Thursday, October 29, 2015

A life-changing sweat lodge experience with Emmett Peters

Emmett Peters died this year. He passed in January, but I just heard about it this week. 

He's on the shortlist of people I've met as a journalist who had a profound impact on my life. In 2009, I did a Road Warrior travel column for the Chronicle Herald. I always wanted to end it by doing a sweat, and after much searching I found Emmett and he offered to be my guide.

He met me at the lodge near a lake on DND property. The sweat is an intimate, family affair, and a journalist stands out. He welcomed me, invited me to sit in a truck with him and talk. I asked him about the sweat, and he asked me why I wanted to do it. 

Because it's such a private, intimate experience, Emmett suggested I write about it just from my own perspective. I'll post the column below. Emmett later told me that he loved the line about "the snot seems beautiful."

I also spoke to Emmett over the years about the Seven Sparks program he co-ran for First Nations people emerging from prison and trying to rebuild. I spoke to him about his battle with addictions, and with being raised in a Nova Scotia that told him to hate the "Indian" in him.

Maybe I'll post that article later. 

I saw him a few times a year since 2009, and always felt he brought a message for me. I asked him if I could write a book about him, but he said no. 

But quietly, always staying out of the limelight, he helped Mi'kmaq people rebuild their culture. He laid the groundwork for a better future for all of us. 

Strangely, I learned about his death the day before I went to a meeting to discuss plans for maybe renaming Cornwallis Park. 

While his friends and family deeply grieve for a great man, let's you and I take a moment to see what light he fought to bring to this world. 

Emmett is the guide and elder I don't name in the article. He requested that, but later changed his mind and let his name be used. 


The Sweat Lodge

The “grandfathers” are brought in one by one, smoking hot with a red translucence in the gloom of the sweat lodge. The grandfathers: stones brought from the earth, heated with the fire of grandmother tree. The deep, round hole in the centre of the low, round lodge fills up with crackling heat.

The door on the birchbark-and-cloth hut is closed. The afternoon sunlight disappears and the darkness is total.

Water is ladled onto the stones as a voice emerges from the darkness. There are no holy people, nor unholy. No devil, either. Those who preach such fear-mongering are seeking followers, not leaders. This is a place for leaders.

The water hits the stones, hissing like snakes, crackling like bullets. The heat hits me like a tidal wave and I can’t breath. Panic rises as I glance in the darkness toward the door; one word and I’m out. Around me, men and women settle in for the first, “warm,” round. I hear them breathing, feel their bodies.

I concentrate on breathing in, breathing out. I put my towel over my face. It cools the air enough to take it in. Out. In. Out.

My heart settles.

The sweat lodge is about humility, about going deep down into the earth to find your roots. My guide, who asks me not to use his name to honour the spirit of humility, told me about his long road to the lodge. 

Raised in day schools, he learned to hate himself. He fell into a bottle and when he emerged, he was surprised to see “an Indian” staring back at him. Everyone else knew he was an Indian, he said. He didn’t. He learned. He had been taught to be ashamed of his Mi’kmaw culture. He thought it was dirty. When he watched cowboy and Indian movies at the cinema, he rooted for the cowboys.

He cleaned himself up. He studied sweat lodges for seven years before he was able to offer them himself. He learned the road the grandfather walks is the road the grandson inherits.

Water smashes against the hot stone; the air is incinerated. My skin is a lake. I find my towel, soaked with snot and sweat. I hesitate for a second, then press it into my face: the air feels so cool filtered through it that for the first time in my life, snot seems beautiful.

Prayers are offered, songs are sung. Grape juice and moose meat is handed around.

Another ladle of water lashes against the stones. It’s like breathing in raw fire. I struggle to stay calm and notice a funny thing: when my mind wanders to how I’m going to set this status on Facebook, or to whether I remembered to lock my car, I lose my breathing and start to panic. When I focus solely on the business of breathing in and breathing out, I can just manage. I’m starting to feel like a Zen master.

Another lash of water on the hot stones and my nose just refuses to pull in any air. I tell it this is a bad idea, but it doesn’t care. I stuff the snotty and sweaty towel to my nose, but it makes no difference.

Another lash.

I turn away from the centre, crawl to the back wall of the lodge. I lower my head to the ground, claw at the canvas until the earth is revealed. I press my nose into the soil, sucking in the dirt-scented air.

My guide told me the sweat lodge is not a spiritual experience, it’s a human experience. It’s mental and physical, he said. That’s all we know. We’ll learn the spiritual side when we get to the spirit world. Don’t bang your brains out worrying about the spiritual now.

Another lash on the rocks breaks me.

“All my relations,” I croak, and the door is opened, flooding the lodge with light. I crawl toward daylight, pressing through a haze of faces travelling deep within themselves, past the smoking pit of stone. My arms and legs tremble as I crawl to the unbelievably blue sky. I collapse in the freshest patch of grass I’ve even felt. The breeze passes blissfully over my skin. It tastes sweeter than sugar.

I’m overwhelmed by the joy of being alive.

Of breathing.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Word for Word: Burying dead gods and rescuing storm seals

My first monthly newsletter has arrived! Sign up you don't miss an edition.

Hello! Welcome to Word for Word, your monthly look at language.

Where do gods go when they die? We bury them in our language. Word for Word looks at the forgotten gods entombed in the names of our months...

Article Review
Check out this article I wrote recently for CBC to see if you can identify the writing technique I used (don't cheat and read ahead!). "An ex-politician mistook a man for a seal and then rescued him from a blizzard this winter..." 

Writing Technique Tip

Did you pay attention to the "through line" - the theme of the article above? Of course it's the seal (who doesn't even exist!) and I put him in the first paragraph, in the middle, and returned to him at the end. A good through line ties a story together and keeps the reader moving all the way to the end.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why Albert Einstein should have learned Mi'kmaq

Published in the Chronicle Herald during October 2014's Mi'kmaq History Month:

By Jon Tattrie

If Albert Einstein had been Mi’kmaq, he might not have found space-time so hard to warp his mind around. In fact, if we all spoke Mi’kmaq, all of Einstein’s ideas would be more readily grasped.

“Einstein told us everything is in constant flux; everything is moving all the time. It’s difficult to conceptualize that your house is moving, or your carpet is moving,” says Dr Bernie Francis, a respected linguist and professor at the Cape Breton University.

While noun-based English struggles to express Einstein’s ideas, verb-based Mi’kmaq makes it clearer. Colour is a verb, for example. “We don’t say the car is red. We say the car is redding,” he explains. “We’re saying it’s in the process of being red.”

It’s not seen as a permanent condition, but a changing condition that you see at a certain point in time. It’s in constant motion. “[Mi’kmaq] sees the world as a video camera, as opposed to English, which sees the world as a still camera that takes pictures of reality frame by frame,” the Membertou man explains. “That’s the difference. Our language substantiates Einstein’s theory. In the sub-atomic world, nothing is stationary.”

Insights like these, and his deep contributions to saving the language from extinction and to improving Mi’kmaq access to justice, played a big role in the decision of his peers to give Francis the Grand Chief Donald Marshall Sr. Elder Achievement Award this year.

“He’s been doing his work for a long time. It’s nice to see that he’s being recognized,” Tim Bernard says. “Bernie will be the first to tell you that’s a great part of being an elder: you never acknowledge yourself as an elder. It’s your peers and others that give you that recognition.”

“What it means to me is whenever there’s a feast, I get to eat first,” Francis says with an explosive laugh. “Elders eat first.”

He downplays his own achievements, focusing instead on the elders who helped him achieve those things. “It’s given to me by my own people, who know me,” he says. “It’s quite an honour.”

He came to study the language almost accidentally. In the 1970s, he worked for the John Howard Society helping parolees. He realized that language and cultural barriers put a lot of Mi’kmaq people behind bars. “It was at that time that I noticed that our own people were being treated like a bunch of cattle,” he says.

Francis improved the situation by spreading the word that everyone should plead not guilty, and then find legal help. He helped develop a program that assist the accused in finding justice. “Before long I was probably the most hated person in the court system,” he says with a little laugh.

He left that post in the mid-1970s and spent the next several years working with Dr. Peter Christmas, director of the Mi’kmaq Association of Cultural Studies, and Professor Doug Smith to create an orthography that allowed Mi’kmaq to be written down.

By 1980, the Smith-Francis Orthography was complete and went into active use. Much of his work was poured into The Language of This Land, Mi’kma’ki, a book he co-authored with Trudy Sable.

Today, Francis helps to develop Pjila’si Mi’kma’ki, a digital atlas and website that will document the 13,000 year history of Mi’kma’ki. It’s important cultural work, but also important legally for establishing land claims. Francis hopes it will literally and figuratively put Mi’kmaq culture back on the map.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Celebrating Mi'kmaq History Month

an article i did for the chronicle herald

By Jon Tattrie

Nova Scotians are celebrating Mi’kmaq History Month this October, but organizers say the event faces major challenges if it hopes to grow in the coming years.

Tim Bernard of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq says the celebratory month started in 1993 when the province “finally realized we should do something to promote Mi’kmaq history and culture. That was a big step.”

But Bernard says funding fluctuates, meaning the event grows and shrinks. Organizers are in the second year of developing a long-term plan to move the month forward.

“We’ve recognized a need for Mi’kmaq communities in Nova Scotia to embrace Mi’kmaq History Month,” he says. “After twenty years, nobody was embracing the month to the degree that we should 

There are cultural challenges, too. Bernard’s father, for example, did some time at the Shubenacadie Residential School, where he and others were punished if they spoke Mi’kmaw, and were taught to be ashamed of their culture.  

After 540 generations of handing the language and culture into the future, it was shattered in one generation. Tim Bernard didn’t learn his own language. He says inter-generational wounds like that need time to heal.

“It’s about communities celebrating, first. We’ve been deprived for a long period of time. We want to make sure our own communities are feeling good about celebrating Mi’kmaq History Month – the pride – and making sure we’re ready first before we can begin celebrating with the outside cultures,” he says.

He draws inspiration from recent successes in expanding Mi’kmaq presence in the province. Millbrook First Nation recently got a sign on Highway 102, and he hopes others will also get on the signs.  Other communities are returning to their traditional names, such as Sipekne'katik First Nation, Potlotek First Nation and Paq’tnkek Mi’kmaw Nation

Bernard points to Melody Martin-Googoo, who won an Excellence in Teaching Award in Truro this year for bringing a Mi’kmaq language class to Truro Junior High, and the planned Mi’kmawey-Debert Cultural Centre, based around the 13,000-year-old archeological site. “It is our intention to tell our own history through a Mi’kmaw lens,” he says. “There’s been a cultural disconnect, there’s been disruption in our history and our culture.

“We’re just trying to make Mi’kmaw culture a little more visible. Or a lot more visible, but we have to take little steps at a time.”

Treaty Rights benefit all

It’s a message Ben Sichel hears clearly. The Dartmouth-based teacher is white, but he says that’s all the more reason to celebrate events like Treaty Day.

“There's a common perception in Canada today that treaties and treaty rights, such as the hunting and fishing rights many people are familiar with, are just a 'native thing.' But the rights thought of as Aboriginal treaty rights today were obtained in exchange for the British being allowed to live peacefully on the land the Mi'kmaq had lived on for centuries,” he says.

“The British, and all other non-native folks who've lived on this land since the British took it over, have enjoyed that treaty right ever since. The Mi'kmaq were supposed to be able to enjoy that right as well.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Gottingen STreet 250

This is an unpublished version of the article that ran in Business Voice. 

By Jon Tattrie

Gottingen Street conjures up images of rural living in pastoral woods, the sound of horse hooves clip-clopping on dirt roads, and the smells of pine and ocean. Well, it does if you’re Paul Erickson, professor of anthropology at Saint Mary’s University and the author of Historic North End Halifax.

Erickson lives in the north end and has spent much of his life digging deep into its roots. “That area from Gottingen to the harbour is referred to as the old north suburbs. It developed before the south suburbs,” he says with a glint of pride.

Gottingen Street is turning 250 this year and it’s flourishing.

The revitalization even earned it a spot in Air Canada’s spring 2014 En Route magazine, which directed travellers to have breakfast at the Nook, visit the Parentheses Gallery, grab a drink in the Company House, dine in Edna and take in a live show at the Marquee Ballroom.

Local Tasting Tours recently started offering HFX North, a foodie’s journey through the north end. The 2.5 hour tour stops at places including Gio on Market Street, Dee Dee’s Ice Cream on Cornwallis Street, enVie vegan kitchen on Charles Street and Fred café and hair salon on Agricola and North.

Halifax was founded in 1749 to give the British a powerful hold on what they called Nova Scotia and to push the Acadians and Mi’kmaq off the disputed territory. Fortress Halifax was born in war and huddled behind the palisades for its first few years.

But shiploads of the so-called Foreign Protestants arrived year after year, seeking more land than Halifax proper could provide. Most of the 3,000 new settlers arriving in 1750-1751 were German, with a few Swiss and French mixed in, nearly equaling the original English population.

The Germans soon over-spilled the city walls and settled to the north of the palisades. The economic immigrants and religious refugees cut through the forest to create paths littered with tree stumps. People built and lived in “Dutch cottages,” modest one- or two-bedroom homes nestled in the woods.

“The main motivation for development in that direction was the creation of the naval dockyards at the foot of what’s now Artz Street,” Erickson explains. “The dockyard was essentially completed by 1760. There’s a lot of early activity there.”

The area was known as Dutchtown, which was an English corruption of Deutschtown, as in Germany. Some called it Germantown.

Erickson describes many of the colonists as indentured servants who paid for their passage by building public works in Halifax. He and his wife Dawn excavated a Dutch cottage on Cornwallis and Barrington streets as part of a SMU project in the 1980s.

In 1753, many Germans were moved to settle Lunenburg (which explains why the UNESCO World Heritage Site looks so much like early Halifax). But some remained north of Halifax.

In 1756, the Dutchtown settlers dragged a log home to the corner of Brunswick and Gerrish. There they paused before a common grave holding the mortal remains of some 300 of their brothers and sisters who died of typhus on the crossing from Europe to Nova Scotia. The building became their grave marker. It was called St. George’s Church and kept that name until St. George’s Round Church opened in 1812, when it became known as the Little Dutch Church. 

In 1764, the German settlers successfully petitioned the Nova Scotia government to change the name from Germantown to Gottingen to honour King George II, the German-born British ruler who founded Göttingen University and who had died in 1760.

Upper Water Street dead-ended at the dockyards and Barrington Street was just a stub, so Gottingen became the street that grew and grew all the way to Lady Hammond Road (that last stretch was recently renamed Novalea Drive) to get people off the peninsula. “It became a transportation artery to the downtown,” Erickson says.

By the late 1800s, Gottingen was a commercial district. A look through the digital version of Hopkins’ City Atlas of Halifax (1878) shows a tobacco factory off Brunswick Lane, a carriage factory near St. George’s Church, and the North End Market. It also housed institutions such as the Military Hospital, the Deaf & Dumb Institute and the “Colored Baptist Church.”

In the 1900s, Brunswick Street was Young Avenue of its day. “It was the residential address of distinction,” Erickson says. In the post-war period, it became more of a working class neighbourhood. The destruction of Africville in the 1960s drove many of the dislocated African Nova Scotians to join the black Nova Scotians already living in the residential north end.

Today, the North End Business Association is celebrating that 1764 name change as Gottingen 250. Particular focus is on the area’s German, Mi’kmaq and African Nova Scotia identities.

Michelle Strum, chairwoman of the North End Business Association, says the main celebrations run September 11 to 14. A music and heritage festival (staring Jrdn) will offer a free, daylong concert at 2183 Gottingen Street, an open-air street market on Maitland Street, and family festivities in the field next to St. Patrick’s Alexandra. 

On Sunday, there’s a free community barbeque and multi-denomination religious service. It’ll be a return to roots, as one of the original Little Dutch Church pastors spoke four languages and preached to people from different Christian traditions.

The area’s history will be explored throughout the year at iMOVE, the Bus Stop Theatre and the Co*Lab, with photo collections, archival displays, and community stories on Gottingen Street and online. Organizers also plan to develop a history app that will use location tags to pull out stories from the first 250 years for a walking history tour.

“We’re going to project onto buildings how they looked through the years,” Strum adds. “It’s a celebration of Gottingen past, present, and where we’re going.”

Part of the reason for Gottingen 250 is that there is Canadian Heritage funding available for neighbourhoods celebrating their 250th anniversary.

Strum also owns Halifax Backpackers Hostel and Alteregos Café & Catering on Gottingen Street. It’s one of the signs of growth in the area, along with Q Lofts and other condo projects, the Global News headquarters (in the former Palooka’s site), Home Grown Organics and more.

Strum says the area economy is “excellent,” although businesspeople here (and elsewhere in the downtown) want to see business taxes reformed. Strum also wants action on HRM’s Centre Plans so development moves quicker.

Strum has owned her businesses for 13 years, and that makes her hostel one of the longest-standing enterprises on the street. “Gottingen Street is different than downtown in that people tend to run these life-long businesses,” she explains. Owners retire, sell the spot, and a new business take its place.

“It has that rural business community feel,” she says. “Walk up and down Gottingen Street and you’ll find the owner behind the counter at almost every business. It’s something really special we have here.”

One of those owners is Jenna Mooers. She grew up on Gottingen and North, then Creighton and North, in the 1990s. Gottingen sprouted plenty of empty buildings and vacant lots at that time. She left for Montreal after high school and had no reason to return.

But then her mother, Jane Wright, closed Jane’s on the Common, and bought 2053 Gottingen Street to operate Jane’s Catering and Events. Mooers opened Edna in the building in 2013. It’s a restaurant named for the American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay.

“I feel like I’m falling in love with Halifax all over again,” Mooers says. “Part of my vision was to be a neighbourhood restaurant and bar where people could walk and get a locally sourced, home-cooked meal and a glass of wine, and not have to take their cars.”

She put benches on the sidewalk add to the community spirit. “Public seating is really neat. It took all of 30 seconds for somebody to come by and sit on them,” she says. “They’re pretty much occupied all day long.”

Business is good, she says, but she worries about development becoming gentrification. “As long as small business owners are invested in the community, live and work and feel it, then I think it’s a really positive thing,” says Mooers, who does indeed live in the neighbourhood.

Gottingen Street still has the community vibe it had in the early days, but the pastoral woods and rural atmosphere are long gone. So are the clip-clopping horse hooves and tree-stumped dirt roads. Some of it made it to World War Two, but almost all of the old world was bulldozed in the mania for urban renewal that gripped Halifax post-war. 

But hints of history remain. The Little Dutch Church still marks the old mass grave. Stand at the corner of Cornwallis and Barrington to take in the billboard sitting on a green space. That’s where Paul Erickson and his SMU team excavated (and then reburied) an old Dutch cottage. Across the street is the new Spice Condominiums. They’re named for William Schwartz, the son of German immigrants. He founded Schwartz Spices in 1889 and operated a spice factory on the site.

Walk up to the south-east corner of Cornwallis and Brunswick (kitty-corner to the Round Church), turn left and stroll past the beautifully ancient brown home. It’s Akins Cottage, built in the 1790s and later home to Dr. Thomas B. Akins, author of 1895’s History of Halifax City. The original Dutch cottages looked something like it.

Close your ears to modern traffic, shut your eyes to the condos, and listen to the echoes of horses trotting on dirt roads. Smell the peaceful woods.

“That’s about as evocative as you can get of 18th century north end,” says Paul Erickson. “The rest you have to use your imagination for.”


Learn more at

Monday, June 16, 2014

Nova Scotia, Annapolis Valley: Sampling wines proves alluring

and here's the Toronto Star travel article i did on taking a hot air balloon ride in the annapolis valley, followed by a vineyard tour.

Drink number one takes a bit of work to find. It starts in the pre-dawn parking lot of an Irving Big Stop gas station outside of New Minas in the Annapolis Valley. We gather around our pilot, Seth Bailey, and watch him release a balloon and track its course. Satisfied, he piles us into a dark SUV and speeds along until he finds a suitable field.
With cold hands we hold open an immense balloon as a fan inflates it with frigid morning air. It lifts sluggishly off the grass. Seth releases an open flame into the balloon and it jumps straight up. We clamber into the small wicker basket; blasts of fire lift us above the Valley. Cows, horses and llamas scatter below. A barking dog gives chase. We drift over a man standing on his back deck in his robe. He shouts a cheery hello. We shout back.
Wandering through air currents, the balloon drops to 200 feet and we skim over corn and blueberry crops. Our aerial nature tour takes us over a marshy forest, above the heads of deer, hawks and hunters. Tractors work the fields as the morning mist evaporates.
Seth breathes fire into the balloon and we soar to 1,200 feet. In an expansive glance, we take in the full length of the Bay of Fundy and the New Brunswick shore. Cape Split juts into the water; the distant villages of Parrsboro, Five Islands and Wolfville huddle in the chill.
We pass a golf course. Seth has landed there on more than one occasion, causing the golfers to politely play around him. As we approach the end of the Valley after an hour’s flight, Seth looks for a suitable landing spot amid the crops, forests and before the Minas Basin. He finds one and we return to earth. It’s a rough landing and 82-year-old Roberta piles into me, laughing. We stumble to our feet and Drink Number One appears before us: champagne. It’s a tradition as old as hot-air ballooning: toast the miracle of flight, the miracle of landing. (It’s said the early French balloonists broke out the bubbly when they alighted in the fields of alarmed farmers.)
Seth has a regular job in Halifax, but his love of hot-air ballooning inspired him to start East Coast Balloon Adventures. We are grateful for his passion.
I hop into a van promising Grape Escapes and Susan Downey trundles me along rustic lanes lined with an honour guard of trees toward the next drink. We putter across back-road bridges and through the fertile valley in a tidal landscape that has slipped from modernity’s grasp.
The road is more patches than pavement as we bump into the site for Drinks Two through Four: Domaine de Grand Pré. This is where the Annapolis Valley’s fabled shift from food crops toward vineyards began in the 1970s. The cobblestone courtyard gives a European feel to the dining and drinking area. As we tour the vines, the silence is interrupted by loud bangs designed to drive off the starlings. Apparently, starlings love grapes.
The sommelier guides us through three wines. They are increasingly delicious and I’m glad for the solid marble counter that prevents me going sideways. The ice wine astounds with its sweet, chilly goodness. It’s a very Nova Scotia product: the grapes are harvested in the dark on a frozen winter morning and turned into a lovely dessert wine. It’s difficult to get Nova Scotia’s scrumptious wines outside the province, so you must generally stand on its land to drink the blood of its vines.
We pile back into the van and wobble through the Gaspereau Valley to organic L’Acadie Vineyards. The sommelier tells us how many bubbles it takes to fill a bottle of L’Acadie sparkling wine: 56 million. L’Acadie surprised everyone in 2011 when its sparkling wine won silver at the Best Sparkling Wines in the World competition in Dijon, France. We sample a few more wines before circling for the van. My writing is sloppy, but I think I may be on Drink Seven or Eight.
Pete Luckett salutes us at the doors to Luckett Vineyards. The balding British ex-pat’s reputation ripples through this province. I heard his name in the hot air balloon as we peered down at his vineyard. He is famous in Halifax for twisting an old law banning Sunday shopping so much that the law finally gave up and let him open his Pete’s Frootique grocery store on whatever days he pleases. I first met him in 2009 when he was seeking a new business adventure. We stood in a rundown field and he shared his next dream: he wanted to open his very own vineyard.
His motto: If you can have someone smiling while you take their money, business will be good.
He opened the vineyard a few years later and today, business is good.
A red British phone booth stands in the rows between his grapes, offering free phone calls to anywhere in North America.
His hillside restaurant provides soulful views of the Valley and food that elicits worship. I forgot to write down the details of Drinks Nine through Twelve, but I remember them fondly.
I’m glad sober Susan is driving the Grape Escapes van. She, like Seth, like Pete, like everyone I’ve met here, was so enchanted by the Annapolis Valley, she started her own business to share the beauty with others.
As we hit the highway to Halifax, the vibrant splendor of the Annapolis Valley recedes. I opt for optimism and plan a return trip to tour the remainder of the Valley’s 11 vineyards.
I guess you could say I’m a Glass Half-Full kind of guy.

Jon Tattrie is a freelance journalist and the author of Ultimate Day Trips from Halifax.

Just the Facts
East Coast Balloon Adventures is Nova Scotia’s only hot air balloon company. They offer sunrise and sunset flights from spring to late fall. Book online at Grape Escapes ( offers a range of packaged and tailored tours through the Valley’s 11 vineyards. Go North offers similar tours, plus overnight trips. The Wolfville Magic Winery Bus leaves the Valley town for hop-on, hop-off tours of the wineries.

Kayaking in Tangier, Nova Scotia

a piece i wrote on kayaking in tangiers for the Toronto Star:

By Jon Tattrie

Highway 107 is a road people take to get home, not to get away. The two-lane route nicknamed Marine Drive clings to Nova Scotia’s rugged eastern shore, passing through fishing villages like Oyster Pond, Jeddore and Tangier. The people cling to the ocean, too, pulling a meagre living from the water.

Newcomers move to the coast for the views and build houses facing the ocean. Locals face inland. Face each other. Face away from the darkness beyond the shore.

If Nova Scotia is Canada’s Ocean Playground, as its license plates insist, then this is the province’s ocean workplace. For generations, Mi’kmaq people, European settlers and their descendents have extracted a living from the sea. All too often, the ocean takes a life in return.

In Tangier, Scott Cunningham continues the tradition. A marine biologist by training, his life changed 30 years when he took a break to paddle the coast of Nova Scotia. If the shore was straightened out, it would stretch to England and let settlers walk home. He had the ocean to himself.

When he returned, he started Coastal Adventures to share his passion with others, and to pull his own living from the ocean. He leads kayak tours along the eastern shore. Some go a half-day, others a full day. Some last the better part of a week.

Our group paddles out of Tangier Harbour. The ocean swells as we cross open water. Cunningham, a seafaring Red Green, provokes thoughts about the ocean, about how it shapes the land, and how it shapes the people.

“For most people it’s enough to go out into this natural world and just breathe deeply,” he says. “They’ve never seen the province from this perspective before. The smells, the views, just seeing the coastline from water. Most of us don’t see that. To be on a kayak where you can go around these nooks and crannies, it’s totally novel for most people. And that’s enough.”

But for those who want more, Cunningham has a story for every plant, a fact about each bird and a deep history of all the stones.

We paddle past small islands. To a dull-eyed city dweller, it looks like pristine wilderness, but Cunningham sees more. A glance tells him if people ever lived here.

The ocean tides press under our kayaks as we cross to Baltee Island and slip through the rocks to come ashore. Cunningham decodes the landscape as we hike. An overgrown rose bush indicates a garden once lovingly tended. Apple trees show a food crop that helped sustain generations. The forest undergrowth indicates a field once cleared. A cavity shows the remains of a root cellar. A house stood over it and a field surrounded it. The home probably fell a century ago.

Cunningham says all of the islands are abandoned. When he was younger, the old folks who once lived on them visited for a few weeks in the summer. Their children came out for weekends; their grandchildren will come out one day. He rambled around the pathless island the first time he visited, and then fell into the same route the second time. Now, his narrow path guides visitors.

We scramble up massive, exposed rocks at the Atlantic face of Baltee Island. The ocean crashes against the base of long-crushed mountains. When the great continent of Pangea ripped apart, Nova Scotia was pulled from its embrace with Morocco. The rocks here are matched only there.

Cunningham tells me you can still see how roads in Tangier, Nova Scotia, run into the sea, only to resume their course inland on roads in Tangier, Morocco. Of course, he also tells me the crab shells we see along the high rocks are leftovers from the great Crab Migration into the woods.

We return to our kayaks and the quiet is interrupted only by waves sloshing against the hulls and paddles cutting the water. A seal bobs along watching us. An eagle passes overhead. The grey sky matches the steel water.

Cunningham beaches his kayak and leads us inland a few paces to an old Mi’kmaq midden. For generations, people came here, harvested the ocean, and tossed the trash at the edge of the sand.  

British colonists pushed into the wilderness to scrape a living out of the shallow land and deep water in the 1700s. Mi’kmaq warriors fought back, swarming British ships with canoe fleets, seizing vessels and attacking other European crews along this shore. The Mi’kmaq pirates won many battles, but lost the war and were pushed into central reservations.

The settlers’ descendents are leaving now. This coast is part of Halifax Regional Municipality, but while the distant city grows, the outposts shrink. A recent map of the province circulating on local social media listed the eastern shore as Terres Inconnues – Land Unknown.

We return to Tangier eight hours after we left.  Pulling the kayaks out of the water, I daydream we are landing on a remote island during a month-long tour. I pull onto Marine Drive and have the dark road to myself as I head back to the city.



Coastal Adventures operates from early spring to late fall. While they are often fully booked, the routes they take are never heavily travelled. They cater to beginners and experts. Day trips run along the Eastern Shore Islands route outlined above, but vary with conditions.

Multi-day trips include one departing the historic Louisbourg fort in Cape Breton and paddling to Scatarie Island, where you’ll encounter a massive, and very recent, shipwreck. Other tours explore Peggys Cove, the Canso Barrens, the Atlantic Coastal Islands, the Cape Breton Highlands, the Bay of Fundy and several excursions off Newfoundland. Some of the trips involve camping en route, while others are Inn-to-Inn tours. Learn more at