Celebrating in Song: Cape Breton Chorale Salutes Canada

What are your plans for the celebration of Canada’s 150th Birthday? Do you even have any plans? Well, here’s a wonderful idea. Why not attend the Cape Breton Chorale’s Salute to Canada Concert on Sunday, May 28th at Sydney’s Highland Arts Theatre?

Directed by Rosemary McGhee with Paula Jane Francis as accompanist, the chorale will be joined by The Northside Honor Choir, under the direction of Paula Jane Francis, and accompanied by chorale member Mary Jane Ross. Together with other guests, they will sing you through a very well-researched history of our country that will shine a light on how Canada came to be and the many circumstances involved in its creation. The concert will include folk songs from all areas of the country, songs that “helped to lighten the load of a strenuous day’s work.”

Among the indigenous peoples who inhabited these lands we call Canada were the Inuit and more familiar to us, the Mi’kmaq, who occupied the region which “spanned the future Atlantic Provinces” that eventually would come together to establish the nation of Canada. Sunday’s concert will open with a salute to the indigenous people who have occupied this land “from time immemorial.” The concert will feature a procession with drummer Jeff Ward representing the Membertou Mi’kmaq community, and will also include a rendition of “Land of the Silver Birch” by the Northside Honor Choir.

The program will also reference the explorers, including Jacques Cartier, who sailed up the St. Lawrence River, and Samuel de Champlain, who established a settlement, Port-Royal in what became Acadia in 1604. The chorale, as part of this early history of Canada, will present three songs en français including “Les Raftsmen,” a song of the lumbermen on the Gatineau River.

The next song, “The Bluebird,” references a water boat supplying ships in ports along the Miramichi River in New Brunswick which, incidentally, is the only constitutionally bilingual province in Canada and one of the four “first provinces” of Confederation that had, in 1784, become a province in its own right.

Meanwhile, Port-Royal “flourished in partnership with Mi’kmaq Chief Membertou” until it was captured by the British, who renamed their new territory “Nova Scotia.” The British expelled the Acadians in 1755, a tragedy that will always color the history of our province and our nation. By 1773, Scottish settlers had arrived in Pictou, some of them continuing the trek to Cape Breton which presented many hardships to the new arrivals. The chorale presents Rita MacNeil’s “She’s Called Nova Scotia,” in which Rita writes of the beauties of this land that no doubt the settlers came to appreciate.

The story of Canada as presented by the Cape Breton Chorale and the Northside Honor Choir follows the development of this vast land through Ontario, Champlain having reached the Ottawa River in 1613 and Lake Huron in 1615. “The Black Fly Song” (yes, the same ones that remain a plague to this day) sung by the chorale, was composed, obviously, by someone who had suffered through an encounter with said flies and had survived to sing about it.

Thousands of immigrants began to arrive in the New World and with “tensions” between Upper and Lower Canada increasing, including a threatened end to free-trade with Britain (sound familiar?) the idea of a new nation finally became a reality in 1867. “O Canada,” composed by Calixa Lavallée in 1880, became the anthem (adopted officially in 1980), with English words provided by Robert Stanley Weir in 1908. Fittingly, our anthem is the next song on the program and all present will be invited to stand and sing along.

The long and winding road to expanding the nation of Canada, involved, of course, the Hudson’s Bay Company which owned much of the western area of the great land mass. Travel was mostly by canoe and singing kept explorers and no doubt, Hudson’s Bay traders in rhythm, “the best singers getting the best pay.” John A. MacDonald’s attempt to bring the area around the Red River into the union already in place eventually led to the rebellion of the Métis under Louis Riel, and although Manitoba and the Northwest Territories entered Confederation in 1870, the story of Louis Riel was another tragic event in our history. The chorale will sing “The Red River Valley,” a song familiar to many of us.

Cape Breton Chorale (Source: CBC website http://capebretonchorale.com/)

Cape Breton Chorale (Source: chorale website)

The railroad, a central promise made by John A. MacDonald, who had become the first prime minister of Canada, was extremely important and by offering British Columbia a link to the rest of Canada, persuaded that province to join the Confederation. The railroad was finally completed in 1885. The chorale sings a song written in praise of the famous Coho Salmon, “Where the Coho Flash Silver.”

By 1873, Prince Edward Island, whose beauty inspired the Mi’kmaq to name it Abegeweit, “Cradled on the Waves” and which had been the site of the conference that brought Upper and Lower Canada together, had finally decided to become part of that union. One of the Island’s most famous authors, Lucy Maud Montgomery, penned the story of “Anne” that became famous world wide. The Northside Honor Choir will entertain with a medley of songs from Anne of Green Gables, composed by Norman Campbell.

“Canada’s frontier was moving north marked by Franklin’s search for a Northwest Passage.” The gold rush of 1896 brought thousands in another search, for their fortunes. In 1898, the Yukon, home of the Dene and the Inuit, abandoned its dependence on the Northwest Territories and became part of the Confederation. The chorale will sing “The Magnetic North,” in honor of the Yukon, also known as the Land of the Midnight Sun.

In 1890, Canadian pioneers built the first ranches in Alberta but struggling on substandard land had them considering a move to America. In Saskatchewan, farmers were also suffering “from low prices, dust clouds and years of drought.” In 1905, both provinces joined Canada. The chorale will sing, “Alberta Homesteader” and “Wood River.”

The last province to join the Confederation, was, of course, Newfoundland, whose people voted to become Canadians in 1949, albeit by a small majority. Many Europeans, including large numbers of Irish settlers had made their homes in Newfoundland and were composers of “lively songs which illustrate their sense of humor and way of life.” The “Ode to Newfoundland,” as close to a provincial anthem as possible, is sung with great pride to this day. The Chorale will sing their version of the “Ode,” followed by a medley of songs by The Northside Honor Choir, including “I’se the B’y.”

Canadian flag. (Photo by By Makaristos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Canadian flag. (Photo by Makaristos, own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It wouldn’t be a true celebration of our Canadian heritage without reference to our symbol, the Maple Leaf. Our Canadian flag, adopted in 1965, proudly displays the Maple Leaf and in honor of it, the Chorale will sing “The Maple Leaf Forever,” written by a Scot, Alexander Muir, who came to teach in Ontario.

The most recent addition to this land we call Canada is the area known as Nunavut, “our land,” which joined Confederation in 1999. The semi-nomadic native Inuit were gatherers, fishers and seal-hunters. The song “Frobisher Bay,” which will be sung by the Chorale, speaks of the “simple loneliness of life in the cold temperatures of the Arctic.”

The last portion of this concert will concentrate on our own Cape Breton Island, to which the Mi’kmaq gave the name “Unama’ki” or “Foggy Land,” their favorite “gathering places” being Main-a-dieu, Mabou and Arichat. In 1784, following the conquest of Louisbourg, Cape Breton, known as Île-Royale at the time, became a British colony and in 1785, Sydney became “its foremost city.” 1802 saw an influx of Scottish settlers who have made a huge mark on the island, along with those immigrants representing the Polish, Ukrainian, Irish, Italian, Lebanese, African and Jewish cultures, and of course, most recently, Syrian families seeking refuge among us. The Chorale will sing Rita MacNeil’s “Home I’ll Be” and will end our trip back in time to the beginnings of our wonderful country with two more recent songs, “Canada, Our Home” and “Song For Canada.”

The Cape Breton Chorale’s 150th Birthday Salute to Canada promises to be an extraordinary evening of entertainment that will not only educate us as the story of our coming together as a nation unfolds, but will also make us grateful that we have such a wonderful group of singers in both the Cape Breton Chorale and The Northside Honor Choir who have worked so hard to make this very special date in our history a true celebration. They will leave us with a true appreciation of what has made our country a place “of peace, security and natural beauty.”

See you at The HAT!



Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.



The Cape Breton Spectator is entirely reader supported, consider subscribing today!