Cooperation & Supernatural Brotherliness
CAPE BRETON DIARY — PART II
Ed. Note: Part I of this two-part series appeared in our July-August issue.
Cape Breton’s three founding peoples — the aboriginal Mi’kmaq, the French Acadians, and the Scottish Highlanders — proved to be of most interest to me in the first days of my journey on Cape Breton Island. (Unfortunately, time limited my exposure to Mi’kmaq sites.) As chronicled in Part I, my experiences created in me the sense that the forgetting and remembering of language, culture, and ways of making a living characterized these three communities of “little people.” In fact, the communities themselves were in danger of extinction as cohesive realities, while individual members had been dehumanized. Part II, which records my impressions from the last days of my journey, not only adds to my observations of these communities but explores more deeply what Catholic social teaching calls subsidiarity and solidarity as these were practiced in Cape Breton under the influence of the Catholic social-justice experiment, the Antigonish Movement.
June 14, 2017. The Cabot Trail has many breathtaking views, but it also has an abundance of monotonous stretches of forest. But really, how many breathtaking views can human emotions sustain in one day? That said, I had some wonderful experiences as I drove it. First, the Margaree River Valley is more beautiful than the Connecticut River Valley. The river is smaller, but it has the same wide and gentle intervale spreading to the mountains, and it is the only region I saw in Cape Breton that is still almost thoroughly cultivated. The river meanders and forms several excellent salmon pools. I listened to some local men discussing their rods at one of my stops. What bliss to live on such a river!
The Rev. Dr. Moses Coady and the Rev. Dr. Jimmy Tompkins, who were cousins, grew up near Margaree Forks, where their ancestors had settled after emigrating from Ireland. St. Patrick’s Church still stands in North East Margaree, and many Tompkinses and Coadies are buried in the church yard. The “Tudor Gothic” church was locked, but I was able to look in the windows. Its bones are elegant, but the old altar and east-wall decorations have been removed.
Drs. Coady and Tompkins were the founders and leaders of the Antigonish Movement. They are largely forgotten today in Cape Breton, though Coady’s portrait hangs in every credit union on the island. The Antigonish Movement taught the Cape Breton and eastern Nova Scotia poor to free themselves from the tyranny of major corporations through the pooling of their resources in credit unions, among other institutions. Fr. Jimmy, though explicitly and deliberately trying to implement the teaching of papal social encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, liked to call his group at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, “Bolsheviks of a better sort”! There is a Drs. Coady and Tompkins Library in Margaree Forks, but it was closed.
In the nearby town of Chéticamp, where French is still spoken by all the inhabitants, the parish church, the Église St.-Pierre, is visible for miles around. The spire is 167 feet high, while the building itself is 74 feet wide and 212 feet long. It was erected in 1893, the third church in the parish but the first on the harbor. The first two, erected in 1790 and 1810, were built on the plateau behind the present town to escape the notice of the English, as the settlers were returning deportees.
The church was built of sandstone quarried on Chéticamp Island and dragged across the sea ice by the parishioners the winter before construction. Legend has it that the ice began to break up the day they brought the last block ashore. The church has both Gothic and Baroque elements, but more of the latter. The windows are clear, and the interior is plastered and painted white. It has full balconies, with extensions beyond the side chapels looking down on the sanctuary, as if Louis IX himself were going to assist at Mass someday. The sanctuary is elevated above the level of the nave, and the high altar, somewhat obscured now by the free-standing altar, has a gilded Lamb of God in the center panel and is surmounted by a marble-columned baldacchino over a large statue of St. Peter. The wall behind the baldacchino is frescoed with angels in gold, pink, and blue, not at all saccharine, as you might expect. The French can do this kind of thing successfully. There are several lovely statues and frescoes around the church. In the western loft, there is also a 1904 Casavant organ complete with stenciled pipes, beautiful to behold, though I didn’t hear it played.
There is what amounts to a shrine to the pastor who built the church, Pierre Fiset, in the crypt under the high altar. The old man I spoke to at L’Assomption, the Catholic church in Arichat, was very proud that several priests were buried under that church or behind it. This seems to be an Acadian desideratum. Fr. Fiset was a great motivator, organizer, and builder, not only of church buildings but of institutions to help the poor. He was one of those late-19th-century Acadian priests who organized “people’s banks,” now the caisses populaires, and he made it his business to break the hold the fish company Robin, Jones, and Whitman, Ltd., had over the fishermen, a hold that was maintained by much the same methods the Dominion Coal Company used over the miners in Glace Bay and elsewhere. Interestingly, Dr. Tompkins went to Chéticamp in 1886 to assist his uncle in teaching. He could not have failed to learn about Fr. Fiset’s goals and methods during his sojourn in that Acadian community.
I drove north from Chéticamp into the national park. I wanted to walk two short nature trails. The first was the Bog Trail, a short boardwalk through a “slope fen” at the top of French Mountain. A few stunted larch and spruce live in the fen. Some are a hundred years old but no more than three feet tall. Apparently, nothing can survive above the level of the snow pack. “Ice blast” kills anything that grows higher. The basic plant in the fen is sphagnum moss, but there are many flowers, including orchids, and several insect-devouring plants, such as the pitcher plant. It is one of the strangest ecosystems I have encountered, beautiful in its own formidable way. It’s also dangerous during the winter, and there are emergency shelters all along the highway as it crosses this sub-arctic plateau. They are left unlocked in winter, and a number of motorists have survived winter storms in them.
The other trail was a little longer and went a short way up the Valley of the Grande Anse River. This narrow, deep valley shelters one of the finest mature sugar-maple forests in the world. Some of the trees are three and a half centuries old. The trail leads up to a replica of a Scottish shieling, or summer shepherd’s hut. Many decades ago, Dr. Donald MacIntosh gave a hundred acres of his family homestead to the province with the stipulation that a shieling be built and maintained in memory of the old country. A brass plaque at the shieling records these words: “From the lone shieling of the misty island [Skye], mountains divide us, and the waste of seas. / Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland, and we in dreams behold the Hebrides.”
June 15. Today I returned to the Drs. Coady and Tompkins Library in Margaree Forks. I found several publications I had not known about. The friendly and helpful librarian confirmed that outside Cape Breton, Coady and Tompkins are largely forgotten, and they are not really well remembered even in Cape Breton. She also confirmed that the cooperative grocery stores and credit unions found throughout Nova Scotia are the direct descendants of the institutions established by the Antigonish Movement. However, they are becoming more and more corporatized, and members now have little say in the operations of the companies. In fact, the grocery giant Sobeys just became Co-op Atlantic’s supplier! There are one or two fishermen’s co-ops still in operation, but fishermen are notoriously independent.
It strikes me that economic cooperation can be very successful where there is real poverty and oppression, as in the Maritimes almost a century ago, or in the 130 countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America where graduates of the Coady International Institute are currently active. However, when times are relatively good, people forget about cooperation. This is unfortunate for two reasons. First, even though times are relatively good now, work can still be as enslaving as it ever was in those old days. The second point develops from the first. Work can be as dehumanizing now as it ever was. So, we must remember that Drs. Coady and Tompkins, following the Magisterium, wanted economic improvement for the poor in order that they might achieve full humanity. Yet people are still impoverished, and cooperation might well improve that situation.
The librarian did say that the Margaree Valley is undergoing a little renascence. Since land is cheap, natives are returning, and a number of people “from away” are settling there too. In fact, both she and her assistant are from away. One family with five children has settled there, as has another that is living “off the grid.”
Next stop was the Glenora Distillery in Glenville. This company was the first in North America to make single-malt whisky, but they can’t call it Scotch. I took the tour, after which each tourist was given a generous dram of their tasty 10-year-old. Yet the only element the distillery supplies in the distilling process is the water from its mountain stream. The yeast comes from Montreal, and the barley is grown and malted out on the Prairies. Our tour guide said a lot of Scottish distilleries are doing the same. It seems like cheating to me, since a lot of the flavor comes from the malting process. It’s another example of the pressure to homogenize for maximum profit. Of course, whisky was being produced among the hills of Cape Breton long before Glenora lighted the first fire under its great copper kettle. Maybe it still is!
I also went to St. Mary’s Church in Mabou, another beautiful country-Gothic church, but this time ruined thoroughly in the sanctuary. The Mother of Sorrows Pioneer Shrine is also in the town, a memorial chapel to the original Catholic Highland immigrants. The interior is Douglas fir. The focus of the chapel is a vivid, even gory Pietà, and there are also fragments of the True Cross encased on the side wall. Several candle stands exist for the pilgrims’ intentions. Altogether, it is a moving shrine.
June 16. Some time ago I read a translation of a poem by one of the Gaelic-speaking Cape Breton bards lamenting that he had had to settle in the mountains because all the better land had been homesteaded by earlier immigrants. I now understand what he meant.
The North River Trail, on the Cabot Trail not far from St. Ann’s, after a steep climb from the trail head, follows an old cart track four kilometers along the face of the river gorge to some benchland, or benches, where there was once a Highland farming settlement. Benches are fairly long, flat stretches of land along the side of a gorge. These particular benches are large enough for small farms. The fields have returned to forest, but there are still foundations of buildings among the trees. If you continue another five kilometers, you reach the largest waterfall in Nova Scotia. My knees protested against that extension of the hike.
The soil on the benches appears very rocky. I assume the homesteaders were able to grow barley, oats, and flax, and raise a few sheep, pigs, and cows. There was plenty of evidence of deer in the woods, and I started a quail at one point. (Deer are newcomers to Cape Breton. The early settlers hunted the woodland caribou.) The North River is still fine salmon water, so all in all, the settlers could have supplemented their diet well from nature. Timber existed in abundance for building and heating. The women would have ground the grain and prepared the flax and wool for weaving. In the early days the men would have done the weaving itself. Perhaps they had bothies at the shore for summer fishing and salting of fish. They might have been Protestants, as there are many Protestant Highlanders right around here. When they would have had the ministrations of a clergyman, I don’t know.
I also don’t know how they stood the mosquitoes and black flies at this time of year. I returned to my motel with the back of my right hand red and swollen from bites. I have heard that the natives used bear grease to frustrate biting insects. Perhaps the Scots learned from them. When we lived in Albert County, New Brunswick, more than 30 years ago, the older men remembered putting a mixture of axle grease and kerosene on their horses’ muzzles when they took them into the woods to work, or the horses would have gone berserk from the torment. I believe the men used the same salve. They were some tough old boys! Are we who feel nostalgia for the old ways that tough?
Since several farms sat up on the side of that mountain, some community life would have existed. The Highlanders loved to sing and dance and tell stories in each other’s kitchens. Fiddles would have been played, and possibly the great bagpipes. This was before square dancing, so the old Highland custom of step-dancing in couples, or pairs of couples, would have been followed. Milling frolics would have been held from time to time, when long lengths of woolen cloth were dampened and pounded in the fulling process on a long narrow table out of doors to traditional call-and-response work songs in Gaelic. I participated in a demonstration frolic at the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s. It is hard work, but the chants are a lot of fun and make the work light.
It seems that forgetting and remembering have been the drone and the grace notes in my trip to Cape Breton. At the Gaelic College, a fiddler told me that Highland fiddling borrowed the use of a drone string and leaping grace notes from the bagpipes. The two are essential for Highland music, and it seems they illustrate the development of Cape Breton culture as well. An example: In 1972 “the vanishing Cape Breton fiddler” made headlines. In 1973 the first Festival of Cape Breton Fiddling was held in Glendale near Mabou, and the fiddle has made a remarkable comeback ever since. The drone of death and the grace notes of rebirth, forgetting and remembering. I am thankful that such institutions as the Gaelic College are engaging consciously in the process of remembering.
June 17. Today has been my last full day on Cape Breton, and I have spent it in preparation for a conference I’ll be attending in Halifax. Thus, a few concluding thoughts.
As I said at the beginning, my chief purpose has not been to write a travelogue, but I do hope that I have provided the rudiments of a guide to Cape Breton and some incentive for people to travel there. My primary goal has been to explore forgetting and remembering among the peoples of Cape Breton, chiefly among the Highlanders because my mother’s people were many of them Scots, but also among the Mi’kmaq and the Acadians.
On the one hand, almost everything old and traditional faces oblivion. The ancient languages are endangered. The traditional music, at least of the Highlanders, has only recently made a comeback. The old folkways are no longer widely practiced. Most of the old farms have returned to forest, and the skills needed to produce wholesome food have been lost. The fisheries have pretty well collapsed, and the old crafts associated with the industry have died. The mines have shut down, and the atomization of unemployment or, almost as bad, of the call centers has replaced the comradeship of “the men of the deeps.”
Worse, the memory of the poverty and exploitation of the farmer, fisherman, and miner has faded, as has the solution taught by the Antigonish Movement: cooperation among the small, weak people in and for their own rehumanization. Insidiously, this oblivion has been wrought as much by seduction as by coercion, as much by the temptations of mammon as by the plutocrats’ violence, so that the little people are, to a degree, guilty along with the great.
Worst of all, these three predominantly Catholic peoples have forgotten the Mass. Mass attendance is low on Sundays, and I wasn’t able to find a daily Mass.
On the other hand, much is being recollected. The three oldest peoples of the island have refused to let their native languages die, and these tongues are being taught again, even in the public schools. Music and dance, folkways and crafts are being passed down, and institutions have been established to assist in this handing along of the traditions.
But, so far as I can tell, the old spirit of cooperation among the little people has been almost completely forgotten. The temptation of good wages and superabundantly stocked stores and markets has eroded the small person’s perception of his need for others of his kind and created a servitude to corporations with long, complicated supply chains not only beyond the island and province but beyond the nation itself, corporations with an oceanic malice against what Catholic social teaching calls subsidiarity.
A hundred years ago the little people still possessed the skills and lived by a faith that made it possible for them to cooperate economically, socially, and politically in becoming full human beings. Today, the skills are almost gone, and the faith is fast disappearing. The latter phenomenon is especially consequential. In the 1940s Fr. Leo Ward, recounting a meeting with some Protestant workers about the Antigonish Movement, reported:
I tell the men how Hector Rory MacNeill has expressed the co-op spirit: “Isn’t this the way men are supposed to be — united and not fighting?” And how Johnny LeClair said, “This is kinda on God’s side.” But they do not understand this doctrine, and I am reminded of what Mary Arnold says: “The Catholics and the Quakers can do this, but the others never can.” There can be a supernatural brotherliness that modern Protestants do not easily comprehend.
Supernatural brotherliness is needed acutely by the peoples of Cape Breton now, as it is needed by all the peoples of the world. Dehumanization is more complete now in culture, economics, and politics than it ever could have been a hundred years ago. The heirs of Protestant culture — today’s Western elites — have no answers to offer the world for its current critical problems, for the answer lies in cooperation, and cooperation is a matter of grace, just as the self-sacrifice upon which it nourishes itself is a matter of grace.
Dehumanization necessarily occurs when people attend too much to the good things of this world. Of course, one can hardly blame the poor for attending too much to food, shelter, and clothing when they are deprived of these necessities, as well as of education to help them find solutions. The Antigonish Movement made its original appeal to such people through adult education, which led to conversion in self-understanding and to cooperative action. The Coady Institute at St. Francis Xavier continues this good work in the developing world today. Moreover, one can scarcely blame the spiritually impoverished persons of the developed world for their exaggerated concern with worldly goods. They are more thoroughly dehumanized than their counterparts in the developing world. Such persons need adult education, conversion, and cooperative action as much as the peoples south of the equator, if not more. It is up to Catholics (and Quakers) everywhere to demonstrate and teach supernatural brotherliness so that this project of the rehumanization of peoples can go forward, so that the co-inherence of nature, reason, and grace may be realized once more, so that mankind may know that the world is the common home and city of gods and men, and from this perspective restore human community within its proper limits, and man’s community with the natural world.
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