In Annie's, a small café on Queen Street, there is an undercurrent of
disquiet among the handful of breakfast clientele. This is meant to be a big year, says the proprietor – Annie herself – to her customers. We're supposed to be celebrating, so why is the city covered in construction sites? It certainly doesn't make a good impression for visitors.
The Queen Street café is in Halifax, Nova Scotia and the celebration – on which Can $0.5bn is being lavished – is Canada's 150th birthday. I've lived in houses older than Canada, but commemorating 1867, the year when Canada threw off its British shackles and became an independent country, is this year's big thing. Halifax, however, happens to be in the middle of a building boom and the cranes, drills and other hard hat paraphernalia are certainly not pausing to mark the event. Office blocks, apartments, hotels and shopping centres are being erected apace, but this disruption will go on for years to come. There's even a building under noisy construction right next to Annie's, which may go some way to explain the café owner's significant lack of enthusiasm for the city's rapid growth.
You quickly learn to dodge the cones and barriers, to follow detours and avoid anything surrounded by hoardings – and discover that Halifax still has much to offer the visitor. The harbour-side boardwalk is one of the longest in the world – sections temporarily disrupted with, yes, construction – but the restaurants and bars are still extremely busy. Having secured a table on the patio of the much-recommended Bicycle Thief (serving Italian 'soul food', apparently – I hope my soul is appreciative of the linguine with scallops), I decide to ask a mother and daughter (the relationship instantly recognisable from the painfully guarded conversation) seated opposite what they think of
their prime minister.
I have to confess I expected a rather more effusive reply, after the Justin Trudeau adoration-fest we had in the British press when he was elected. 'What’s he done?' asks the mum of her offspring, before immediately answering herself: 'Nothing bad, but nothing particularly good either.' They mention his two major initiatives – the planned introduction of a national carbon tax and his ambition to legalise marijuana across the country. He came to power in 2015. Two years on, is this it? I feel I can now better understand their dearth of enthusiasm. Then, with a nod to the incumbent south of the border, the daughter adds, with feeling: 'But at least he's not been an embarrassment.'
A little further along the boardwalk from the Bicycle Thief are two excellent museums – the Canadian Museum of Immigration and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which contains a significant exhibit, illustrating a much darker anniversary which is also being marked in Halifax this year. On 6 December 1917, a French vessel, the SS Mont Blanc, loaded with volatile explosives including benzol, gun cotton, picric acid and TNT, collided in a stretch of Halifax harbour known as the Narrows, with the SS Imo, a Norwegian-owned relief ship, bound for the battlefields of Belgium. At 9.05am, the largest man-made explosion in history before the atom bomb obliterated the northern part of the city, killing almost 2,000 people and injuring a further 9,000. Many children, watching the boats in the harbour from their living rooms in Richmond, suffered devastating eye injuries and young Barbara Orr, at home from school with measles, lost every single member of her family. A carillon of bells, donated by Orr in their memory, is now part of the Memorial Tower sited in the very heart of the rebuilt neighbourhood.
Arthur Barnstead, deputy registrar general of Nova Scotia, was tasked with providing identification of the dead. It was a traumatic and painstaking job but Barnstead was aided by being able to employ a method first used by his father, John Henry Barnstead, who was deputy director of deaths for Halifax when the Titanic sank in 1912. Halifax, some 920 miles from where the liner went down on 15 April, was the closest port and this is where many bodies were returned.
The White Star Line chartered a cable-laying vessel, CS Mackay-Bennett, to recover as many as possible from the waters of the North Atlantic. The arrangements were overseen by John Snow and company, one of the largest funeral directors in the city, and the firm took 100 coffins on board when they made the four-day journey. By 26 April, they had recovered 190 bodies and recommitted a further 116, too badly decomposed for identification, to the sea. Eventually 209 bodies came to Halifax and John Henry Barnstead gave each body a number and bagged all the personal effects he could retrieve. He also recorded tattoos, items of clothing and jewellery and took photographs.
The first burials took place on 3 May – 121 in Fairview Lawn (non-denominational) cemetery, 10 in Baron de Hirsch Jewish cemetery and 19 in Mount Olivet Catholic cemetery. Many who were identified were returned to their families for burial in their own country. Some 42 Titanic dead lie in unmarked graves, the most poignant being that of the 'Unknown Child'. In 2007, after extensive DNA testing, the identity of this fair-haired infant was finally revealed – he was 19-month-old Sidney Leslie Goodwin, from Wiltshire, the youngest of a family of eight, en route to a new life in Niagara Falls. His mother, father and five older siblings also perished. One of Sidney's tiny leather shoes is still to be seen at the Maritime Museum, saved from burning – to thwart souvenir hunters – by a policeman, who couldn't bear to destroy this tangible evidence of Sidney's short life. His grave now bears his name.
Saint John in New Brunswick, a three-hour ferry ride from Digby, Nova Scotia, is having a festival. Street food vendors, live bands, kids' entertainers, hawkers, traders and purveyors of all sorts of commercial tat, fill the waterfront area, which overlooks the cruise ship passenger berth, where a fleet of nine bright pink British Routemaster buses await the next influx. Cruises are very big business in the Maritimes.
Saint John, like so many Canadian settlements, is proud of its Scots ancestry. There are plaques and signs everywhere, reminding of the historic connection. This city is home to Canada's oldest St Andrew's Society, which held its inaugural meeting on 8 March 1798, electing William Pagan, 'a successful merchant and politician' (plus ça change) as its first president. The society's two principal tenets – benevolent assistance to the natives of Scotland and their descendants and support of Scottish culture – remain strong today. Not surprising in a location where some 25% of the population can claim a link to the Auld Country.
But there is little to cause one to linger in Saint John – Fundy Bay is the New Brunswick draw. Here, it is claimed, are the highest tides in the world. At low tide, at Hopewell Rocks, where a series of incredible sandstone rock formations have been created by thousands of years of erosion, you can walk (I do) on the ocean floor. At high tide, some 50 feet (15m) of salt water sweeps in and reclaims its territory. Last year, a 200-tonne natural rock sculpture known as The Elephant collapsed. Ultimately, inevitably, the sea will have its dominion.
Alma is a small, laid-back resort on the bay. Stopping for a beer at a new, very funky micro-brewery, I approach the trendy hipster barman. Surely he'll have a different take on Trudeau. So what do you think of him?, I ventured. He's a pretty boy, I was told, and it's no coincidence he's often photographed without his shirt. Mmm, lots of style but still lamentably short on substance is the obvious subtext.
The Confederation Bridge, the eight-mile (13km) fixed link across the Northumberland Strait, joining New Brunswick with Prince Edward Island, leads almost directly into pretty Victoria-by-the-Sea, once a thriving port, trading with Europe and the West Indies, and now a village with a year-round population of just 200, boosted by summer visitors who keep the Playhouse, Prince Edward Island's longest running little theatre, in healthy business.
The island was first colonised by the French in 1720 before Britain finally succeeded in taking control in 1758, naming the largest settlement Charlottetown, in honour of the queen consort of George III. The handsome streets are lined with sandstone, shingle and clapboard buildings in a rich variety of architectural styles – Georgian, Greek revival, Gothic revival, Queen Anne, vernacular, Italianate – all jostling for prominence. At the end of busy Victoria Street, with its swish outdoor cafés, boutiques and art galleries, you can take a seat beside one of Canada's most famous sons – a Scotsman by birth.
Sir John A Macdonald, born in Ramshorn parish in Glasgow in 1815, emigrated to Canada with his family five years later and went on to become the country's first prime minister in 1867. His image is everywhere – and it isn't at all flattering. According to Jonathan Walford, curator at Canada's fashion history museum, Macdonald was the least fashionable PM the country has ever known. 'His Presbyterian background would have made fashion an unaffordable frivolity,' says Walford. 'He likely would have been too distracted by problems to give much attention to his wardrobe and appearance.'
Most images of Macdonald, including the bronze statue on the bench, show him in ill-fitting suits, with a wiry, unkempt coiffeur. According to an anecdote, some of his friends were so dismayed by his appearance that they clubbed together to buy him a stylish coat 'befitting his status as first minister'. That is certainly not a problem shared by the chap currently occupying that auspicious role.
Macdonald, sporting historically accurate hairstyle, also appears in the daily peripatetic play put on by the Confederation Players, who stroll around Charlottetown, in costume, performing impromptu scenarios from the town's big story. Canada may be celebrating its 150th birthday – but Charlottetown has stolen a march. Here, it proudly proclaims, is the birthplace of confederacy. In 1864, the town hosted a conference for representatives of the maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, to discuss closer union. The Province of Canada (present day Ontario and Quebec) heard about this and decided to muscle in. Macdonald was the leading light, taking charge of proceedings to argue passionately and persuasively about the benefits of union, which was achieved three years later.
Actors playing Sir John A MacDonald and wife
The ferry ride from Wood Islands to Caribou, back in Nova Scotia, is glorious on a fine day. The view on approach – of the Abercrombie pulp mill – is less attractive. This is the first industry encountered since Halifax. Pictou, itself a pretty drab and depressing place after the glamour and vitality of Charlottetown, is further blighted by having the pulp mill's belching smoke stacks in its permanent sight. The town is notable, however, as it was here on 15 September 1773, that some 200 Scots immigrants – the first major emigration of Scots settlers – arrived in search of a better life on the Hector, an old, clapped-out, barely fit-for-purpose Dutch cargo ship, known to posterity as 'the Scottish Mayflower'. A replica Hector, the product of years of fundraising and labour by passionate volunteers, is a major visitor attraction, graphically revealing how the poor crofters, mostly from the Loch Broom area, barely survived the arduous 11-week crossing. Some did not, of course – 18 people died during the voyage.
But, although informative in its intent, the accompanying historical 'facts' on the Jacobite rebellions and the initial Highland Clearances – the reasons for making the perilous journey – somewhat raise the hackles of a former Scottish blue badge tourist guide (me). The constant interspersion of 'Scots' for 'Jacobites' – and there's hardly a place where this doesn't happen, except at Culloden – is as annoying as it is wrong and, for me, devalues the experience somewhat. If they have got those 'facts' so badly wrong, what else?
Retreating to that evening's B&B, the owner, Michelle, doesn't want to talk about Trudeau. She is very enthusiastic about Trump. 'He's been great for tourism in Canada,' she trills. 'Nova Scotia is having one of its very best seasons.' One senses she hopes he continues in office in perpetuity and that the tourists keep heading north.
Captain John, who raises a few chuckles when he comes on board the Amoeba brandishing a copy of 'Sailing for Dummies', holds up a herring and calls: 'Alex, Alex.' From his nest, Alex regards the offering warily. But he is soon persuaded and flies over the boat, to everyone's delight, before diving into the sea to collect his prize. Alex is a golden eagle and lives with his mate, Mabel, in Baddeck on Cape Breton Island. Feeding the pair (and another couple, also called Alex and Mabel…there is a reason) is part of Captain John's daily ritual – to ensure the ongoing cooperation of the birds, he even feeds them in winter, when the water is frozen and there are no tourists. They pay back his kindness in spades.
Alex and Mabel are named for the most famous residents of Baddeck – Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, Mabel Hubbard. Bell was born in Edinburgh in 1847, later emigrating with his family to North America, and Hubbard was later a private student of his, which is how they met and fell in love. His great claim to fame, of course, was as the inventor of the telephone. But he did so much more than that.
Both his father and grandfather were pioneers in phonetics and, after an undistinguished high school career, Bell spent a year in London with his grandfather, a celebrated professor of speech and language therapy. It changed his life.
In 1870 the Bell family left Scotland and settled in Ontario, where Bell studied the Mohawk language and became so fluent he was initiated in the community with full ceremonial rites. The following year he accepted a position at Boston School for the Deaf and set up his own private practice. He was soon offered a professorship of vocal physiology and elocution at Boston University. Fifteen-year-old Mabel Hubbard was deaf following a bout of scarlet fever when she was five. She was able to speak but her articulation was difficult to understand – she greatly improved under Bell's tuition and guidance.
He was also involved in the frenetic race to improve the telegraph, carrying out experiments at night. He knew something about electricity and a lot about sound, speech and hearing and had in his mind an electrical device working like a human ear and transmitting speech. The telephone was created by Bell and his gifted assistant Thomas Watson in 1875. They received the patent the following year. On her 18th birthday, with her parents' consent, Mabel agreed to marry him. As a wedding present, Bell gave Mabel virtually his entire stock in the new Bell Telephone Company, keeping only 10 shares for himself.
The Alexander Graham Bell museum is a national historic monument and from its roof you can see, nestled in the woods on the opposite shore, his private home – Beinn Bhreagh – still part of the family estate. In the foyer that day was also a celebration to another prominent Canadian, Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian female astronaut, physician, scientist and photographer. Bondar was receiving an honorary degree and the entire shindig – ceremony and post-award drinks and nibbles – was open to all, dignitaries, locals and tourists alike. True Canadian egalitarianism.
Sir Alexander Graham Bell and wife Mabel: statue at Baddeck