Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022
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Maritime past

Drop anchor in Nova Scotia's heritage towns for a taste of Canada's earliest history

Whenever I get a chance to return to Nova Scotia, I remember that what I like best about the province -- apart from the beautiful scenery, the tang of the sea air and the engaging people -- is how old it is. And I don't mean that in a condescending, quaint way either.

It's just that in a country as young as Canada, with so many places settled over the last century or so, Nova Scotia can catch you distinctly off-guard. Because we've paved the wilderness elsewhere so rapidly, many of us forget how long the province has been around -- until we visit.

Did you know the first play produced in the Americas was performed in Nova Scotia two weeks before Shakespeare published King Lear? Expressions commonplace throughout the English-speaking world, like "it's raining cats and dogs" and "the early bird gets the worm" were first popularized here in small towns during the 18th century. Even the province's famous golf courses owe their existence to the confirmed character of New Scotland.

Whatever you do or wherever you go in Nova Scotia, some sense of continuity with the past is perennially at your fingertips. Stop in Annapolis Royal, halfway down the eastern coast along the Bay of Fundy, and a fisherman may show you from the end of his wharf where Samuel de Champlain first set sail for Quebec.

Listen to the Parks Canada historian at Fort Anne, the town's impressive fortifications (the oldest in North America), and you'll discover he's a 10th-generation Acadian, a direct descendant of the first European to ever farm our continent -- a Frenchman named Pierre Melanson who did so well that four centuries later there are 400 million more settlers here.

Best of all, the connection to the province's history is reflected directly by architecture, customs, food and daily life. You don't have to start out as a history buff or spend a vacation crunching facts and dates to bask in the past. It's an integral part of the province's ambience and charm, largely because its inhabitants remain committed to their traditions without thinking twice about it. Go ahead and ask someone why that is, and they'll look at you as if you've parachuted in from a suburb full of fresh sod and saplings, and simply say, "Because this is where everything started."

And that's not an exaggeration. Everything did begin here, when Monsieur Melanson and his cohorts (including Champlain) established the first European settlement north of Spanish Florida in 1605. Excepting the role of Spain, all of North America's subsequent history is the result of that one action, along with an ensuing 150-year tussle over Nova Scotia (and eventually Canada) between the French and British empires. But just as importantly, Nova Scotia is also a narrow peninsula surrounded by ocean, with a past as enmeshed in the seafarer's way of life as the nets of its determined fishermen.

As a result, it's these two great, grievous realities -- the story of mastering the land alongside the struggle to survive the sea -- that still inform Nova Scotia today and give the place its famously unique, abiding character. In an age of strip malls and drive-thru restaurants, that's saying something.

Take Lunenburg, a town of a mere 1500 souls, located on the what's known as the South Shore coast, about 60 kilometres south of Halifax. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of only three population centres in Canada to be awarded this honour (the others are Old Quebec City and L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland's Viking colony).

The Devil's Playground?
That's because Lunenberg's old town, a gorgeous place of immaculately preserved and colourfully painted 18th- and 19th-century gingerbread-trimmed houses, is the best surviving example of Britain's colonial policy of imposing a pre-designed "model town" plan on whatever tract of wilderness it was the King's pleasure to colonize.

As a result, the town was built in 1753 as North America's first example of a grid pattern and today the streets are as straight the corners as square and the houses as pristine as they were when the Royal Engineers uprooted stumps to cobblestone the first thoroughfare.

Despite the rationality imbued in the town's design, however, many of its inhabitants had different ideas.

Lunenburg boasts the oldest churches in Canada outside Quebec and they still dominate the local landscape, especially St. Johns, the oldest Anglican church in the country. It's covered with elaborately decorated multiple turrets and has a bronze cod-fish weather vane in place of a cross, perhaps a nod to the old Maritime saying, "In cod we trust."

The town's original inhabitants, though, were German Lutherans who brought both a sense of pious devotion and rampant superstition to the area. Centuries later, their beliefs are still evident in the town's character -- for one thing, the back entrances of all the houses are identical to the facades. The reason? To confuse the Devil, who was thought to enter a home through the back door or windows. This is also why you sometimes see pages torn out of the Psalms and propped up on window ledges in Lunenburg today.


Buoyed by Boats
Lunenburg also had a parallel history as the wealthiest and most important seaport on Nova Scotia's Atlantic coast. It was home to one of the largest fishing fleets in the world and still contains the largest fish-processing plant in North America.

The wealth created was used to interesting ends. Lunenburg is the only small Canadian town I've visited that boasts a period opera house, now restored as a music venue that has an opera festival at the end of June (this year's featured Mozart's Barber of Seville).

The proud local sailing tradition also gave the world the famous modern-day schooners, Bluenose and Bluenose II, both built locally. The latter often stops by, along with other tall ships, and when in harbour can be visited at the main docks.

A little further along on the waterfront near the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic is the Fishermen's Memorial, a grim reminder of the toll exacted by the sea, especially when you look at the year 1926 and notice the names of 60 or so local men carried off by a tidal surge.

This is the reason that the most prominent architectural feature of the town's houses (along with the "Lunenburg Bump," elaborately designed overhanging bay windows that showed off a sea captain's wealth) are the widows' walks -- the perch at the very top of the house where wives watched the sea for their loved ones' safe return and were thrown into despair by the forbidding appearance of a half-masted flag.

Back on the Bay of Fundy coast, an hour or so south of Halifax, Annapolis Royal has also experienced some pretty bleak moments. After being colonized by the French and waving adieu to Champlain as he set off down the St. Lawrence River, it quickly became the most contested site in North American history, vaulting between French and British control a record seven times.

Evidence of this turbulent past is everywhere, from the skeleton that frightened the wits out of a tourist a few years back when it emerged at low tide from the waterfront's sand flats still wearing its ragged 18th-century uniform, to the difficult history of the original French colonists, the Acadians.

Acadian Distinctions
The Acadians had quickly established a separate identity for themselves, partly because of their remarkable innovations (they cultivated tidal marshlands, reclaimed through an extensive system of dykes long before the Dutch became world famous for the same feat) and through intermarriage with the local Mi'kmaq Indians.

But they were also neutral pawns in the struggles between colonial overlords. By 1755 the increasingly powerful and suspicious British decided to deport the entire community. By 1762, two thirds of the 7000 strong population had been forced abroad to Europe although many of them eventually ended up in Louisana and even as far afield as Belize and the Falkland Islands.

Many Acadians refused to leave the only land they knew and hijacked ships which arrived to take them away, sailing across the Bay of Fundy to hide out in present-day New Brunswick, today Canada's only officially bilingual province. Others stubbornly continued to return from exile decades later, which is why Annapolis Royal and points south are still known as the French Shore.

Today, Acadian history is voluminously detailed throughout the area. You can visit Grand-Pré Historic Site, the location of the Acadian Deportation of 1755. It is now a large museum complex. If you think you have any Acadian ancestry, this is the place to check it out, as they keep incredibly complete genealogical records, a testament again to the tenacity of the community. Closer to town is the first Port Royal, Champlain's original stockade. It's been lovingly restored and populated with historical re-enactors in period dress right down to their sabots -- wooden clogs the Acadians wore to keep their feet dry in the tidal fields.

Although this kind of thespian approach can often be hokey, here it actually seems to work, presumably because of the dedication and pride of Acadians playing out the lives of their ancestors. The same technique is used at the Historic Gardens in the centre of town which detail the flora, cultivators and agricultural methods used in its history.

You can tour the dykes with another informative reenactor, who'll then take you to a log house where his young baby (dressed only in a gunny sack, the garb of a youngster of the day) plays across the plank floor with 17th-century toys.

As he and his wife sit down to sing a traditional Acadian jig -- a whirling mix of plaintive lament and fierce vitality -- accompanied only by the beat of their wooden shoes, you can feel the hairs raise on your neck while the fog rolls in. Even if you think you're not particularly interested in our country's past, you may well be surprised at what Nova Scotia's history lessons bring to life in you.


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