Our time in Canada was coming to an end. We had had a fantastic time there and discovered how truly friendly and welcoming Canadians are, at least in Montreal and, even more especially, in Nova Scotia. But more of that in a minute. Let me cover the last twenty four hours of our stay.
As we left Cape Breton Island and returned to the Nova Scotian mainland, the direct route to our overnight stop was by motorway but we had been intrigued by a sign pointing to Arisaig, a place name that originated from the west coast of Scotland. So, at Antigonish, a large town with a long-established university, we took a right turn and headed for the coast. Our first target was Cape George, a major headland with a lighthouse. There were some great sea views across the Gulf of St Lawrence to Prince Edward Island, a very flat Province famous for its potatoes. However it was the lighthouse itself that interested us. In big red letters just below the lamp was the date of construction, 1968, the year our son was born. Obviously this was the date of a rebuild as we had read that a lighthouse had stood here since the nineteenth century.
The coast in this part of Nova Scotia is called the Northumberland Shore. The name applies to the whole Nova Scotian mainland coastline that faces the Gulf. Continuing along the shore road from the lighthouse took us to Arisaig. Rather like its namesake in Scotland, this is a community of small farms (crofts) and houses scattered along a few kilometres of road. Unlike the other Arisaig, this one has a small township at its centre and a formal park. The most important site of interest in the area is a series of fossil-bearing cliffs. We stopped the car in the Arisaig Provincial Park that spreads along the top of the line of cliffs and took one of the marked paths down to the shore.
Even our untrained eyes soon noticed fossils in the rock face. The place was unsupervised but notices told visitors that it was permitted to take fossils found on the beach but it was not permitted to dig into the soft rock of the cliff faces in search of samples. We turned over bits of shale-type rock that were lying on the beach and after a short while found a fossilised shell about 2cm across and shaped rather like a scallop. Margaret picked up a yellow and white striated stone. We had our souvenirs. It was time to leave.
Our route now was heading towards the town of New Glasgow further along the Northumberland Shore. Some information boards in a field caught my eye and we stopped to have a look. They told a fascinating history of the area. The original inhabitants had been nomadic Algonquin Indians. In 1784 a contingent of two hundred Scottish soldiers from the 82nd (Duke of Hamilton) Regiment of Foot, stationed in Halifax, were offered land grants along the shore. This area is still known colloquially as the “82nd Grant”.
Of the two hundred grants made, only fifty soldiers stayed. The rest sold their shares and left. Of the fifty about thirty were Protestants from the Scottish Lowlands and twenty were Catholics from the Outer Hebridean Island of Barra. One of the information boards gave an extract from a travel book written in 1830.
“Bailey’s Brook is a thriving and very pretty Highland settlement. Here you may go into a dozen houses without as much English as will suffice to tell you the road: but you will find lots of genuine Highland hospitality, and before you have taken a seat, a bannock of oaten meal will be thrust into your pocket, or a bowl of unskinned (sic) milk is presented to your lips: for the Highland dames reason right shrewdly, that, when on the road, hunger and thirst are apt to overtake the Saxon as the Gael. Many of the farms are extensive, and nearly all of them productive as any to be found in the Province.”
Unfortunately we didn’t meet one of the “Highland dames” to give us bread and milk, everyone seemed to be indoors. Maybe it was tea time.
Other boards gave details of the individuals by name who had lived in the area at various points during the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of these, Margaret MacDonald, who was born in 1873, rose to be Matron-in-Chief of the Canadian Nursing Service and became the first woman in the British Empire to reach the rank of Major.
Altogether, the boards told the complete story from the founding of the community to the present day. As well as farming, there are thriving businesses in lumber, the fishing industry including catching and canning and, coming into the modern day, building and maintaining wind farms. Judging by well-cut lawns, the freshly painted houses and the well maintained farm buildings, this is a community that is not only prosperous but also takes a pride in itself.
After this experience we were a little disappointed, when we reached New Glasgow, to find scruffy buildings, poorly maintained roads and hints of poverty. The contrast was stark. Having said that, parts of the town did look attractive but it had the air of a place that had lost a big employer or two.
Heading north, we were soon crossing the causeway over the East River of Pictou and back into the Pictou itself, where we had booked another night at Sam Semark’s “Auberge Walker Inn”. Sam and her two dogs were there to welcome us and we were invited to have a cup of tea on the balcony. That was great. She told us about the blight that was slowly killing the town. This took the form of clouds of noxious gases from the wood pulp mill on the other side of the wide river. Apart from the unpleasant smells, harmful chemicals were leaking out from the badly-maintained chimneys. These chemicals in the air were believed to be the cause of illnesses in the community. Despite a residents’ campaign demanding investment in cleaning up the plant, the employment lobby was winning the day. It didn’t help that the other significant local employer, Michelin, was also laying off workers.
Before finding a place to eat, we wanted to see the ferry terminal about 5 kms out of town, where boats leave for Prince Edward Island (PEI) several times a day. The road to the terminal was a wide, new highway built to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. There was a ferry loading as we arrived and, for a moment, I was tempted to buy a ticket, but to cross and return would have taken about 3 hours, time we really didn’t have. So we stood on the harbour wall and watched it sail out across a calm sea to the flatness of PEI in the distance.
Dinner at the Saltwater Cafe overlooking the water in Pictou, was pan-fried haddock and excellent it was too. Fish is especially good when it is locally fished and hasn’t spent days and weeks in freezers. The place was quiet as everyone was preparing for family celebrations the next day, Canada Day, the 1st July. We crossed the road to have a drink at Carver’s Bar which had been so lively on our first visit. Sadly for us, all was quiet with only a handful of customers and couple of guitarists-cum-singers playing in a very lack-lustre fashion. It seemed the answer would be an early bed.
Next morning, after another excellent breakfast, we bade farewell to Sam, and the dogs, and set off for Halifax Airport. There was motorway for the whole route but, half way along, at the city of Truro, we decided to switch to the back roads and get a last view of Nova Scotia and Canada at closer quarters. Along the old road many houses had Canadian flags, varying from the big to the ginormous, flying from their walls or from poles in their gardens.
It was time for a break before we reached the airport and, right on cue, we saw a sign to Schubenacadie Park just off the highway. We didn’t know what kind of park it would be but were willing to take pot luck. It turned out to be an open-air zoo, specialising almost exclusively, on the birds and animals of Nova Scotia. Its full name was Schubenacadie Wildlife Park. What a find.
It was turning out to be a very hot day and we were keen to find some cold drinks. The ticket booth was manned by a girl from Edinburgh. She was married to a local but we got the impression that she missed home. She told us we could get drinks at the entrance to the zoo. That information was technically correct but instead of there being a café all that was there was a cold drinks dispenser. Adequate but not very exciting.
The middle of a hot day is not the best time to go to an outdoor zoo. The animals and birds are mostly in the shady places at the back of their enclosures having a nap. Still, we did see otters and beavers, a variety of deer and birds including vultures and eagles. It was explained that all the birds had been rescued from the wild and were at the zoo for medical attention leading to rehabilitation in their native lands. One of the unique animals, the only examples in a wildlife park anywhere in the world, were horses from Sable Island. This island is about 200 km off the coast of Nova Scotia in the Atlantic Ocean. As the name might suggest, being taken from the French word for sand, it is a long, thin sand bar some 40 km long and straddling the shipping lanes from America’s east coast to western Europe. The Sable Island horses, protected by the Canadian Government, are a feral breed and have been there for about 250 years. The horses looked a bit like large pit ponies and in the past they were exported to work in the quarries of Nova Scotia.
After a fascinating hour ambling around the park it was time to head towards the airport. On the way we stopped at a modern service station to fill up the rental car and to buy some water and sandwiches to keep us going whilst we waited for our plane.
Halifax Airport is a gateway airport for the United States which means that the US Immigration Service checks passengers who are travelling to the US, as we were, before the flight rather than after. The officer who dealt with us had acquired a level of charm not normally found at the desks in US point-of-entry airports. He minimised the formalities and wanted to know if we’d enjoyed our time in Canada and what we would be doing in the States. Of course, in part, this was just him doing his job of checking we were bona fide travellers but he was a good example of how this can be done without the air of an interrogation. When we left the desk, he actually thanked us for our courtesy towards him!
This last experience of Canada (for the time being), got us thinking about our time in that great country as we sat in the departure lounge. As Brits, we have some difficulty in differentiating Canadians from Americans. To our untrained ears their accents sound similar and you’re always in danger of insulting a Canadian by calling them an American, and vice versa. What we learned, and this might be a sweeping generalisation, is that if the person you are talking to has a soft accent, is genuinely interested in talking to you, and is keen to help, then it’s a reasonable assumption that they are Canadian.
Showing our ignorance, we had not been prepared for the ubiquitous presence of the French language. Whilst the ability to speak French is not a precursor to visiting the country, in the eastern provinces, a knowledge of that language is useful. A trivial in some respects but important in others example is that the correct spelling of Montréal has an acute accent on the “e”.
One thing that amazed us was the Canadian’s attention to cleanliness. The streets, even in a big city, are clean beyond belief for someone who lives in London part of the year and in Turkey for another part. A test of a culture’s attitude to rubbish and tidiness can always be found at the side of a railway line in an urban environment. As we arrived into Montréal by train from the States, not only were the tracksides clear of rubbish but also the houses close to the tracks were well maintained and neat and tidy. What a contrast to looking out of the window of a train in the suburbs and inner-city of a British conurbation.
But our biggest and most enduring surprise was the real friendliness of Canadians and the efforts that they went to ensure that we had a good time in their country. I mentioned in an earlier post in this blog about a French-speaking man in Montréal, who, seeing us examining a metro map (we were looking for the best way to get to the airport), came over unasked and proceeded to explain how the metro system worked and how to get to the airport. He even selected the route for us that would mean that we would not have to go out into the forecast rain to change from the metro to the airport bus.
There are many, many other examples of friendliness. They should put up a sign at the Canadian border that says “Strangers welcome”, because that is how it feels. Of course, this may just be in Montréal and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. I have no experience of other big cities like Toronto or Vancouver or the Prairie Provinces of Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan. However, it’s a good excuse to put a further exploration of Canada high on our travel agenda.
And a word about manners. Good manners are the order of every day. In fact, Canadians can take politeness to the ultimate when they thank you for saying “thank you”, and mean it.
For travellers from Europe, taxes and service are something you need to be aware of in Canada and also in the United States. Prices quoted on menus are nett of taxes and service. Taxes vary enormously. They are set by the local province or state and can range from as little as 5% to as much as 15%. On top of this you are expected to add a tip, or service charge, which is 15 – 20% of the menu prices. This means that a $30 bill can suddenly become $40. However you can’t be mean about these things. The taxes are mandatory and the serving staff depend on the tips as their basic pay is very low. The rule is “grin and bear it”, it’s the custom and practice.
I can’t finish without a mention of Canada’s love affair with the colour red. In rural communities barns are often painted red and in fishing communities the dockside buildings are mostly red. Whatever the environment, there will be red buildings and houses, red boats even red cars. The present day national flag is a red maple leaf on a white background. You see it everywhere. That replaced the more colonial flag based on, would you believe it, the Red Ensign!!
So, look out Canada, we’ll be back.