Canada is not a country without social problems. In Toronto, Canada’s largest, wealthiest and most modern city, 70 homeless people died in the first nine months of 2017. In Labrador, drug addiction and crime are rife in Inuit communities. In the First Nation villages of far northern Canada, suicide has reached proportions not seen anywhere else in the world. In the northern half of Halifax, a city of 400,000, discrimination and poverty are as much in evidence as in any old industrial city in the United States.
History here has, more often than not, been brutal. In the Newfoundland village called Port au Choix (“choice port”), there is an archeological record, including
skeletons in an ancient graveyard, of nearly 6,000 years of habitation. A Native American fishing tribe, the Boothuk, prospered here until about 1830, when the French evicted them and forced them to move inland to an area of poor soil and no fish. They starved to death. The last member of the tribe died in 1929.
Several hours in the Halifax Nautical Museum taught us how important and how tragic the ocean is in this part of the world.
In 1917 an explosion—the biggest in the world before the Hiroshima atomic bomb—wiped out the entire north end of the city (where our hostel was located), killed 2,000 and injuring 9,000.
Five years earlier, local boat owners sailed out to help the sinking Titanic. They recovered more than 300 bodies, half of whom were buried in Halifax.
They call them outports, the tiny, isolated encampments where fishermen and their families lived along the coast of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador. “It feels like the end of the world,” my sister-in-law and traveling companion, said of one such place, Meat Cove, on the northern tip of Nova Scotia, and it did. Meat Cove is so far off the beaten track that several Canadians ask me, “How in the world did you find this place?” I answer, “Luck. Just good luck.”
For months, sometimes for years, sometimes all their lives, whole families lived in these settlements without schools, medical care or links to the rest of Canada. In recent years the government has been trying to evacuate the last residents and close them down.
Some residents, however, have insisted on staying. Early one morning we stopped in Bear River, Nova Scotia. The elderly gentlemen of the village and a lady or two were lined up in front of the general store drinking their morning coffee and exchanging gossip. We paused for a friendly chat and strolled through their village, where wooden houses on stilts hung out precariously over a wide river.
The oldest part of old Quebec has discovered prosperity. As recently as the 1970s it was a slum, but today it has been gentrified. The city is so prosperous that it has become hard to find workers for low-paid or menial jobs. There is a lot of new construction going on everywhere.
But the heart of the city, and the part that has been carefully restored, is the old quarter dominated by the Citadel. This fortress was built in the mid-19th century by the British to defend against the United States, which had tried to conquer Canada during both the American War of Independence and the War of 1812. Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as aggressors, but that’s the way we are perceived in Canada.
Eastern Canada is apparently being overrun with moose. Signs everywhere warn drivers of the dangers of colliding with the half-ton beasts. Parks, like Cape Breton in Nova Scotia and Gros Morne in Newfoundland, are killing the animals off to preserve vegetation. But there are protests. “Stop the cull” urges signs in many places.
We picked wild apples and berries along the Canadian roadsides. Eastern Canada has lots and lots of berries. Drivers park on the shoulders of the Transcanada highway to pick them, much as New Mexicans park on every mountain road in New Mexico in the fall to pick piñon nuts. The berries come in many forms—blueberries, cranberries, cloud berries, dogwood berries, partridge berries. When the trees are heavily laden with berries, like this year, it is said to foretell a hard winter.
The other thing eastern Canada has in superfluity is water—the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Bay of Fundy, myriad protected harbors and small coves, mighty rivers and things they call brooks that carry as much water as our Rio Grande. To get from one place to another, ferries are often the only way, and we took perhaps 10 of them, ranging from five minutes to two days. Until recent decades, the region had few roads and villages were primarily linked by watercraft.
The ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Argentia, Newfoundland, the MV Atlantic Vision, takes 16 hours across the open Atlantic Ocean. It is like a cruise ship. It is bigger than the Titanic, with 10 levels versus the Titanic’s six, and has a capacity of 870 passengers and 160 crew. When a smaller ferry and a coast guard rescue ship both got stuck in icebergs a couple of years ago, this ferry, the biggest in North America, sailed to the rescue.
Icebergs are a serious problem in this part of the world from December to June, although we didn’t see any during our autumn jaunt. Due to global warming, there are more icebergs than ever before. But also, according to an elderly resident of the village of Blanc-Sablon, on the Quebec-Labrador border, tuna and turtles have returned first time in years. He said the water temperature in the gulf has warmed from 34 degrees to 40 degrees. Recently an iceberg cut an underwater cable and, he warned, the same fate will befall the proposed Transcanada Pipeline’s plans to export oil and gas to the U.S. (a couple of weeks later, the $13 billion project was canceled).
The waters of eastern Canada are not just full of icebergs. There are also whales, lots of them. We saw dozens of whales of three species (13 species live in the Gulf of St. Lawrence) cavorting just off the coast of northern Quebec. Route 138, the highway we followed for a thousand miles along the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River, all the way from the tiny village of Kagawa to Montreal, is called La Route des Balienes—Whale Road. It is constantly varied, passing not only icebergs and whales but turbulent seas and serene coves, forests, rivers, waterfalls, beautiful villages and centuries-old cities, miles of white sand beaches and grand old hotels like the one that dominates the artsy village Tadussac and the world-famous Chateau Frontenac in Quebec.
It is one of the most magnificent, if unheralded, drives on the planet. Who knew?