A true ghost story

I don’t know why, but whenever I have relocated, I always had to scout around my new environs.  The urge went well beyond needing to become familiar with the streets and roads.  It was just something about wanting to explore around my home.  That also included finding out who lived there in years past and what the local history was like. Sometimes I uncovered strange or violent stories, though the one I’ll tell you has a happy ending.

Years ago, I lived in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, just down the road a piece from the hamlet of Pereaux, and not much further from the villages of Habitant and Canard.  These community names, of course, are French, though this is not at all a French-speaking area.  Beyond these settlements lay a large lowland that we called “The Flats,” first created by people now long gone, who built dykes to keep the sea water out.  And past those fields stretched the district of Grand Pré, a purely historical site because those who used to live there all disappeared.  Some say it was murder en masse.

It was not not like other mass killings, as “only” one-third of the thousands of the French settlers lost their lives prematurely, though all of them were forcibly moved away, “merely” transported in the naval equivalent of cattle cars.  Many of these people perished for lack of food and fresh air, or from contagious illnesses in the dark holds of the ships, while many others drowned in mishaps on the stormy seas.  The families of these unfortunates were often split up so that the children sometimes came to exist like slaves as they were put to work by foreign masters.  Terrible stuff.

This almost unbelievable tragedy took place all around where I lived and it was made more real to me through a book entitled The Acadians – a people’s story of exile and triumph, written by Dean Jobb.  As always in such matters, the culprits behind the deportation of the Acadians (history books don’t call it a massacre) were very few in number but many soldiers and allies did the dirty work.  Five years after the upheaval, the Nova Scotia authorities invited British-American farmers, who had no hand in the deportation, to come and settle the silent, emptied lands.

What about the ghosts?  Well, apart from a few monuments and French place names, there are only spooky, whispy traces of these original Acadians.  Their houses were burned down, their cattle stolen, their stories were forgotten, and the memory of their settlements was deliberately erased.  I have “seen” an Acadian cemetery, kind of creepy, not because of weathered headstones viewed in dim evening light, but because even in broad daylight there was nothing obviously there but grass and weeds  — all signs of the dead having been removed by man and nature.

Lots of Acadians are now living elsewhere in the Maritime provinces, descendants of those who came back years later, and there are many American “Cajuns,” as they are called down in the state of Louisiana where some of them ended up.  But no one was allowed to return to the original fertile farms and familiar sites of former villages.

There is still an unreality about it.  The area of my present home has, like the Valley where I once lived, dyked lowlands formerly owned by Acadians.  The name of my town is Bible Hill, in part because British settlers who came after the deportation found an old French Bible near a well that the former inhabitants had used.  This was just one more fleeting indication that Acadians actually lived, worked, worshipped, and raised families here.  They seem like whispers, barely heard sounds in the wind, ghost-like hints of a once thriving people.

Some have said that Acadians of old were terrorists who deserved to be punished and deported.  Sure, a few actively resisted British rule over the colony, but most of them apparently just wanted to be left alone to tend their farms.  It has also been said that since they were all Roman Catholics, they could never be loyal to the nominally- Protestant British government.  Maybe, maybe not.  It should be added that the British were the newcomers, not starting to settle in Nova Scotia until at least a century after the Acadians had begun to live there.

Time has moved on and relations have now vastly improved.  Queen Elizabeth made a royal proclamation to acknowledge the unjust suffering and she made July 28, which was the date of the deportation order, an annual day of commemoration.  This summer, Acadians will invite their English-speaking neighbors, especially in this year of Canada’s 150th anniversary as a nation, to the historical site at Grand Pré, for remembrance and celebrations.

Yes, a happy ending, but wouldn’t it be good if in our day we would never hear again about the fear of other ethnic groups, about present religious bitterness, and even the threat of mass deportations?  Here in the Maritimes, much of the bitterness of the past has been overcome, thank God — but please, no more true ghost stories.


How I found the cover-up of an airline disaster

Full disclosure here.  Everything I know about a cover-up of the cause of the crash of Swissair 111 in September of 1998, the second worst air disaster in Canadian history, I learned from Tom Juby.   When I first met Tom, it was about a year after that crash near Nova Scotia’s famous Peggy’s Cove.  He was then a forensic identification investigator with the RCMP, having been assigned to examine the physical evidence of the crash.

I could tell right away that Tom Juby was no opportunist, seeking to profit from the disaster.  That day, his mind and feelings were much troubled and impacted by events relating to the investigation.  Not only was he affected by the horrible scale and details of the human loss of life, he and the lead investigator for the federal government had uncovered evidence of an “incendiary device” on board the fatal flight, and also a number of strange facts about the flight itself.

But perhaps worst of all, for Tom, was the fact that his own bosses in the RCMP had wanted to shut down his sleuthing of a criminal cause. They wanted him to alter his notes in order to delete any reference to possible criminality (just like the Transportation Safety Board later ordered their expert investigator, Dr. Jim Brown, to change a similar reference in his own report).  In a tired and depressed tone, Tom started telling me technical and scientific facts that I barely understood, and also suspicious details of the flight that were much easier to grasp.  Among the latter was the passenger list, which included a Saudi prince and several United Nations officials, and there was a missing cargo of diamonds.  Later, he would add further disturbing bits of detail, such as first class passengers having been inexplicably moved to the rear of the plane, and a missing airport worker who had been in the plane before its take-off  but who, after only one shift on the job, had vanished without a trace except his false identity in the airport employee file.

Despite these and other anomalies, RCMP brass decided already on the third day of the investigation that there was no point to further examine the passenger list, and indeed before long they decided the Swissair crash was only an appropriate study from a safety perspective, not from a forensic/criminal one.  Yet the names of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda had been mentioned, more than two years before the destruction of Manhattan’s Twin Towers on 9-11.  Tom wonders how history might have unfolded differently if the Swissair investigation had been handled better.

At his home last year, Tom filled me in on his plans to publish a book of his findings.  In the intervening years, he had retired from the RCMP, taken a different job, and had been the focus of an episode on CBC’s investigative journalism program, “The Fifth Estate.”  Now about to resign from his other work, he could concentrate on the book and the expected publicity, some of which could well be hostile.

The book is finally available, called Twice As Far: the true story of the Swissair 111 airplane crash.  Readers who may be especially interested in the story can get further details and news on Tom Juby’s web site at  www.swissair111.ca

A Street Cat and a Sad Song

Recently, there have been reports in some of the media saying that young people are now more stressed than before and are having more mental health issues than ever. Various reasons for this are proposed, including the addiction to social media.  I won’t dwell on these statements but whatever the state of youth stress may be, it has been an observation of mine for a few decades already that there seem to be fewer traditional calming influences and ordinary emotional supports, perhaps especially for urban youth.  Let me tell you what I mean.

Take music, for instance.  There is lots of the usual rebellious rock and social-commentary hip-hop, but how often are the young exposed to contemporary versions of soothing ballads, quieter blues, and other tunes that help the soul and mind to work through hurt, loss, and pressure?  This has been, for eons, one of the great benefits of music.   I recall as a young man crazy about the Beatles, being very moved by Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” with its soothing lament over a lost love, not unlike the Beatles’ own “Yesterday.”

There appears to be a lot of loudness, whether of anger, passion, or praise, and (to me) far too little of the softer, thoughtful, singing that has healing power.  The poet G.K. Chesterton once said the following about the ages-old features of the Celtic character ….

The great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.

The Irish are particularly talented at making good sad songs, perhaps in part because so many of them seem equally talented at drinking and arguing.  Check out the Irish ballad called “The Dutchman” in the previous blog, as just one example of many, of their renowned skill.  Sad and thoughtful songs can help a mind under stress open an emotional safety valve.

I am not suggesting to the young what their taste in music should be, but only that there are in the general culture and in nature various calming, therapeutic sources of strength and stability …. if we only open our eyes and ears to them.  Besides music there are pets, quiet walkways, forms of mindfulness, meditation on good things, and so much more.

Earlier this month, I watched a wonderful movie called A Street Cat named Bob, about a young homeless drug addict who meets up with a stray cat, leading to health for both of them.  I then read the book by the young man himself, for the film is based on his true story.  Who knew that someone who had been living on the streets of London for a decade would be saved by a cat?  If puzzled, read the book or watch the movie.  Taking care of Bob the sick stray helped James Bowen to have, as he says, “an extra purpose in my life, something to do for someone – or something – other than myself.”  The story has a certain similarity to Marley and Me, another inspirational best-seller about a man and a pet.

I have to disagree with the view that stress and depression must always be met with optimism and the upbeat.  Often a quiet word of empathy or an opportunity to shed a few tears is far more helpful.  I tend to avoid social groups or churches that are forever pumping the positive.  Great pieces of poetry, including the Psalms, show a wide range of emotions, and a good Irish lament, or a needy street cat, can do a world of good.



The Dutchman


Every Wednesday I meet with a bunch of guys to hear one of them or a speaker they bring.  The “speaker” this time brought his guitar and a good friend of his also with a guitar.  They entertained us with a dozen or so great melodies, finishing with a hauntingly favorite, entitled “The Dutchman.”  For my blog this month, I am treating you to a rendition of this memorable song, sung here by the late Liam Clancy.  Just click on the triangle above and have your speaker on.

What’s the song about?  You won’t find much accurate information about Holland here, but the human pathos of the Dutchman will move you as it has countless others.  As so often, it’s about love, a special kind of love.  Figure it out for yourself.  The lyrics appear below.

The Dutchman

Words and lyrics by Michael Peter Smith

The Dutchman is not the kind of man    /    who keeps his thumb jammed in the dam    /   that holds his dreams in,    /    that’s a secret that only Margaret knows.

When Amsterdam is golden in the summer    /    Margaret brings him breakfast,    /    she believes him    /    (he thinks the tulips bloom beneath the snow).

He’s mad as he can be,    /    Margaret only sees that sometimes,    /    sometimes she sees her unborn children in his eyes.

Let us go to the banks of the ocean    /    where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.                 Long ago I used to be a young man,    /    dear Margaret remembers that for me.

The Dutchman still wears wooden shoes    /    and his cap and coat are patched with the love    /    Margaret sewed there    /    (sometimes he thinks he’s still in Rotterdam).

He watches the tug-boats down the canals    /    and calls out to them    /    when he thinks he knows the captain.

Margaret comes to take him home again    /    through unforgiving streets that trip him    / she holds his arm    /    (sometimes he thinks he’s alone and he calls her name).

        Let us go to the banks of the ocean    /    where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.                 Long ago I used to be a young man,    /    dear Margaret remembers that for me.



The winters whirl the windmills ‘round,  she winds his muffler tighter,    /    they sit in the kitchen,  some tea with whiskey keeps away the dew.    /    He sees her for a moment , he calls her name.

She makes the bed up singing some old love song,    /    she learned it when the song was very new,     /    he hums a line or two, they hum together in the dark.    /    The Dutchman falls asleep,    /    Margaret blows the candles out.

        Let us go to the banks of the ocean    /    where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.                 Long ago I used to be a young man,    /    dear Margaret remembers that for me.