The Life of a Story: Importing and Exporting the Culture of Atlantic Canada

 By Tom Halford

What is the life of a story?

You might scoff at this question. You might snicker. Like some sort of blustering, Dickensian caricature, you might shout, “Books aren’t living things! They are clearly and inarguably inanimate objects!”

That’s true. However, if the right reader picks up the right text, then the story inside that book becomes immediately and intensely alive.


J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

I can remember reading The Hobbit when I was a kid, and in between chapters, I would go walking barefoot in the tall grass just outside my bedroom window. I wasn’t in my parents’ backyard; I was hiking through Middle-earth towards some great adventure.

If we’re being honest, stories and poems are usually met with indifference. The majority of books collect dust, and most stories are forgotten; a few of them, however, are special. They spark something in a reader’s imagination, and that reader brings the story to life in his or her own way.

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Natasha Simon reviews Fiona Polack, ed. Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018)

Fiona Polack, ed. Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018).

By Natasha Simon

The vanishing Indian has been a persistent image in the settler imagination: it points to an indistinguishable time in the past when Native people were wholly themselves; it implies that they cannot be truly alive in the present; and it places the blame on the arrival of Europeans and their subsequent actions.  This narrative of inevitable decline in the face of progress freezes Native people’s agency in the past and is fundamental to circumventing Indigenous legal systems and civil rights.  Moreover, the finality of vanishing, of extinction – from potential calamity to violence, death and total annihilation – opens the space for settlers not only to displace Indigenous people, but to replace them entirely as the original and authentic people of a land. In Tracing Ochre, Fiona Polack, along with contributors from various disciplines, demonstrates that the Beothuk extinction narrative was a product of this process of imperialism – a product cultured within the confines of the great rock of Newfoundland, the shared territory of Innu, Mi’kmaq and Beothuk.


Fiona Polack, ed. Tracing Ochre: Changing Perspectives on the Beothuk (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018).

In the opening essay, Polack challenges Ingeborg Marshall’s claim in A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk that the Beothuk were the sole Indigenous people on the Island and were hunted down “like wild animals” until no trace of them remained. Other contributors analyze the sources of the Beothuk extinction narrative, as well as the sources that challenge those settler narratives that silenced the voices of Innu and Mi’kmaq on the Island.  In sixteen compelling essays, the contributors persuasively destabilize the narrative of Beothuk extinction, restore Innu and Mi’kmaw voices, and expose their dispossession.

In Maura Hanrahan’s essay, we find that the fruits of colonial memory include Mi’kmaw dispossession of the Island. She considers the Beothuk Institute’s commemoration of the “last surviving Beothuk”, Shanawdothit, through a hollow-eyed stone statue of a forlorn figure standing alone in a wild forest, “completely decontextualized and entirely a symbol” (41). Without community, Shanawdothit is lifeless, and as a potential life-giver, her solitude represents the doom of her race.  “With the Indians dead or dying, the space is available for the solidification of . . . a Newfoundland national identity” (41). This romanticizing of the Beothuk acknowledges the settlers’ part in their demise and ignores unresolved Mi’kmaq land claims. She points alternatively to Parks Canada at Kejimkujik where the Mi’kmaq participated in planning a commemoration to the Mi’kmaq way of life. There the whole landscape – habitation sites, travel routes, hunting and fishing grounds and burial sites – is used to testify as to who the Mi’kmaq were and still are – Hanrahan calls it an Indigenous cultural landscape framework.

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Mary MacDonald’s Kitchen Party Praxis

By Henry Adam Svec

Also an artist and a writer, Mary MacDonald was a curator who pushed back against the standard definition of the word (according to the OED, “guardian”) in favor of a more open and auditory orientation towards creative work. Rather than viewing the white walls of the gallery as a privileged place from which a surrounding community might receive art or culture, she figured herself as a mobile medium through which ways of working, ways of knowing, ways of storytelling, and ways of being could be gathered and exchanged.


Mary Florence MacDonald

Mary Florence MacDonald was born in 1984, and grew up in Pictou. She attended Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, graduating with a BFA in 2006; and after two years of working at art galleries in the Maritimes, she moved to Newfoundland and became quickly immersed in the arts communities there. She completed an MFA in Criticism & Curatorial Practice in 2012 at OCAD University, where she focused on rural and community-engaged art. But Mary soon moved, again, to Newfoundland. She assumed the role of Executive Director at Eastern Edge Gallery in St. John’s, where she worked on dozens of exhibitions and events and projects, and where she continued to write. According to her friend, fellow artist Melanie Colosimo, “[Mary] was motivated by her connection to the Atlantic and her tireless dedication to supporting and promoting artists from here” (Colosimo 2019). Mary passed away in the summer of 2017, at the age of 32, after a battle with cancer.1 She is mourned and she will be remembered by so many across the diverse art, music, and activist networks she fostered and sustained, from Dawson City to Toronto to St. John’s.

In this memorial I want to honor my late friend, who I first met when we were both undergraduate students at Mount Allison, and whose career I followed with great interest as she built her bright life’s work. My goal is not just to tell you why she was important to me, but what she was trying to do and why it remains important. Continue reading

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World Down Syndrome Day

By Corey Slumkoski (and Martha Walls)

Please Note: Today’s blog post is more personal than historical.

Yesterday was my daughter’s sixth birthday. Today is World Down Syndrome Day. These two things are related.

Seven years ago I knew nothing about World Down Syndrome Day, and not much more about Down syndrome itself. That all changed in late 2012, when my colleague and wife, Martha Walls, and I received a prenatal diagnosis that our unborn child  had Down syndrome (we prefer the word “determination” to “diagnosis” these days – we don’t regard our daughter’s condition to be an illness). As historians, we immediately (or at least once the shock wore off) began to use our training to research this genetic condition. We learned that Down syndrome is caused by a trisomy, or triplication, of the 21st set of chromosomes. We learned that Down syndrome is the most common genetic condition, occurring in approximately 1 in 700 births. We learned that heart defects are fairly common in children born with Down syndrome. We learned that as recently as the 1960s – in Canada and here in our city, Halifax – babies born with Down syndrome were denied simple, life-saving surgeries on account of their extra chromosome. And we learned that the majority of families that get a prenatal determination of Down syndrome chose to terminate. Being strong supporters of the right to choose, we were, in those early days, not at all sure of how to proceed. Eventually, we concluded that we wanted to have this child.  After all, we’d already named her – Quinn Elizabeth – and we knew that we’d love and cherish her regardless of her chromosome count.  We also knew that we were financially able to care for a child with Down syndrome, and, as willing critics of state policies, we were in a position to be outspoken advocates for Quinn. On March 20, 2013, we finally got to meet her; the very next day we celebrated our first WDSD!


Rockin’ our funky socks for World Down Syndrome Day. L-R: Martha Walls, Quinn Walls-Slumkoski, Corey Slumkoski

What does the story of our daughter have to do with Atlantic Canadian history or university teaching? Continue reading

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Future Possible, Peut Etre Horrible: Reading Newfoundland in Madeline Ashby’s Company Town

By Paul Chafe

In his hilarious one-man show, To the Wall, Newfoundland actor, comedian, and gift-to-the-world, Andy Jones, reflects on a particularly Newfoundland tendency to imagine the worst possible outcome for any situation: “I don’t know if you do this, but sometimes I get myself into a spiral of worry—like, I’m waiting for someone and they’re a little bit late and I think oh my god they’ve been knocked down by a car, then in my mind I’m at the hospital; they have to have their leg amputated, but they’re unconscious so—I have to make the decision! Then there’s the years of physiotherapy and the psychological scars; anyway … I do that a lot. I guess it’s the Irish part of me. But there’s no term for that kind of worrying in English. So I came up with my own term and since it’s sort of déjà vu, but of the future and always with horrible consequences and since déjà vu is a French term, I came up with ‘Future Possible, Peut Etre Horrible’ or future possible possibly horrible or just ‘FutPoss’ for short—when I do that I say I’m having a ‘futposs.’” I was reminded of Jones’s definition of this pessimistic prognosticating as I read Madeline Ashsby’s 2017 CBC Canada Reads finalist, and tenuously(?) Newfoundland novel Company Town. I must concede that my identification of Ashby’s delightful book as a “Newfoundland novel” is problematic—by her own admission, Ashby is largely ignorant of Newfoundland: she did not visit the place prior to the publication of Company Town; her research for her novel was limited to reading a few books; she has a dreadfully tin ear when it comes to rendering the Newfoundland vernacular on the page; and the physical world described in her novel could just as conceivably be a speculative version of Iceland or Ireland or anywhere. While these (I suppose we can call them) shortcomings of this “Newfoundland novel” must be acknowledged, it is both rewarding and revealing to read Company Town in the context of Newfoundland works like Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Bernice Morgan’s Cloud of Bone, Frank Barry’s Wreckhouse, and many other recent works of Newfoundland and Labrador literature that share in common with Ashby’s novel the imagining of the worst Newfoundland possible.

company town

Madeline Ashby, Company Town

For Company Town is a dystopian novel envisioning a futuristic Newfoundland in which characters exist at a significant remove from their culture, their bodies, and the natural world. Ashby’s bioengineered, genetically enhanced protagonists live on (and in) New Arcadia, a city-sized oil rig in the North Atlantic Ocean, a massive machine that dominates the worldview of its many citizens, most of whom have lived on the rig for years if not their entire lives. On the rare occasions when they peer outside their insulated cityscape, these New Arcadians view the surrounding ocean with fear and suspicion and would never imagine journeying to the distant and largely abandoned island of Newfoundland. Ashby’s novel makes manifest the sort of future-possible-possibly-horrible-Newfoundland dreaded by characters in so many fictions—a Newfoundland devoid of Newfoundlanders, hallowed out by corporate and commercial exploitations, frightening and foreign to those who once called it home, and no longer anchoring the culture that once flourished there. Viewed this way, Ashby’s dark sci-fi fantasy may be the most authentic Newfoundland novel ever written.

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Tragic Compassion in David Adams Richards’s Lives of Short Duration

By Kait Pinder

A newly appointed senator, David Adams Richards is the author of more than a dozen novels and many more short stories, plays, and works of non-fiction. Richards’s creative work is usually set in New Brunswick’s Miramichi region and focuses on how characters negotiate the inter-related systems of exploitation that have shaped the Miramichi in the past and the present. Richards’s novels are perhaps best known for the “mood of unremitting sadness” that one reviewer has described as being “as emotionally draining as a month of funerals.”[1] Literary scholars have pointed out that readers may perceive sadness because of a misunderstanding of the author’s brand of regionalism. Richards’s fiction challenges pastoral conceptions of the Maritimes with representations of environmental and cultural devastation wrought by colonialism, neoliberal economic policies, and resource extraction.[2] In Richards’s 1981 novel, Lives of Short Duration, Packet Terri meditates on the relationship between the region’s history of exploitation and the suffering that characterizes his life. Packet’s questions about his life and Richards’s unique narrative style not only register the conditions that have created the sadness Packet lives with, they also reveal how violence may create what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls a tragic model of compassion.


David Adams Richards, Lives of Short Duration

Lives of Short Duration focuses on a small community along the river in the late 1970s and its history, including the story of Hitchman Alewood, the first owner of the local mill, and his young, Mi’kmaq wife, Emma Jane Ward, who was murdered by her brother. The novel follows the multiple branches of the Alewood line, especially the Terri family: Old Simon, who escapes the hospital to spend one final winter in the woods, his son George, a drunk and a hustler who can’t quite make it, and George’s three children: Lois, who just won the Atlantic lottery; Little Simon, a poacher and a dealer who kills himself accidentally in a game of Russian roulette; and Packet, the oldest, who, like his father, is prone to drink and violence, but who is also, as Alistair Macleod puts it, “a savior with too much to save.”[3] In addition to the Terri family, the novel has a multitude of characters whose genealogies intersect in ways that make their history and their personalities inscrutable to both themselves and the reader.

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“The Power of Curing”: Spawning Remedies in Pre-Modern Medicine

 By Lyn Bennett

Pre-modern medical remedies included some of the familiar and much of the strange. Among the strangest – at least to our 21st-century sensibilities – is the “frog spawn water” specified in medical recipes well into the 19th century. Used also in its natural state, frog spawn was in 1687 recommended by Amsterdam physician Paul Barbette for treating cancer, and a “Cloth dipped in frogs sperma” was noted by eighteenth-century diarist Samuel Hartlib as useful in treating sundry wounds.[1] Further recommended for topical application in the 1698 handbook, The Compleat Midwife’s Practice, frog spawn water combined with seeds of quince and plantain proved useful, claimed physician-author John Pechey, in a lotion used to treat “several hard Tubercles” on a woman’s neck (182). In the seventeenth century, frog spawn also found its way into Barbette’s astringent for treating wounds, Genevan physician Théodore Mayerne’s remedy for “paroxysme,” and court physician George Bate’s prescription for gonorrhea. In the eighteenth century, frog spawn was recommended for treating venereal disease in French professor John Astruc’s concocted remedy for genital lesions.


A close-up view of frog spawn. Image source: Tarquin at the English Wikipedia.

Frog spawn water also made its way into some popular household handbooks. The 1733 childcare guide The Art of Nursing, for instance, specified frog spawn and frog spawn water in recipes for a liniment and for a concocted medicinal water, while The Complete Family-Piece of 1741 recommended frog spawn as a remedy for the severe form of tonsillitis known as “Quincey.” Its virtues confirmed also by learned practitioners, frog spawn water was in 1712 specified by Royal Society fellow Robert Boyle in treating “Redness of the Eyes,” while pharmacist John George Hansel promoted in his 1730 Compendium Medicinale the “Water of Frog spawn with a little Alums” as astringently useful in numerous applications (110). That the London Physicians’ British Dispensatory of 1747 included instructions for producing aqua spermatic ranarum from alum and strained frog spawn suggests that the ingredient was widely perceived to have legitimate benefits in professional as well as domestic practice.

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Over the Causeway, Stories are Told: Studying Cape Breton Out-migration History as an Out-migrant of Cape Breton

By Dana Campbell

Every Cape Bretoner knows the heartache of leaving home – or, of having a loved one leave home. While the Sydney steel plant and the numerous coalmines use to prosper, most of the heavy industry in the industrial heartland has now been closed for nearly two decades. The flatlining of the island’s economy coincided with an economic boom in Western Canada and, as result, many thousands of Cape Bretoners have been leaving home to find better employment and economic prospects in other parts of the country.  This has not only affected those residing within the industrial hub of Sydney, but people across the island of all ages and demographics. If it’s not families packing up and moving on, its young men and women leaving directly out of high school.

Having been born in Cape Breton in the early 1990s, I never saw the island in its heyday/golden age, but I did witness the final closure of the Sydney steel plant in 2001. On 19 January 2001, an article in the Cape Breton Post stated in very simple yet, charged terms, “Sydney’s designation as a steel town ended Thursday with word Swiss-owned Duferco Steel Corp. backed out of the deal to buy SYSCO.”[1] The failure to sell the steel plant spelled the end of an era in Cape Breton. Although out-migration had been occurring for many decades from the island at this point, this decision further exacerbated it. In his October 2001 article for the Cape Breton Post, Jim Guy highlighted how “since 1996 over 6000 Cape Bretoners left the island for greener pastures.”[2] These numbers foreshadowed what was to come. He suggested that the population of Cape Breton would be less than 100,000 if the decline kept up at the present rate.[3] According to Statistics Canada, by 2011 the population of Cape Breton sat at 135, 974. Five years later in 2016, the population of the island was 132,010.[4] Despite the total population of the island not dropping as drastically as he had suggested, the decline is evident.


Family photo: Here is a photo of my mother, myself and my two sisters a few short weeks before we made the move to Alberta. Back row (left to right): my mother Lisa, my older sister Nikkie. Front row (left to right): myself, my younger sister Kaylin.

The year following the plant’s closure, my own family moved to Alberta. We came home in 2008 following the economic recession, a return I am still thankful for today. My parents instilled in me from a young age that leaving Cape Breton was a necessity if we were to have any shot at a decent future. At the same time, though, my sisters and I were raised with a strong sense of pride and belonging to Cape Breton. My pride in being a Cape Bretoner has never wavered, despite the economic disparity that exists on the island.

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Writing Stories about the History of Canadian Medical Malpractice Law

By R. Blake Brown

 Every historian hopes that their work will engage and interest the public. However, when I told friends and family the topic of my first book – a history of the jury system in nineteenth-century Canada – I was often met by polite smiles or half-hearted statements along the lines of “Oh…that’s ‘interesting’.”

I received better responses when informing people of the topic of my second book, which examines the history of gun control in Canada. Almost everyone – whether they be cab drivers, friends at the curling club, academic colleagues, relatives, high school classmates, or security staff at archives – expressed interest in the topic. It became apparent to me that most people had an opinion about gun control, even if they did not own a firearm or had never been affected by gun violence. Continue reading

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In Appreciation of Beckey Daniel

By Gail Campbell

The retirement of Beckey Daniel at the end of this month [ed. note: Today is Beckey’s last day at Acadiensis] marks the end of an era in the history of Acadiensis. For nearly forty years, Beckey has been the voice of Acadiensis at the other end of the phone. For many readers and contributors, hers was the name most closely associated with the operations of the journal.

Phillip Buckner, the longstanding founding editor of Acadiensis, credits Beckey with stabilizing the administration of the journal and establishing the routines that helped give the journal its formidable reputation. His successor David Frank agrees that she provided the essential continuity as departmental members rotated in and out of the editorship. For more than two decades Beckey and whoever was then serving as editor were the two people who made up the journal’s “editorial team”, occasionally with the aid of a reviews editor, and, eventually, a French-language editor.

Between 1971, when Acadiensis was established, and 1979 when Beckey arrived at Campus House, five secretaries came and went. The secretary then being in the gift of the History Department, which, with 18 members at its peak, had three secretaries, Beckey was also responsible for serving the four members of the Department whose offices were located in Campus House. She recalls her arrival at Campus House in the company of the Department’s senior secretary, who informed her that Phil Buckner was away, but had left instructions that nothing on his desk was to be touched. This may have made Beckey a little apprehensive, but it also amused her, which perhaps prepared the way for her long and happy working relationship with Phil. Continue reading

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