Sitting at the bar, I stare into a tulip glass containing an ounce of friendship. I moved to this island to get connected with my roots and all I’ve connected with are a creaky stool, xenophobic stares and a glass of Scotch. As I let this one liquid friend caress my lips the bartender asks, “Where ya from?”
Where am I from? I hate the question. Thirty years I’ve spent trying to find out where I come from and who my people are in the hopes that I might better know myself. Every time I hear this question my mind is flooded with the countless other times I’ve tried to identify my culture and my home.
Growing up in Newfoundland was tough. Kids and adults would assume that I was a true-blooded Newfoundlander, just like them. I didn’t talk much so they couldn’t tell that I didn’t have the jovial and amiable lilt of the Rock. I’d tell them that my family moved from Alberta but I was born in Saskatchewan.
“Oh, b’y, yer a CFA!” They’d say, satisfied in figuring me out. “A Come From Away.”
This dialogue left me on the outside. As if my childhood was one never ending recess period where all the local kids were playing soccer, basketball, tag, or smoking any number of strange green leaves. Meanwhile, on a hillock looking out towards them I sat hunched and huddled, hoping to be invited in. Maybe the other kids were too busy having fun.
Maybe I am a “Come From Away.” I was born in the endless fields of corn and wheat, the heartland of Canadian farming culture. I wasn’t born on the rugged salt encrusted Rock. Maybe I needed to return to western Canada where most of my family settled, be it the amber prairie or the forests and mountains that reach for the heavens.
After graduating from Memorial University I moved out to British Columbia. The pines and rock felt familiar yet cold like the people I met. The locals would ask me where I moved from and when hearing that I crossed the whole country they’d say, “Oh, you’re a Newfoundlander, then? Tell me, have you heard this Newfie joke?” I would try to block out the verbal bigotry. “Oh, wanna hear another one?”
No wonder the Newfoundlanders kept me outside. These CFAs could be heartless. Maybe their insulting jokes were benignly birthed in their minds but the pain must be real. Is this who I am? The more hate I heard veiled under humour the more I wanted to defend Newfoundlanders. How could people be so blind to the struggle of the families who first came to Newfoundland? These Irish, English and Scottish families who were kicked out of their homes to survive on the sea battered edge of a barren rock.
Sharing a drink with my dad I wanted to learn more about his family, members of a Scottish clan, a proud people driven from their homeland. In the region of Margaree in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island they made their new home and clung to their traditions and culture. Speaking Scots Gaelic and drinking whiskey they made the best they could of their new lives. Sure, they were no richer in Cape Breton than they were in the highlands of Scotland but they made the most of it.
The bit of knowledge of our family’s past sparked a new direction. I couldn’t identify with the Newfoundlanders who shunned me and I wasn’t connecting with the western Canadians who made fun of where I grew up. Maybe the remnant of my family in Nova Scotia would know who I am. Maybe they knew the family’s history more than my father and I. Even if they couldn’t help with my desire to know my heritage I could at least connect with the region that gave my family hope for a new life.
At first I moved to Halifax, the capital of “New Scotland.” Here I started my own new life. I changed my career path and started to look more into the history of Scots in Canada.
Halifax was inspiring; the conviviality that my dad told me about Nova Scotians was a daily pleasure. The music contained joy that came as a response to sorrow. The pain of poverty of home and province infused the notes and chords of the local bards. In Halifax the beer flowed readily and beautifully, ready to lend an amiable hand to any social event.
People on the street and in the stores were always friendly. Neighbours and strangers became friends and family. Even though none of us had much we managed to enjoy life together with laughter, libations and food.
As wonderful as life in Halifax was, I still felt the need to connect with my family and my ancestral soil. They weren’t Haligonians and many never even left Cape Breton Island. When an opportunity to work in Cape Breton came up I took it, excited at the possibility of meeting the family that came from Europe to start a new life.
People in Halifax encouraged the move. Friendly people live in Cape Breton, amicable and endearing.
Driving across the island the view was spectacular. I could see all of the trees beginning to sprout new leaves and the evergreens watched over them. I began to hope that my evergreen family in Cape Breton would help me as I started again on the island. On the other side of the road was the Bras D’or Lake, one of the largest bodies of inland salt water. This island was inundated by the sea, a rock directly linked to the salt of the ocean. Thoughts of Newfoundland inundated my mind.
Weeks have passed and not much has changed. Outside of the obligatory relationships with colleagues I know no more people than when I first moved to Cape Breton. My family is hard to connect with. I can’t even find their phone numbers. My roommate is alive, I think. As for strangers and neighbours, when I introduce myself all I hear back is, “You’re from the city, eh b’y?” I don’t even mention Halifax but they’ve figured me out and their stares say they are cautious of me.
The friendliest person I’ve met on the island goes by the name Bowmore. Bowmore is everyone’s friend. I can only handle an ounce of him at a time; he has a strong “personality”. He came over from Scotland where he lived until he was twelve years old.
I go to the pub to spend some time with Bowmore. As I sit down the stool creaks. I take a sip of my Scotch and the bartender asks me: “Where ya from?”
The amber liquor settles in my mouth, dancing with my tastebuds and comforting me as my past swirls through my mind. I swallow and say, “I’m from Halifax.”