mark as a long-practising social worker, professor and director. Her honours include the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada. And she was appointed to the Senate in 2016. But that’s just the bare-bones resume. She puts flesh on those bones by telling stories—about the day that led to her becoming an active Christian as a young mother, about the hurtful incident that made the Bernards decide to leave their longtime home in Cole Harbour and settle in East Preston, about becoming a senator and much more.

(When and where were you were born?) In this community of East Preston. I think I was actually born at the Grace Maternity Hospital in Halifax, but this community was home. My birthdate is August 1st, 1953. I’ve just had a milestone birthday—65. I’m sort of in the middle of quite a large family. My Mum and Dad had 10 children, but they also raised two of their grandchildren and my mother raised her godchild who came to live with us when her parents died very young. So I always say I’m from a family of 13.

(This was your grandparents’ property here, but your family home was …) Just down the road from here. Both my parents are from this community of East Preston.

I’ll start with my father, which would be a switch, because I’m always talking about my mother. My father’s name was James Albert Thomas. He was born in this community as well. And just a bit about his background, I think he was one of about 12 or 13 children himself and he would have been one of the older of the children in his family. But his father’s father was from Wales and his father’s mother was from this community.

His father was very well-known in the community. William Benson Thomas. And one of the stories that I love to tell about him was that at the age of 12, he was working with his father and his father was the church clerk. And so at the age of 12, he became the assistant clerk. And when his father died, he became the clerk and I think he was the clerk for years, maybe something like 30 or 40 years. But he started that young. And so he was a very community-minded, community-spirited person. We lived across the road from my grandfather. I remember him when I was growing up and he was quite an amazing man. Young people in the community really liked him. He had a special spot, I think, for young people.

William Benson Thomas was the clerk at East Preston United Church for decades.

(This is your father’s father?) My father’s father. (His father came from Wales?) Yes, so there were four brothers that came from Wales. (How did that work?) Why did they come here? I don’t really know that history very well. I need to find out. But the story that I have, there were four brothers that left Wales and made their way here to North America. And two of those brothers married Black women. One of them lived in East Preston. The other one settled in Halifax.

(These were white men?) Yes. These two white men married Black women. Two brothers married white women. The brothers who married white women cut off contact with the brothers who married Black women. So we see a very clear racial division that happened in that generation. And so there are white Thomases here—who are my relatives—who I have no idea who they are. And they have no idea who I am.

But I might have actually met (a relative) recently. I mean, I’m all over the place, so I don’t know where I met this person. But I was sharing this story in a speech, I think, and this woman said, ‘Oh my God, I heard that story.’ But she heard it from the white contingent and it was framed very differently. And I think the story went something like, ‘Yeah, they had these two brothers that sort of wandered off into the woods and they were never seen again.’ Well, the woods happened to be the Black communities. (Laughter). I wish I had kept her contact information, even got her name or something. But she was blown away as I was telling this story and she’s realizing she heard a similar story with a very different outcome. But that’s certainly the story as we know it. And when I think about race and racism in this province, I’m inclined to believe the story that my ancestors told, that they were cut off, that they were no longer able to be connected. Really, they weren’t allowed to be connected because they dared …

And there was someone—I remember sharing the story at another time—and the person saying to me, ‘Well, are you sure they got married? Are you sure they were legal marriages?’ Yes, they were.

(Would there have been any question of acceptance from this community’s perspective?) Not at all.

So that’s my grandfather. Then my father, he didn’t go very far in school. He left school early to help out at home, help out on the farm. I think his father had a farm at some point. Then he went to work early. He was a labourer. He worked on a farm in Cole Harbour and then he became a bricklayer. In fact, he had a job doing reconstruction on Citadel Hill at one point. I remember hearing about that. But the most significant thing that I remember about my father was actually the fact that he was killed in a car accident. Days before he turned 40. August 1965 was when he was killed.

James Albert and Marguerite (Slawter) Thomas in the early days of their marriage.

(You would have been 12?) Exactly. You know how you have defining moments in life? That was certainly one of my defining moments I remember very clearly.

My father was an alcoholic. It was drunk driving. It was him, my godfather was driving the car, and my father’s brother. The three of them were in the car together and (my godfather) was speeding. My uncle was sitting in the back seat. My godfather—the driver—was killed instantly. My father died two hours later in hospital. My uncle sustained a major brain injury and lived for 18 months and he never talked (coherently) again. The brain injury impacted him in that way. He used to have these outbursts where he’d say, ‘Slow down Bobby! Slow down Bobby!’ The driver, his name was Bobby. So that’s how we knew that he was speeding.

It was a single-car accident. So no one ran into them, they didn’t run into anyone. The car ran off the road and overturned a number of times. My father was actually on vacation but had taken another job. That was, I think, pretty common in those days. He’d gone to work on the Saturday. It was a Saturday. I remember it as though it happened yesterday. He’d gone to work. On the way home, he had groceries. There were groceries. I can still visualize the groceries strewn around the road. They were on their way home, but they didn’t come directly home. They stopped at a local tavern and were drinking.

(You actually saw the accident scene?) After the fact.

(Do you remember who told you or did somebody come to the house?) I remember a neighbour came and told us. So my mother and my older brother had to go. They didn’t know they were going to identify the body. By the time they got to Halifax and to the hospital, he had died. I remember my brother talking about this. He was 18. He said it was really hard to have to go and identify your father.

(He would have been the oldest boy?) Yes. There was a sister older than him, but he was the oldest boy.

Wanda Thomas at about 15 months of age and her older sister Valerie in the family’s yard in East Preston.

(So you’re 12 years old. That’s a tough thing to happen at any age. How did you react?) It was particularly hard for me because on that morning I’d had an argument with my father. Now if you can imagine, the house was probably about one-eighth the size of this one, with 10, 12, 13 of us living there. But I remember we had an old wood stove. At the age of 12, I cooked breakfast for my father that morning—fried sausages and eggs.

(On the wood stove, like a range, with the firebox?) A wood stove. I remember it was an old white stove. You had to open the lid off the top and put the wood in. That’s where we cooked, you know. We cooked on the top of that thing. But I remember I fried eggs and sausages, and I burned the sausages. And my father was so angry with me. He yelled at me. He called me stupid, ‘Can’t you do anything right? You’re stupid.’ I said we had an argument. We didn’t have an argument. He yelled at me and I had an argument in my head, you know, ‘I shouldn’t be cooking your breakfast anyway. I wish you were dead.’

(So that’s probably the first thing that would have come back to you.) And it came back to me over and over. (You’d feel guilt?) Tremendous guilt. That took me years to deal with because I never told anyone about it. None of my siblings knew that I had this thought. A lot of my siblings were very expressive. If they had something to say, they would say it. I wasn’t so. I had more of the conversation in my head with myself. So I’d had this conversation with myself, ‘I wish you were dead.’ And he never came home.

The neighbour, George Tolliver, when he came over and told us, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God. I didn’t really wish him to be dead. How did this happen?’ I was 12. There were many older siblings and many younger siblings. And in those days, 12-year-olds didn’t talk about grief. No one talked to us about grief and loss.

I mentioned already that my father was an alcoholic. And he was abusive. So I remember violence. I remember violent fights. I remember a lot of turmoil. So on one level, I was glad he had died. On another level, I felt this tremendous grief. And I can remember hearing my mother—I’ll never forget it actually—I remember her saying, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to raise these children?’ The youngest was only 18 months old and we were like steps and stairs, a year or two between us. I’ll never forget Mum saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ And I would hear her crying too. So for as much as they had a lot of turmoil in their marriage, he was the provider. At least he was there. There were two of them. And now it was just her. She was 39, so it must have been incredibly frightening for her and difficult.

So I’m cooking breakfast in the morning and I mess it up and get yelled at. I had an aunt who lived in Halifax. Her name was Ethel Brown. She was incredible, my absolute favourite on my mother’s side. She was my mother’s father’s sister, but she and my Mum were more like sisters. She never drove but she got someone to bring her out to our house immediately when she heard the news. And I remember her walking in the house and seeing me there. I was preparing the evening meal for the family.

From left, sisters Valerie and Wanda Thomas and their cousin Velma Thomas in front of the family home. Velma was raised by her aunt and godmother Marguerite Thomas after her parents died.

(After you had this news?) That evening. She remembers me standing there peeling carrots. I was barely tall enough to reach the counter. She walks in the back door that comes into the kitchen. And so that was a story she told forever. At 12 years of age, I was preparing the evening meal for my family after our father had been killed. I don’t have many memories of my life up to that point. I have some but not a whole lot. But I know that at that point in time, I went into this mode of doing, contributing, giving back, helping—recognizing what needed to be done and then doing it. Mum had to rush off to deal with this bad news. And at the time, we didn’t know our father was dead. We just knew there was this bad accident and Mum had to go. Mum was gone. I just started getting dinner ready.

(But you wouldn’t have been the oldest of the girls?) No. (Were you responsible even from a young age?) As I said, I don’t have many memories prior to 12. But clearly, if I was cooking breakfast at 12, it wasn’t my first time to do it. If I was doing dinner at 12, it wasn’t my first time to do dinner or at least to be helping with dinner. But those were defining moments in my life in terms of what my life course would end up becoming.

(When you say there wasn’t a lot of memories before that, was this trauma part of losing memories or is there no explanation for that?) I think I blocked a lot of memories. I actually have a very good memory. I sometimes say I have the memory of an elephant. I remember too much and I tend to remember the really horrible, hard things. And for as much as I’ve tried to search for more positive memories, there aren’t a whole lot that come. But I do remember some things.

(Were there other people within the family that stepped in?) Absolutely, absolutely. So the 18-year-old brother that I mentioned, he stands out. (What was his name?) Ervin. He really stepped up and became a major helper, supporter. And the sister who was next to me, Valerie, she was two years older than me. I don’t know if we ever had a conversation about how we were going to do this, but I remember she took on a lot of the cleaning and I took on the cooking. And the two of us really just worked so well. We were a team. We worked really well together to keep the younger ones afloat.

(The youngest was just 18 months?) Yes, so I remember doing things like preparing meals and doing lunches and doing baths of these younger siblings. And doing hair for the younger girls, keeping their hair in braids. I remember all of those things. I know I did the braiding because my sister Valerie—later in life when she had two daughters—didn’t know how to braid their hair. (Laughter). I had one daughter and always kept her hair in amazing braids because I knew how to do that.

(You had lots of practice.) I had a lot of practice. A lot of younger sisters. And so I remember very clearly us working as a team. And my brother Ervin, he had a car. He used to drive Mum, take her for groceries. There were other older brothers but they didn’t seem to step in the way we did. And then the rest were all younger than me, actually.

Ervin Thomas as a young man.

Betty is the oldest in the family and she was raised mostly by my grandparents—my mother’s parents. My mother and father, they had her and Ervin before they got married. Mum was living with her parents with the two kids. And when she and Dad got married, her parents wouldn’t let her take her firstborn. (They were too attached?) Mmm. They said, ‘You can take the baby but you’re leaving her.’ I think Mum always had a lot of regret about that and a lot of sadness about that. And that decision certainly affected the relationships with that sibling.

(So, how did you deal with that over the years? Nowadays, there’d be grief counsellors.) I didn’t deal with it. I buried it. It affected me. Later in life, I would say, ‘Look, I have a button that you’re never allowed to push and that’s the stupid button.’ I had a lot of trust issues and it wasn’t really until I was a student in social work that I came to terms with it and started to deal with it. As a student, I sought counselling for myself. It was years later. So I sort of went through life—went through those early years—with this level of unresolved grief and trauma that had never been addressed.

You were asking about who helped. There were a number of people. I mean, this is a community where—even today—people respond when there’s a tragedy, when there’s a loss. It doesn’t even have to be a tragedy. Any type of loss, people will come and support. But in our instance, there were certainly people who were there, not just in the immediate but for the long-term. There were people that just stepped in to help us out. I remember people bringing us food, bringing us fresh vegetables.

One of the major people was our grandfather Thomas, who lived across the road. When there wasn’t enough food to stretch through the week, we would go to Granddad’s and it was like Granddad had a store. I was always over there borrowing something. ‘Granddad, can you loan us a cup of sugar or a loaf of bread or some milk?’ There was never a week that went by that we weren’t over there getting something from him. It could have been an onion to add to the meal or sugar or milk. And he never said no. He was so kind and so sweet. It was always, ‘Can we borrow this until Mum gets groceries?’ And when Mum got groceries, we never thought about it. (Laughter). Mum got groceries every Saturday. We never thought about paying Granddad back anything and he never asked for anything. He was just very kind.

(Were you close to either of your grandmothers?) My grandmother Thomas, who lived across the road, she died, I think, the year after I was born. So I never knew her. (Your father’s mother?) My father’s mother. I never knew her. Although my mother used to tell me that I reminded her of her and then she’d also tell me she didn’t like her very much. (Laughter). So that was not a conversation that we delved into very much.

(You wouldn’t encourage that?) No, I never encouraged that. She would say, ‘You’re so much like Margaret Thomas.’ I never asked because I never wanted to bring more pain to my mother. In one breath, she was saying, ‘You’re so much like Margaret Thomas.’ In the next breath, she was saying, ‘I never did like her.’ I’d think, ‘OK, we’re not going there.’ That’s another point I need to ask my uncle about. There’s only one of those siblings left. I need to have a conversation with him where I ask him about his mother. I know he was very close to his mother—I’ve heard him talk about their relationship. He was young when his mother died but I’m sure he remembers a lot about her.

My grandmother on the other side, who would’ve lived here—my mother’s mother—she was amazing. She was like a second mother to us. And when we were young, our mother used to bring us out to see her every week. We came out here every Wednesday for a visit. But it wasn’t just a visit. Mum, she used to help her with laundry, she used to help her with cooking. So I guess I learned early on that those were the things you did.

From left, brothers Ervin and Barry Thomas in front of the family home.

(Your grandmother, would she have been on her own by then?) No, no, my grandfather was still here. (It was just themselves?) My grandfather had a brother—his younger brother lived with them. When I look back on his life now—from the wisdom that I have now—I would say that my uncle probably had autism. And he worked the farm with my grandfather … or for my grandfather. I think he was the unpaid staff. But he would have been young when their parents died, and my grandfather and grandmother took him in.

(But your grandmother could really use your mother’s help?) Yes, I just remember us coming out here—the house used to be up there—and I remember lots of activity around laundry. Doing laundry, folding laundry, things like that.

(And what kind of lady was she, your mother’s mother?) She was really kind, quiet and loyal. Very determined woman. God-fearing, you know, she was very religious. I always felt that she was open. You could talk to her about anything. Later in life, I was the person who took her for medical appointments. I used to come to her house once a week and fill this little pill box for her. And filling prescriptions when they needed to be filled. She lived to be 90-something.

(So you were well into your adulthood?) Oh, I was married with a child, and I used to come and do that for my grandmother. Take her to her appointments. One of the things that was so funny, I’d take her grocery shopping. You notice if you drove through here (East Preston), there’s no supermarket. So you always had to go into town. I’d take her in, do her shopping and she’d want to pay me. It was always a two-dollar bill. (Laughter). I said, ‘No, you don’t need to pay me. I’m doing this for you because I love you and I want to do this.’ And she said, ‘No, no, you take it.’ And she’d take it and put it inside my bra. (Laughter). She’d insist!—‘You have to take this’—and it was two dollars. Sometimes I would have my daughter with me because it was a tradition that I wanted her to know about as well.

(Your grandmother, what was her name?) Inez Slawter. Her husband was James Slawter and he was a deacon in the church. So both my grandfathers were active in the community and active politically.

Centre, Wanda’s mother Marguerite and her second husband Gerrard Parent on their wedding day. They’re flanked by Wanda’s maternal grandparents James and Inez Slawter.

My grandfather Thomas was the church clerk, which would have put him in a leadership position. And then in terms of politics, he was the municipal councillor for a few years. And then my grandfather Slawter, he was a deacon in the church and politically he was very active in provincial and federal politics with the Conservatives. I don’t hold that against him. (Laughter).

One of the senators that I met knew him well. My grandfather would have campaigned for him. Senator Tom McInnis (a former Progressive Conservative MLA for the Halifax Eastern Shore electoral district). When I joined the Senate, he said, ‘I wanted to ask you if you knew Jim Slawter?’ That was my grandfather! So we share a little chuckle over that—how small the world is.

(What is a deacon?) It would be the people who support the minister. Deacons would be part of the leadership team. A minister would be ordained. Deacons are commissioned. (And that would have been in the Baptist church?) Yeah, right here. The East Preston Baptist Church. (That’s the same church …) That I go to now.

(How important was the church in your younger years?) Very important. The church would have been very, very important. I remember going to Sunday school, I remember as a young adult going to the church. But I never joined the church. I always had a lot of criticism of what I saw in the church and what I saw outside of the church. I always saw some disconnects. (Like hypocrisy?) Yes. Even with my (maternal) grandfather. He wasn’t the nicest person to us. He and my mother did not have a very good relationship. My mother’s relationship with her mother was amazing. She did not have a good relationship with her father and that continued even after our father died. He didn’t step up and help the way I would have expected him to.

(And when you say joined the church, what does that mean?) To become a member of the church. If we’re Baptist, you have ‘believer’s baptism’—it’s baptism by total immersion. (So that would be a decision you would make maybe in your early teens?) Many people did. I didn’t. I was an adult, married, had a child, step-children before I made a decision to become baptized.

(Would it be considered rebellious not to join the church?) Absolutely. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ That was my little rebellion. (And that would have been kind of unique at that time?) Yes. For me, as I look back now—this is my adult self looking back—I didn’t want to just fall in line because everyone else was doing it. It had to have real meaning. And at that time in my life, when I was a teenager, it didn’t. And of course, when I look back now, I recall that my father died when I was 12 and I went through those years of just having all this unresolved grief and depression. I experienced depression.

George Bernard’s drawing of the segregated Partridge River School in East Preston, which Wanda Thomas Bernard attended.

One of the things I didn’t talk about earlier was the fact that in addition to my father dying when I was 12—that happened at the end of August—within a week or so, in September, I started at a new integrated school. So I went from the comfort and safety of the segregated school—Partridge River School—to the integrated Graham Creighton High School. I was in Grade 8. I was placed in Grade 8A. I was the only Black student in 8A and everybody questioned why I was there.

(The students?) The students, the teachers. (Where was that school?) It’s down at Cherry Brook Road. It’s a bus ride from here. I experienced so much racism and this at the same time that I’m also grieving the loss of my father who I wished dead anyway. So those years were really tough years.

(The Partridge River School …) That was the elementary school. That was a segregated school. (Was it officially segregated?) Yes. I think it was 1964 when the kids from this community started going into Graham Creighton.

(Do you remember specific incidents when you started at Graham Creighton?) The first day when the teacher was setting up her roster and was calling the names and when they get to my name, I remember the teacher saying, ‘I’m not sure you’re supposed to be in this class.’ There was a clear message to me that a mistake had been made.

(Do you think they meant that sincerely or they were just doing it to put you down?) My analysis was that there were no other Black students in this class and, ‘We don’t think you’re supposed to be here. We don’t think you were meant to be here.’ Those were the days of streaming, so the very bright kids were in 8A and then it went down from there. Whether it was intentional or not, the message to me was very clear that I did not belong in 8A. It is quite likely that a student from East Preston had never been placed in 8A before.

(So there was a reason you were in that class. It wasn’t just the pick of the draw?) No, they were academically streamed. So, let’s say the kids who had a 90-plus average were in 8A. (So you had really good marks?) Yes. All through school I had good marks.

A photo of the Partridge River in East Preston by George Bernard.

(Even when you started at the new school, you maintained that?) Yes, I did. I just recently did an interview about mental health and I was asked about an example of mental health struggles. I talked about this. I talked about that depression that I experienced in that school and the question I was asked at that time was, ‘How did you cope?’ And one of the ways that I coped was to work really hard to maintain that academic standing. I worked extremely hard and I continued to be academically pretty strong because I wanted to prove everyone wrong. When people were suggesting I shouldn’t be there, I wanted to prove that I should be there.

And as busy as my mother was—and I don’t even know how she managed to do this—but I remember she went to a parent-teacher meeting at that school when I was in 8A. She would have been dealing with working full-time, having all these kids to look after. But she found a way to get to the parent-teacher meeting at Graham Creighton. When she went to talk to teachers about me, they basically said, ‘Oh, you have nothing to worry about with Wanda. She’s doing well. We wish every student was like her.’ I was dying inside. I was so depressed.

(But you were functioning?) I was functioning well. I was academically doing very, very well. Behaviourally, I wasn’t getting into any trouble. I was the model student. But I was dying a little bit inside every single day. Every day. And no one noticed. I didn’t have the language to talk about that. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I’m only now talking about the depression that I experienced at that time.

(Was the depression mostly connected to your father’s death? Or would you maybe be genetically given to depression?) I don’t think so. I mean, there would have been a lot of trauma around my father’s death. (And at that age.) At that age and then for me to have had that altercation with him that morning. And to have the thought, ‘I wish you were dead,’ and then you were killed that very day. So some blame—blaming myself—but also being from a large family, so much going on. It was very difficult for me to find my own voice.

I remember always not having enough of anything. It was hard. And as the person who was cooking most of the meals, I knew sometimes there wasn’t enough food for all of us. So I always ate last. We hear this with single parents who are struggling. I remember being that person who took smaller amounts so that other kids could have more. This is what I would call ‘the taste of poverty.’

(Your performance in school, were there other children in the family that did as well?) At that time, my sister Valerie—who was two years older than me—she was my role model. I had to work for my grades. She could get good grades without even working for them, really, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. I’m sure she would tell the story differently.

A photo of Wanda’s sister Valerie Thomas Hodges by George Bernard.

(Where did that come from with you and your sister Valerie?) Our mother was very smart. (Your mother’s not living anymore?) No. You know, what’s interesting is I’ve talked about Mum and Dad—they’re both gone—but also my sister Valerie and my brother Ervin. They both died young. Ervin died at 50 and Valerie went into a coma at 50 and was in a coma for 11 months and died at 51. So it was like she had two deaths. Her death was in stages.

(And was your mother still living when they died?) Yes. That was the hardest thing to both witness and try to support her through. Parents never expect to lose their kids. And my godsister that lived with us—her name was Velma—she died before Mum died too. So it was like seeing her lose three children. It was very difficult.

(Can you talk a little bit about your mother?) Mum grew up here in East Preston. She was the first child born to their marriage, although she was born before they got married. And she had an older sister. Her mother had a child before she got married. They had different fathers. And then she had a younger brother. And that’s it. It was just the three of them. My mother … her sister was raised by her grandparents. That family history repeated itself because her parents raised her firstborn.

My mother had a lot of ambition. I mentioned that she was very close to her aunt who lived in Halifax. She spent a fair amount of time with her, so I think she had a lot of exposure and she had ambition. She wanted to be a teacher but the school in East Preston only went to Grade 8 in those days. And once you finished Grade 8, if you wanted to go on, you had to pay to go to the City of Dartmouth. And she wanted to go on, but her father refused to pay. Her father owned this farm. He was one of the biggest farmers here in his day.

(He probably had the means?) He had the means and he refused because of her gender. ‘You don’t educate girls. Why would you? They’re only good for having babies and doing your household chores.’ So I believe that that’s where a lot of her anger and resentment towards him started. She really wanted to have opportunities in life and her father held her back. I am so proud of my Mum, though, because she went back and got her high school education in night school. As a widow, with a lot of kids, Mum went back to school. Some of my younger nieces and nephews and maybe even some of my younger siblings didn’t know about that until I did a tribute to Mum at her funeral. How sad is that—that they didn’t know that? It was something I knew. I remember Mum going to night school and getting her high school diploma.

(Would she have been in her 50s or 60s?) Probably late 50s, early 60s, yes.

A photo of Wanda’s mother Marguerite by George Bernard.

(Would you have encouraged her to do that or was that on her own?) I think that would have been on her own. She always wanted more. You know, I didn’t need more encouragement than that. When I think about how hard she had to work just to get her Grade 12, the opportunities that I’ve had for education, I’d better not squander them, right? And I almost did. I mean, that’s another whole story. (Laughter).

But, yes, Mum went back to school to get her high school. That was a big deal to her, because segregated schools stopped it from being possible and her father stopped it from being possible. Her father basically said it wasn’t necessary. I’m sure on some level she wanted to prove him wrong.

She was hardworking. She taught us a lot of values. She taught us the value of hard work, she taught us the value of giving back. One of the other things I remember about Mum is that when electric irons became available, she saved her money, not to buy herself an electric iron but to buy one for her mother. And I can’t even imagine how long she had to work. She worked as a domestic because that’s the only work she could find. (They would have been using the irons that you put on the stove?) Mmm hmm. And she used to go out every Wednesday to help her with washing and the ironing.

When I think about that, I get energized just imagining the challenges that they had to overcome, but how much value that Mum placed on helping her mother. (Do young people know enough about these stories?) I don’t think so. These stories are not told. These stories are invisible.

(But like you say, it’s an inspiration.) Yes, so we need to tell those stories. We had a project out here in this community with young people where we were uncovering some of those stories. My pastor and I took a group of young people to Ottawa last year to visit Parliament Hill. And as a part of that, we created this project where they were telling the stories of some of the elders in their families and community. I said to the young people, ‘Go and talk to the people in your family. Or for someone who’s dead, talk to someone who knew them.’ They created these amazing, amazing stories.

George and Wanda Thomas Bernard with their niece Marguerite and their grandson Damon at the Halifax Public Gardens.

(Dr. Bernard points to a shelf with photos on it.) That’s a picture of my Mum there in the third shelf down. That’s my sister Valerie at the top there. And in the middle is my niece Marguerite, who was born, I think, two months after Mum died. She has Mum’s name and she was one of the young women that came with us to Ottawa. She did research on her namesake—her grandmother whom she never met—and she presented that story in Ottawa. It was amazing. I remember some of the other young women, as they were in Ottawa, they were presenting before MPs and senators. And some of them were saying, ‘Oh my God, we have this incredible opportunity to be here.’ Some of them did (stories on) grandparents and aunts. And they were saying, ‘They will never be here, but we’ve brought them with us.’ It was so amazing. It was just so, so amazing and a definite highlight of my first year as a senator.

(She was a pretty lady.) Yes, she was. And she loved to dress up. (Laughter). She loved a good party. But she was also very active in the church and she worked hard all of her life. She was also very loyal. She was very similar to her mother in a lot of ways. But my grandmother, I don’t think I had ever seen her angry. She always seemed to be just level. My mother would go up and down, up and down. I told you she’d tell me one minute, ‘You remind me of your grandmother,’ and then, ‘I never liked her.’ So I was like, ‘OK, Mum.’ I was always trying to help my mother get more to a calmer state. I know part of that being up and down was related to all the burdens she had and all the trauma she lived through. I probably understood my mother more than anyone else in the family did. The value of being a social worker, I guess.

(How old would you have been when you did join the church?) I was in my 30s. (So you would have been baptized at that time?) Yes, but not out here in East Preston. At the time, I was living in Dartmouth, so I was baptized at Victoria Road Church. But I can remember the moment that I basically became a believer. I was working for the Family Services Association and I worked all over Halifax County. And it was during the time before cellphones. I don’t know how I did that job to drive all over the county. We lived in Cole Harbour and a regular routine was for me to drive to Sheet Harbour, Middle Musquodoboit, Musquodoboit Harbour. Sometimes I did them all in one day. Incredible. I wouldn’t do that today. But in those days I did.

I remember it was a day in April. It was after Easter. It was a beautiful day like today. I was in Sheet Harbour during the day and then I was going to be in Middle Musquodoboit in the evening. So I decided to cut across country. It was spring. I was in sandals and a spring outfit. No coat. And a snowstorm happened—I was cutting across country—and no phone. The only thing I could do was pray. And that’s when I really believed. That’s when I surrendered and accepted that I had no control over what was going to happen. I surrendered and I just prayed that I would get to Middle Musquodoboit.

My plan was to leave my car there because my husband was teaching a photography course in Middle Musquodoboit that evening and I was doing a parenting course that same evening. I knew he was coming to Middle Musquodoboit. So I thought, ‘OK, when I get there, I will leave my car and drive home with him.’ I just prayed, ‘God, just get me to Middle Musquodoboit.’ I get to Middle Musquodoboit and find out that they had cancelled the classes because of the storm and he had the message. So he was home. (Laughter). So I had to drive all the way home. And I was so grateful when I arrived home, so thankful that nothing happened, you know. And the next morning, I was driving my daughter to school, and a car pulled up alongside me and (someone) said, ‘Hey lady, you’ve got a flat tire.’

Rev. Dr. LeQuita Porter of the East Preston United Baptist Church.

(You could’ve had that …) In the middle of (nowhere). No winter clothing. No winter tires—they were already off. No phone. So I already had this sense of, ‘God has taken care of me,’ and then the next day when I had that flat tire, I knew that I was ready to surrender my life. That was the middle of the week. And that Sunday, I went to church and made my decision to join Victoria Road Church, and I was baptized at that church. My daughter was about eight years old at the time.

(Would you have been flirting with the idea before that?) No, I always believed that I lived life as a person who cared about other people, who did good in the world, and I thought that was enough. So rebellion at that early stage in life and then the later stage in life focusing on just living well. And then realizing, ‘I want to be a Christian. I want to be an active Christian.’ And to do that, it means public profession of faith.

(And you’ve maintained that ever since?) Yes, not to say I haven’t been tested. (Laughter). Because I certainly have been. But I’ve maintained that ever since and I’m now an elder in this church here in East Preston.

(Fellow academics, do you ever get a sense that they would be critical of somebody being religious?) Oh, absolutely. There’s a lot of criticism of religion in the academic world, especially in the social work world that I’ve been in. However, what’s interesting is there’s been a whole development of spirituality in social work. There’s a whole body of work now on spirituality in social work. So for as much as it would have been difficult to come out as a Christian 20 years ago, now I would say people are very open as Christians.

I would say the one thing that I see as a bit of a struggle between social work values and Christianity (is) the way that Christianity—and other religions as well—treat the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community. The absolute discrimination that can happen in the church. I, for years, just tried to avoid it, and then decided, ‘I can’t afford to avoid it. As a leader, I need to take some leadership on this.’ So started having those conversations in the church, in religious bodies, and kind of raise those kinds of questions. I’m still not totally happy with the way those issues get taken up. Or not so in many religious bodies. But I must say, that in this church—East Preston United Baptist Church—we’ve had some good opportunities to have good dialogue. One of the things that I’ve been most impressed with is the openness of the pastor that we have. For example, we do something on HIV/Aids Awareness Day. We’ve had special services and programs and so on. That’s going to be a topic at our upcoming health fair. So I have this hope that it will get better.

(You’re working actively …) Making an active choice to do that work from inside the church as opposed to outside. Very easy to criticize from outside. We know that that discrimination is there, so I am trying to work against that as much as possible.

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard making a presentation on behalf of the Senate to Rose Mary Brooks on the occasion of her 80th birthday in 2018 at the East Preston United Baptist Church.

(You were at a meeting at the church today?) Yes. (And I guess if you’re home on Sundays, you’d be there?) Yes. (What’s the feeling that you have going into that building? Do you have a specific feeling about the building itself?) Not so much. For me, it’s not so much about the building. It’s really about the people, it’s about the work that we’re doing, it’s about the spiritual foundation. It’s about trying to truly, truly integrate. I feel that I’m at a stage in life now where I can really integrate all of who I am and what I do. So I feel quite free talking about the church in the Senate and I also feel very free talking about the Senate in the church. The work that we do in the church, I talk about it in the Senate. The work that we’re doing in the Senate, I’m able to talk about that in the church. So I really feel there’s been this integration which feels really good, because for a number of years my church stuff was here and my work as an academic was here. It was difficult to really integrate. But that’s different now. So I feel like a whole person. (Laughter).

(You mentioned your grandfather was active with the Conservatives. You would have been … is ‘appointed’ the right word?) Appointed, yes. (By Trudeau?) Yes. (Would you be considered a Liberal?) I’m an Independent. I applied. I mean, that’s a whole story in itself.

I decided to apply to become a senator when Prime Minister Trudeau announced there would be a different process. When he was elected in 2015, very early in his mandate he talked about a different process for appointing senators. No longer would senators be appointed by the prime minister. He set up an independent panel that would adjudicate for each opening in each province. There’s a core group of three people and then two people from each province that would go in to review files for those provincial vacancies.

At the time that I applied, they were two vacancies in Nova Scotia and 2,700 people applied. (Laughter). Just the other day, I was at the Viola Desmond Public School in Ajax, Ontario. I thought I was just going there to visit. The principal arranged for me to meet with young people. And one of the kids asked me, ‘Why did you apply?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be really honest with you. I didn’t believe the prime minister’s process was really going to work. So I decided I would apply to test it.’ (Laughter).

So the prime minister was saying, ‘This is going to be a process where we judge people on their merit.’ And I remember saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ But my husband George, he kept listening—he’s a CBC junkie, I am too really—and I’d come home from work and he’d say, ‘Wanda, they’re talking about who they’re looking for and how the process is going to work and I think you’ve got a real shot at it.’ (Was this after you applied?) Mmm. I was, ‘Yeah, well, I’m not holding my breath.’

(How did you find out?) The call came from the prime minister. And it was literally on the 11th anniversary of the day that we buried our Mum—October 26th. (So you would have thought of her?) She was the first person I thought of when I answered the phone call, ‘Hello, Wanda, this is Justin Trudeau calling.’ George and I were just finishing dinner—he’s at the table. And I’m on the phone, right? He hasn’t heard what I’ve heard, so I want him to know who’s on the phone. So I’m saying, ‘Prime Minister Trudeau?’ (Laughter).

Wanda Thomas Bernard and her sisters when she received the Order of Canada in 2005. From left, Cynthia, Wanda and Candace.

And he said, ‘I’ve read about your body of work. I’m impressed with what you’ve done and you’re the kind of person we want in the Senate. Are you willing to serve?’ I wish I’d recorded the phone conversation. But I said, ‘Yes, I am ready to serve.’ So even though I had applied to test this new process, at the moment that I got the phone call, I was absolutely ready to serve. And the reason why I was testing the process was because I’ve had so many experiences over the years that I’ve either directly experienced or witnessed where people who are very well-qualified for positions get passed over. It’s happened to me many times and I’ve seen it happen to so many other people. (People of colour?) Yes, yes. Far too often. So what was going to make me think this was going to be any different?

(Were you political at all yourself?) I’ve always been political in terms of focusing on issues and getting people to be engaged politically, even getting people to vote, encouraging other people to run for office and helping them develop what they need to do to be able to run for office. But I’ve never been politically involved in a party. (Right, not partisan.) Non-partisan, but active behind the scenes. Someone asked me why didn’t I ever run. And I’d say, ‘Well, I was afraid I’d win!’ (Laughter).

(But you’re essentially a politician now, right?) Yes. But this came at a time in my life where it was the right time for me to be able to do this. To travel back and forth to Ottawa, if I was parenting a young child or young children, it would be very difficult. Some of my colleagues—not many—but there are some who do that. And I really feel for them. It’s challenging. We work long hours. And the more engaged you are—the more involved you are in things—the busier you will be. I put everything out there on social media. It’s a way of informing people. In the old days, people did newsletters that they sent out. Now we do Twitter and Facebook. It’s immediate and no matter where I am, people are talking about the things that they’ve seen. So it works. I know it works. But it doesn’t reach everyone. I realize that. So we have to find a way to reach other people. But when I think about what I do now, it would be very difficult to do that with a young family.

(With the whole Duffy affair, was there any reluctance, were you thinking about that?) Oh, for sure, yes. You know, one of the things the prime minister said was, ‘We need people like you to help restore the country’s faith in the Senate.’ So I see that as an incredible responsibility.

(Are you getting that sense that people are coming around on the community level?) I think maybe some, yes. Quite honestly, I think most people in this community were so disengaged that they really didn’t even have a strong sense of the role of the Senate. Some people that you meet don’t know the difference between an MP and MLA. There’s not a lot of good public awareness about all the different levels of government and what they do.

One of the things that I try to do is get into schools and talk with young people, because I think it’s really important for them to understand. If they get this at a young age, they’re more likely to be good, civic-minded young adults. When people are engaged and connected in their communities, they’re more likely to move forward in positive directions in their lives. When people feel disengaged and disenfranchised, it’s really easy to get yourself involved in all sorts of things that bring trouble or ill-repute as opposed to bringing positive attention to things.

Wanda Thomas Bernard when she retired from Dalhousie University.

(There’s a term, was it ‘positive disruption?’) Yes, I’ve done two talks on that. (Can you talk about what that means?) It’s not a term that I coined. The dean of the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary invited me out there to do a talk on the series he created called Positive Disruption. What he was trying to do in that series was to get people to talk about positive strategies that they used to disrupt the status quo.

So he invited me to come and do a public talk. I love the topic because it’s really been what I’ve been doing my entire social work career—positive disruption. So challenging the status quo, disrupting that mainstream kind of thinking, to get people thinking about who’s left out of this picture. What do we need to do to bring them in? In looking at policy and policy development, who’s at the table writing the policies and who’s most likely to be affected by the policies and how do you get those most affected by the policies more engaged? How do you create that space for them to be more engaged in policy development?

(Is there a specific example in your work now with the Senate where you employ positive disruption?) I bring that social justice lens to everything, no matter what I’m working on, whether it’s reviewing legislation, studying a topic at committee level. And my whole team does that. Everything that we look at, we look at from that kind of lens.

I’ll give you an example. In June, we passed Bill C-45, the cannabis bill. I noticed early on that in all of the debates about the cannabis bill, nobody was talking about race. People talked about impacting Indigenous communities and that was the end of any discussion about diversity or equity issues. I’m thinking, ‘I know there’s a huge impact in terms of the experience of African Canadians as an example.’ I was thinking initially about the number of African Canadians that are serving long sentences for simple possession.

People talk about youth, but they didn’t break it down to talk about how some youth were disproportionately impacted. I actually had a police officer say to me, ‘You know, if I run across a kid in some neighbourhoods with a joint, I’d send them home.’ You run across a kid in a Black neighbourhood with a joint, he’s being arrested. He’s not being sent home. Therefore, my work is bringing that lens to the work. That’s an example of how I do that in the Senate. But I do that with everything.

Bill C-16, the transgender rights bill. You look at all of those debates on that bill, no one talked about how people of African descent—who also happen to be transgender—how their lives are differentially impacted. That’s the lens that I bring. That’s the work that I try to bring. I talk about African descent, but then I really broaden it to look at other marginalized groups as well.

Senator Bernard’s family during a visit to her office in the Senate Block. They are her daughter and son-in-law, Candace and David Roker, with their sons, Gavin, left, and Damon.

I have a grandson who has autism. And when I joined the Senate, one of the first speeches I heard that really spoke to me was Senator Jim Munson talking about disability issues. He was leading this major work around autism. I went to speak to him the minute we had a break and I said, ‘I’m really interested in this topic.’ So he’s pulled me into it and I love to be a part of it. But when we were preparing for the first year that I was there for (the) Autism on the Hill event, they had this banner. They said, ‘Here’s a banner we have for Autism on the Hill.’ And I looked. I’d say there were 200 faces and they were all white. I said, ‘Well, aren’t there some non-white kids that may have autism? Maybe some non-white adults with autism?’ The people around me were saying, ‘Oh my God, we never noticed it before, never noticed that they were all white.’ So, the face of autism was white. I think, ‘How does that impact anyone who’s not white who has autism?’

This year, they had two posters for the Autism on the Hill day and both of them had many different faces. The year before that, it was just my grandson. He was the only non-white face on the poster. I emailed my daughter and said, ‘Look, would you be willing to let Gavin’s picture be on this poster?’ I just couldn’t bear to have a poster with all white faces. They got it pretty quickly. (Laughter).

But beyond the faces on the poster, it means that people are paying more attention, being more intentional about inclusion and what inclusion really means. My niece lives just in front of me here. I was talking to her last night. She’s a cook and she cooks at a daycare centre. She said, ‘The daycare centre has just hired a social worker to do inclusion work in the daycare. And when I found out she was a social worker, I asked her where she studied, and she told me you were one of her professors.’ And she told me this young woman’s name. I said, ‘Oh yeah, I remember her.’ She’s doing inclusion work in the daycare. That’s phenomenal, first of all that that daycare is saying this is important. They’ve hired a social worker to do it. But it’s a social worker I know that will do it well because she knows, she’s been taught by me, as an example. And I say that not to be boastful but to say that those are issues that I know I’ve taught her well. And that’s the kind of education that I think we need to make sure that all of our people who are working in the public sector need to have. That kind of awareness.

(Listening to you speak, there’s a lot of passion there. You’re talking about how you just got home not too long ago and you’re leaving. You have a meeting with the church. You’re 65 years old. Where does the energy come from?) My energy truly comes from God. Seriously. I mean, I feel younger, I feel more energized. I don’t feel 65. I try to have balance. I really try to balance things out in life. I try to get good rest. Spending time with my grandchildren really keeps me young and I love it and I love them. They are amazing boys. We get so much joy from them and it’s wonderful to be able to spend this time with them. We’re creating memories with them that they’ll have for a lifetime. Just as I remember walking from where we lived to my grandmother’s house once a week, they’ll remember the time we spent together.

(Do you have an apartment?) No, I stay at a hotel. I stay at the Sheraton. They treat me like family. ‘Welcome back, welcome home,’ you know. I don’t want to have an apartment. I prefer to stay at the hotel. It means one less thing I have to worry about.

(Can we go back to when you started university, how old you were?) That’s another story. That story ties back to the story about my father’s untimely death. When my father was killed, it was big news because it was a big accident. It happened on Highway 7. It was in the media about the tragedy and how these two women suddenly became widows. They were young women with big families.

A photo of Wanda Thomas taken by friend and fellow student Joan Glode in the summer of 1969 by a pond on the grounds of Mount Saint Vincent University.

There was a person who saw that news report in the paper. A white man by the name of Don Denison, who was a captain in the Canadian Army, had just returned from Ghana, West Africa, where he’d done a two-year tour of duty. He was married with four children and they lived just down on Ross Road. So not far from the accident site. And I think he was just very moved. He was one of the people that reached out to help us. But he helped us in a very profound way. He was originally from Winnipeg and the person who was the president of Mount Saint Vincent University at the time was his old classmate from high school. He went to see her and he said, ‘I’ve got some young people that I know if they’re given an opportunity, they will make a difference in their community.’ In those days, you could go to a school and find out how kids were doing, because we didn’t have the privacy legislation. He went to Graham Creighton and said, ‘How are these kids doing?’ He selected myself and my sister Valerie.

He became aware of our families, started connecting with the communities because he wanted to make a difference. He joined the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and he knew that post-secondary education was key. By the time I was 15, I was in Grade 11, because I’d skipped a grade. That’s why I was 12 in Grade 8. My sister Valerie was in Grade 12. Our cousin Connie was in Grade 12. So although Valerie was two years older than me, she was only a year ahead of me because I’d skipped a grade. And he went to the Mount and said, ‘These kids need an opportunity.’ I remember him coming to our house and convincing my mother that Valerie and I should go to university together. I was 15 years old.

(You would have started when you were 15?) They took me out of Grade 11 and Valerie from Grade 12. And we stayed in residence. They invited us to come to the Mount a month early, so we were on campus a month early to sort of do a transition to become acclimatized to university life. I was not ready emotionally.

(Not surprising, you were only 15.) I was 15 years old and I loved the freedom, so I spent more time socializing than I did studying. And I flunked out. It was devastating.

(When you say flunked out, at what point would this have been?) The end of that academic year. So in April, when everyone else was getting summer jobs and preparing to go back in September, I was not allowed back. And I was devastated. It wasn’t just from my mother and my sister, but it was the whole community. We were the first people from this community to go to university and I flunked out. It was really hard to emotionally recover from that. And by this time, I was 16. I’d had a birthday. So I was 16, a university dropout and nobody would give me a job. And I was little. I was tiny and short, and nobody took me seriously. Nobody would give me a job and I did not want to be burden on my mother. And (the) university wouldn’t let me back in.

So anyway, I was home one morning listening to the radio. There was an open talk show where you could ‘call in with what’s on your mind.’ We were so poor we didn’t have a telephone. I went across the street and used my grandfather’s phone. In addition to going over there for food, we also went over there to use the phone. I went over to use Granddad’s phone and I phoned the talk show and I told them, ‘I’m not allowed to go back to university. I need a job. Nobody will give me a job. I’m 16 but I’m willing to work and I’ll work hard.’

Wanda Thomas Bernard holds her daughter Candace in May 1977 when she graduated from Dalhousie University with a master’s degree in social work.

Somebody from Beaver Foods—a supervisor or manager—at Dalhousie University called the talk show and gave me a job. I got a job working in the cafeteria at the Dalhousie Medical School waiting on medical students, making—I’ll never forget—western sandwiches, hamburgers, and fried eggs and sausages … that I didn’t burn. I did that for a year and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this for the rest of my life.’ I was waiting on university students and I was listening to their conversations and I’m thinking, ‘I think I’m as bright as them.’

I went back to the Mount to see the president and I begged them to let me back in and they said yes. I worked for two years at Dalhousie and then I went back to the Mount on academic probation. I was so worried about failing that I cut social time out of my agenda. I didn’t socialize for a whole year, because I didn’t think I could do both. I didn’t think I could be social and be a student. It was all or nothing.

Anyway, I transitioned back and the rest, as they say, is history. I did my bachelor’s degree and then I went on to do my master’s in social work and I went to work for about 20 years. And then an opportunity came up to return to Dalhousie, but this time not as a short-order cook, but as a professor. So I went back to Dalhousie, School of Social Work. I was hired in a tenure track position. Signed a contract saying that I would complete coursework towards my PhD in the first seven years of my contract. And I completed my PhD at year six of my appointment. I worked at Dalhousie for 27 years, six months and about three hours. And I’m now a professor emeritus.

(What does tenure track mean?) Tenure track means that unless you do something pretty outrageous, it’s a job for life. It used to be until mandatory retirement, but now there’s no mandatory retirement because it is no longer legal. So now if you’re in a tenured position, you are there for life unless you do something that would cause the university to let you go.

(When you started again at the Mount after two years working at Dal, how old would you have been?) I would have been 18. (And your sister Valerie and cousin Connie, would they still have been there?) Yes. I think by the time I went back, it was Connie’s last year for her first degree. Valerie was doing nursing and it was a five-year degree at the time. So she was still there. You know, they both went on with their lives and they did well. And they didn’t have the disruption that I had. But I’m the only one that did a PhD.

PhD’s in social work from the University of Sheffield in England. That’s another story. How did you go there, right? (Laughter). How did you end up going there? Should we talk about that?

(Sure, yeah.) As I was saying, I was hired in this tenure track position with this contract saying that I had to complete the coursework. It wasn’t until years later that I analyzed that contract. I’m saying, ‘Why were they saying complete the coursework and not complete the PhD?’ Was there an expectation that I may not complete the PhD? I don’t know. Anyway, I’ll leave that alone. Leave that to the imagination of anyone who’s reading this.

Senator Bernard with fellow Nova Scotian, poet George Elliott Clarke, in her Senate office.

To get the PhD was rather difficult because there were no PhD programs in social work in Nova Scotia. I was in a family situation where it was really difficult to even think about leaving.

I applied to three different programs that rejected me. One was Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Their rejection letter was like, ‘We’re sorry, we can’t take you. We don’t have anyone here to supervise your research interest.’ I was interested in doing research with Black men. Cleveland, Ohio! You don’t have anyone at this university that could supervise me? As it turned out, they gave me a gift.

Anyway, I’m home, July 19th, 1991. I get a phone call from my boss, the director of the school, saying, ‘Lena Dominelli’s in town and I’m having lunch tomorrow. Would you like to come and have lunch?’ I said, ‘I don’t have time to have lunch.’ My sister was getting married to a Bermudian. There were people coming in from Bermuda, from England, everywhere across the country, and I was doing airport runs. And it was just after what the media called a race riot. Three hundred Black men walked the streets because of racism they were experiencing in the bars downtown in Halifax. And the premier had invited me to a meeting to discuss ‘the problem with Black men.’ I thought this was really important to be able to go to this meeting because of my interest in addressing issues pertaining to Black men. So I’d said to my boss—her name was Joan—I said no, I wouldn’t be able to come because I was too busy.

I woke up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘Lena Dominelli is someone whose work I’ve loved my whole social work career. Why would I not go to lunch to meet her in person?’ So I went to the meeting with the premier and left early and I went to lunch with Lena and left early to get to the airport. At lunch, Lena Dominelli—who’s an Italian-Canadian who was teaching at the University of Sheffield in England—was telling me about her program. And she gave me the name of the people who ran the PhD program and I put (the piece of paper) in my pocket of my blazer. Didn’t think any more of it. About three months later, I was putting that blazer on and I found this piece of paper. So I applied. I thought, ‘Well, I was meant to find this. I should check it out.’ I applied to the University of Sheffield joint-location PhD program. And several months later, I got a reply saying, ‘Congratulations, you are our first joint-location PhD student.’

(What does that mean, joint location?) It meant that you could do some of your work in your home location and some at the University of Sheffield. So my first year of my program I did at Dalhousie and then I went to England to the University of Sheffield. I didn’t know I was their first joint-location student. It was something new they were starting and I was the guinea pig for it.

Members of the Bernard family at Dalhousie University in 2016 on the day the first Ngena Bernard memorial bursary was presented. Ngena Bernard was George and Wanda Thomas Bernard’s niece. The mother of four was enrolled at Dal with the dream of studying social work when she died suddenly from a heart attack on Jan. 6, 2015 at age 36.

(Where is Sheffield?) Sheffield’s in the north of England. Not too far north though. It’s actually the fourth-largest city in the U.K.

It took me four years. I did the first year in Halifax, did some research courses and so on, really being acclimatized to going back to do post-graduate studies. And then I was expected to do a one-year residency. I ended up spending two years there because it was just easier to stay there and work. And then I came home and I finished up.

(And you were married at that time?) With a 16-year-old. (So the whole family would go over?) Yes, we took our daughter with us. She would’ve been finishing Grade 11, going into Grade 12. But in the U.K., she would have been in the middle of A Levels. We decided we could not disrupt her life and put her in A Levels, so we had her do her Grade 12 by correspondence. So she was home-schooled for Grade 12. And she says it was her best year academically.

(And you were her teacher?) Yes, I was. George had two children before we married and they both live in Dartmouth. They were raised by their mother, really, and so they weren’t with us, although his daughter came to visit. His son was afraid to fly so he didn’t. But the daughter we have together, she came. As I said, she was 16. She was happy to be out of Nova Scotia. She experienced a lot of racism. And her Grade 12 year really was her best year because she could just focus on her studies. And she did very, very well. By the time she was 22, she was walking across the stage with her third degree, her second master’s. She’s the one with the two boys. (What’s her name?) Candace. (And the boys’ names?) Damon and Gavin.

(When you were at the Mount, how did you fund your education?) When we first went to the Mount, Mr. Denison had arranged for the Mount to give us bursaries. And because I flunked out, I lost mine. So then it was student loans. But I was able to get a scholarship for my master’s degree. I got a scholarship from the Province of Nova Scotia. And I was able to get a scholarship and a fellowship for my PhD. (But you still had student loans you had to pay back?) Absolutely. That’s like another mortgage. There was no family money, that’s for sure.

(And your sister, she became a nurse?) Yes. (Did she stay in this area?) No, she went to the States. She married an American, moved to Illinois and actually worked as a nurse there for a while. She also studied health education. She has a degree from Dal in health education and she opened her own home health-care agency. Valerie operated her business in two states—in Illinois and Indiana. But her death was very, very untimely. She had hypertension and diabetes, and, you know, my sister was just amazing with looking after everybody else. (Even in her work?) Her work, her family, all of us. But you know, not enough care of herself.

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard in the Senate.

(Is that a lesson that you take to heart?) Absolutely. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her because I have the same conditions. You know, I was pretty hypervigilant about making sure I had blood work done every year. I had an annual checkup. And in one particular year, when I had the annual blood work done and when the blood work results came in, my doctor’s office couldn’t find my chart.

So my health was spinning out of control. I started just having these periods of extreme, extreme fatigue. I was so tired I wouldn’t be able to drive to my home in Cole Harbour from Dalhousie. So I thought, ‘I need to go to the doctor.’ I was maybe a month past my annual checkup. So I go in and tell the doctor the symptoms I’m having. And she says, ‘I hate to tell you this, but you have diabetes.’ And I’m thinking, ‘How do you know that from what I’ve just told you?’ And there in front of me on the desk was this note on my chart—a sticky note—saying, ‘This patient has diabetes, bring her in,’ and then a sticky note from the staff saying, ‘We can’t find her chart.’ They knew where I worked. They knew where to find me. I’m sitting there and I’m blown away. I can’t believe this has happened. And then they sent me for all kinds of tests because my blood sugar’s been out of control now for 13 months.

Fortunately, there was no damage to any of my vital organs and I’ve been well-maintained ever since. But that was early December. And Christmas Day that same year, my sister went into the coma. But I remember talking to her on the phone just two weeks before and I was telling her about my diagnosis. And I remember her saying to me, ‘Wanda, the best thing you can do for yourself is to walk 15 minutes every day. If you do nothing else, walk for 15 minutes every day. And dry between your toes. Make sure you dry between your toes, because that’s how people end up with amputations.’ (Right, with the diabetes?) Yeah.

(Would you be on insulin?) I’m not. I was caught early enough and my diet was decent enough. I remember going to the dietitian and not having much that I could take off my list of foods. My biggest problem was not eating on time and not doing enough regular exercise. I would go for hours and not eat—forget to eat. (You were just so busy?) Mmm. I’d forget mealtimes. I’d be at work. I’d be busy. It’s six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, ‘Oh, I should have had dinner.’ Or I’d get up and not have breakfast. All sorts of things like that, you know.

(When were you and Mr. Bernard married?) Nineteen seventy-five. (And you lived in Cole Harbour?) Yes. When we first got married, we lived in Dartmouth. And then we bought a house in Cole Harbour and we stayed there until we came here, really. We sold that house. We had made a decision to build this one.

George and Wanda Thomas Bernard with her mother and nephew Dion Thomas Hodges in Prince Edward Island around 1979.

(How was it coming back to the home community?) It’s been great. We’ve been really welcomed back here. I remember one of my old schoolmates saying, ‘Welcome home,’ and another saying, ‘Thank you for investing in the community.’ It’s like an investment back in the community.

(George) took early retirement because of health reasons. He’s a cancer survivor. You remember White Juan in Halifax (the February 2004 blizzard that struck five months after Hurricane Juan). So Hurricane Juan and then White Juan­—that was all during the time that he had cancer (while the Bernards were still living in Cole Harbour). During Hurricane Juan was just when he was starting chemotherapy. He’d had his surgery and he was starting treatment and he had six months of chemo and radiation. And for six weeks of that, it was 24-hour chemotherapy. So it was a pretty difficult time.

We lost power for weeks (during Hurricane Juan) and I think we got the last hotel in Dartmouth. I remember trying to get the insurance company on the phone. Insurance companies weren’t putting people in hotels because they said a hurricane is a natural thing, right? Anyway, I decided I was going to go and talk with an agent. I have this belief if you look people in the eye … so I went and talked to them and I said, ‘Look, my husband is going through treatment for cancer. We can’t be in a house with no electricity, no phone.’ And they said, ‘Look, it’s not in the rules—it’s not in your policy—but if you can find a hotel, we’ll pay for it.’ I literally got the last hotel in Dartmouth. So we stayed at the hotel. I just kept checking back, checked with the neighbours. Once the power was on, we moved home.

And then when White Juan happened, he was still going through treatment. And again, there was so much snow, you couldn’t get out of the driveway. I phoned everyone I knew. Nobody could get to us. And the next thing I know, I’m sitting there, I look out the window and there are the neighbours—all the men in the neighbourhood—going from door to door clearing driveways. They left ours. (Dr. Bernard pauses). And our driveway was an adjoining driveway. They literally created a line and cleared the guy next to us and left us buried in snow. I don’t know if cancer has touched your life. I remember looking out and watching this happening and saying to myself, ‘I cannot be a widow here. If this is happening to us.’

And everyone knew. You know what neighbourhoods are like, right? Everyone knew that he was going through treatment. Who does that? Who treats someone like that? Who treats a neighbour like that?

(You’d think you would have been the first people to be cleared out.) I’m standing there and I’m mortified. I’m looking out the window and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ It was at that moment that I said, ‘We can’t stay here.’ So I talked to my daughter and I said, ‘What would you do if we needed care?’ She said, ‘Mum, it’s a no-brainer, I’d move you to Toronto.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s a no-brainer, I don’t want to move to Toronto.’ (Laughter).

So we decided that we would move. And we decided to look for a house that had a basement apartment. I don’t expect my step-children to look after me. I really don’t. I’m very practical when it comes to this stuff. I do not expect or want them to look after me or to feel that they have to. And I don’t want that for my daughter either. But I said, ‘Do you know what, she could hire someone to live in to look after us.’

Senator Bernard’s grandsons, from left, Gavin and Damon.

So we started looking and then I thought, ‘You know, we have this land.’ My mother had this land (in East Preston). My Mum was still alive and so I talked to her about the land. I said, ‘We’d like to build this retirement home and it will be a place where—George’s mother was alive then too—the two of you could come and live with us.’ And my mother said, ‘Elsie may go and live with you, but I won’t. But you’re welcome to have the land.’ (Laughter).

And so she gave us the land. So that was all sorted. The night that we met with the builder who built this house for us was the night my mother died. So she was right, she didn’t come and live with us, but George’s mother did. This room was supposed to be my mother’s room and the room next door was the room that his mother used to sleep in when she came. She didn’t live with us full-time, but she would come on weekends. But that’s why we moved here, because … I don’t know why those people treated us the way they did, but I could not bear to live there after that horrible experience.

(How long would you have been in that neighbourhood?) About 25 years. We knew the neighbours. They knew us. We’re nice people. We never caused anyone any trouble, never gave anyone any trouble. Never. The only thing that I could think of that people may have had some resentment about was the fact that when they were suffering through Hurricane Juan, we were in a hotel.

(Because your husband had cancer.) Yes. It’s not that we were living in any luxury. But that’s the only thing I could think of that we may have done that may have offended them. But for every man in the neighbourhood to do that. I mean, it was so sickening. I couldn’t bear to be in that neighbourhood again. It was hard, hard, hard to be there. And we were the only Black people on that part of the street. I could not stay there any longer. I no longer felt welcomed or safe in the neighbourhood where we had lived for so long.

There was an older woman across the street from us who was amazing. She was a widow and I loved the way people looked after her. And I was one of those people that used to look out for her and visit her and so on. They cleared her driveway. But I didn’t want to take a chance of being a widow there. Of course, George is still alive and well and we enjoy this house and we’re living a really nice life. It’s very peaceful here. So I’m grateful. The reasons we ended up coming here are not reasons that I’m happy about but I’m so grateful that it happened because I don’t know if we would have ever moved. We liked where we lived, so I don’t know if we would have ever moved. But everything happens for a reason. I’m really happy to be here and Mum was really pleased that someone was building on the land. (Kept the land in the family.) That’s right.

We landed well here. And because we were back here, we eventually joined the church out here and we enjoy it very much. And every day, I feel like I’m giving back to the community that gave so much to me.

Wanda Thomas Bernard and other East Preston residents during an annual community walk-a-thon promoting health and wellness.

(Do you get feedback on what it means for community members to have you as a senator?) Oh people love it. When I was appointed, there’s a sign when you first come into the community, someone—I think it was the recreation centre—put a big congratulations on there. And there’s always something positive being shared when I show up at events and things. I mean, people don’t put me on a pedestal and I wouldn’t want them to. But there’s just a deep, deep appreciation. They see the appointment not just as an appointment of Wanda Thomas Bernard, but it’s an appointment of East Preston. And I bring East Preston to life in the Senate. East Preston is in the records. I don’t say, ‘I’m a senator from Nova Scotia.’ If you look at my file, it has ‘East Preston’ there, right?

(How many years as a social worker?) Forty-three. George and I got married just before I started my master’s degree actually. So I was student, he was a student at the art college. We got married as students. I wouldn’t recommend that to people today. Don’t do what we did! So I consider myself a social worker from the moment I began social work studies and that was 43 years ago.

(I know you wear a lot of hats, but if you had one title, would that be it?) Social worker? (Yeah.) Well, I guess that’s what I’ve done the longest. And I’m still a social worker. I maintain my social work licence as a senator. So I jokingly say to people, ‘Well, I’m a social worker who just happens to be a senator.’ As a senator who’s a social worker, I bring that social work voice to the Senate as well.

(So, is it mandatory retirement at 75?) Yes. (Are you in it for the long haul?) Will I stay until I’m 75? (Yeah.) I will as long as my health is good and nothing else happens—I will stay until I’m 75. Because I don’t feel I have very much time. I was appointed two years ago when I was 63. I remember saying, ‘I only have 12 years.’ Now it’s only 10. That’s not a long time in Senate years because things move so slowly there. So yes, my plan would be to stay until I’m 75 as long as my health is good and I’m mentally competent. (Laughter).

(You have to depend on other people to gauge that?) Right. And I have some people that will tell me, ‘It’s time to go.’ They will tell me. My daughter’s one. I tell her all the time, ‘If I start to lose it, please help me make the right decision.’

I love it. I love it and I enjoy the work immensely. I have some things I want to do and I will hopefully get them done in that 10-year period. There are a number of files that I’m working on that I really hope that I see change in before I have to retire. I used to say this when I was Dalhousie, ‘I’m doing something that I really, really enjoy doing. The fact that I get paid to do it is a bit of a bonus.’ So you don’t retire from something like that—when you’re really enjoying what you do. I only retired from Dalhousie because I couldn’t do both. I had to make a choice and I chose the Senate. However, I still get an opportunity to teach a course once per year. I developed an elective called Africentric Perspectives in Social Work in 1999. It is the only course on this topic in any of the social work programs in Canada. I love teaching that course.

The Bernards with their grandsons, from left, Damon and Gavin, at Senator Bernard’s office in 2017.

Dirk van Loon

Dirk van Loon

Dirk van Loon of East Port L’Hebert didn’t know what the heck he was getting into when in the mid-1970s he came up with the idea for “a classified ad exchange for old farm and country kitchen stuff.” Even from the start, when the first edition of Rural Delivery was published and sent out into the world in June 1976, it was much more than a classified ad exchange. At just eight pages, including the front and back covers, “Numero Uno” included an introduction by way of an editorial, an article on buying piglets, garden notes, thumbnail reviews of how-to books that didn’t pull any punches, several of Dirk’s distinctive illustrations and more. All for 35 cents.

Almost 43 years later, Rural Delivery is glossier and bulkier, but it’s a publication that has remained true to its roots and continues to be enjoyed 10 times a year by thousands of readers across rural Atlantic Canada and beyond. Legions of freelancers and regular columnists such as Frank Macdonald, Anne Gray and Fred Isenor have ensured its pages have been filled with practical, entertaining and thought-provoking content. DvL Publishing of Liverpool N.S. eventually launched other magazines, such as Atlantic Forestry Review, Atlantic Horse & Pony and Beef & Sheep.

A couple of years ago, at the age of 78, Dirk announced that he’d sold the business to longtime employee Chassity Allison. However, he remains on the Rural Delivery masthead as “publisher emeritus,” and continues to contribute his Pot Luck editorial and delightful drawings to the magazine.

Dirk did a lot of living before he started Rural Delivery at the age of 38. He recounts the early days in his family’s Vermont orchard before it was “hammered” by a hailstorm, memories of his famous grandfather, a rocky college career, an eye-opening stint in the Peace Corps in Colombia that ended badly, getting into the newspaper business in Missouri and Colorado, and writing a children’s book that he jokes “sold 10 copies.” And that was all before he drifted to Nova Scotia’s South Shore in 1969.

He later wrote The Family Cow, which he refers to as “the cow book,” and Small-Scale Pig Raising, which he calls “the pig book.” Nowadays, among other things, he’s active helping out at the nearby Harrison Lewis Coastal Discovery Centre, which he helped establish in 2007.

If you want to learn more about Dirk, you could do worse than read his Pot Luck editorials. Or sit down and talk to him. He’s someone not afraid to call “bullshit” when he sees it, all the time with a twinkle in his eye.

(Is it Vermont you’re from originally?) Both Connecticut and Vermont. I like to say that my parents were sort of part of the 1930s back-to-the-land movement. Back at a time when Scott and Helen Nearing went to Vermont. The Nearings, they wrote a book—several books—but one book that really captured the imagination of lots of people in the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s. That was Living the Good Life. He was a professor, I think of economics. I’m not sure that Helen was his student or what. She was quite a bit younger. There were a hell of a lot of people at that time (1930s) interested in returning to looking after yourself with gardening and all.

Anyway, it was all this back-to-the-land stuff and I think my parents were part of it. They had gotten quite a large apple orchard in southern Vermont and they raised apples for 15 years. And then World War II came along. My father went off to take part in that. My mother ran the orchard. It was an old orchard and I was told that it probably needed rejuvenation. But anyway, there was a hailstorm just at a very critical time of year which hammered the orchard and put it back in debt. So she sold it.

(What year would that have been?) Something around ’45. (Your father, would he still have been away?) He was still away. You’d hear so many times, ‘Oh, I think your mother did the right thing. Well, Janet did the right thing.’ He said it so often about selling the place that I think he was trying to convince himself.

Dirk as a toddler.

(What were their names?) Hank and Janet. Anyway, my father really was interested in the whole thing about looking after himself. His father couldn’t do a damn thing for himself, but he was a writer and he was all over the world—all over hell and gone—writing. My father and his brother were sort of put off here and there. His father was married three times. (Dirk laughs). So Dad had a kind of a crazy, tumultuous childhood. And he was put away to boarding school for high school, and he met one of the teachers there who taught manual arts of different sorts. They had a blacksmith’s shop and stuff like that. He took to my father and my father took to him. That’s how Dad got introduced to Vermont. He could do everything for himself—leatherwork, carpentry, design work, pomology … fruit culture. He just picked up all that stuff and loved it. But it all came to nought when the hailstorm struck.

(He went to boarding school in Vermont?) He went to Deerfield in Massachusetts, a boarding school very different from what it is today. It was there that he picked up all kinds of abilities to work with his hands. Came vacation time, this teacher would take him off to Vermont because there was no going back home because there was nobody home. So he would go to Vermont with this teacher.

And I was saying, it was this back-to-the-land thing in the ’30s. I think it happens about every generation. It goes through a period of kind of looking back and trying to figure out where you’re coming from and where you’re going.

Dad grew up in Connecticut mostly, but lots of places. My mother was from New York. (What was her last name?) Hall. (Janet?) Yes, and Hank or Henry. Henry van Loon.

(And his father—your grandfather—was a well-known writer?) Yeah. (What did he write?) He made a big splash for himself with a book called The Story of Mankind, which he wrote and illustrated. It made a big hit and became a best-seller. And you know, if you get your name out there and have one really popular title, then it just went on. He published that in about 1920 and he died in the early ’40s. He had essentially a 20-year hellish (good) career—published well over 30 books.

(Do you remember him?) Just a little bit. I was born in ’38. (Can you say what kind of personality he was?) Oh, he was bigger than life. He was a big, big presence in my family. I think it was awful hard for my Dad and his brother to grow up under that man. It’s got to be tough. We hear those stories of how tough it can be. I think my father always hoped that he might make a hit with some of his writing, but he never did. He should have stuck to farming. No, stuck to all the things he was so good at that my grandfather couldn’t do for a damn. My grandfather, he came over from the Netherlands in the turn of the last century and went to college here. Went to Cornell. He was the only reason I got into Cornell—because my marks weren’t that super.

Dirk’s grandfather, Hendrik Willem van Loon, was a famous writer in his day.

(Would he have been fairly wealthy?) Yeah, I think. Comfortable, anyway. The story I got was he made lots of money and he spent lots of money. He made a good living but he never put much aside or accumulated anything. And then he died at age 62. But he lived well, he lived hard, he lived fast. Big man—6-3 or something, 300 pounds at one point. And very outgoing, really good at promotion, self-promotion. My father was very, very different. Dad couldn’t promote himself if he had to. He went the other extreme.

(And you say he was married three times. Was he divorced? Or his wives died?) Christ no, he didn’t kill them, no! (Dirk laughs). No, he was divorced. Divorced the mother of his two children. She went out to Reno, Nevada to get a divorce because it was back when it wasn’t so easy. Then he married another woman, and when that marriage was on the rocks, my father took her out to Reno because he knew the territory. So then he would marry a third time to a woman—an actress—and that marriage lasted not very long at all. Very, very short thing. And then he ended up living the remainder of his life with his second wife. They got back together. (It was your father that took her to Nevada?) Yeah. Escorted her. That’s another family story.

(When your father was in the War, where was he?) England. He didn’t see action, you would say. My grandfather did. He was on a boat that got torpedoed out from under him. He was a war correspondent for Associated Press. This is before he had his success writing histories and geographies. (And do you know where that was, where he was torpedoed?) Off the English Channel. I can’t remember where.

(Dirk shows a biography about his grandfather by Cornelis van Minnen titled Van Loon: Popular Historian, Journalist, and FDR Confidant). My mother probably got to know Eleanor Roosevelt better than my grandfather got to know FDR because Mom got on really well with Eleanor Roosevelt. You know, they stayed at the White House a few times.

Hendrik was one who really wanted the U.S. to get involved in the War. His hometown, Rotterdam, had been flattened by the Nazis. And so he was one of those who was really anxious to see the U.S. assist the Allies. And he’d broadcast by shortwave into the Netherlands as Oom Henk (Uncle Hank) encouraging messages to the folks back home. So anyway, he had a great run.

Pages from a Christmas book that Hendrik van Loon wrote and illustrated. Dirk and his brothers were the models for the three boys in this picture. Dirk’s the one wearing the “hoodie.”

I know my father really had hoped to move to Vermont, live in Vermont. But then the War came, the hailstorm came, Grandfather died. And I think Grandfather was probably a great help financially when it came to buying an orchard in Vermont and getting started and all these things. So that period of the early ’40s was dramatic for them. They had three kids, Opa dies, the orchard gets hammered, he came back from the War. But he had a degree in architecture and so he just put aside all the ideas about farming and raising apples, and went to work for various corporations in New York.

(When the family had the orchard in Vermont, were you living in Vermont?) Well, in my memory, by the time I came along, it was back and forth. We would be in Vermont part of the year and back living somewhere in Connecticut. By the time the War broke out, I think the idea of living full-time in Vermont had taken a back seat.

(Do you remember the orchard?) Oh yeah, oh yeah. I have not a hell of a lot of memories. But I certainly remember—probably happened the one time but it made such a mark—riding in an apple box in the grading shed, where they were grading apples, and they would have these long conveyor belts on all the little wheels, you know. There’d be boxes of apples going down, and they’d plop me in a box, keep me out of trouble. Memories like that. I remember places in the orchard, but that’s the only situation I really strongly remember.

I do remember—I think of him every year—one of the men who worked in the orchard. His name was Hud Carpenter. He came to the house where we lived, the farmhouse. It was right next to the orchard, and we had a big garden. My mother had a garden and Hud came out to help plant, set poles for beans. And I was just so amazed at how high Hud could take that crowbar and he could strike that hole in the same place—that heavy old bar—and drive it, make a hole. And every time I pick up a crowbar, I think, ‘There’s Hud Carpenter.’

It’s a funny thing—I’ve gone on about this probably in Pot Luck—but when I go gardening especially, there are other people with me who taught me this, that and the other thing. Two or three or four people. There was one neighbour, George Heinrich, who used to use an old wooden hay rake for the final grading of his garden. No raised beds for him. It was all going to be just beautiful flat. And that wooden hay rake—wide teeth and light—oh, you could just work that soil so nicely. (With the wooden teeth?) With the wooden teeth. And it’s nice and big and long and wide and light so you can reach way out. But it just tickled the ground. So that fellow’s always there gardening with me.

Dirk as a young boy at the controls of the family orchard’s Cletrac.

(And there was four in your family?) Yeah. There were three boys born within five years. There was my oldest brother Piet, and then the second one was Jan, and then Dirk. You see my grandfather’s influence. And then after the War, my sister was born, seven years after me. And she was given the name of Jane.

(Do you know what year Piet was born?) I was born November 3rd ’38, he was born November 3rd five years earlier. Same day. My other brother Jan was born three years prior, and he was born November 1. We laughed and called in planned parenthood.

(You wouldn’t have seen your father for the whole War?) No. And then he practised architecture some, but he also did economic studies. He worked for a company doing economic studies and would go out and do the consulting work. So he worked in Hawaii, he worked in Minnesota, he worked here, there. So he was away quite a bit. He was away during the War, then he was away on these other projects. But when he was home, he was always fixing something. There was no playing. I never remember him throwing a ball. That, no. When he was home, there was always something to build, something to fix, something to make, something to whatever. Always projects.

(Would you be involved in that?) I was somewhat, but I was probably the least. We had an old hay barn in Vermont. Hay barn blew down. Big wind storm. Well, Dad decided they’re gonna save the timbers, save the boards. Stack it properly and use the leftovers. I wanted to help—my brothers were helping—and I wanted to get involved. But Dad put me sitting on a beam, straightening nails. Jeez! Oh man, I think that coloured my thinking forever. That’s all I was good for, straightening nails. Can you imagine that? Oh Lord. Which I probably did for a day and then that was it.

My next older brother was not a finish carpenter but certainly a carpenter builder—could build anything—and a mechanic. My oldest brother was somewhat of those things. I probably had the least going for me in those respects. And I blame it all on that straightening nails episode!

(Did you have certain interests?) I always liked animals and the woods and the country more than the towns or cities. I had a pet robin once, I had a pet barn swallow, I had pet squirrels, I had a pet skunk. These were always important. I didn’t like cities. There was another thing that was coloured. My mother was from Manhattan. And we lived only in Connecticut. We were only an hour outside of Manhattan. It’s funny how I live an hour from Bridgewater, I’ll think nothing of popping up to Bridgewater. Back then, it was a big deal to go to the city. It was also a big deal to go to New York City because when we went my mother just wanted to shine us up. Oh my God, you had to clean everything. You were cleaned and brushed and you’d feel so damn awkward and out of place. So I never cared much for it. And also there’s the smells of things, the stink of things. There’s something metallic in the air, to my mind, in the big cities. Didn’t care for it.

Dirk’s mother introduced him to the natural world.

So we lived out in various towns outside of the city. We moved a lot, oh God, we moved a lot, right up until ’46 or ’47. Dad came home from the War and he designed and had a house built. And there we settled down for a number of years. But prior to that, we moved. One of my brothers made a list of the places we lived. Crazy, crazy business.

(Why was that do you think?) I think in part because some of those might have been the War years. It was an unsettled time. We lived in four different houses in Vermont, and I remember four in Connecticut. There were a couple of others that my brothers knew about. There wasn’t much money, so oftentimes we were staying where someone would give my parents a place inexpensively to live. Just as I think about it, I can think of two places in Connecticut that were probably provided just about rent-free if not rent-free. Same thing in one of the places we lived in in Vermont, but it was one of my favourite places. We called it the Little Red House—and it was a little red house—and it was right on a brook where my brother Jan and I played. And I remember we moved from there in November, not more than a mile, two miles. But we moved by horse team and sleigh, a freight sleigh maybe. We’d had a snowstorm and there wasn’t much moving in the way of cars, trucks, whatever. So a fella came with a team, Siley Streeter, who worked for my parents in the orchard. I remember piling onto that and going. I just have the vaguest memory of that.

They just didn’t have much money. We weren’t poor but there wasn’t much money around. And, actually, my father oftentimes dipped into royalties from my grandfather’s books. When Dad died, we were looking through some of the correspondence and there were a lot of letters that would go to the publishing house and ask if it wasn’t possible to scare up a little of that royalty money that was accumulating. Dad had good jobs but he had three kids and I think Mom expected … it was kind of an odd situation. Odd situation because I think sometimes they were better off than other times. So it’s hard to tell.

Dirk, in the “hoodie,” and his brother Jan playing in the brook behind the Little Red House in Dorset, Vermont. Jan is crushing wild cucumber pods with a slab of marble.

(You say your mother knew Eleanor Roosevelt?) Yes. (Were they from similar circles?) No, just when my grandfather got to know FDR. That’s when they had the apple orchard. And my mother, I remember her sending a box of apples—like coals to Newcastle—to Princess Juliana (of the Netherlands) in Ottawa. But Mom was an interesting person and just hit it off with Eleanor.

(Now, you went to Cornell right out of high school?) Yeah, unfortunately. Wasted everybody’s time. (Is that right?) Oh Christ, yes.

(What was the plan?) The big idea was that I’d liked biology when I was in high school—I really loved biology—so the notion was that maybe medicine was my future. My great-grandfather (Henry Pickering Bowditch) was a physician and had a good run. He became the dean of the medical school at Harvard, and so I think my mother always thought that that may be nice if one of her boys would become a doctor.

Well, I went off to Cornell and took my first zoology course and it was a disaster. I didn’t like Cornell. Cornell was the wrong place. I should have gone to a teaching college. It was big. It was about the size of Dalhousie now. I’ve talked to students here at Dalhousie and I think the same situation happens. In fact, it’s worse now. You’ll have these professors who really only teach because they have to take a little bit of a teaching role. They really want to do their research. And I really hit it wrong, too, because there were two professors that alternated on the Zoology 101. One was a very interesting fellow and the other was a grey, dull individual who wanted to study starfish and echinoderms of different sorts, and wrote the textbook. Oh man, he was a drag. I did OK in zoology, but it was really a disappointment.

The whole experience was not so great. Stayed off-campus initially. Because my grandfather taught there. He went there to Cornell, then he went to Harvard. And after he got a PhD in Germany, then he came back and he got a job teaching at Cornell. So my father was there at Cornell in his early teens. And he had a best friend. And when it came time that I got into Cornell, it would be really good if I could stay at this professor’s home and look after the professor’s wife, actually, because the professor was in a nursing home by then—the friend of my father’s, the kid he’d grown up with. So I lived off-campus in a little room in the professor’s house, looked after his wife and daughter. Shovelling snow and driving her here and there, and just be there to look after her.

Dirk made a barrel of hard cider and distilled off some applejack with the help of some other students.

(You would have been working toward a science degree?) Yeah, a general science degree. I just wasn’t going anywhere. I could not handle mathematics. Whenever I came up against math—anything that had to do with math—it was a disaster. Oh God, it was awful. So physics was a beast.

Funny though, I finally did get through physics my second year because (of) a real hotshot professor—a nuclear physicist—who ordinarily never saw the undergraduates. He was the kind of guy who would be teaching graduate seminars. He had been at Los Alamos (birthplace of the atomic bomb), part of that group. And he looked around and he said, ‘There’s too many of these arts and science students who are flunking physics. Something’s wrong here.’ So he started a course. He wrote the whole damn course—Physics for Non-Scientists—and I happened to be there on the ground floor when he started that. And I was prime target because I think I’d flunked physics twice. Boy, that was a hell of a course. That was amazing. That man was brilliant and interesting. He’d teach us about levers by having us make mobiles. And he just taught you in various ways that was just exciting and interesting and fascinating.

(Do you remember his name?) Oh yeah. Philip Morrison. He went to MIT after he left Cornell. He had had polio as child and he had a bad curvature of the spine. The closest I think I ever came to what I would call a Renaissance man. His intellect was just enormous. His range of interest and curiosity was wonderful.

Philip Morrison teaching at Cornell in 1963.

(That’s while you were still in the general science and arts?) I was still there, yeah. I hadn’t left for the Ag College at that point. I took a battery of tests to try to figure out where the hell I belonged in the whole educational system. And I came out a farmer.

(How old would you have been when you took that test and it said you should be a farmer?) Roughly 20. And I called my parents. They were anxious to hear what the outcome was when I got the results back. Because this was quite a battery. It wasn’t a one-day thing. Essentially, it just sort of coupled all of your interests with various professions. Anyway, I called home and they had two phones at home. My mother answered, then my father got on the other phone. And I told them. Oh my goodness, it was so disappointing to my mother. And my father had to back her up. And I remember his comment: ‘Oh jeez, you don’t want to be pulling tits the rest of your life!’ (Laughter). Oh my God. It was just prejudice on their part. They had no idea of all the ramifications or all the ways you could be a farmer. Or all of where farming was going or could go. Anyway, my mother still had it in mind, I guess, she was going to have a physician for a son and it would be fun to tell all her friends.

So I did switch to the Ag College and enrolled in wildlife management. And at that time, it was still a requirement that if you didn’t come from a farm, you had to have so much experience working on farms. And that was pretty wonderful. I took a semester off immediately. I didn’t go back to college right away. Worked on a dairy farm in New York state, and then the next summer I worked on a dairy farm in Vermont. It didn’t matter if you were going into wildlife management, Cornell Ag required that background, which I think was a very good idea and was wonderful.

(How would you get jobs on these farms? Would that be through the university?) Yeah, the New York state one was. They were both through the university, but I guess I looked around for a farm in Vermont, and there was one not too far from the town that we lived in. I was able to get on there.

(Would they be still milking by hand?) No. The farm in New York state had a pipeline milker. And the farm in Vermont had cans. You milk with machines. You had to do a lot of hauling milk. They were dairies with 50, 60 milking cows. Fairly good-sized farms at that time.

(Was that your first experience working around cattle?) Well, working, yeah. We had this farm that adjoined the orchard that my dad bought and wanted to farm. That’s when the War frigged him up. But kept the farm and we used to go up there. All the pastures were rented out to dairy farms, and (they) made all the hay there. I remember the first year they brought John Deere tractors on to make hay, replacing horses. Horses were still there for raking hay and picking up loose hay because that was before balers. I didn’t see any balers at that early time.

Dirk, left, and his brothers Jan and Piet bonding with heifers on land his father rented to a neighbouring dairy farmer in Dorset, Vermont.

(They made it all loose, forked it by hand?) Well, you’d make up windrows with a dump rake or a side-delivery rake. And then you come along with a hay-loader—lift the hay—and then you stand on the back of a wagon and fork the hay around, make a load. But on the farms where I worked, they were all small square bales.

(Anything stand out about your time on those farms?) There were certain times. Oh yeah, had lots of good times on those farms. And hard work. I like hard work. I could not stand the idea of working out in a gym, lifting weights or any of that. No.

I had an opportunity when I was in high school to work in a medical research lab. They were doing cancer research. And because of a family connection, I was able to get on there at age 16, 17 maybe. Anyway, I worked there for maybe a month of the summer and I didn’t connect with it. I hated the idea that I was indoors, not getting any kind of physical exercise. I quit there and went to work for a lumberyard. (Laughter). What an opportunity. It was a hell of an opportunity working in that lab, I’m sure. I must have disappointed Mother a whole lot.

But on the farms … I’ve talked sometimes in my Pot Luck about the time we used to have to spread the manure every day. Back then, that was the practice if you could possibly get out there on the fields. So that was one of my jobs was to take the old International (tractor) and spread manure. The old International, you had to start it with a crank. And when it was cold, it just didn’t want to start. Oh God, you’d crank and crank and crank to get the goddamn thing going. It was not fun. So one night, it was going to go down really cold. I says, ‘Oh Jesus, I’ll never get it started in the morning.’ But there was an exhaust fan from the dairy barn that blew warm air. I said, ‘Smart me, I’ll park the tractor under there’. And when I came out in the morning, it looked like a glacier, cause it was all that moist air. It was warm and moist, and it hit that tractor and it was encased in ice. (Laughter).

And another time I remember … a bad experience. I was coming back from spreading manure one morning. And maybe I was driving a little too fast or something, but I excited the pigs. There was a pigsty, three pigs in there or so. As I came along and came right by the pigsty, the pigs went nuts. Well, every once in a while pigs go nuts. (Dirk squeals like a pig). I looked over. And if you look a direction, you’ve got to go a direction. I pulled the tractor over just enough and nicked—I don’t know what the hell I hit—maybe it was a piece of equipment or something with the rear tire, a loaded tire. Blew it. And the farmer was not happy with me. (That’s a big deal.) Was not good.

Another time, I came out one morning and the heifers had broke free from their corral. He had registered Ayrshires with beautiful horns, just before polled (non-horned) Ayrshires. Actually, the horns were a point of pride. Anyway, so the heifers got out. Ah, bastards. I don’t know if I was fixing a fence when they got out or what the hell it was, but I had a hammer in my hand. The heifers decided to go up the road and I tried to run and head them off and I couldn’t get there in time. And I just took the hammer and I flung it—to throw it in front of the heifers and maybe turn them. I didn’t know. And damned if it didn’t hit the driveway, flipped up and caught the lead heifer in the mouth. Well here’s this prize heifer bleeding. Oh no. Fortunately, it didn’t bleed for long and nobody had noticed it. But oh my God, that scared hell out of me.

(So you would have went to the agricultural college how many years?) I was there two and a half years. (What did that give you?) It was a BSc. But I never went to work in it. (In the wildlife management?) Yeah. I worked the summers. I worked for the Wildlife Service at Patuxent Refuge down outside of Washington, D.C. I worked there one summer but I didn’t find that much fun. I found a whole lot of people who were not happy with their work. They were just doing the job. They couldn’t wait until lunch hour—they could drop whatever they were doing, pick up their butterfly net and go do what they wanted to do.

Banding blackbirds at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge near Washington, D.C.

Some few people really had a job that they loved. It was the star performers, you know. But a lot of people weren’t happy with it. And the project that I was working on had been going for about six or seven years, studying blackbirds—grackles and starlings and cow birds and the whole bunch—trying to learn as much as they could about the life history of these birds so that they could control them. Because they were devastating crops in some places, flocks of blackbirds were.

The interesting thing to me was that most of the people working on the project didn’t give a damn about the blackbird project. It was just a job. The other thing was that Congress—or somebody—decided to cut the funding at a point. They were just at a point where they really might understand enough about the blackbird to do some kind of meaningful control, you might say, and they just cut funding. So that was a lesson: the government can pull the rug from under you anytime. It’s like the Harper government. I mean, look at all the projects that were just totally undercut. Look at the Avro Arrow. Look at all the things government does. Get into something and then somebody changes their mind.

(Did you take from that to avoid working for the government?) I’m sure that stuck in my mind. But the main thing that happened was just before I was to graduate, we had what was called the Berlin Crisis (in 1961). The Soviets cut the access to Berlin. So the U.S. and Britain and France put on an airlift. This was known as the Berlin Crisis in the Cold War. And I was called up for the draft and had to go for a physical. But I was still in college. So fine, I went for my physical, continued on in college fully expecting then as soon as I graduated in June I’d be into the army. But by that time the crisis was over and I was not called up. Had I not been expecting to go in the army, would I have made an effort to get a job in wildlife management somewhere? Maybe I would. But I wasn’t thrilled by wildlife management or about government work.

(What year did you graduate?) Sixty-two. I should have graduated in ’61 but I delayed there because of going to work on farms, took some extra time. So I didn’t go to war. Nobody went to war at that time. And I went to work in the Yale medical school in research. It was a research laboratory where they were essentially mapping the brain of cats. I worked there for I forget how long, and then from there went into the Peace Corps.

(Can you explain that? I guess I have a general sense of what the Peace Corps is.) Well it was started by Kennedy—in the Kennedy years—and Kennedy caught the imagination of a lot of people. There was a famous line in his inaugural speech: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.’ An interesting saying. If you heard it from anybody else, you might say, ‘Oh screw off,’ you know. But it was that time and there was a lot of exciting people in the administration.

Sargent Shriver—Kennedy’s brother-in-law—took control of the Peace Corps. It was an exciting idea to go around the world and help people better their life, their lot. And so I was part of the second group to go to Colombia. It was an agricultural group going to help them grow more vegetables and raise rabbits and so on. It was a two-year stint ordinarily. You go to training. I went for training in Nebraska—University of Nebraska—and then went home for a week or 10 days prior to getting on a plane in New York and shipping off to Colombia.

During Peace Corps training in Lincoln, Nebraska.

And while I was home and doing my shopping, getting ready for my stint in Colombia—and buying workboots—the news came over the radio that Kennedy had been shot. You can imagine—that was quite something. And by the time I had got on that plane and left for Colombia, Oswald had been shot. That was quite something. For us, that was our 9-11 moment. I remember seeing on television—the little television—the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Anyway, I went off to Colombia and I was there for a year. I was there as a volunteer initially, like anybody else. How many volunteers there were, I don’t know. Colombia was a big project. There came an opportunity—they had something called volunteer leaders. From the volunteer ranks, they would take a volunteer in each state who would be designated the volunteer leader, who was sort of in a support role. I put in for that and I was accepted for that.

I moved into Popayan, in Cauca, Colombia from out in the country. And not long after I got that opportunity, there was a change amongst the staff at the paid staff level. We had regional directors, and (in) our region, the fellow brought in to be the regional director was somebody that I couldn’t abide and he couldn’t abide me. It wasn’t long before there was a regional meeting. And the director of Colombia—the overall director from Bogota—came to Cali where we had a meeting with the volunteer leaders from that region.

So, probably six to eight people sitting around a table. And the director, as I recall, started off the discussion. He wanted to hear around the table on how things are going. ‘Is everything going alright?’ And my boss (said), ‘Pretty well, with exception of … well (we’ve) got to get on the case of these two volunteers from such and such a place.’ Well, I’d been working with the volunteers and I thought they were doing OK. But I felt that there were another couple that really were screwing off. And if there were any volunteers in Cauca that might need a little bit of pull-up-their-shorts, get-their-act-together, it was this other couple.

Well, stupid me said right there in front of everybody, ‘Well, in fact, I think really the main problem is not that couple, it’s this other couple.’ So this regional director that I couldn’t abide—he couldn’t abide me—he just took that as the most insulting thing that had ever happened to him. I was contradicting him right in front of the boss. And I was so naive, I didn’t even realize. What a damn fool thing. Anybody who knows me would say, ‘Yeah, that’s Dirk’. Anyway, that was it. It was just downhill from there. So I left the Peace Corps after a little bit more than a year.

Neighbours extracting sugar cane juice using a horse-powered press which when fermented made their moonshine called guarapo.

(What was your impression of Colombia when you first went there?) Great disparity. I think it probably hasn’t changed a hell of a lot. Lots and lots of poor people, and a few wealthy people that really ran the show. When I was out in the country, one place we worked with a priest who was marvellous. He was a Swiss priest—missionary—living in the mountains in Colombia. He was a delightful man and was forever working to pry land out of the hands of the wealthy and get it into the hands of the peasants. He was always involved with housebuilding and just all kinds of good works. He was great.

I also saw another government example. My partner and I were housed in what had been a breeding farm. Some government prior to when we were there had decided that what they really needed out in the country was better genes. So they had this place where there was a boar and a ram, a stud and a bull. It was a breeding farm. So if you had some animal that needed breeding, here was some better-quality stock. By the time we got there, the place was shut down. What a shame. What a hell of a good program.

And then I found that our work was—in some respects—nuts. We were living in the Andes and we had been given lots and lots of instructions on how to raise rabbits. So you go over to the Andes and you had to teach them what a rabbit was. They didn’t know rabbits. It was a foreign idea to braise one, eat one. A lot of our time and training had been on how to not only raise rabbits but how to help people get used to the idea of eating rabbits. Well, we get up to the Andes and the protein source for them equivalent to the rabbit was the guinea pig. We were working with these peasants out there who had guinea pigs running around the kitchen. We could have done a better job of helping them raise more and fatter and quicker guinea pigs. We’d have been way ahead of the game. We spent our time teaching them how to raise rabbits. Well, bullshit. Their choice was guinea pigs. How bizarre. How could we be so arrogant? Amazing, amazing.

I’m still in touch with some of the people I was in the Peace Corps with. One of them, Roger Soles, went to work for the Smithsonian, and he was probably the key individual for setting up the Biosphere reserves. Lives in Virginia. Hotshot administrator, I would say. A real nice guy, and he has spent a lot of his time trying to keep the Peace Corps group together.

Dirk trying to make doughnuts at 8,000 feet.

(So would you have been a hippie?) No, I don’t think so. Certainly not then. I remember being down there in Colombia and kids would start talking about the ‘Be-at-les’—those ‘Be-at-les’—they had the long hair. And I thought that was freaky. I thought their music was freaky. We were certainly an informal bunch. We were progressive.

(So what would have been after the Peace Corps?) Well, I came home. And I went into quite a depressed state, fighting to keep my job or stay in the Peace Corps. I should have known it was a useless battle. I didn’t. I fought to stay in there.

Then I was offered an opportunity. The guy who had chosen me for the volunteer leader job had moved on to Honduras, and he invited me to come to Honduras. I don’t know if you’ve ever known depression? I knew it then. I didn’t know what it was, but I couldn’t make up my mind. I could not decide something. I could decide, but then five minutes later, no.

(You mean any decisions?) Yeah. I couldn’t, I couldn’t. I was just in a state. That fellow with whom I got along so well—he had been the director in that area—that’s who I thought I was going to be working for and with. He was just a guy I got along so well with. He was a delightful guy. He was the epitome of the Peace Corps mentality. Despite the fact he taught us how to raise rabbits. Anyway, he invited me to come to Tegucigalpa. I could have gone. I was made an offer to do that. I could go to another state (in Colombia). But I had this in mind that, no, I had been wronged, by God, that man had wronged me.

A demonstration garden in Paispamba, Colombia.

(But at that age everything is so black and white sometimes.) It was for me. Anyway, I came back and then I went to work for the Post Office for a while. And I did work for my brother for a while who had a house construction business. And then I decided that I thought I’d like to go get into the newspaper business. I had an elderly distant cousin who—I didn’t know this at the time—had been in the newspaper business himself and had a lot of connections. And I said to my mother something about that I thought I’d like to be a reporter. And I thought I’d get started as a copy boy. I didn’t know. What do I know?

(It was just maybe an off-the-cuff thing?) Yeah, kind of. I guess I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I really don’t know why. That’s the interesting thing. And at the time, I certainly didn’t know about this cousin’s background in journalism. Neither did I know my grandfather’s background in journalism. I’d known nothing about that. It was much, much later that I found out about Opa’s experience as a correspondent and such.

But anyway, this cousin had worked with a fellow who had a newspaper in Missouri. And so I went out there to Missouri on a daily paper, St. Joe—St. Joseph—Missouri. It was a morning paper. Got a job there not knowing a damn thing. But they had their own training program, which newspapers did because this was pre-journalism school. There were some journalism schools—I think Columbia’s been going for a long time—but generally people learned on the job. And it was fantastic. It was just super. I didn’t know how to type. I didn’t know nuttin’.

Dirk’s parents and Susan with their Malamute Took on a trip into the Rockies west of Denver.

One of the first things was the city editor came down to my desk—it wasn’t a huge newsroom, but it was probably a dozen desks or more—came down, standing over me. ‘Can you type?’ ‘No.’ Took Time magazine, opened it up, plopped it down next to me. ‘Type.’ I had to just sit there and look at that copy and type.

(That’s how you learned to type?) That’s how I learned to type. Then I went from there to assignments like obituaries. Totally formatted. You didn’t have to be creative at all. There was a tight format. Then from that you had a beat. I had downtown. Twice a week or so I would have to walk the streets, downtown St. Joe, Missouri—not a big town—and stop in at the Red Cross office and the military recruiting office. The navy would have an office and the air force and chamber of commerce. Whoever had an office downtown, I’d have to go do the rounds, chat people up, talk to them. ‘Any news?’ Generally they’d say, ‘No, there’s nothing going on.’ And then in the course of talking to them, they’d say, ‘Oh, well, there’s a little item,’ you know?

Fantastic training. It was just super. Then I had a chance there to write editorials and I had a chance to write features. It was great training. Just wonderful. (What was the name of the paper?) St. Joe Gazette.

(After having worked at the Gazette, did you think this is my life’s work in some form?) I liked it. And then I met a young woman there in St. Joe who was from St. Joe, but she was teaching school in Denver, and not far from Columbine. So I fell in love with that young woman. I wanted to go to Denver. And Denver had a couple of newspapers out there. There was the Rocky Mountain News, which was a Scripps-Howard paper, and the Denver Post. The Denver Post was a broadsheet afternoon paper. And the Rocky Mountain News was a tabloid. I applied to both papers and I got hired on at the Rocky Mountain News as a general assignment reporter. I never really had a beat, although I did the science and medical writing there because I did have the background in sciences. And I liked that a lot. But Scripps-Howard itself was very pro-war—pro-Vietnam—and I was having some difficulty with that.

(Around what year would this have been?) Sixty-three, ’64. And also, I was getting kind of uncomfortable with the fact that I was forever writing about what other people were doing. And I didn’t feel that I was myself. I wasn’t comfortable in the reporting role—in the scribe or the chronicler of what others were doing. I don’t know. This wonderful position and it’s a great place to be, but somehow or other at that point it was bugging me.

Dirk the writer.

I had the wherewithal because Susan had a good teaching job—and we didn’t have any children—that I could just quit there and go write. I had a book—a story—I wanted to write. So I quit. And then shortly we came East. And I applied for the Iowa Writers’ (Workshop) and came damn close to getting accepted. But the director of the school apologized. He said, ‘Dirk, I’ve used up all my favours.’ The grade point average from Cornell was not what the graduate school wanted. Not the Iowa Writers’ school, necessarily, but they had a policy. You had to have a certain level of grades. I didn’t have it. He said, ‘I’ve called in all my chips. I can’t get you in here.’

And the interesting thing was that right within—it seemed to me like within days—J. B. Lippincott (publishing house) accepted my children’s story for publication. So I was saved from despair. I would have liked that writers’ school, I think. It’s a really interesting place to hone the craft … but anyway.

And then my wife and I came East. I was going to just live on the Maine coast and write books. And couldn’t find any place on the Maine coast that we could afford that we were interested in. And we happened to see a car go by us with Nova Scotia plates. We were on our way to northwest Maine—settling up there—but saw that and said, ‘Let’s go see Nova Scotia. Let’s go check it out.’ (What year was that?) Fall ’69.

(You had a children’s book published. What was that called?) Papeek. I don’t know why Papeek. It was a fable about the first sled dog. I sold 10 copies. (Dirk laughs).

A children’s book that Dirk wrote.

(Were you thinking about a novel at the same time?) No, I had other stories in my mind. And when I came here to Nova Scotia, I worked at it. But I never pulled one off. There were two that I worked quite hard at and they just didn’t come together. Then I did all the odd jobs around. I ran a canteen one summer. I tried a property management thing, looking after people’s homes in the wintertime and stuff, drainpipes and so on. Then I worked at the local newspaper a little bit. Had a milk cow, Gladys, and pigs and chickens. And then I got it in mind in 1976 to start that classified ad exchange.

Oh, I had gone back to Vermont and at some point I went to Garden Way Publishing because we knew one of the editors there had been an editor of a magazine called Vermont Life, and his family was from Manchester, Vermont, which was just down the road from where we lived. Anyway, interesting to go and see what Garden Way Publishing’s doing and did they need any help. Well, I couldn’t get a job at Garden Way Publishing, but they needed somebody to write copy for them—advertising copy. I didn’t want to do that. So then I suggested (doing) a bunch of book reviews for them because they had a library and they really didn’t know what they had. So I did a whole bunch of thumbnail reviews of their how-to books.

And then from there, I pitched the idea of doing a book about raising a family cow. And I had a family cow here. And so I wrote The Family Cow for Garden Way.

And after that, I wrote Small-Scale Pig Raising for Garden Way. I was wrangling for a contract for the pig book, get a little bit better deal than I had with the cow book because I really got a very, very low royalty rate for that first book. It was fine, but I wanted a little better deal for the pig book. Negotiations didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so I got the idea of starting this classified ad exchange. I didn’t know what the hell I was getting into.

(What was the need, why did you start it?) Well, a couple of things. One was that I knew a guy in Vermont who had a classified ad publication that was doing a very nice … fantastic job. It became, in his hands, the bible of antique car restorers called Hemmings Motor News. And Hemmings Motor News was started by a fellow in the Midwest. It started out as just a mimeographed few-page thing. And it became a magazine in the hands of this fellow who we all knew, Terry Ehrich. And Terry Ehrich (who purchased it from founder Ernest Hemmings) built it up into a hell of a publication based in Bennington, Vermont.

And I thought (of a) classified ad exchange for old farm and country kitchen stuff, old farm equipment. We had the use of the newspaper office in Shelburne for setting type. And the cheapest way to print anything was on one sheet of broadsheet folded twice and then trimmed to make a little ‘pony tab.’ So that’s what we did. And we couldn’t fill it with all the classifieds. Well, we scrabbled together about $70 and sent a flyer out looking for subscribers. It was going to be 12 times a year for four bucks. Free classifieds.

Anyway, got enough of a response to that to pay for a print run with this one sheet of newspaper folded twice and trimmed. But that was a lot of space to fill and we didn’t have enough classifieds to fill it, so we went everywhere looking for classifieds. We just took them from any place because we weren’t charging anything. So we’d see a classified in the Chronicle Herald or there was something called Uncle Henry’s exchange over in Maine—it still exists—and we took ads from there. So we filled it up. Oh, and I took one or two of my reviews—book reviews—that I’d done for Garden Way. They said I could do that. So I printed those. And then I had started the pig book at that point. They had given me a contract. So I had committed to the pig book and this magazine or whatever this thing was going to be.

“Numero Uno” was issued in June 1976.

It was horrendous. It was a crazy, crazy time. (What do you mean, just so much work?) So much work. And then I had a third thing, too, because I had no money. There was no amount of money that came as an advance on the book. And the Rural Delivery, if it got enough money to pay a print run, that was that. So then I took a job. A friend of mine worked for Co-op Atlantic in Moncton, and he hired me to illustrate a history of Co-op Atlantic that he was writing.

So between Rural Delivery, write a book about pigs, raising pigs—continued to raise pigs—and illustrations, it was crazy. I had volunteer help, a lot of volunteer help. We had no money.

Harrowsmith started at the same time. Damnedest thing, didn’t even know Harrowsmith, didn’t know about it. (Harrowsmith founder) James Lawrence went around and scared up $500,000. And we had $70 and volunteer help. Gee whiz. But it was nuts. I would work on an editorial for two weeks and go to try and scare up ads for two weeks for the first two years. That’s really what we did.

(Was it Rural Delivery from the start?) Yeah. But it was going to be just classified ads essentially. That’s all. It was going to be simple. It was going to be real easy.

(So you really couldn’t even fill the first one with the classifieds?) Oh God, no. Well, it was very much an amateur job because we didn’t know what we were doing. One woman—now Elizabeth Donnelly-Nelson—who was working with me drew the Rural Delivery banner that we used for maybe a year. We had the use of the typesetting equipment at the Shelburne Coast Guard. And a friend there—Jill Smith—also volunteered to do the typesetting. You waxed your copy and you had galleys and trim and wax and spooned the copy down. Crazy business. You had one machine for doing the type and the other machine for doing the headlines. How did we address the damn things? I forget, but I guess we were using an addressograph machine, using little metal plates. But that was later.

And, I don’t know, we had to make the decision: Is it going to be three columns, four columns, how many columns is it going to be? How’s this going to be, that going to be? How’s it going to be mailed? The first one, I went to the post office. If they knew, they weren’t going to tell me about the fact that there was anything but first-class mailing. But there was and that’s the wonderful thing. There was an opportunity there which wouldn’t be there today at all because back then there was third-class mailing. Very cheap. There was unaddressed mailing. You could just put down a postal code—you wanted to send so many magazines to a postal code—and it was cheap. And what we did was, say we had 150 subscribers sent $4, that gave us enough money for a press run.

Elizabeth Underwood and Dirk anguishing over layout decisions for an early issue of the magazine.

Where were we doing it initially? I think we were printing down in Yarmouth. Anyway, so then you had the press run of 1,000 maybe and you only had 150 subscribers. So you go and send it out as a free copy—‘please subscribe’—to various places around the Maritimes and hope the hell that people will respond to it so that you’d have enough money to do another press run. It makes you tired to think of it.

(Did you right from the get-go cover the entire Maritimes?) Tried to. We worked in Liverpool. But we had to fight, in my mind, the natural idea of people that if they saw something coming from Liverpool, Nova Scotia that it was a South Shore Nova Scotia publication. We knew that we wanted to be a regional Maritime publication.

If we had stories looking like they were of equal importance and interest, one in the Valley and one in Liverpool or Queens (County) or the South Shore, we’d take the one in the Valley. And it’s not because we didn’t like Liverpool or the South Shore necessarily, but it was to avoid being labelled right away quick. You know, national publications can come out of Ontario or B.C. maybe, but try to do a national publication out of Winnipeg or down here in the Maritimes and it’s an uphill battle.

(Rural Delivery goes far afield now, well beyond the Maritimes as far as subscribers. But it’s probably right that the base is in the Maritimes. Was that always the plan? Did you ever see it as a national publication?) I played with the idea. But the fact was that it was the local people and local businesses that paid the shot. We didn’t have national advertising. So if some business here was kind enough to throw their money at us to advertise their stuff and they’re selling in the local area, and we go and work at developing circulation in the New England states or Quebec or something, did the person here no good at all. So we had to keep in mind that we had this local base of support.

I thought about it. But it’s difficult, especially I suppose once you’ve started off in an area and established yourself as a Maritime publication. Quebec’s a barrier in a way. I mean, we’re not French. You’d have pockets of Anglos who might be happy in the Eastern Townships to have an English publication. But we always seemed to have a kind of a blip in Ontario and another blip in B.C. and then a smattering elsewhere.

(Was the idea for the Maritimes just so you would have enough of a subscriber base to keep it afloat?) We were always trying to build it. And if I still owned it, I’d still be toying with the idea of how could we break into the New England market. Because culturally—in so many ways—New England and here are so similar. There’s a natural commonality. But postal rates made it difficult. Not that it couldn’t be got around. But I just never did pull it off. But as I say, I’d probably still be playing with the idea, saying, ‘How could we do this?’

The Odd Lobster canteen in Summerville, Queens County in 1971. Before launching his magazine, Dirk tried his hand at a number of jobs, including operating the canteen.

(How many people would have been involved with it initially when you started, the first edition, the first year?) Well, there was Elizabeth Underwood who was a key individual. Her name’s Elizabeth Donnelly-Nelson now. She was very, very much involved in many, many ways. But then there were other friends in the area. There was Jill Smith. She lives in Shelburne County now. Chris Curry, who lives in Shelburne County. Then there was Renee Davis. She lives in Fredericton now. Then in the immediate community, there were people who helped with a number of chores, mailing and other things. And volunteers—Gail Wolfe and Erna Stuart. Both those women have died now. Gail and her mother Erna. And Cathey Cranton.

(Were these basically friends?) Yeah.

You know, the classified ad exchange was a non-starter. It wasn’t going to work. I mean, people put big money behind advertising for restoring Model As, Model Ts, all those old cars. It was a popular hobby pursued by people with discretionary income. Well, old farm equipment, no. You bought it because you could afford it. Right now, there’s those who restore tractors and restore one-lunger engines and stuff like that. But there’s not too many. It’s not going to support a publication and not down here in the Maritimes. So it was not a sound idea. I just thought it was going to be something I was going to do while I wrote how-to books.

The editor at Garden Way said, ‘Dirk, if you get 10 publications under your belt, you’ll be making a pretty decent income.’ The cow book continues to sell—not much now—but the pig book actually sold about 100,000 and then they dropped it. But I had a clause in my contract that if they ever decided not to publish, that rights would return to me. And now it’s being published—a little bit of an updated version—by Echo Point Books, a print-on-demand company in Vermont. And I’m doing better than I ever did the last years it was sold by Storey Books, which bought out Garden Way. They’re selling a lot of it by Amazon and such. Pretty nice. I get, I don’t, know $300, $400, $500 a year. That’s OK. Something I wrote back in ’78.

(And the cow book, how many copies would that have sold?) I forget what it is. I don’t know. I know the pig book—they made something of the fact when they passed the 100,000-mark. I don’t know, maybe we didn’t pass 100,000 with the cow. But for everybody who’s going to raise a pig for the summer, there’s probably 100 of those people to anybody who’s going to consider a cow.

The cow book, that was because I had the advantage of running into an absolutely brilliant man with a fantastic library to help me. That became a more substantial book than the pig book, I would say. It was the first one. And in a lot of ways, I don’t think anybody that I know of has written the equivalent. I’m sure in a number of respects there are better books. But for the history of cattle and some of the other stuff … I had just marvellous support.

(Who was that?) His name was Craig Wheaton-Smith. He was a fellow who happened to retire to Dorset, Vermont, where my parents eventually returned after years in Connecticut. They went back to Vermont and retired. My Dad, well I don’t know if he ever retired. But I went down to Vermont one time visiting and told them that I got this contract to write the cow book. And they said, ‘Oh, you should talk to this man.’ I went to visit him. And by this point, I thought I’d written the history of dairy breeds. I had used sources that I thought were legitimate sources to do that, which was the breed associations themselves and Encyclopedia Britannica.

Dirk’s father, who always appreciated suspension bridges, put his architectural skills to work designing this house in Dorset, Vermont, where he lived until his death in 1994.

So I went to see Craig Wheaton-Smith, sat down in his kitchen and talking to him. He was an Englishman. And I told him what I’d done and what I knew. And he was very, very nice. But he said, ‘You don’t have it. You’re not going to get the history from the breed associations because they all are promoting the notion that their breed goes back to Methuselah and it’s been a closed book for all those years.’ Well, it’s bullshit.

So he took me into his library. He had a beautiful dark library with books all around and he just walked around and he said, ‘Well, you’ll have to read this and you’ll have to read that.’ And he filled my arms with books. There was a guy named Parmalee Prentice (1863-1955, son-in-law of John D. Rockefeller) who had written a history of the dairy cattle. And there was, oh God, just numbers of books from the U.S. and the U.K. (Robert) Bakewell (1725-1795), (William) Youatt (1776-1847), early people on the breeds of cattle. And with those, then I had a handle on something. I found out so much about how that all works.

Craig Wheaton-Smith had had a champion dairy herd in England that was both production and conformation. I don’t know if there was family money or whatever, but when he wanted to create this herd that was going to be knocking the judges eyes out, he hired a couple of illustrators—or at least one illustrator—from Walt Disney, saying, ‘What makes a pretty cow? What makes a cow attractive to people?’

He was a lawyer and bovine geneticist. He was one of these guys with multiple degrees. He was part of a team hired by the French government to come in and look at all of their breeds. The French government was supporting some incredible number of breeds of cattle—beef breeds essentially we’re talking about—and they felt that there were perhaps redundancies. Was there really the need for the government to support all of these breeds, and if so, why? So they brought a team of people together. And it was good. He was part of this team that looked at the qualities of these cattle and suggested that, ‘This, this, this and this breed, yeah, you want to support them. But maybe if you’re going to pull the rug from under a breed, you might look at this one because it really doesn’t have that much different to offer.’

(But he was based in Vermont at some point?) At that point he was retired to Vermont. He was just cooling out there. That was an amazing thing. What a wonderful chance when I was writing this because I would have written this book with a stupid repetition of whatever poppycock the breed associations wanted to create. And I wouldn’t have known anything about the early work in breeding and selection of beef cattle. That just gave me such a grounding. It was fantastic. It was wonderful.

(Now Rural Delivery, it’s kind of amazing to see what it’s become. It must have been a pile of work for probably the whole time.) It was a pile of work. Sometimes I look back through the early copies and I can get tired just looking, thinking, ‘Oh my God, what a grind.’ I mean, it was an amazing grind. But I didn’t know any better. The thing that I think was good and important for me was that I was kind of floating around, going from this to that to the other, trying to find what I was going to settle on, what I was going to do with my life and all. And I sent out that flyer saying, ‘Here I am.’ And I’m saying, ‘You send me four bucks and I’m going to send you a magazine for a year.’ And then all these people—not a huge amount but 150 or whatever the number was—I’ve made a bargain. I guess I’d better stick to it. Sometimes the deadlines were just deadly, deadly, but they kept me going. I didn’t have time to think about whether, ‘Am I happy doing this? Do I want to do this? No, no, you silly bugger, you said you were going to do it.’

(And you would have been in your late 30s when you started?) True. I think I was 38. It was time. Yeah, I’d had quite a bit of life experience. Another thing, too, I was married when I came here, and my wife’s father—Susan’s father—was half-owner, partner in a packing plant, Seitz Packing, in St. Joe, Missouri. An abattoir. St. Joe was where there used to be a big packing industry. Swift and Armour, some of these big companies, were there. And then there was this other company, two in fact—Seitz and Lovers Lane Meats—cranking out hotdogs, salami and so forth. It was a fairly small company that Susan’s father and friend, who were school chums, purchased after World War II. It was a bankrupt company and they purchased it. The two of them—one being management and people-oriented, and one being an engineer—pulled this thing together and both made it happen. Built up a nice business.

Then about the time that I met Susan and we were married, these two guys were approached by a bunch of beef farmers—feedlot operators—out in Sterling, Colorado, who said they wanted to go it together and co-operatively set up their own packing plant. And so Susan’s father and his partner said, ‘Sure, we can do that. That sounds like an interesting project.’ And so they shook hands on an agreement with these farmers for 10 percent of the profits or something. They would give them all the help they could to design and build and set up this packing plant. They set up a company called Packers Advisors who would advise these guys in Sterling.

Well, anyway, after one year, they had so much money rolling in, they didn’t know what to do with it. It was an embarrassment. They went back to the ranchers and feedlot operators and they said, ‘This is crazy. It’s too much.’ So they rewrote the deal for a smaller percentage. Still, there was a pile of money coming in. And Susan’s father and partner didn’t need that money, so they put all the children and their spouses as stockholders in this company. And there was one year when there was much more money came into our hands from Packers Advisors than I made, and maybe Susan, I don’t know. And that was stultifying. That was not good for Dirk. I did break up with Susan—which was too bad—but we did break up. We had one child, our son Wim in ’71. Anyway, Susan went back to the States and there I was.

Dirk with his infant son Wim in 1971.

That’s when I ran the canteen. I did this, I did that. But I was drifting. It was after that summer with the canteen, I was thinking, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’ It was about then I went back to Vermont, wrote The Family Cow, made a pitch for a pig book. And while that didn’t seem to be going anywhere, decided that I’d do this magazine. It didn’t seem like a big decision at the time, but it was.

And then I decided that having made that decision and made that obligation—that contractual arrangement for so much money—I’m going to give you a magazine. In a way, it was all very good. And then I had no money. I mean, I had no big debts because we bought this place really cheap at that time and sold off a hundred acres to help pay for it. It was a very different world. So, though I was rolling my own cigarettes with cigarette butts and my penny collection was important to me, that was it. That’s what I was doing. And yes, sometimes I’d get real tired. But I remember my first capital expense. I went out and bought a fluorescent lamp to go over the layout table—$42. Boy oh boy. But it was good for me mentally and emotionally to know that I had an obligation. And keep your nose to the grindstone, you know, that type of thing. And I liked the work and I liked the people and I liked the challenge, obviously. No, I could’ve walked away.

(Was it always fairly enjoyable?) No, no. There were times … just so tired, absolutely tired, and tired beyond what sleep would do anything about. Just really worn out. But there were always things that made it really fun to do. A story would come in unsolicited from somebody—you don’t know who it is—and it’s a lovely, lovely story. And here you are in this fantastic, enviable position of giving that thing life and sending that story out to a whole bunch of readers. That was always so satisfying. Some of those writers probably really hadn’t had much in the way of markets. Well, some people had never written, didn’t see themselves as professional writers.

If somebody came to me with a story about something that excited and interested them—pow!—that’s got power. That’s good. But if it’s just being written just to make a buck—and, ‘Oh well, yeah, I guess I can get interested in this’—well it’s not fun. When I had stories from people who were writing about what they were doing and what they loved, that was great. That’s the stuff that keeps you going.

(When you look back on Rural Delivery—the flagship—do you feel a sense of pride about the thing?) I think … yeah. I feel a sense of … yeah, it was OK. I’m pleased that it kept on and we made it happen. There were certainly doubters in the early years. The publisher of the Liverpool Advance back then, he had a good flair. He was a real old-fashioned newspaperman. I met him in the IGA parking lot one day and handed him a copy of the magazine. This was the very first or second issue or something. I was pretty happy that … here we are. And he was very, very unencouraging. ‘Many are called and few are chosen,’ he said, and he handed the magazine back. Oh yeah, and there were others. I think of the advertisers, hotshot people with businesses who would just sort of treat you like you’re some kind of a joke. And they’re gone. They were full of themselves. And I was just this crazy person with an idea that you were going to sell advertising and do a magazine. And they thought I was full of shit and maybe they were right. But still and all, it was kind of fun to watch them go.

There were wonderful things, too. There were wonderful people. There was one guy who was the manager, CEO—whatever you might called it—of the Lunenburg Foundry. Big company at the time. And he was on my list to talk about advertising. Maybe he’d advertise their stoves or something. And I met with him so many times. I called him and I met with him. And he’d always say, ‘Well, no, I don’t think so.’ And I had three-by-five cards for everybody, the name and a record of everything. And I would go through my little file box. One time I was down and I’d gone through my file box. I’d tried every damn thing. Now prior to this, I had written ‘SHITHEAD’ (on the Lunenburg Foundry card). (Laughter). But I didn’t throw the card away. I put the card back in there. So then I’d been through my card file too many times. OK, so I pulled SHITHEAD out of the box and I gave him a call. And he’s all pleasantness—generally was pleasant. And he said, ‘How are things going?’ I said, ‘Well, not very well. I’ve got to get another page of advertising.’ ‘Well, sign me up!’ What a way to sell advertising. Jesus.

The biggest boost so far as advertising was from Dick Melanson in Moncton. He had the Maritime Farm Supply company there and sold farm equipment. He was on the board of the co-op that runs the Atlantic Farm Mechanization Show that was maybe in its second year when we came along. There was no way to pay for a booth but he said I could bring a pallet of Rural Deliveries in the back door of the Coliseum. From there I ran back and forth and just about slathered the place with copies. The thing is, someone with his reputation in the business, if he thought what we were doing was worthwhile, well that was like a pass. We had a chance.

But that was it, you know. That was the thing I think that was really important. It wasn’t a question of did I want to do it. If I didn’t do it, I was losing face with all these people. I said I was going to do this thing and so it was really important to make it happen. No, this might not be what you want to do, you’d really like to go back to bed or whatever. I liked writing for our readers. So many of them were really hard-working people, and terrific people. You know, I couldn’t have probably put that energy in or stuck to it if it were, say, Golfing Digest or something. I had to appreciate, and I do appreciate, what the people that we were writing for were up to.

Dirk the typist hamming it up in his home office.

(How does Pot Luck work?) I really don’t know. Does it? How do you mean? (Are you always thinking about it or would you work on it throughout the month or do you procrastinate?) I think about it. I think about ideas, about things that I would want to go on about. I wish that it were lighter. I really love Frank Macdonald’s columns and writing because he can say things that are very pointed and meaningful, but he keeps a sense of humour. I appreciate that so much. I sometimes get tired of myself being such a grouch. But there it is.

(You mean when you get into political stuff?) Political stuff and just seemingly always seeing the negative of side of things. And I do. I don’t know, as you get older maybe just the world changes around you, and things don’t work quite the way they used to. The music isn’t so satisfying. And then you’ve got political wingnuts like Trump and company. And then in our own government, people doing things that I just think are wrong-headed.

My own ability with business is abysmal. I’m not a businessman. But I really get upset, as I’ve gone on in Rural Delivery in the Pot Luck, about our devotion to short-sighted means of keeping the economic engines going. It’s through extraction, extraction, extraction. Making our living through mining and fracking and clearcutting, and just eating up raw resources and not building stuff. All of the Amish people that I visited in the trip that I took to Ohio a number of years ago—every Amish family—they’d have their string of cattle. And then they have some enterprise on the side. I just think that’s a marvellous way to go. They’re building quality stuff. The mindset seems appropriate.

When I am working on ideas for Pot Luck, I never know, when I sit down, what ideas are going to end up on the page. I just don’t know. I could start out in one direction and end up going another. Sometimes they’re simple and roll off quite easily, and other times I sweat over them. The interesting thing I think—it’s a kind of a trick and fun to accomplish—that you give people the impression that it just was the easiest thing in the world to write what you wrote. They won’t know that you struggled and sweat bullets to get there.

(What about the illustrations, were you always artistic in that way?) No. That was something that happened initially when we didn’t know anything about layout and how the hell you fill the space.

A page from Dirk’s sketchpad reveals that it takes work to get his illustrations just right.

(But the illustrations really work. How did you do them initially? What did you use?) I use rapidograph pens, and just pen and ink. I probably was messing with a rapidograph. You remember those? (No.) They were quite popular at the time. They’re still available. It’s a pen that takes India ink. It’s just a very intense ink and these fine points. And I sometimes use a crow quill nib dipped in my bottle of ink.

I did take one or two short scientific illustration courses—not full credit courses—at Cornell. Scientific illustration is a marvellous, marvellous thing. But I was never good at it. It was fun, interesting and good training as far as it went. But I could never draw anything the way it was supposed to look. And I was plagued by the fact I would try to do an illustration—make a dog like a dog and a person like a person—and they never quite made it. And I sent an early copy or two of Rural Delivery to James Lawrence at Harrowsmith magazine. He wrote back saying, ‘I love your cartoons.’ And this was the interesting thing because I hadn’t twigged that (they were) cartoons.

And I thought, ‘Wow!’ It was a great weight lifted because I no longer had to make things look just like they were. Say like the cows on this cover, the most recent issue there. Those crazy, freehand, sketchy cow-like things. Perhaps they suggest a cow at the best. But I thank you, Mr. Lawrence. That was a wonderful thing to do. It was super. And I do like illustrating. I like it when they work. Sometimes, boy, I really work on them and they just don’t come and it’s a hell of a thing. But I love it when they work.

Dirk’s “crazy, freehand, sketchy cow-like things.”

Elizabeth Underwood—or Elizabeth Donnelly-Nelson—who worked with me, she says that I was thinking of The New Yorker when I did those first little scribbles. And maybe that was it. But I know that I did scribbles to fill space. And certainly I thought of The New Yorker for the way they do have their little illustrations throughout. Another thing, too, about The New Yorker was—and why I wanted to live on the Maine coast and then ended up here—E.B. White had a series in The New Yorker called Letters from Down East from his saltwater farm in Maine. I was enchanted by those essays. And I still love them. So when I found this place, I thought, ‘I’ve found my own little saltwater farm.’

Dirk and his sidekick Tank in the farmhouse on his “saltwater farm.”

Mary Janet MacDonald

Mary Janet MacDonald

Mary Janet MacDonald is a warm and welcoming human being. She’s genuine and wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s a champion of her many family members and friends, and their dreams. She has friends all around the world but she has that quality that makes the person she’s talking to in the moment feel important.

Though you don’t hear about it from her­—at least not in casual conversation—she must also be extremely hard-working and disciplined. She’s a wife, a mother of seven and a grandmother of 10. She’s also spent most of her life since graduating from high school in 1969 working outside the home, including more than 30 years with the school board in Port Hood “between maternity leaves” and about eight years travelling back and forth between her western Cape Breton home and the Alberta oilsands. She’s “retired” more than once and, at the age of 66, now travels to Halifax to work in homecare.

Mary Janet is also the consummate volunteer and organizer. For instance, during a stint managing the Strathspey Place performing arts centre in Mabou, she also volunteered to manage the high school musical ensemble Celtic Crew, made up of students attending Dalbrae Academy, which shares a space with Strathspey Place. Today, she co-chairs the charitable group 100 Women Who Care Rural Cape Breton.

She has a lovely singing voice. And she and her husband Cecil have passed on their musical abilities, with their children being involved in bands from Kilt to Company Road. Their youngest child Mitch created a bit of a stir in Inverness County and beyond in 2008 when he competed in the reality series Canadian Idol, eventually becoming the runner-up.

However, Mary Janet herself is best known in Nova Scotia and around the world as one of the top practitioners and teachers of the highly engaging style of step dancing that the Scottish Gaels brought to northeastern Nova Scotia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and fostered in the New World. Some researchers question whether the dance style that Mary Janet performs is of Scottish Gaelic origin, although others—such as Scottish musician, bagpipe maker and researcher Hamish Moore—vigorously defend the connection.

Mary Janet has appeared countless times on stage over more than 60 years and many times on television. She also produced two step dancing instructional videos.

There’s a direct line from the dancing of Mary Janet’s great-grandfather Big Dan Cameron—born almost 170 years ago—to her own dancing. The link in that chain was her grandaunt Margaret Ann (Cameron) Beaton, the woman who raised Mary Janet after her mother Margie died and the woman she called Mama. Margaret Ann’s daughter Minnie—who is Natalie MacMaster’s mother—was also instrumental in Mary Janet becoming a dancer. The two consider themselves sisters.

Mary Janet knew a lot of loss at a young age. She also received a lot of love. You’ll notice in her story that she doesn’t use euphemisms for death such as “passed away.” One gets the impression that she lives each day to the fullest because she knows tomorrow is never guaranteed. And, reassuringly, living life to the fullest means she’s still dancing …

Mary Janet MacDonald: I was born February 17th, 1952 to Margie and Donald MacDonald. Margie was a MacDonell from Glengarry near Mabou. She was one of the older ones of a family of 17. And my father was one of four children and he grew up in Mabou. Actually, the tract of land that my parents lived on at that time dates back to 1835 when it was originally purchased by my (ancestor) MacDonald that came from the Highlands of Scotland. On both sides, my family are all the way back to the Highlands. The Lochaber area of Scotland.

The MacDonald side—my paternal side—is actually from the Spean Bridge area. Very small little place. And they kind of coloured our MacDonalds as the Cross MacDonalds. Not meaning angered. (Mary Janet chuckles). But according to the Mabou Pioneers (genealogical book by A.D. MacDonald), they came from a place where there was a crossing or a bridge and that’s how they were defined.

(And they carried that name through?) All through. That’s how they were identified. If somebody asks me, ‘Who are you?,’ I’m Mary Janet Donald Alex Donald Cross. Donald, that’s my father; Alex, my grandfather; Donald, my great-grandfather.

Mary Janet’s parents Donald and Margie (MacDonell) MacDonald on their wedding day with Margie’s parents.

(And whereabouts in Mabou were you?) Well, do you know where the church is? That picturesque scene of the church? Well, right down to the water and up over the hill behind it, that was our tract of land. I think there was 250 acres. A lot of the land on the lower end (was) parcelled out (for) the church and the convent. The convent that just recently sold, my grandmother sold or gave that (land) to the Sisters of Notre Dame to build a convent up there. (Your father’s mother?) Yes. I still have 25 acres up there in a clearing up on the hill. There’s a cleared part with a little cabin. It’s beautiful up there.

I was born in Inverness Hospital in 1952. And I lived in that home up behind the church in Mabou pretty much until my mother died. She had cervical carcinoma. I was born in ’52. In early ’53, she was pregnant again. And she had to give birth early in May of ’53 to my baby brother. They took him early. (Because she had cancer?) Because they found that she had cervical cancer. They treated her with radiation while pregnant and then took the baby. So that was in May of ’53 that he was born. And from ’53 to ’55 she dealt with the cancer and was hospitalized with TB.

(She had TB as well?) Yes. So from the time I was one up until she died when I was three and a half, I would go back and forth to the Beaton home where I was raised. They were just in Southwest Mabou. And so they would keep me. One day, (my mother) drove over with the horse and wagon and she told Mama, ‘I am going to die’—you’re going to make me cry—‘Will you keep her? For Donald, because he can’t look after them right now, the little ones.’

My little baby brother … there was an aunt that took him for a while. And then he ended up with a sister of the grandaunt that took me, who was living at Mabou Harbour. There was two grandaunts married to two brothers. So we were very lucky that we were all still in a big circle there of being very close. And I would go home to my father’s at different times. That was my birth and early caring.

(How many were there altogether?) Well, there were six in total. There was Alex Roderick, the oldest, and then my sister Bernice. And then there was my brother John Donald. He died at 28 in 1977. And then there was an infant child that lived a month. His name was Francis Lawrence. He had a blockage in his esophagus—which is a minor surgery today—but basically, he pretty much starved to death, I suppose, without that. Then I was born, and then my brother Bernie.

The MacDonald siblings the day after their mother’s funeral in 1955. From left, Bernie, Mary Janet, John Donald, Bernice and Alex Roddie.

I remember my mother—at least three distinct memories. They were probably of the time when I was three. I don’t remember her face … ever. My earliest memory—she was sick in a bed—her hand is reaching out to me and there’s two yellow candy in the palm of her hand, and she’s passing that to me. I’ve always remembered that. There was white sheets—I remember that. I don’t think you were allowed to go into the hospital in those days, so it must have been at home, but I can’t say that for sure.

The second memory, I guess at the height that I would have been, I would have been two or three. That was my line of vision. I remember—it must have been Mama and Papa behind me—opening the door to my home—my parents’ home—and (my mother) must have probably gotten home from the hospital. So they were returning me to be back home with the family. And I can see my mother standing at the stove. But I’m seeing her from the knees down. And she’s got red fluffy slippers on … they’re tramped down. And she’s just standing there and I think she has a housecoat on. And there are people there. But I remember her there.

But my favourite memory is at the Beatons’—at Margaret Ann’s house. I am sitting on my real mother’s lap, just sitting in front of the window, and she’s got a navy blue coat on, and every button is (covered) with the same fabric (as) the coat. Big round buttons and they’re right close together. Over across the room, Mama—Margaret Ann, who raised me—is in the pantry. I don’t know if she’s washing dishes or kneading bread. And I’m going back and forth between the two of them. But when I’m sitting on my mother’s lap—again, I can’t see her face—I remember saying, ‘One, two, three,’ and counting the buttons. So I remember that.

And I remember being up in Mama’s arms … that’s the only part of the wake I remember. The wake was in the house. Mama was standing at the bottom of the stairs in my real parents’ house and I’m up in her arms. And I can see my hand wiping her tears away, underneath her glasses, and I’m asking her, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I guess then I walk over with her to the casket. I can’t see my mother. I still don’t see my mother’s face. But I can remember … I can see my hand reaching down to a very light-coloured fabric that she had on—it was silky smooth—and I was feeling that. That was the casket in the living room. But again, don’t remember much else. I was three and a half.

Mary Janet’s mother Margie as a young woman.

(You had been going over to Maggie Ann’s. Moving there permanently, did that make it easier? Was it just a comfortable thing?) Very. Just natural.

I remember I had a little brown suitcase. I can remember packing it one time. The railroad tracks were kind of below the Beaton house. And I remember saying, ‘I’m going to walk down to the woods, get on the track and walk home.’ So I must have been not allowed to do something or whatever. God knows what. I was putting a few things in the suitcase. And I remember Minnie saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re leaving, are you?’ I don’t know how old I was. I must have been like five or six. Very young.

(What children were in the Beaton home?) Mama and Papa would have been in their 50s. I moved there then. They already had their own six children, right? There was A.J., Jeanette, Mamie, Alexander, Minnie, Donald Alex.

Donald Alex, the youngest, he still lives in the home in Mabou where I was raised. His two daughters are Dawn and Margie Beaton, the redheaded fiddle players. I call them my nieces and I’m so close to them. And Minnie is Natalie MacMaster’s mum. So the music continues. Minnie is 10 years older than me. We’re really close. Her memory is just of having this little doll, you know, kind of having this little sister. That’s how they share that memory with me. Minnie, of course, was already step dancing in little concerts and stuff around. When I was four—she would have been a teenager—that was my first concert. Dancing on the stage in the Mabou Hall at four years old with her holding my hand. Between Mama and her, that’s where I learned everything.

A cherished photo of Mary Janet at the age of five with Maggie Ann (Mama) and Red John (Papa) Beaton in 1957.

(If your mother hadn’t been sick, would there have been dancing in your own house?) My mother was a very talented woman. They say she was a lovely dancer and she was a beautiful Gaelic singer. And loved singing English songs as well. I don’t know if it would’ve … been stage material. I don’t know. It’s amazing the path that it’s taken.

(And how did it work in the Beaton house? Maggie Ann, did she dance?) Yes. Well, let me tell you about Maggie Ann. So Maggie Ann was a Cameron. On the land where our house was, across the road was also part of the original tract, and that’s where she was raised. Her parents lived up there. Donald Cameron was her father and Mary was her mother. Donald was—the Gaelic term—was Dòmhnall Mór. In English, that translated into Big Donald. But most people would call him Big Dan Cameron. And he was born … I believe it was 1850.

But Big Dan Cameron was a noted step dancer. One of my favourite images that I conjure up in my head is based on a story that another grandaunt—another daughter of Big Dan—was telling me. She’s the one that raised my brother. Sarah Ann was her name.

Mary Janet’s great-grandfather Big Dan Cameron was a noted step dancer.

(Mary Janet points to a photograph of Margaret Ann as a young woman using a knitting machine.) That’s a knitting machine and Mama would turn the handle. There were little needles that would come up and they would knit the tube of the sock.

(Dan Cameron) was a big man. He was about 250 pounds, I’d say, but a tall man. And he was a really good dancer. And so Mama was sitting in the kitchen (using the knitting machine). She never had a fiddle. She was a woman. I don’t know if there was just that kind of thing … the men maybe got the fiddles. But it’s been said that she knew the tunes even better than some of the fiddlers, and all the twists and turns. And once she would get into the rhythm, she would turn the wheel to the rhythm of how she sang the tune, which she called jigging the tunes.

So she’s in the middle of doing that. I guess she must have been in a reel or something like that. And Sarah Ann said that her father had worked all day long and had gone out to use the outdoor toilet before he went to bed. He came back in. A farmer—big man—workboots on. And she said he had bib overalls on and one of (the straps was) undone. So I’m seeing this big man … coming in a door at the old farmhouse. He comes in and he’s tired after work, after the long day. He puts his head back and he’s listening. And Sarah Ann said, ‘He just came back on ’er!’ (started step dancing vigorously). Came back on ’er! Isn’t that a great image? She just kept on going. He was listening to her and he loved the tune that she was singing.

(She might have had some percussion from the machine.) She no doubt did because I remember it. It clicked, like ‘tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.’ Little stainless steel needles clicking like a really nice little percussive beat, no doubt about it.

A young Maggie Ann (Cameron) Beaton with the knitting machine she was using when her father Big Dan Cameron step danced as she jigged the tunes.

(Would you actually see her dance?) Mama? Oh my God, yes. You know, when she chose to dance, she would hold the back of the chair and she would dance. (Was that because she was older?) Older and heavier. She’d jig the tune. She’d say, ‘Do it this way.’

(Was that usually how it was done or was there a fiddler in the family?) There was no fiddler in the family. At the Beaton home—my home—regularly there would be ceilidhs. We didn’t call them ceilidhs. People adopted that name. In my youth, I don’t remember that word being used. It was like a party … and we’re going to have a few friends in. A lot of Gaelic singing, right? I’m going to add another family member. One of these siblings (of Maggie Ann) was Finlay. The house that I grew up in as a child originally was Finlay’s house. And Mama and Papa—that’s Margaret Ann and John Beaton—bought (it) for very little. Because Finlay was working with the CNR and he got moved to Boisdale. So Finlay and Sadie, his wife, moved to Boisdale. And there you might know of Father Francis Cameron (Finlay’s son). He played fiddle, Father Francis did, and Janet, his sister, played piano. They still live on the old home over in Boisdale. So that’s another connection.

Anyway, when Mama wanted to have a gathering at the house, besides her neighbours and friends that sang together, often it was centred around Finlay coming back home for a visit. He was an amazing storyteller and Gaelic singer. I can remember being sent to bed where I was raised. I’d be upstairs and I’d be looking through the grate—there was a grate on the floor—and he’d be telling a story. They referred to it as sgeulachd. And I knew when the funny line would be coming, you know? I’m saying, ‘OK, they’re going to laugh soon.’ I’ve heard it a million times. It was always the same story. I think it was about a pig.

We always had visitors at the house, singers at the house, fiddle players would come. There was always music. And I think we were one of the first homes in the area that got a reel-to-reel (recorder). And that was amazing. Donald Alex—Dawn and Margie Beaton’s father who still lives in the home—he was so good. He would record everything that happened (including Finlay singing). On one of Natalie’s earlier CDs, Mama’s talking on it. And she’s saying something like—she called it a violin, not a fiddle—‘If I had a violin, boy oh boy, I would have been a violin player.’ And then Natalie goes into a swing of tunes. So she lives on. Her voice and Finlay’s voice are there.

(Do you know much about her early life?) Mama didn’t get married till she was 32. She only got Grade 3. She could barely write. I do have a couple of cards … she tried hard to write. She worked at home and on the farm with her parents until—I don’t know how old she was—she went to Boston. She worked for a family there and she made the desserts for the family. Oh, she would tell us funny stories. She said, ‘I remember there was all these little clear bowls with just water in it at every place setting.’ She remembered taking a drink of it, but it was for them to wash their hands in or whatever. They lived in the attic and she had to learn a lot.

When she came home, I think she might have had one or two dates with Papa, and they decided to marry. And her younger sister Sarah Ann married the brother.

(What did Red John do?) Red John was a lobster fisherman. In my memory, he fished lobster, he had an oyster bed, he fished smelts. And he had odd jobs. He would cut Christmas trees, you know. Very quiet man. Probably in my lifetime, I would never meet another man who was so kind. Oh my God, what a gentleman. Just a true gentleman. She was the boss! (Mary Janet hits the table and laughs).

Red John Beaton of Southwest Mabou.

(He would have been fishing when you were there?) Oh yes. Well, I’ll tell you a story—1963, June 21st. We were headfirst into the lobster season then. There was a thunderstorm that broke out that night. Mama was terrified of thunder and lightning. The farm had been hit a couple of times by lightning prior to this. I was 11. So anyway, very Catholic. I was raised Catholic with (the Beatons) and my parents were very devout Catholics as well.

When you came upstairs in the old home, you came to quite a large landing. And at the landing, there was a window facing the road. Well, this is what Mama did when there was a lightning storm. She put the Lady of Olives statue in the window. She had St. Anne’s beads—rosary beads. She would put (them) around her neck and they would hang down to her ankles. And she had the bottle of holy water. So she would go around into every room, sprinkle the holy water—we wouldn’t be waking up—and she’d put the sign of the cross. (But) she was surprised because I had the woollen blanket over my head. She knows that I’m claustrophobic and she was so surprised that I had to pull the blanket over my head.

And she went into the boys’ room to sprinkle the holy water and walked back along the landing into the archway almost into her own room when the crash came. She turned around and she looked and the (attic) hatch came down, bricks came down and a big ball of lightning hit the floor and it shot into my room. And it went under the bed and it ‘ding-ding-ding-ding’ on the steel things. And the lightning went through the blanket that was covering my head. It didn’t miss me by much. So anyway, it set the bed on fire and the attic was on fire.

(Then) it went through the wall. On the outside of the house, the telephone box was right behind my head. The lightning went out onto that thing and came back in downstairs. You know the stoves where you would put the cover in the chimney when you weren’t using the pipe and you take it down for the summer? That little circle thing was in the chimney in the living room, and (from) the lightning, that was fired out right across the room. There was a circle on the other side of the room. And (the lightning) then went through the sink, bent the tap in the sink in the downstairs, and I don’t know where it exited from down there.

But anyway, Papa, of course, when he was (working) as a fisherman, he lived down in Mabou Coal Mines in the shanty for fishing season. He’d stay there, come home Saturday nights and for church, and go back Sunday night to be up early on Monday.

So Mama was all by herself. The boys got up and they couldn’t get the water running, I guess, (so they) went to the well and (were) kind of running back in with water. All the lightbulbs burst in the house, so some of the bottoms of their feet got cut and stuff with that. And then they remembered, ‘Papa has a fire extinguisher in the porch.’ They got it and so they were able to stop the flames. Whatever the Bible was doing in the attic, that’s where it was—it had records of births and stuff—but that was just singed along the edges.

So anyway, I woke at some point and then they put my mattress out the window because my mattress was on fire. Somehow, I escaped all that.

I have to tell you this, whether you believe in visions or not, why I had the blanket over my head. One week before that, I woke up in the middle of the night and I was screaming. I felt I had to turn around. There was this big white shape on the wall. I leaned over the bed—and I was screaming for Mama—and opened my eyes and there was white flashes underneath the bed going back and forth. Mama came over and she took me over into her bed—because Papa was down at the shore—so I could sleep with her. And I wouldn’t say anything to her.

When we woke up in the morning, she wanted to know what happened and what did I see. I explained everything to her. So, of course, her being the devout Catholic, said, ‘You saw something and it’s got to be something wrong here.’ So she took me to the priest. I could tell he didn’t believe me, but he said, ‘Oh, I’ll give you a special blessing anyway and everything will be OK.’ And I wouldn’t go back into that room for that whole week. So that was my first night back in the room. When she went in—and I’m claustrophobic to this day, I can’t stand not being able to breathe—she was surprised that I was able to sleep with the blanket over my head, because I hated that.

(But you were that scared.) I was that scared that I did it. And it saved me. So she thinks I saw a forerunner. And maybe I did!

Mary Janet holding the woolen blanket that she had over her head on the night the Beaton house was struck by lightning.

(The dancing, would you kind of absorb that or were you taught?) You know, I believe that it’s in you in many ways because you’re surrounded by it. You’re hearing, you’re feeling the rhythm. You’re familiar with the timing and the tunes, and they’re in your head.

It’s proven that you can learn anything like that—you have to have timing of course—but for me, Minnie would teach me as a young child, and she said I was feeling the rhythm when she would hold my hand. I was feeling the rhythms and the body movement through her hand. She said that’s how she felt that it was transferring into me. I wasn’t really ever formally taught. It was just, you had timing and you loved the music and it was very much a part of your upbringing.

(But at the same time, Margaret Ann, she’d hold the back of the chair, they would still show you individual steps.) Oh my God, yes. And take you to concerts. What I would do is stand at the bottom of the stage, watch Willie Fraser, Harvey MacKinnon, Thomas MacDonnell, then there was a priest, Father Angus Alex MacDonnell. Amazing. All of those men, it seemed I really took to their style. More than anything, I loved watching them and I would commit a step I liked to memory. I would remember it when I got home and just practise that. And you’d get together in the music rooms before you’d go on stage—backstage—you’d go back and forth with the steps there.

(So you’d have jig steps and strathspey and reel?) Not so much the jig steps. The jig steps were for square dancing. In Inverness County, for example, when you’re going to dance a square set, there are three (figures). The first and the second figure are done to jigs, and there’s two or three main steps that you would see there. They were really never taught. You’d just do them. The third figure was a reel and that’s where you would step dance. But if you are going to solo dance, you would dance a strathspey and a reel, which really identifies our style of dancing in eastern Nova Scotia. The strathspey and the reel, since years and years and years, that’s the tunes that you would dance to.

(Any idea how many individual steps you would have for the strathspey or for the reel?) Oh my goodness, I named all of my steps in order to teach them. I would say maybe 40 strathspey steps and maybe 50 reel steps. I separated them out into beginner, intermediate and advanced. I learned a few new steps as I was teaching, but I kind of stuck with a lot of the plain old ones which might not be as exciting as some of the newer ones.

(Would you have made up any yourself?) Yeah, a few I made up myself. And then especially when the children started dancing, they were just eager to, ‘Oh, let’s do it this way and add that to it.’ Just little things like that. They all have the same basic principle, but you’re just adding a heel and a toe or tap here or there.

(But the meat and potatoes is the steps …) That were passed down originally. Definitely. And they were ones that Mama knew that I was teaching. That was very important to her. And she said, ‘Now make sure that you teach that one. That’s a good old one that my father used to do.’ So you took care and caution.

Mary Janet and Maggie Ann with a wonderful snowman in 1960.

Sometimes, when you’re younger, you don’t realize how important it is. As we grew up through the music, in our early years, you didn’t have a lot of external influences. We were pretty intact where we grew up in the music and all that. So it pretty much stayed pure, I would say, from Big Dan’s generation. And then you got into the ’60s, and the Don Messer show and televisions came into the homes. It opened you up to different styles. Tap shoes came in. I wanted a pair, Minnie wanted a pair, you know, so you had that. You were dancing with that, dancing concerts. People could hear the actual beats. And then you were asked to teach after The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler (documentary) got everybody’s back up—‘We can prove them wrong.’ It brought a need for lessons. So Joey Beaton asked me to teach a class in Mabou. Never taught in my life.

(That would have been in the ’70s some time?) Yeah, it was in the ’70s. Oh my God, I went to the Mabou Hall, was like 30 kids there. A bunch of the Rankins from Back Street—like the Rankin Family kids—were in that class. And I had to learn how to teach.

I found that I changed how I danced after that. I was more careful of what I did, where before that it was spontaneity—you just got up and you danced. I was more comfortable dancing in a house setting. You did the concert thing. But I had that feeling—of course, people were supportive and loved it and all of that—you were being analyzed or something? I don’t know. There was something that I felt. That was just me. My comfort zone was just, OK, feel the tune, and let’s jump up and do a few steps.

When I had to perform on stage after that, maybe students were watching. So I was very careful. I always started the first beat with my left foot to start you off on your right foot. And I would make sure I was doing equal amounts of each step, so that it worked with the phrase, and that sort of thing. And when I starting teaching away, people who were musicians and who broke down music—in California or whatever—they would take it apart, you know, ask me these things. I just step dance. I don’t know that I’m doing this and that, you know.

But I would like to say, before I went on my first journey, I was teaching around all over Inverness County on this side of the island. And the others were busy on the other side, like Father Eugene Morris, Betty Matheson, Kaye Handrahan, Margaret Gillis. They were all over on that side of the island, wonderful dancers starting it. I was starting over here, and there were some others. Minnie was teaching a little bit, and Geraldine MacIsaac, and oh, I’m forgetting people. Some of the Frasers were teaching. But anyway, I was teaching wearing taps at that time. What happens? Those students want taps too. Parents are buying those shoes. What am I doing? I’m changing the tradition.

Father John Angus Rankin, he knew that I was going to go to Barra Festival in 1983. And he said, ‘If you are going to bring this back to the homeland, you better do it right.’ And I cried. I cried because at that moment it all made sense to me. You’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, I’m passing on tradition from Mama.’ And it all came piling down on me, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ kind of thing. That was my worry. I went to the shoe shop and got them to take the taps off my shoes. And I went to Barra and it was the first time that I truly danced like I danced up into the ’60s, with a hard-sole leather shoe. And I can’t explain to you what it meant to me at that time—that this is what’s so right. Then, in my classes going forward, I advocated for that: ‘If you’re wearing your taps, that’s fine, but I’m just saying what I want to share with you is what was passed down to me.’ People have to wear them sometimes just for sound and whatever on stage. But I thank Father John Angus for that to this day, you know, that he thought so much about it. That it was important.

Allister MacGillivray took this photo of Mary Janet prior to her first trip to Scotland in 1983.

Traditions change. And step dancing changes a bit, you know. There’s flashier steps. Flashier steps get the bigger audience applause, right? So anybody coming up, oh well, ‘I need to learn that step because that’s going to wow them and they’re going to like me more.’ So I’d probably be considered a plain dancer more than anything.

I have actually found a couple of my routines, which is something else that has changed the tradition of dancing. Instead of being spontaneous, when you add another dancer, we make it a performance. You and that dancer want to be doing the same thing synchronized, which changes the tradition again, right? It’s not spontaneous like it was probably meant to be in the old days.

(You have to work together.) Exactly. And of course, one of the things I want to do is teach my own children. So the first one was the oldest, Tammy, and when we would dance together, that started the routines. Then as the children went along, we had to keep it really simple for the youngest one to keep up. Then again, with all of these classes that were happening, you’d have like a recital at the end. They’d want to dance together, so they would do things together.

The first time all seven MacDonald children danced with their mother publicly in 1999.

(Would you change steps as the tune changes?) Sometimes. If you knew what turn was coming … you’d try to be percussive to that little turn. Yes, I would do that.

(Someone in the audience, say at a concert at Broad Cove, you don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes. But would you actually talk about the individual tunes that would be played?) Not I. Unless I was requesting something specifically. When I was dancing individually, I would just let the fiddler start playing and I would get into the strathspey … and dance until I wanted to finish. When I was dancing with my family, I’d say to the fiddler, ‘Play an intro into the strathspey so that we can all start together.’ So he would start (Mary Janet jigs a snippet of a tune). We would have started at that little eight-count intro into the strathspey so that we could all be together and synchronized at that same time. And I would always ask for the strathspey to be played through twice. Nowadays, probably once.

(And were there certain fiddlers that you really enjoyed dancing for?) In my youth, it was between Donald Angus Beaton and Buddy MacMaster. Buddy used to pick me up to go to concerts here and there. I don’t even know how those things were arranged, but they were. I danced my very first square set with Buddy MacMaster.

(You mean he danced?) Yeah, I danced with him. I think I was 12. There was a concert at the legion in Whycocomagh and Buddy picked me up. Raymond Ellis was playing for the dance after the concert. We were to keep right on home (after the concert) because I was young. Buddy wanted to make sure I got home. (But) there wasn’t a lot right around at the beginning and they were having trouble getting the set started. They asked Buddy if he’d come in the set, and he turned to me and he says, ‘Will you dance? Will you dance a set?’ And I said, ‘I’ve never danced a set. I watched them lots, but I never danced a set.’ So I danced my very first square set with Buddy MacMaster. And my corner partner was somebody that everybody was so familiar with over here. His name is Ginger Campbell. He was from going up the Glencoe Station Road. And every time when he was in a square set and he’d meet someone, he’d go ‘Baaaaa!’ (Laughter). I really didn’t know him then, but this man was saying ‘Baaaaa!’ and he was my corner partner. It was just hilarious because he was in every square set. He was a gem of a person, but that was his thing. He was one of those people I call characters. And he’s long since dead.

Donald Angus Beaton, I would dance for him. He actually drove taxi as well, and it’s he who drove the car the night my mother went into labour. He took my mother and father to the hospital in Inverness the night I was born. My (MacDonald) siblings—they can’t really dance or they don’t sing or whatever—and they blame it on that taxi driver, that I got the music because Donald Angus Beaton drove taxi that night. (Mary Janet chuckles). He was my fiddle player at my wedding reception as well, and Joey (his son) on piano. And as years went by in my dancing, I grew to gravitate to Kinnon (another son), his impeccable timing as a fiddle player. If we’re square dancing and step dancing, I loved his timing. Certainly, I have danced lots to Natalie and to Dawn and Margie, my pets. Love them all. And now we’ve got Joe MacMaster. (He’d be Natalie’s nephew?) Yes. Minnie’s grandson.

(You mentioned going to Barra in ’83. Was that your first trip to Scotland?) That was my first trip to Scotland. Many, many trips since then. I’ve toured a few times at the Ceòlas festival in South Uist and as well I taught at the first North Atlantic Fiddle conference in Aberdeen. Taught in Denmark with Kinnon and Betty (Beaton). We went over and did a workshop there.

Probably several times teaching at VOM in California—Valley of the Moon. The fiddle player was Alasdair Fraser. Started going there in 1989, I think it was, and then ’91, ’92, ’93. Besides doing that, actually flew for weekend workshops in San Francisco with the dancing groups there. So I’d get there on Friday, and I’d teach Saturday, Sunday, and fly home Monday kind of thing. Taught at the Seattle Fèis in Seattle, Washington. Taught in Chicago.

Actually, Buddy and I went to Utah to Robert Redford’s Sundance camp. Not at the time that they were at the film festival there. There’s a family in Utah that are musical that we met at VOM, and they then had fiddle and dance in this environment, and they were personal friends with Robert Redford. They would go and entertain at his home, this family—the Bigneys—with roots in New Glasgow actually. And so he gave them that space to utilize for some workshops. I still keep in touch with them from time to time. And then various things, you know. We went to Whitehorse. Brian Doyle and I, Janine Randall, Buddy MacMaster. Taught the lessons there.

Buddy MacMaster and Mary Janet rapping at the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School in northern California.

And taught in Alberta. The family that I went to teach for out there, they started coming then to Cape Breton. And then they’ve moved here permanently. They’ve been here for about 10 years now. David and Michelle Greenwell. She had a dance school out there, and a child that had been visiting Cape Breton saw the dancing. (Michelle) brought me out there a couple of times. (Then) three van loads (of students and parents) came from Alberta to tour the island. And (the Greenwells) moved here. They’re living on the Brook Village road, down near Hillsborough, and have been great. It’s just wonderful what dance and music does to people, you know?

(You say ’71 you were married?) Yes, married in ’71. When we first got married, we rented—for $25 a month—a large home down in Port Hood. And then we moved two or three times until 1980. I think we were in three different places from ’71 to ’80. Then there was an old house on this property and that’s where we lived. But it was just not worth fixing up. We started and then we gave up, and in the late ’80s, we built this house.

Mary Janet and Cecil MacDonald on their wedding day in 1971.

(You had seven in your family?) Seven children. Four girls and three boys. The oldest is Tammy. She lives in Fort McMurray. And then Brennan. He lives in Halifax. Then Margie. She lives in Fort McMurray. Her and my daughter Tammy are both at the same school. Margie is a high school math teacher there and Tammy is the librarian. And then Gordie. He works January to May and September to December on the Suncor site (in northern Alberta) in quality control. He’s a welding inspector. And then my twins, Kelly and Krista, they live in Halifax. And then Mitchell. He’s the only one on the island … and Gordie lives with us when he’s not working in the West. (And did Cecil work close to home?) Yeah, he’s retired since about 10 years now. He was a school teacher.

When I graduated from high school in 1969, I came to work for the school board here in Port Hood. When my children were little, I stayed home, from ’72 to ’77. And I went back to work in ’77. Cecil was working at the pulp mill at the time but he had his bachelor of arts degree. And he went back to university in ’77 and got his education degree, and then started working. Between maternity leaves, I still worked at the school board, and then after I finished with the school board I stayed home for a couple of years. I felt I worked all my life to that point, but I was in my early 50s I suppose by then.

So, 2002, I think I finished with the school board. Then I stayed home for a couple of years. And then I did a little bit of work around here with the museum. I worked for a summer at the museum—the Chestico Museum—and then with the community cable channel. I worked with that for a bit. And then got a call this day from Francis Moloney. He was a lawyer that practised out of his own home down in Port Hood. It was at the time when the land registration system was coming in for Nova Scotia. He needed somebody who would search titles so that they could be registered and lands could be migrated. So I worked for him for maybe two years or something. He ended up dying from pancreatic cancer. Then I went to work for another law firm in Port Hawkesbury—Evans MacIsaac MacMillan. I worked for them maybe for a couple of years until my daughter called from out West. She was working on the oilsands site. That was in 2009.

(Which daughter?) Kelly. She had gone and gotten work out there as an admin on site out there. They were short. Two people, I think, had quit. She called and said, ‘Mum, you could do this, you know. You just need to know Excel inside out and book the flights and make sure they’re paid and whatever.’ I handed the phone to Cecil, and she talked to Cecil, and he said, ‘I think you should do that.’ So I went to work the next day, put my notice in. I was out there a week later working, and so began that journey until June of 2017.

I worked steady with a few weeks off in between each project. I did admin work but then I moved into document control. You’re working with the plans, you know, all of the drawings that are done by the engineers for a specific project or expansion or whatever. And you work with the turnover books and stuff like that for the life of the project. (In 2017), I turned 65 in February. And I started in March, that last project. And they were stopping paying flights when the oil downturn came in. I just said, ‘You know what, I’m done.’

The MacDonald clan of East Street in Port Hood.

(You mentioned your great-grandfather, Big Dan. He would go back to the early 1850s. There’s talk about whether the step dancing has changed. Is your feeling that it was pretty close to how it came from Scotland?) I have nothing to base that on entirely. He was born in 1850. He was dancing from the time he was a young man. It filtered through his family somehow. Mama was born in 1902. Within that span of time, the only thing we know for sure is that Big Dan would have danced lots of times within the family and in the community, and that he did go to a couple of dance schools. Travelling dance masters came around. I know one of them was in Judique for sure. And so did it change? How do we know for sure?

There’s differences of opinion even in Scotland. When I went there in 1983, I did not go prepared to argue that it was from there. And there were people that were questioning me about the authenticity of it being something that came from Scotland. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what to tell you. I just know that this was passed on to me by somebody was born in 1902 who learned from her father who was born in 1850.’ People came here in the 1830s, so I think it’s pretty pure.

But I understand, too, that there are other influences that can come—cross-cultural. Some of these people were saying that it was Irish. And there are definitely similarities with a dance in Ireland that you don’t so much see. I’m not talking about Riverdance. No, no, no, no. They identified the dance as sean-nós (old style) dancing. And you know, when I see that, I can understand how the people from Scotland at that time would think that it was Irish because it’s so close to this style of dancing. More percussiveness and not high stepping or anything like that. So many similarities I find through our dancing, you know?

But people came from Ireland and settled in Scotland. Maybe where they settled, the dancing started there. Who knows? But Hamish (Moore) really believes with all of his heart that our dancing comes from there, from Scotland, you know. And he lectures on that. He’s investigated it and done interviews.

Mary Janet step dancing to the singing of Angus Cu MacDonald.

(Would you call it Cape Breton step dancing or Scottish step dancing or does it matter?) I guess I’ve been calling it Cape Breton step dancing. Many times I refer to us as a people as Scottish. But I was corrected recently on that—not me personally. But Frances MacEachen—who I know really well, I taught her step dancing when she was little—she’s got some connection with (the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia). She’s from here in Port Hood. But she said, ‘Many people refer to ourselves as Scottish, you know, of Scottish descent. But we are Gaels.’ Not that that should be the handle for step dancing either.

It’s almost like saying, you know, how the Protestants used to feel in school when they were referred to as the non-Catholics. How awful we were—it’s Catholics and everyone else is a non-Catholic. I hate to marginalize or whatever you want to call it. So when I refer to it as step dancing, I want to refer to it just as step dancing because we have people who are step dancers from Antigonish that are incredible, and to almost leave them out of that, it’s not true. Because where did the ships come and drop the people (immigrant Gaels) off? Pictou. So they settled all along there.

(If somebody was playing and it wasn’t an organized thing—you just felt like getting up and dancing—can you explain what you’re feeling there?) That’s my absolutely favourite thing to do. And that’s where I am most comfortable. So, you’re sitting there and tunes can be playing. But you hear a tune that you absolutely connect with as a dancer. A strathspey—that is the call to a dancer. That’s the call. You turn on. It’s like, ‘OK, who’s going to get up first?’ Because it’s such a short period of time before they break out into the reels. You have to get in there if you want to dance. Now I have to wait my time and maybe get up and do a 20-second bit or whatever. It’s that house atmosphere comfort of just being spontaneous. I just can’t explain it more than that. But in that environment, that’s where the love affair is, absolutely, without a doubt.

(Is there a certain strathspey?) Not particularly, no. Just the timing. No, just the strathspey. (You don’t have favourite tunes?) No, I never really did. But the old ones, you know, like King George, well that’s the king. I’m not good at naming tunes. I know them when they’re played. But that of course, King George, and I love the King’s Reel, you know.

(What would you say the health of step dancing is right now?) Oh my God, I think it’s great. There are so many wonderful people that are involved and teaching it. And wholesomely teaching in group environments and in homes. Cheryl MacQuarrie, she started like jam sessions for the kids. She’s already teaching them dancing in square sets, but creating the environment where the young musicians come and they’re playing for the young ones to dance. Melody Cameron, she’s married to my cousin, and she lives in West Mabou. They run a farm there. She’s taking the teaching to a whole new level.

(Are there things you think you should do when you’re dancing?) I guess the style was just feet close together, neat, close to the floor. But that comes naturally. And our arms are just loose and down by our sides. I don’t lift my arms. Some may. But that’s just that kind of style that was in our family and are in a lot of the dancers, too, to this day.

The hardest thing that I’ve ever done is smile up there on the stage. I look back at maybe something that I’ve seen of my own self and I’m not smiling. I’m only thinking of my feet and I’m thinking that everybody else is looking at my feet. But when you look at other dance styles or whatever, it’s a performance. And you have to project that you’re loving what you’re doing. You’re loving what you’re doing but you’re not smiling. But I try to do that to make it pleasant looking. You don’t want to have a frown.

Mary Janet and Father Eugene Morris step dancing together at a concert.

(If you’re looking at the younger generation, if somebody’s doing something a little different, do you have to kind of grin and bear it?) Yes. As you know, you open yourself up. People coming to visit Cape Breton—there’s more exposure. There’s television and there’s other styles. It changes.

The ankle bends or kicks or whatever might wow an audience, but it’s probably not traditional. But it gets the biggest wow. So that goes out to other younger dancers and they all want to do that one. Those little influences come in and they do change things for some dancers. It’s not that I cringe, you know? They’re very talented, what they can do. I guess we have to be open to change.

Mac Morin (pianist, step dancer and step dance teacher), he’ll come now and again, and we’ll have a visit. We have some really in-depth chats about that. That’s one of his big things. He wants to keep it as traditional as possible.

A tune composed for Mary Janet by her niece Dawn Beaton during her time managing Strathspey Place in Mabou. A number of composers, from Dan R. MacDonald to Kinnon Beaton, have made tunes in honour of Mary Janet and her family.

(Was there a high school group, Celtic Crew?) Yes, yes. (Can you tell me a little bit about that?) Oh my gosh, when I went to Strathspey Place in Mabou, you’re in the middle of Dalbrae Academy and kids are there. And I wondered if we couldn’t work with some of the kids. Some were playing fiddle, some could sing, some played the piano and all that. I started gathering them together until I had a group of 10.

I had little Rankin MacInnis from the time he was in Grade 8. He was part of the group, and now he’s in music pretty much full-time. He’s a piper, anyway, but sings as well. Tara Rankin from Mabou, she lives in Scotland full-time now. She came on a trip to Scotland with me. I had the group over there—we performed—and she fell in love with Scotland. She said, ‘I’m definitely coming back here.’ And so she went back there to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (a college where instruction is in Scottish Gaelic) in Skye, and she took the program over there, Gaelic studies I think. Beautiful Gaelic singer, lovely piano player and she can step dance as well. She’s still there.

Mitch was in that group. He would sing like Celtic songs. We adapted it so that he could sing some Jimmy Rankin songs. Then Margie Beaton was a big part of that group, my niece. And Kenneth MacKenzie. His brother Calum was a big part of that group. He stayed with it more than Kenneth, who was only in it for one year before he graduated, I guess. Calum was piano and fiddle. Kimberly Gillis—she lives out West now—beautiful fiddle player. Many were transitioning through there. Kerri-Jeanne MacLellan from Judique. She is now the keyboard (player) and backup vocalist for Alvvays. Molly (Rankin) was also in Celtic Crew for a very short time. Molly being John Morris’s daughter and the singer behind Alvvays. Stephanie MacDonald, from Whycocomagh, and she’s now a teacher at Dalbrae. The members came and went as they left school, but I only had them for three years I guess.

Members of Celtic Crew. In front, from left, Tara Rankin, Margie Beaton, Kimberly Gillis, Shoneth MacInnis and Stephanie MacDonald. In back, from left, Rankin MacInnis, Kerri-Jeanne MacLellan, Mitch MacDonald, Calum MacKenzie and Peter MacInnis. Other members of the group included Tiffany Beks, Sheena Boucher, Carolyn MacArthur, Blair MacDonald, Keith MacDonald, Kyle MacDonald, Kolten MacDonell, Kenneth MacKenzie, John Clayton Rankin, Molly Rankin, Sara Rankin and Rachael Ryan.

My role was, say, the manager. Every week, we would gather and practise. I applied for some funding. So I got them some additional instruments like flutes, and recording devices so that they could record and practice. Just kind of got them together and got them thinking about how we could do a concert, and make everybody strong in getting up in front of a mic and being self-sufficient.

They would all be MCs. And some of them were so shy. It was amazing what they did. (Did you insist on that?) Yes.

After polishing up their performances and their singing, I would get some mentors in to say, ‘Here’s a group of tunes that you guys can learn.’ And then they would put it together and they would practise and practise that. Then they would step dance to one of the others playing for them. And they would change seats on the piano. It was usually Calum MacKenzie on the piano or Tara Rankin or her brother John Clayton. He was in it for a little bit.

They got asked to be an opening act for Natalie MacMaster’s show for Celtic Colours over in Whycocomagh at the new school. So we had a half-hour performance ready. Those kids were so nervous. This was a sold-out show. I don’t know how many people they could fit in there. I’m thinking it was around 600 or 700. Once they got on stage, they were on their own. I was at the back and we had the whole show scheduled. They each were taking turns speaking.

And Calum MacKenzie, he played a solo piano piece, right from a march, through strathspey, through the reel. And whole time just sombre, head down. That was Calum, because he was really shy. And he played it perfectly. Perfectly. And got a standing ovation from that audience. Oh my God, that makes me tear up just remembering that moment. And Margie Beaton was the one to introduce the next number. I can still see her standing there. She’s looking and Calum looks up. And Margie says, ‘Well now, Calum,’—just like having that spontaneity—‘I think they would like to hear another one.’ Which was not in the program! And people sat down. Calum played another number and the audience clapped. Then they went to the next number and it was a song. And then there was the pipes. We had a nice mix.

And then somebody came over to me—I think it was Burton MacIntyre—and says, ‘OK, we just got word, Natalie’s plane was delayed. She’s not going to be here for another half an hour.’

So I go up and around and I ended up talking to Margie, my niece, and said, ‘Margie, you guys are going to have to wing it from here. Don’t do the finale. Just work on stuff that we’ve done before that you have in your head.’ Ian McNeil, I think, was the MC. So he came up. And our kids are furiously chatting amongst themselves. They’ll figure it out. I knew that they would but they were nervous too. And Ian said, ‘How would you like to listen to these folks for another 20 minutes or so?’

Brad Davidge was Natalie’s guitar player. Natalie’s clothes didn’t come and neither did Brad’s guitar. So Burton MacIntyre gave his black socks to Natalie to put on and Mitchell had to give his guitar to Brad Davidge to play for the show—the whole show—because the equipment didn’t come. They managed to put on an amazing show regardless. Natalie borrowed somebody else’s clothes or whatever.

But anyway, that Celtic Crew, they wowed the audience that night. And they got a standing ovation at the end for entertaining for that period of time. Mitchell had to end up singing some extra songs too. He was on for two songs and I think he ended up singing four that he could take from different things we’d done before. It was really enriching for them. I think they were a pretty tight little group by the time we finished. I didn’t have the musical ability, but I could manage them and say, ‘You know, this would be a nice mix. OK, you guys figure out what you want to play and hear.’ Just give them confidence.

(And would you have tips for them?) Yeah, suggestions on how to perform. They had a little tribute for me a couple of years ago down here during Chestico Days (Port Hood’s summer festival). And they wanted to know … anybody I wanted. I said, ‘I would love to see some of the Celtic Crew.’

Anyway, they came and they roasted me. You don’t even know what you’re saying or doing. One of the things that they would do, some of them would wear white socks and they had black pants on. And I would say, ‘For God’s sakes, will you wear black socks?’ And then a couple of times they would chew on gum, and I ate the head off them. You don’t do that! (Laughter). But you know, just smile, don’t chew gum, don’t wear white socks. All I did was picked up on a few things like that. Just managing a performance group, I guess, and what I’d be looking at as an audience member. And if we got paid for anything, the money went to every one of them. And they performed a few little places.

It’s great memories for them. And we kept it up a little bit after I left (Strathspey Place). But it just kind of dwindled out because the majority of them that were so talented had graduated by that point, and there wasn’t a new crop coming up.

Mary Janet’s son Mitch, right, during his time performing on Canadian Idol in 2008. He was runner-up. He’s pictured with Mariah Carey and the show’s winner, Theo Tams.

(When Natalie started to get kind of big, what did that mean to the family?) Oh my God, just a feeling of such pride. And a lot of the time it was pride for Mama. We were so proud that Mama could see that this was continuing into the next generation. Dawn and Margie weren’t there yet, but Natalie had just accelerated quickly to the world stage, really. Mama was so proud of that.

(What was it about her?) She was such a dancer from such a young age. And it wasn’t step dancing, it was Highland dancing. She was a Highland dancer. That was her thing and she just excelled at that. Medals galore. Minnie would teach her a little bit of step dancing at the time. So she had that Highland dance-like flavour in her step dancing. Maybe a little bit of higher stepping and stuff like that. And then she picked up the fiddle. It was her father, really, who started her off on that. A fiddle came into her possession from an uncle. I think it was Charlie MacMaster. And of course, Alex, he’s a closet fiddler—Minnie’s husband and Buddy’s brother. He started her on a few little tunes and she just got it. And the rest is absolute history.

(Is there any explanation for that?) It’s natural ability. I would say it’s just completely ingrained in her. She would get that from both sides of the family. But the thing is, it’s an incubator, you’re surrounded by it. You play the music in the house, and you may not think that you’re taking in those tunes, but she obviously was. Minnie, she’s got fiddle music on all the time. All the time. And Uncle Buddy bringing the fiddle into the house. The tunes, she didn’t have to learn that. She knew them by ear. And then she started (lessons) with Stan Chapman in Antigonish. That’s it.

(But there had to be some real work ethic?) Oh totally. Practising, practising all the time. And didn’t have to be pushed to it. She just absolutely loved it. Minnie would tell you that herself. Didn’t have to push her to do anything. And she didn’t want to make mistakes. I think that that’s why she practised and just got the sound. She had such a good ear.

I think she was 10 and that was at Mabou Ceilidh concert. I think that was her first public performance. Minnie was nervous about it. God, nobody could believe that this 10-year-old was that good.

Two sisters dancing with their daughters. From left, Tammy and Mary Janet MacDonald and Natalie and Minnie MacMaster.

Again, you wonder if there’s such things as forerunners. I went to Sunday mass this one day in November of ’95 and I saw a lady in church that takes pictures. Janet van Zutphen. And I said, ‘Now that would be a nice thing to do for my kids for Christmas … is have a nice picture of both of their grandmothers.’ Because the grandfathers were gone. So after church I came home and called Janet van Zutphen and said, ‘Janet, would you make a house call?’ I told her what for. I said, ‘I’ll take Cecil’s mother down and Mama—if Mama will do this—but I’m going to ask you first.’ She said absolutely.

So we made a date for Thursday afternoon. Mama agreed. And Marie, Cecil’s mother, I knew she would anyway, but Mama didn’t like people taking her picture. Anyway, we got there on that Thursday afternoon and Mama had a top which isn’t on her there. She couldn’t close the buttons that day. The tips of her fingers were bothering her and she couldn’t close them. So she changed and we got the picture taken. And, oh my God, all the laughing we did, oh my dear God. Because Janet had the umbrellas and the lights and everything to make it perfect.

That was Thursday. And on the following Monday, I had to take Mama down to outpatients because this was worse on her fingers. I took her down and they said it was gout and gave her medication. And I stayed with her that day and then she didn’t get better. The following Monday, she was admitted to the hospital, and that night she went into a coma. Dawn and Margie came with their fiddles. They sat at the end of the bed, and we were all there, and they were playing the tunes. And like her feet—her toes—were keeping time to the music. And her in a coma.

Then she died on the 25th, the following Saturday. And the day before she died, I came home to shower and to get changed because we were in the hospital the whole time with her. And the pictures were on the table from Janet. I’m so thankful when I look at that picture that we had it done. She was 93 in that picture. Born in 1902 and died in 1995. So that’s a favourite picture.

A treasured photo of Maggie Ann Beaton at the age of 93 taken by Janet van Zutphen.

(Your father, you never went back with him?) I never went back. And I only found out as an adult that—once we were to start school—he wanted us back, and Mama or Sarah Ann couldn’t part with us. And he just said, you know, ‘That’s OK.’ I would go back for two to three weeks every summer, Christmas, my birthday and that sort of thing. And I absolutely adored him. He was so sweet. And when we went into the new school, Mabou Consolidated, in the early ’60s, he became the new janitor there. I saw him every day. And then in 1968—he was 54—he died in his sleep. I was in Grade 11.

(Did he take a heart attack?) It was a heart attack. And it was horrid. It was really sad. It was very, very, very sad. Of course, all the women were saying he died of a broken heart, you know, he just pined away for her for many years. And we all thought he was a healthy man. But my brother was still at home at that time. He had finished school, John Donald, the fellow that got killed (in an industrial accident) when he was 28. But he got up—he was working in Port Hood—and he noticed that Daddy’s truck was still home. He went downstairs and Daddy hadn’t made the porridge that morning and the stove was out. He thought that was really strange. He went back upstairs to see if Daddy was home and he walked in the bedroom. He was dead in the bed.

(How did it work out with the other siblings?) My father kept the three oldest because they were in school, and he could work and not have to get a babysitter. And his sister lived there too. She was single. She didn’t get married until she was like 38 or 39. He would go away to work in Elliot Lake (in Ontario). (Was he a miner?) Yeah, he worked in the mines. He moved home because she was getting married, and found work at home. That’s when he was janitor.

The MacDonald siblings with their father Donald in 1958.

(You mentioned you were four when you danced with Minnie. Did you ever suffer from stage fright?) That concert when she had me up on the stage when I was four. I remember it. I went up on the stage holding her hand and we danced together. I had my finger in my mouth and I danced.

I’m thinking my mother would have died just probably six months before that. Everybody in that audience was from Mabou. They’re looking at this little girl whose mother had died. So there’s that kind of empathy that’s going on there. And they went crazy clapping when I was done. Mama was in the front row. And when I got off the stage, I just ran and I bawled my eyes out in Mama’s lap because it just frightened me—this reaction—and didn’t understand that.

But looking back at it now, I think that feeling must have been there from the audience that, ‘Oh my God, wouldn’t Margie—my mother—be so proud.’

Mary Janet’s daughter Margie took this photo of her mother looking over the water in her childhood community of Mabou in the summer of 2018.
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