Celtic competitions are more than heritage drag

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An athlete in full swing with the hammer. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Philosophers may debate whether a tree falling in the forest makes a noise, but a tossed caber certainly generates sound. There’s the prolonged “aaaaaarrrrrrggggggghhhhhhh” screamed by the caber tosser as he runs across an open field trying to throw a telephone-pole-sized log end-over-end, the clunk of the log falling on the ground and the excited cheers and chants of the audience. At least that’s how it is at the Antigonish Highland Games.

Highland games are quietly noisy events. Their noise isn’t the kind that causes neighbours to call the police, it’s of physical exertion, competition and culture. There is the gentle thump, thump, thump of dancers’ feet as they twirl amid crossed swords lain on the stage. The hum and squeal of bagpipes, the boom and rat-tat-tat of bass and tenor drums, the grunts and groans of the tug-of-rope competition, screams of their supporters and the prolonged yells of a heavy athlete either twirling in a cage to throw the Scottish hammer, a stone or building momentum for the caber toss.

I attended the 2014 Antigonish Highland Games for the first time and learned so much. The Games were like being dropped into a Celtic bubble. Walking Antigonish’s main street I heard people speaking Gaelic. Signs leading to Columbus Field, where the games are held, are in Gaelic. And throughout the town are monuments and plaques to the area’s Scottish heritage.

At Columbus Field I first encountered a dance pavilion where pixie-size competitors in tiny tartans did nymph-like steps in unison across the stage. Their focus, discipline and precision is all the more impressive given their young ages. Next is an all-things Celtic commercial encampment selling everything from tartans, kilts, pipes, odd-looking bagpipe carrying cases, to bumper stickers showing a distinctly Scottish bias: ‘If it’s nay Scottish it’s crrr-ap’; ‘Have pipes will travel’; and ‘On the eighth day God created bagpipes’.

As the oldest such games outside Scotland, Antigonish can be forgiven their bias.

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The anguish of competition on the faces of the Antigonish Ladies Tug-of-War team. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Lining one side of the dirt track, which encompasses the athletic field, tug-of-war-ers engage in what sometimes seems like a semi-static struggle. An announcer shifts from his calm observation, “The hands are beginning to burn now,” to an excited scream, “They’ve done it! They’re moving! It’s a flip!” With this, coaches bark orders to their team, water boys race along the line pouring water on heads and necks, while the pullers’ groaning increases, dust rises and spectators are bent forward in their seats or standing in the bleachers screaming their support quickly switching to cheers and applause when one team finally prevails and leaving the other in the dust.

Every aspect of the games is governed by strict rules and/or strategy. St. Andrews Ladies’ coach, Glen VanVonderen explains that in Tug of War, they use a two-and-three-quarter-inch-thick burlap rope since acrylic rope becomes too slippery for sweaty hands to hold. Rules don’t allow competitors to sit or dig their hands into the ground. He explains, “It’s all in technique. You’ve got to pull low. You can’t be wiggling your feet around. When you first start you gotta pull hard and then just kinda set in on the rope, kinda rest your hands, tuck the rope underneath your arm, and push in on it. You’re watching the other team to see if there’s a girl getting tired or starting to wear out. When that happens you switch and get down and dirty and pull, pull, pull.”

Over in the main field where athletes are competing in the traditional Scottish heavy events, there’s even more technique involved.

Not to take away from the other Games’ participants, but the heavy athletes are sort of the stars. Perhaps it’s because their events are both traditional and quirky.

What’s fascinating about the Games is how true they are to their roots. Whereas other major competitions, like the Olympics, have evolved in to a type of testament to science and invention in developing better equipment or costumes, Scottish heavy athletes, like generations before them, maintain a cultural purity. They compete in kilts, using irregular devices and real muscles, as opposed to gym-trained, designer muscles.

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A “heavy athlete” in full flourish. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Four times Canadian and four-time World Masters Champion World and Senior Games Caber Champion Dirk Bishop from Perth-Andover explains that unlike other sporting events, Highland games have no uniformity in equipment. At each games a caber will vary in cut, tree type, length (20-to-26 feet long) and weight (100-to-150 pounds). It can range from spruce, fir to ironwood, “which is unbelievably heavy.” Bishop says, “Every caber has a different crook in it, the weight is different, the taper means a lot to it, how big the big end is compared to how small the small end is all mean something.”

Even the stones can vary. At one game they could throw smooth river stones, at another cement bricks of the correct weight. And there can be lots of injuries from splinters and scrapped skin, to cabers falling on tossers to broken limbs and ribs. For the hammer toss, athletes wear boots with spikes in the front that they dig into the ground for stability. It’s an invitation for injury.

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Real river stones, not some ergonomically designed object, are used in competition. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The caber toss, also known as “stick turning” by competitors, is judged on several elements: whether it goes end-over-end, how straight the caber falls and the angle the caber reaches.

Bishop’s technique, which he likens to trying to balance a baseball bat from the narrow end, he learned from his caber mentor, Doug MacDonald from the Annapolis Valley.

Other heavy events include the Braemar, heavy and light stone throws, 16 and 22 lb hammer tosses, a 56 lb weight for height, and 28 and 56 lb weight for distance throws. Highland Games eschew metric. They stick to the old rules and measures.

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Two of the tiny dancers at Antigonish. (Allan Lynch Photo)

In a wooded corner off the playing field is Piper’s Glenn. It is bordered by a river where some non-kilted kayakers slowly paddle past the impromptu serenade provided by pipers and drummers who have positioned themselves along the riverbank to practice and warm up before facing a battery of judges for their solo competitions.

History suggests that games evolved from an ancient type of job interview. A clan chief would either host or attend a set of games to see who the fastest runners and strongest and best fighters were. These would become the chieftain’s messengers and bodyguards. The best pipers and dancers would provide his entertainment. More recently they have been a way to keep the culture alive.

Whatever their purpose, they’re a fun experience.

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Everyone is judged at the Games: individual athletes, dancers, dance groups, pipers, drummers and pipe bands. (Allan Lynch Photo)

More Games:

Highland Games also include evening ceilidhs, parades, massed bands, concerts and kilted golf. Some, like PEI’s, include sheepdog herding demos and Scottish country dance. Other communities hosting games include:

The Antigonish Highland Games are technically held from July 2 to 9, but the actual

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One of the hand carved trophies presented at the Antigonish Highland Games. (Allan Lynch Photo)

competitions are July 7, 8 and 9. The Antigonish Games are the oldest, most authentic in North America. 2017 is their 154th games.

http://www.antigonishhighlandgames.ca

Festival of the Tartans and Highland Games, New Glasgow, July 12 – 16, 2017.

http://www.festivalofthetartans.ca

The New Brunswick Highland Games will be held in Fredericton, July 28 – 30, 2017.

http://highlandgames.ca

Glengary Highland Games are in Maxville, Ontario, August 4th and 5th:

https://glengarryhighlandgames.com

PEI Highland Games and Scottish Festival is scheduled for the Lord Selkirk Provincial Park, August 5th and 6th, 2017.

https://www.tourismpei.com/search/EventDetails/prod_id/24592/

Margaree Highland Games will be held August 11-13.

http://highlandgames.mfocc.ca

The Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games are also August 11-13 in Fergus, Ontario:

https://fergusscottishfestival.com

The North Lanark Highland Games are held August 26, 2017 in Almonte, Ontario:

http://www.almontehighlandgames.com

The Canmore Highland Games are September 2-3, 2017 in Canmore, Alberta:

http://canmorehighlandgames.ca

The Calgary Highland Games, which are over 100 years old, will be held September 2, 2017:

http://calgaryhighlandgames.org

For future reference, here are other games held in Canada:

The Victoria Highland Games & Celtic Festival, Vancouver Island, BC in May each year:

http://victoriahighlandgames.com/games/

The BC Highland Games and Scottish Festival are held in mid-June in Coquitlam, BC:

http://bchighlandgames.com

The Manitoba Highland Gathering is held in mid-June in Selkirk:

http://manitobahighlandgathering.org/home/

The Summerside Highland Gathering is late June in Summerside, PEI:

https://collegeofpiping.com

True patriot love

19511370_1552399674794431_4041982355936681852_nTo celebrate the sesquicentennial Angela O’Neill-Whiteley in Digby Co, Nova Scotia painted 150 beach rocks. This is not my photo, but I am so impressed by it and the quiet, personal passion of the project. True patriot love. #Canada150

Pride of Place, Pier 21 Tells the Immigrant Story

Canada’s Museum to Immigration at Pier 21, Halifax. (Allan Lynch Photo)

John Cree’s arrival on the Halifax waterfront in 1929 wasn’t an auspicious start to a new life in a land of opportunity. Fortunately, the stock market crash, which occurred shortly after his arrival, didn’t make much difference to Cree since he was already poor. Homesick and seasick, Cree arrived to a snowy landscape made grey and grim by rain. He was one of the first immigrants to arrive in the newly opened Pier 21 immigration facility beside Halifax Harbour. While the facility was less than a year old, it wasn’t flashy says Cree who slept that first night on a rough wooden bench in cold room.

To immigrate to Canada in the 1920s applicants needed to be a British, American or European farmer. The16-year-old Cree qualified because he had worked on a small farm on the outskirts of Belfast. He arrived with $2 in his pocket, a suitcase containing clippings about war (stolen from library books) and a change of clothes.

After working “the most miserable six months I ever had in my life” on a farm outside Edmonton, where he was cheated and abused by his farm employer, the pluckish Irishman hopped a freight train to Montreal. He rode for days on the roofs of box cars, lashed by wind, rain and smoke from the engine. In spite of the economic hardship of the time, strangers offered him places to sleep and meals. One family gave him a new pair of running shoes, and a CN engineer actually slowed the train down so Cree could jump aboard.

In Montreal he had three options: find a half-brother (whose address he
didn’t know), try to reach an aunt in New York or get caught at the border and be deported home to Ireland. He walked to within five miles of the US border where he met someone who knew his half-brother. The next day he started work putting glue on dynamite for CIL. He worked for CIL for 39 more years, finally retiring to Dartmouth. For Cree, Canada was an adventure that paid off.

Cree’s is just one story in a book that would have 1.5 million chapters – one for each man, woman and child who passed through Pier 21. From 1928 until 1971 Pier 21 was Canada’s Ellis Island, welcoming immigrants, refugees, child evacuees, war brides, defectors and returning members of the armed forces. Over time Pier 21 became a small community within the city of Halifax. It had overnight accommodation for 400 people, a hospital, dining room and kitchen, reception areas, canteen, baggage and storage areas, and even a jail. Ships arrived daily – sometimes as many as four and five ships a day – at all hours of the day or night, discharging hundreds and thousands of frightened, traumatized, and sometimes-happy people looking to escape war, political instability, persecution and hard times in their homelands.

In 1990, to help preserve and tell those many stories, a group of Haligonians, led by a few former immigration officers began discussing the formation of a museum dedicated to the immigrant experience. They were prompted by an aging population, who soon wouldn’t be around to tell their stories, and a fading Pier 21. As Canada’s last surviving immigration shed, the once bustling building had become a waterside derelict. It housed a few artist studios, but otherwise was given over to seagulls, pigeons and other vermin.

The Pier 21 Society was formed to establish a memorial to the immigrant experience. Society president Ruth Goldbloom says the group felt, “We had something sitting on the Halifax waterfront that was so important to the history of Canada that if we didn’t do something it would just disappear.”

Goldbloom recalls that former immigration head John LeBlanc felt that so much

At Pier 21 old bags, boxes and trunks tell the nation’s history. (Allan Lynch Photo)

of the historical knowledge and background of Pier 21 was with people who were now in their 60s, 70s, and 80s and once they were gone, so was the opportunity to get first-hand experiences of the immigrant experience. Pier 21 presented Canada with an unique opportunity to preserve the past in a way no other museum facility has. Goldbloom says, “We wanted to be able to tell your great-great grandchildren what was it like to arrive in a new country with nothing. We are a country of immigrants, but we’ve never taken the time to say thank you to the immigrant population.”

The group spent years studying the issue and trying to build support for the project. Their big breakthrough came at the end of the 1995 G-7 Economic Summit held in Halifax. As a thank you to the citizens of Canada for hosting the summit, the Prime Minister announced that $4.5 million was available to the Pier 21 Society – contingent on their raising matching funds.

Goldbloom, a diminutive dynamo, criss-crossed Canada raising money from anyone who would listen to her. She called on government departments, corporations, foundations and wealthy individuals to raise the money. In November 1998, work began converting the pier into Canada’s new national historic site.

Pier 21 opened on Canada Day, 1999. Behind the scenes organizers thought if 2,000 people turned out that would be great. In reality 9,000 people came to Pier 21 on that day.

The opening was an emotional roller-coaster ride for those who attended it. The day began with an erie silence, as people of all ethic backgrounds and dress quietly walked as if on as pilgrimage to this south end location.

A black military piper in tartan kilt played while women in dashikis and Louis Vuitton bags, and men in suits and casual wear took their places. War brides arrived on board HMCS Preserver. Mounties came in their scarlet tunics. And the Legion Colour Parties stood as proudly by as when they were young men returning from European battlefields. Everyone had some connection to Pier 21. Many had originally been the brave ones seeking a new life. Others were their sons and daughters, nieces, nephews and grandchildren.

Throughout the ceremonies the audience nodded in agreement, wept and clapped. (One woman told Goldbloom that after losing all her family to the Holocaust, she now considers Pier 21 to be her place of birth.) When the Royal salute was given, one grandfather with a swift, loving hand deftly slid a ball cap off his grandson’s head and over the child’s heart. During the robust singing of O Canada most of the crowd shed even more tears.

One of those smiling and crying souls was Mark Kazmirski, a physician in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Dr. Kazmirski arrived in Halifax in 1948, at age 3, with his mother Anne, father Henrik, and baby brother Seymour. His parents were all that remained of their 85-member family, the rest died in the Holocaust.

Mrs Kamirski, who lived in Montreal, still cries recalling their arrival from Germany. “We arrived to Canada and for the first time, it meant to us tasting freedom. Literally hundreds of people lied down and kissed the ground in Halifax. There was a big sign that I remember like today, on the wall. It said Welcome to Canada. Well, it brought tears to our eyes because it meant that we left an ocean of blood behind us and we came to a new beginning to a new country.”

“A Jewish woman came over to us. I think her name was Mrs Sadie Fineberg and she was greeting many, many people. She gave me a loaf of bread and a honey cake which she baked herself. She was the kindest person I ever saw, and not knowing me hugged me and kissed me.”

Sadie Fineberg was like the Florence Nightingale of Pier 21, except that her hands didn’t carry a lamp, she carried a light of a different sort. For 40 years she brought bread and cakes, sandwiches and compassion to people who had experienced untold horrors.

Life in Canada was no bowl of cherries for the Kazmirskis. Henrik has been a dentist in Poland, but wasn’t allowed to practice in Canada until he re-qualified, which meant going back to university. Ann Kazmirskis supported the family doing odd jobs, even scrubbing floors in Montreal. Eventually her husband re-qualified as a dentist and went to work in Montreal and The Laurentians. Their son Mark became a doctor. Their son Seymour was a business man in Hawaii. After her husband’s death in 1971, Mrs Kazmirski went back to school to get a teaching degree so she could teach English as a second language. In retirement she spoke to university students about the holocaust, and also to street kids and prostitutes about making something positive with their lives. Theirs is a not uncommon immigrant story. The Kazmirskis came with nothing. Their possessions fit in a small suitcase. From that they raised and educated a family and continued to help others less fortunate. She wrote a book Witness To Horror about her experiences.

Wooden benches from the arrivals hall at Pier 21. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Sister Salvatrice Liota of the Sisters of Service worked at the pier from 1955 to 1969 as an interpreter (she spoke French, Italian, Spanish and some Hungarian), was also flooded by memories at the Canada Day opening. Recalling her first day at the Pier, she says, “Ohhh, I’ll never forget it. I was horror stricken because when they disembarked they were put in an assembly room and it was all these hard benches and then there was this chicken wire surrounding the area where the benches were. Why they had that chicken wire I don’t know. But Sister took me up to see what the assembly room was like because I was being initiated. I looked through these chicken wires and saw the apprehensive look on their faces. Many were distraught and tired from the journey and looking through that chicken wire made me feel like I was looking at prisoners. It made a horrible impression on me and I have never forgotten it. By the end of the day I was just worn out because it was long hours standing, interviewing the immigrants, interpreting in the Red Cross room, then taking them down to the baggage room and interpreting and helping them there.”

Sister Liota was most affected by the Hungarian refugees who arrived after the civil war in their country. “The Hungarians, that was the saddest. The Hungarians came with army case-offs. Even the women had army cast-off jackets and coats. Very few had a suitcase. So what we did, all the church organizations, we had a big meeting and decided what we were going to give refugees so we wouldn’t overlap. The Salvation Army gave them a shopping bag with an orange and package of cookies. The Lutherans and Presbyterians had clothing. We gave each child a new toy (up to the value of $5, which got good toys). The Baptists and United Church gave them little bags of toilet articles.”

A wall of photos of some of the ships which brought immigrants – and returning warriors – to Canada. (Allan Lynch Photo)

While the new Pier 21 is a marvel of interactive museum, Sister Liota recalls a more earthy place, where she would work 18-22 hour days, sleeping between ship arrivals on benches and boxes in a storage room. On the July 1st opening she said, “I went to the old baggage room and Sister who was with me was talking, but I was just so overcome with emotion. Suddenly re-seeing that baggage room, mentally I could see all the baggage, the sea gulls flying around, the dirty pigeons, and the smell. Oh, the smell was awful!” It was a vile combination of old cheese, olive oil and vomit. “You know when you went home that odor hung to your clothes. And in the winter we just froze because the doors would be open to bring the baggage in off the ship and the wind would blast off the ocean … my legs were frost-bitten one year.”

Not all her memories are sad. Sister Liota giggles at teaching Hungarian refugees to play bingo. She was astonished that “They’d never played bingo!”

The sisters also hosted dances in their nearby mother house. Sister Liota, who had to be up at 6 am for work after morning devotions, would pull the plug on the record player at midnight, but the Hungarians would plug it back in and dance till 2 am.

Ironically now the ships that moor by Pier 21 are cruise ships delivering hundreds of thousands of holidayers where so many dispossessed people once landed.

The Pier 21 museum is a multi-media, interactive facility, which means visitors don’t simply view static displays, but can listen to first-hand recollections of the people who arrived at Pier 21 and worked there. In a mock rail car the floor moves and the Canadian landscape whizzes by, while in small booths a variety of immigrant and refugee experiences play on video. Even the admission ticket resembles a passport which is stamped by attendants dressed as immigration officers. There is an extensive display on the ships which brought many people here and a research centre. But perhaps the most poignant exhibit is a tiny suitcase which visitors are invited to pack. Originally, the packable items included a tea pot, candle stick and some books. The case filled quickly, forcing packers to rethink what to include and leave behind. Now the packing display has representative boxes. This truly emphasis how little many people arrived with.

Not everyone came with nothing. Former chief guard Frank Wright laughs, “After the war, we used to say the Dutch arrived with everything but the kitchen sink. They arrived with large crates you could park a Volkswagen in. … One day they opened a crate up and it had a kitchen sink, so we couldn’t say that anymore.”

However, a significant number of arrivals came with little more than a change of

Throughout the facility, trunks tell the story of individual immigrants. (Allan Lynch Photo)

clothes. Maisie Lugar (nee Goat) of Bedford, was a child evacuee who came from a suburb of London in July 1940. She arrived on the first boatload of child evacuees from Britain. Lugar was 11. She recalls, “Your parents were given a list of what you could take: two pair underwear, two pair of socks … it was ridiculous really.” Lugar, 11, her brothers Stanley, 12, and Ronald, 7, each carried a small suitcase, knapsack and gas mask for a trip that lasted five years. They were three of the 3,000 children sent to Canada during the war. She was lucky. Another ship of children in their convoy, the City of Benares, was torpedoed.

Ruby Grey, a Sussex NB war bride arrived in June 18, 1945, and recalled that after years of clothing rationing she arrived with very little. “You didn’t have many clothes. I did arrive in a Harris Tweed suit” purchased with a clothing allowance from Canada. But Grey wasn’t much bothered by the clothes nor was she homesick or fearful about starting a new life in a land she knew little of. “No, no, I was in love. Who thinks about the future that much, except that you want to spent it together,” she scoffs.

What she does remember was a land of plenty after years of rationing. “There was lots of food. I gained ten pounds in the first month. Everybody complained about rationing here, but they really didn’t know too much about rationing. There was white bread and butter. And there were very few fresh eggs at home, so I had eggs every morning for my breakfast and fruit.”

One family who weren’t fleeing war or poverty was Finn Sander’s family from Copenhagen. Sander recalls his parents where fed the streets-are-paved with-gold line by his uncle. His father, who owned his own garage and employed 10 people in Copenhagen, sold their business and possessions and moved their small family to the new world for a better opportunity for Finn. “This was postwar Europe and Denmark like most other countries in Europe at the time were stagnating economically, and America – that’s what we called everything over here- seemed to hold good prospects both for them and my future. We had an uncle over here who painted things in glowing terms.”

Unfortunately for his parents, the uncle’s letters turned out to be full of empty promises. “The bubble burst the moment we arrived,” says Sander. “He wanted to borrow $50 from my dad and we ended up in a small rooming house somewhere overlooking a miserable, dirty, wet back alley” on the wrong side of the tracks in Montreal.

The Sanders proved the adage about hard-working immigrants. They would take any low paying job that others rejected. Poul Sanders got a job working for a company earning $40 a week (with monthly rent of $80). The young Finn took summer jobs working on a farm outside the city. While beaten up and tormented by the other farm hands he contributed $10 a week to the family, which was vital. In time his father became vice president of the company, and Finn became a biology professor at McGill, director of a research institute in the Bahamas and director of Dalhousie University’s biology department.

In a type of comic relief to many stories is the experience of two Irish lads who made lives in Canada. John Maloney and a friend named Murphy arrived in 1950 with $67 between them and no job prospects. The trip was a lark. Maloney says Murphy came by to say goodbye and I said, “gawd, that’s a good idea. Get me a ticket too. I went in and handed in my resignation. We both had good jobs, but there was no real future with them. Ireland in those times was pretty rough.”

They boarded ship and partied their way across the Atlantic. And therein lies their problem. “To get through customs we each had to have $50. Well, between the two of us we only had $67 left, so I went through first and put the money in hip pocket. Murphy took it out of my hip pocket and showed it. The immigration officer says, ‘Oh you each have the same amount?’ We immediately said, ‘Oh yeah, we split everything down the middle’, and he waived us through.”

The enterprising and bold Irishmen hopped the train to Toronto with no thought of where they were going or what they were going to do. On a street car they heard an Irish brogue and asked where they should go. They stood outside two churches. “Murphy stood outside one, and I stood outside the other. We each had a sign that said, ‘help us, just landed’. A French Canadian family said, ‘Come with us’. They gave us a place to stay and groceries and fixed everything up. We had a great time.”

“Murphy worked next day, and I worked the second day” as a postal clerk at the Safety Supply Company, for minimum wage. “But we survived on it till we found better. And that’s what all the Irish did those days. And boy we were welcomed in this country. … It was a different attitude. The war had ended, there was a shortage of men, both for the ladies” he chuckles “and the employment.”

Now retired Maloney served in the RCAF and went on to become an RCMP officer and later worked as a town police officer in Chatham, New Brunswick.

While most people arriving at Pier 21 would be anxious to please and be allowed into Canada, Lunenburg resident Carolyn Matthews showed a strip of the British bulldog. Matthews was the last immigrant to land at Pier 21 on June 21, 1971. This happened because she had strict views about child rearing. “The boat came in about 9 am, (and you don’t disembark right away). As it so happened my children got fed promptly at 12 noon. And after lunch they have a nap. The youngest was only six months old and the oldest was four-and-a-half. He still napped a little. But the youngest had problems all the way along with digestive troubles, so when he slept he was not allowed to be woken up,” she chuckled. “And he was allowed to sleep for as long as he wanted to sleep, which he did.”

While the children slept her husband got their luggage off the ship. “Everything had disappeared. The rest of the people on the boat disappeared, so anyway finally he (the baby) awoke and it was a wash, change and dress and ready to go. As we stepped off the boat I thought it looked a little deserted, there was nobody around… I have no idea what time we got off the boat because I went by the children’s clocks not by what watches said. So I was the last off the boat.”

One woman who knows both sides of the immigrant story is Marianne Ferguson (nee Echt). She arrived March 7, 1939, aged 13, with her mother, father, grandmother and two sisters from Danzig. “We came because the situation in Danzig and in Germany was becoming very bad for Jews.” After Kristallnacht, when all the windows were broken in her father’s businesses, they began to make arrangements to leave.

Her father had friends in the bank who quietly sold him American dollars, which he mailed to a cousin in New York. And he fit the immigration requirements because he owned a small hobby farm. Echt recalls leaving their home for the boat in twos, so as not to create suspicion. They came to Canada knowing little except that “it was an English speaking country and that it was a free country and you wouldn’t have to be afraid like you were in the German countries.

On arrival, her family, who were not impressed by the pier, noticed how nice the people were. “We had planned to go to Montreal and then my parents saw the people here were so kind that we stayed.”

They purchased a farm in Milford Station where the United Church minister’s wife asked Mrs. Echt to join the auxiliary “because, she said, there’s nothing here for you (as a Jew in terms of a community), but the women all get together. They knit and do things for the war and she said why shouldn’t you be amongst them? You don’t have to go to church but you can be in with all these women. As the minister’s wife said, you wouldn’t get to know anybody otherwise. It was kind of nice,” smiles Echt.

The plaza in front of Pier 21 is dedicated to “The Nation Builders”. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Eventually she and her mother volunteered for 10 years at Pier 21 helping to translate for immigrants. “A lot of people were very depressed and very apprehensive and worried. I mean they came from concentration camps and someone just had to call their name and they would look around and think that somebody followed them from Europe and wanted to put them in some kind of a jail. When we went over to them and spoke to them they were so much happier because we could speak their language. We told them we came to help them.”

She returned to volunteer at the reopened Pier 21. Ferguson laughed that thanks to Pier 21 “It feels really good to have been an immigrant because I think when you first come and you’re an immigrant, sometimes people look a little bit down on you. Now with all this fuss about Pier 21, if you once were an immigrant, they look up to you. It seems that people are proud now.”

Recalling the opening of Pier 21 as a national historic site to immigration, Mark Kazimiski said, “I think it was a spiritual day, a very emotional day. And what’s so Canadian about it is it’s really Canadians who are celebrating what immigrants meant to Canada, which is really typically Canadian. They were celebrating immigrants and their contribution to Canada.” He chuckled, “Not many countries do that.”

Whether you are from the quarter of the Canadian population who trace their roots to this Halifax pier, Pier 21 National Historic Site is a worthy visit. It is a history lesson, a place of pilgrimage and a source of inspiration and pride.

 

The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 is located on the Halifax waterfront at 1055 Marginal Road (behind the Westin Nova Scotian Hotel). Tel.: 902-425-7770 / 1-855-526-4721. http://www.pier21.ca

Playing tourist at home: rediscovering my backyard, Kings County, Nova Scotia

 

The Hidden Gems Tour of Kings County, Nova Scotia, presented by the County of Kings is a brilliant way to spend a day. It shows the value and joy of playing tourist at home.

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The public beach at Aylesford Lake. (Allan Lynch Photo)

My family has lived here since 1765 and yet I learned so much about my backyard that I never knew. There were things I had taken for granted. And places that, if I have been to, it was so long ago I’ve forgotten.

The tour covered the history of the county, the agriculture sector, the military, the environment and ecology mixed with the post-card beauty of the shore, Bay of Fundy and Minas Basin, the farmlands, the view points and peaceful back roads. We discovered rapids and waterfalls that provided the energy to power a massive lumber operation and which have left us a neat park.DSCN8803

And we were treated to a stunning lunch of killer homemade seafood chowder, sandwiches and carrot cake at the Morden Community Centre. After lunch we saw some terrific local crafts: beach-stone paintings, driftwood trees, hooked trivets, shore maple syrup.

I was reminded that on the last weekend of the month the community hall hosts a breakfast that can have as many as 400 people turn out!

I can’t remember when I was last in Morden, but what a neat community – and you get the feel that it is a real community.

 

What we covered in six hours would probably take days of discovery if we did it on our own. And there’s nothing wrong with that given what a delicious place this is.

I am now armed with ideas to power longer, lingering revisits to places and to share with family, friends and readers.

I wrote a travel guide to Nova Scotia for Nova Scotians (The Nova Scotia Book of MUSTS, The 101 Places Every Nova Scotian MUST See). I thought I knew the place well. The County of Kings’ Hidden Gems tour has reinvigorated my interest – and pride – in this place. It’s why 252 years later my family is still here.

There are two more tours planned for the summer. Contact the County and book a space. If there are no spaces left, ask if to go on a waiting list. Perhaps if the list was long enough more tours would be added. Failing that, ask the county for a map and do it yourself. Take someone you love with you – this place is too good not to share. It puts a smile on faces.

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Kings County is a smile-inducing place. (Allan Lynch Photo)

This #ExperienceKingsNS tour could be the model for a cool sesquicentennial project for all Canadians to (re)discover the wonders in their/our backyards.

 

 

A Pilgrimage of Remembrance as Performance Art

Leaving Aldershot.

Jessica Lynn Wiebe is an artist participating in this year’s Uncommon Art. She is also a veteran, who has completed two tours in Afghanistan.

Thursday May 25th Wiebe and a group of supporters set out from Camp Aldershot in the North End of Kentville to walk to the Acadia University War Memorial. Wiebe who is also an Acadia alumni felt too many memorials become invisible. So, around the two war memorials outside the old gym she is installing two walls of sandbags. One for each world war. On her 14k walk from the base to the university she is carrying a cement sandbag. The weight and the walk are what WWII recruits were required to carry and travel.

In front of my grandfather’s house.

Walking down Gallows Hill towards the DAR Station.

I photographed Wiebe outside the house my grandfather built on the top of Gallows Hill in Kentville. In July 1940 my father crossed this verandah and the single polished stone slab that is the short front walk. He walked down Gallows Hill, across the bridge over the Cornwallis River to the DAR train station just beyond. It was a walk he knew well. My grandfather and father were both railway men. For years it was their walk to work. On that July day his work was different. Instead of walking to the round house, he boarded the train for the journey to Petawawa for training. From there he went to England. He eventually fought his way up the boot of Italy as part of the Italian Campaign, then across France to Belgium, participated in the liberation of The Netherlands and into Germany for the victory.

In Petawawa before being shipped overseas for six years of service.

We were fortunate he returned to the house on the hill in time for Christmas 1945.

 

You can read about Wiebe’s project here:

https://www.jessicalynnwiebe.com

 

 

 

In northern Netherlands with a war prize.

Celebrating liberation

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The Canada tulip developed by the Dutch to honour Canada’s sesquicentennial.

I first went to Amsterdam as a young man with no motivation other than vacation time and a seat sale. Knowing nothing of the place I remember sitting on a tram, the prerequisite Canadian flag on my small kit bag drawing the attention of elderly woman, who pointed and said, “KaNAda?” I didn’t understand why my yes made her so happy.

The Rijksmuseum in winter has a skating rink outside. (Allan Lynch Photo)

“You want to see Rijksmuseum?” She joyfully asked. I didn’t know what it was, but I had no plans, why not? Energized, she grabbed my arm and off we went into this ornate massive red brick building. We whizzed through gallery after gallery, with a choir of guards yelling at us as she attempted to sit on furniture, open chests, touch the Delft. Having covered acres of galleries she said, “You want to see Nard Vark?” That’s what it sounded like. She meant Rembrandt’s masterpiece de Nachtwacht (The Night Watch), which curiously had been attacked two years before and placed behind protective glass. When she reached behind the glass to pat the painting the guards had had enough and escorted us out of the museum. It was the first time I’d ever been thrown out of a place. All the while she kept pointing to me, saying “KaNAda!” and expressing her outrage that rules weren’t bent for a Canadian.

A star attraction is Rembrandt’s Night Watch. (Allan Lynch Photo)

In December, three decades after this experience, I returned to The Netherlands. This time I had a purpose. As we mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of The Netherlands by the Canadian army (Lieutenant General Charles Foulkes accepted the German surrender on May 5th, 1945), I was on a type of personal pilgrimage to see some of the places important to us.

My father was part of the liberation, though like most Canadian Vets, he never spoke of the war other than to tell me about running out of money on a pub crawl in England and, rather than sleep rough, asking the sheriff in Nottingham for a jail cell for the night. All that is left now is a small black and white photo of him and some of his comrades holding a captured German naval flag and a thank you medal awarded posthumously. With no one left to answer my questions I felt the need to return to The Netherlands.

My tightly packed itinerary allowed a night in Apeldoorn, two nights in Arnhem and three in Amsterdam.

The Netherlands are a dream destination to travel around because the country is so compact, and public transportation so well-organized and inexpensive. You can cover a great deal of the country without resorting to a rental car. After a night flight from Montreal I landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, purchased a modestly priced train ticket (€16.20 / $22.84) to Apeldoorn and strolled on to a train at the airport’s lower level rail station and 90 minutes later was at my hotel.

Apeldoorn is considered ‘a Queen city’ because it’s where the royal family enjoyed the tranquility of the vast Palace Het Loo, surrounded by parks and formal gardens one expects of royal accommodation. Now a museum, during the war the palace was used by the Germans as a military hospital and later as Allied headquarters.

The Dutch always remember Canada and Canadians. (Allan Lynch Photo)

In Apeldoorn I met Jan Koorenhof, who helps organize thank you events every five years for Canadian vets. Koorenhof told me they picked a particular street for the parade because it was wide enough to allow participants to march seven-abreast. However, when the Canadian Vets appeared the crowds were so thick, so appreciative, so anxious to hug, kiss and thank their liberators that the parade was reduced to single file.

I’ve often heard Canadian vets comment about their treatment at Apeldoorn and how endlessly free food and drink flows. The winter of 1944-45 had been so harsh that thousands of Dutch died of starvation. Then, in April 1945, before the liberation, Canada allocated 750 trucks to drive in convoys delivering 300 tons of food a day to the people. Koorenhof explains the local attitude is, “They fed us then, we feed them now.”

The Man with Two Hats (De man met de twee hoeden) raises two hats to show his joy at being liberated. He faces Ottawa. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The people are so thankful that they have installed a statue, the Man with Two Hats (De man met de twee hoeden) on Canada-laan across from where the thank you parades are held. Because the people were so happy at being liberated raising one hat wasn’t enough. A replica statue stands in Ottawa. Each faces the other.

Chris and Meis Petter. (Allan Lynch Photo)

My first full day in Arnhem began with a visit with Chris Petter and his wife, Meis. They live in a modern neighbourhood of townhouses which encircle a vast, wooden windmill whose bight white arms were making loops in the morning sky. Several times a week for almost 40 years Petter, who remembers the liberation, has visited the graves of men who died fighting for Holland’s liberation. On each of his visits he lays flowers purchased with his own money on their graves. But that wasn’t enough, he has researched the lives of the fallen, compiling biographies and corresponding with their family members. In the case of Jack Wills, an airman from Saskatoon, Petter found Jack’s fiancé, Cora Dier, to let her know where Jack is buried. How he honours our Vets earned him the attention of various media in Canada and Europe, and an MBE from Queen Elizabeth. (Chris Petter died in early 2017. I hope there are flowers for his grave. He lived a good and honourable life.)

After our visit, I followed Petter’s steps and the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery and Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, which is the largest war cemetery in The Netherlands. Petter told me the story of the five stones set together at the Oosterbeek cemetery. In all war cemeteries graves are spaced evenly apart, but since these fliers couldn’t be individually identified these crewmates are buried together.

The day finished at the National Liberation Museum in Groesbeek. The museum is on one of the country’s rare hills and the centre of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. It’s a small, interesting museum focused on life before the war, the occupation, then the liberation and rebuilding of the country.

Fields of unfilled dreams for some, liberation for others. (Allan Lynch Photo)

My next day was back at a cemetery. This time the Canadian War Cemetery in Bergen op Zoom. It’s almost a two-hour drive, but the roads are modern and well-maintained and the countryside pleasant. If you don’t have a car, it’s still easy to reach this region using public transportation.

A small Canadian war cemetery with six kilometres of edging around the gravestones. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The Bergen cemetery was next the British cemetery. Some people may think holidaying in cemeteries odd, but is really a sacrifice? This is after all a pilgrimage. It was in the Canadian cemetery I met one of the gardeners who works for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Martin told me that even though this is the smallest Canadian cemetery in The Netherlands with 965 of 1,115 graves for fallen Canadians, it has six kilometres of edging around the tombstones. He also told me that the limestone grave markers are cleaned twice a year, three times if it’s a damp winter.

From the cemetery I took a break to have lunch in the centre of Bergen, a wonderful 800-year-old city which boggles the mind with its ancientness. The country’s oldest hotel, Grand Hotel Dedraak has been in business since 1397, that’s 95 years before Columbus set sail!

My final war stop was at the Liberation Museum of Zeeland. Begun as a family run museum it is very personal and exceptionally well done. The museum is adding a whole new outdoor experience with jeep drive, bailey bridge, trenches, gardens and more exhibition space to complete the experience. Their collection is constantly growing because even 70 years after the surrender, unexploded bombs and war artifacts are regularly uncovered by farmers ploughing fields or during new construction.

An annual act of remembrance is to place candles on the graves of Canadian soldiers who died liberating The Netherlands. (Robert Allen Photo)

Visiting these places is humbling. The Dutch are vigorous in ensuring that succeeding generations know the story of their freedom and appreciate Canada’s role in their liberation. In addition to school trips to museums and war memorials is the Christmas Eve tradition of placing a candle on every war grave. The images of candle light graveyards produce a lump-in-throat pride.

The Liberation Route tracks the progress of the liberating armies from Portsmouth to Gdansk. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Whatever time of year you visit, it’s easy to develop your own war pilgrimage. The Netherlands are part of the Liberation Route Europe, which is a commemorative experience ranging from Plymouth, England to Gdansk, Poland. The route is designed to allow people to follow parts of it or drop in to individual places and learn about a particular area’s history. There are plaques, audio stories, tours, travel offices and websites to help you organize your own experience.

I’m glad I returned to The Netherlands. The trip was too quick. It’s a small place, but has much to take in and caters to all tastes. I liked the art, history and pace.

The Netherlands are worth visiting on their own, but for Canadians there is that separate, special, stronger appeal, a shared history and experience and pride.

If you go:

For information about The Netherlands and various touring and cultural options, contact your travel agent, Netherlands Tourism at www.holland.com, Amsterdam Tourism at www.Iamsterdam.com and the Liberation Route at http://liberationroute.com. The Royal Canadian Legion Branch 005 www.rcl005.nl also welcomes inquiries from Canadians.

Awe-inspiring iceberg watching off Newfoundland

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Our first icy island surrounded by fog in a blue-black Atlantic. (Allan Lynch Photo)

Iceberg watching off Newfoundland is a bucket list experience.

There are very few places in the world where you can see icebergs. And none are as convenient a perch as Newfoundland. Once here, you almost don’t have to “go” anywhere to see them. Some days you can sit in the linen-and-crystal comfort of the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland’s Oppidan restaurant and watch them pass by the mouth of St. John’s Harbour. Or you can walk almost anywhere along the shore to see them.

Icebergs are fascinating, in that odd, mammoth way nature can present itself. Of the 800 + icebergs which make it as far south as St. John’s, most come from glaciers in Western Greenland, the rest from the Arctic. Whatever their nationality, to me, icebergs seem to be some gigantic parade of martyrs on a sacrificial pilgrimage to the warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

In Newfoundland, during iceberg season, which is from April to July, you can sit on the shore and watch these silent behemoths floating, like ghosts, across the horizon. Or you can join a boat tour to get a closer look.

Spurred by my friend’s seductive photos, I made my second trip to Newfoundland to see icebergs. My first experience was off Saint Anthony on the tip of that north-pointing finger which sticks up from the island of Newfoundland.

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The rough surface is where bits of the berg have broken away. (Allan Lynch Photo)

On a bright July afternoon I joined 16 others at Noddy Bay, between the L’Anse Aux Meadows UNESCO World Heritage Site and St. Anthony’s to board an open boat and head out in search of these floating curiosities.

After an hour’s sail, our conversation was suddenly broken by a chorus of “Oh my gawd!”

In the middle of a wall of haze was a dark, ominous structure which gradually revealed itself to be an iceberg. It was frightening and beautiful. This meringue-like mountain glowed in the sunlight on a brilliant blue calm sea, surrounded by hundreds of floating pieces of debris ice. I had a hair-raising glimpse of what it must have been like on the morning after Titanic sank. It’s nature’s perverse joke that the prettiest things are often the most lethal.

While the group struggled to speak – it was so beautiful that coherency and adjectives left us – we snapped photos and pointed as if you could miss an eight-storey-high iceberg a few hundred yards to port. In modern society, we seem to make size comparisons to football fields. The website icebergfinder.com, which is operated by a group of experts at Memorial University in St. John’s, puts icebergs in six, easy to understand, size categories. Extra large is the size of a suspension bridge like Lion’s Gate in Vancouver or the MacDonald over Halifax Harbour. Large would be a football stadium, like Toronto’s Skydome or Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Medium is the size of a 15-storey office building. Small is church size. A “bergy bit” is the size of a house while a “growler” comes in at van size.

The waters around this first iceberg were a calm, Caribbean-like turquoise colour, which glowed against the blue-black of the North Atlantic. The lightness is due to the reflection from the submerged part of the iceberg. For us, there was an Oz-like feel to being here. But we had gone down a different type of yellow brick road to find a piece of ice the size of several football stadiums. Clarence, the man at the helm of our boat smiled, “You should come here in April month – they’re uuge!’ (Pronounced without the h.)

The iceberg looked big enough to me. It was like a white cake whose centre had collapsed to reveal a translucent blue-green interior. Periodically, we heard a crack, like a gunshot, and then thunder as a wall of ice cascaded into the ocean, adding to the debris field. Icebergs have a dangerous, seductive beauty to them, like a forbidden love.

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This iceberg off Bonavista sports stripes of soil and rock. (Allan Lynch Photo)

My second foray into iceberg watching was off Bonavista. A four-hour drive north of St. John’s, this is where the explorer John Cabot landed in 1497. A replica of that original ship made a return voyage in 1997. It is on display in the town.

I arrived late in the season and was supposed to sail out of Trinity Bay on a scheduled cruise with Captain Art of Atlantic Adventure Boat Tours. Unfortunately, our cruise was cancelled because of heavy rain and fog. However, Newfoundlanders won’t ever leave you high and dry. So Captain Art made some calls and found me icebergs in Bonavista. “The guy at the Elizabeth J Cottages – he’s new, from Ontario (this was several years ago – but by Atlantic standards, he would still be ‘new’) – said there were three icebergs off his place now. And he knows a lobster fisherman who was going out. You could probably go with him.”

I hopped in the car and drove the 55 kms to Bonavista, concerned I might be expected to help haul lobster pots on a working boat. I found the two crayon-coloured self-catering Elizabeth J Cottages perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the North Atlantic. Our man there called Scott, the lobster fisherman, who was already out in his boat. We agreed to meet at the wharf at 1:30.

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I was expecting the lobster boat would be bigger. And covered. (Allan Lynch Photo)

When Scott motored in to the inner harbour at Bonavista, I was expecting a Cape Islander type of boat, with a small wheelhouse to provide some shelter from the elements. Scott’s lobster boat was 20 feet long and wide open. It takes guts to go out to work on the ocean in something like this.

Scott decided he should stay in port to help his partner sell their catch, so he called his friend Larry to take me out in his boat. Then, looking at my clothes he asked if I had my wet gear in the car? I was wearing a light ski jacket, a fleece, jeans and suede deck shoes. “No, I don’t mind getting a little wet,” I naively said.

Scott shook his head and, in the rain, stripped right there on the wharf. It wasn’t the full monty, he just took off the rubber jacket and pants and told me to put them on. Then looking at my deck shoes, he offered me the boots he was wearing. It’s one thing to take the slicker off a fisherman’s back, but I couldn’t take his boots.

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Crabman Larry and the berg off Bonavista. (Allan Lynch Photo)

The boat fueled and me covered in fishy-smelling, water-repellent clothing, Larry and I set off in a heavy rain, on a five-mile boat ride, banging over white caps in the North Atlantic, to the closest iceberg. Water splashed over the sides and poured down from overhead. I was more than a little glad for the borrowed wet gear.

Larry kept up a steady dialogue. I don’t know if he didn’t notice the rain or was keeping me distracted or if he was just very sociable. Like I imagine most men of this coast, Larry knows everything about the sea, the catches, where you catch what, which boats are best for which fishery and has opinions on government and the Cod fishery. I don’t think many Newfoundlanders are in the diplomatic corps. I also learned about life on a crab boat. It was a first-hand lesson in the fishery.

As we got closer to the iceberg, it looked more blue than it had from the shore. Icebergs are full of tiny air bubbles which reflect the available light, so the overcast sky contributed to the bluish hue. In addition to their scale, icebergs can be filled with interesting caves, the odd waterfall and can seem decorated by dark lines as if some deft-handed artist decided to detail the structure.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALarry matter-of-factly explained we had to keep our distance while circling the iceberg “because if she tips over or breaks apart, we’re goners.” He seemed not to notice my look as he detailed the dangers: we could be sunk by flying ice or by the waves created by a major breakup or flipped over by a submerged part rising above the waterline. Suddenly, the luster was coming off this little adventure.

After an hour of tasting salt on my lips, trying to keep my glasses clear, of maintaining a death grip on my camera to keep it from flying overboard, and wondering if my feet would ever be dry again, we headed back to shore.

My contact at the Elizabeth J Cottages told me that morning he watched an iceberg disintegrate. “I was walking the dog along the shore and I heard this loud crack and suddenly the iceberg just exploded!” he said. It broke into two halves, with the centre part flying into the air.

Stave Bruno, an engineering professor at Memorial University , and author of Icebergs of Newfoundland and Labrador, explained, “The ice itself is under a lot of tension, so when it does break through some catastrophic failure, like an iceberg breaking in half, there’s so much stress being relieved that things do snap and fly. And the iceberg is quite high, so big chunks may fall and splash or may splinter up and outwards. When huge icebergs roll over and chunks break off and strike the water, they give the appearance of bombs blowing up with water spray shooting way up in the air, so it does look every bit like an explosion.” But that’s one of nature’s illusions.

As amazing as icebergs are to watch, Newfoundland provides an equally curious array of land-based discoveries to fill in your non-water-based schedule. For example, I don’t know that a lot of Canadians understand the importance of the viking settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site. A thousand years ago 75 Norse men and women settled this site, making it the only known Viking settlement in North America.

L'anse aux meadowsL’Anse Aux Meadows feels like the place time forgot. Aside from a few houses in the distance, the landscape looks untouched. It’s almost spooky in its raw, rugged naturalness to be in a place where Lief Eriksson and his party lived 500 years before Columbus set sail. It is far enough north that it’s possible to see the Aurora Borealis, polar bears in spring and moose all the time.

L’Anse Aux Meadows is also the first place in the world to earn a World Heritage Site designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It earned this designation – before places like the Pyramids, Great Wall of China and Venice – because when the Vikings landed here, they completed the human circle. Scientists believe the human race originated in Africa. Between 150,000 and 250,000 years ago some tribes went East as far as Siberia, while others went west and north to Europe and Scandinavia. The descendants of the Siberian populations are the indigenous people of North America, so the Vikings’ arrival in Newfoundland was the first time the two arms of the human race reunited and the encirclement of the globe was complete.

Less important to the world, but interesting for visitors, are places like Port Union, which is Canada’s only union-built town, and a place so progressive that it had electricity before New York City. At the Ryan Premises, in Bonavista, I learned about the various fisheries that built a once-prosperous economy here. In the town of Trinity I found a pretty, yet somewhat sad place. Architecturally, it is filled with well-maintained and colourfully decorated homes. The sad aspect is that this once thriving community only has 20 elderly year-round residents. In summer the population climbs to 250. That’s when the place comes alive, when parking lots fill with visitors staying in B&Bs, visiting the historic buildings and attending performances at the Rising Tide Theatre.

This area is off the beaten path for many visitors to Newfoundland, but it has all the elements for a successful holiday. In addition to the raw beauty of nature, there are elegant accommodations, seafood so fresh you can see it being landed, and people so friendly they will literally give you the clothes off their back. And then there are icebergs, whales, seabirds. Where else can you have all this?