Chapel Island, Cape Breton
Island of renewal

By SHEENA MASSON*


SHUNPIKING (Special edition, Islands of the Maritimes
August, 1999, Volume 4, Number 28)

June, 1999 –- It's early evening when we head up the hill toward our campsite at Chapel Island native community. It's a first visit for both of us. At the crest, we see the glittering sunset waters of the Bras d'Or Lakes extending to distant shores. Chapel Island, dark green in the evening light, stretches out before us. An island on a lake on an island. We drive down the hill to camp near a wharf about 200m from the island.

Chapel Island native community became a reservation in 1834 and is home to about 500 Mi'kmaq people. Most of the 1200 acres is steep wooded hills with a scattering of homes along dirt roads, a small freshwater lake and a few sandy beaches. No one lives on the island itself which is about two kilometres long and three wide.

The community is a busy place. There is a new school (kindergarten to Grade 7) and chapel. The old school is now used as a resource centre and as a classroom for a four-month craft course in basket making and traditional wooden flowers. The students plan to open a coop store. At the old fire hall, another group is learning to build cedar strip canoes.

Local businesses include a new scuba diving company and construction will soon begin on new housing. Landscaping and clean up crews work seasonally. The chief, Lindsay Marshall, says the employment rate is now 90 per cent.

Bernadette Marshall, manager at the resource centre, says, "There's a lot of people that are working -- that's fairly new." She adds that the community has made a lot of progress in recent years. "In the last ten years, the community has had young people running the reserve. Our chief is young, the councillors are all young. They've all been in school, they've all come back to the community and a lot of people's self esteem is up." People like herself who left are coming back.

 

 

Bernadette Marshall and her daughter

 

During my visit, I learn about the chapel on the island and the dozens of little cabins around it. These are used during Mission Week, at the end of July, when religious ceremonies are held to honour St. Ann, patron saint of the Mi'kmaq. Mission is also a gathering of some 8,000 to 10,000 people who come to renew acquaintances and their sense of culture. A few stay in the little cabins and the rest camp out in tents and trailers in an expanse of well-maintained fields on the "mainland". A variety of boats ferry people from the wharf to the island.

"Nowhere does our culture come alive and in full bloom as it does during Mission. We remember stories, events and times we have not thought about all year. It is truly a time to reflect and to share on how we have remained Micmac throughout all the years as well as to ponder how the children are going to fare in the years to come".

Micmac News, July, 1978.

The island was a meeting place for the Mi'kmaq long before Catholicism came in the 1700s. It's location on the Bras d'Or near St. Peters (with access to the Atlantic) would have made it a natural choice for arrival by canoe. Here the Grand Council met to discuss their concerns and people brought their dead to be buried.

I have come to Chapel Island to visit my friend Dan Fry, the canoe builder and to paddle the beautiful Bras D'or Lakes with my paddling partner, Peter Young of Blockhouse. Dan is teaching a four-month course to an enthusiastic class of eleven students.


Kristal Johnson and Lorri Johnson at work on a ceder strip canoe

They range in age from 20 to 60 -- three women and eight men. They are half finished their first cedar strip canoes and Dan is impressed with their work. Student Arthur Johnson says he was looking for a challenge and he got it. Two of his daughters, Doreen and Kristal, are also in the course. Dan says these first canoes will be used in an outfitting business and students will be able to keep their second boats.




Learning to canoe. Maxine Doucette and Shayne Stevens.

I am a canoe instructor and, before I arrived for my "holiday," Dan had suggested I teach a one-day canoe clinic during my visit. I end up teaching four clinics in five days and have to turn people away. The response is overwhelming. On my "day off", Peter and I kayak around the island stopping to swim in the warm salty waters, pick mussels and watch an eagle. The people we meet are generous, gentle and have a ready laugh. We are given sweet grass, lovely wooden flowers, and moose meat. We are invited into people's homes for supper, showers and the best bannock I ever had.

I think about how the Mi'kmaq used to paddle here from all over Cape Breton in boats of bark and later canvas. This apparently stopped in the early 1900s with the coming of roads and cars.

Dan says the new canoes will be launched a few days before Mission. I try to imagine 10,000 people in this peaceful place. I picture crowds camped out in the fields, sitting around camp fires sharing stories, people arriving by water and empty canoes pulled up once again along the island shore.

*Sheena Masson is author, Paddle Lunenburg-Queens, and a regular contributor to shunpiking magazine.







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