Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Awards season (I)

I first met Rob Csernyik in April 2019. We had coffee at Dr. Luke’s and he interviewed me for a J-Source article he was writing about the Cape Breton journalism scene. We went back and forth by email for months afterward because J-Source is serious to the point of mania about its fact-checking and then in November, he pitched me the idea of a series of stories marking the 25th anniversary of Sydney’s casino.

The series would be based on research he’d begun during to an investigative journalism workshop in Banff. I thought it would be an ideal fit for the Spectator and, thanks to my joint-subscription arrangement with the Halifax Examiner, I was able to afford it — because work like this does not (and should not) come cheap.

If you’re a regular reader (or even better, a subscriber), then you know the stories I’m talking about — a series of four that ran throughout 2020. And in case you somehow missed them, you’ll find Part I here.

This week, the stories were nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in the Best News Coverage (Community Publication) category:

Rob received two nods in this category, because he’s also nominated for a casino story he wrote for the Halifax Examiner.

I know this is going to sound incredibly cheesy, but just being nominated for such an award, being in the company of these other nominees, actually is a trip. My goal with the Spectator has always been, first and foremost, to serve my community and that will never change, but it turns out being recognized for serving your community feels pretty good.

I have my fingers crossed for Rob, so typing is difficult, but I feel the need to add that if you would like to help the Spectator fund more potentially-award-winning journalism, consider upgrading to a joint subscription with the Examiner — or just strong-arm a friend into subscribing to the Spectator, we’re really not fussy. I’ve got no shortage of story ideas, but if I’m going to follow up on them, I need to expand the subscription base.

This has been a shameless piece of self-promotion by the Cape Breton Spectator.


Awards season (II)

Ronald Caplan

Ronald Caplan

Cape Breton publisher Ron Caplan has won the 2021 Atlantic Book Awards’ Pioneer Award honoring “trail blazers and ground-breakers who have made a lasting contribution to the development of the literary arts in Atlantic Canada.”

Past recipients include Newfoundland’s Tom Dawe, one of the founders of Breakwater Books, and Nova Scotia’s Errol Sharpe, founder of Fernwood Publishing.

In its press release, the award committee praised Caplan for his:

…passionate and trailblazing work in telling the stories of Cape Breton and its people to the rest of the world, through ground-breaking initiatives such as Cape Breton’s Magazine and of course the establishment of Breton Books, which gave a voice to so many Cape Breton writers and storytellers.

Heather MacKenzie of the Halifax Public Libraries wrote:

It was felt that [his] work best captured the true spirit of a ‘Pioneer’ Award in the many ways you shone a new light on Cape Breton’s culture and people.

Caplan launched Cape Breton’s Magazine in 1972 and Breton Books published the first of its 140 books in 1988. Of the Pioneer Award, he said:

I see an award like this as an opportunity to express my gratitude to literally hundreds of people who helped make it possible for me and my family to have a life in Cape Breton, and who in so many ways contributed to Cape Breton’s Magazine and Breton Books.

My thanks go first to Bonnie Thompson, my co-worker for the past 45 years. And from there, I am thankful to storytellers, historians, photographers and the many people who guided me through the work and the island’s weathers. From those I interviewed for the pages of to the authors whose passion continues to inform and inspire Breton Books. From the staff of shipping companies who have accommodated our needs with endless good cheer, to rural postal delivery drivers and the postmistresses who have been patient despite an enormous increase in their workload. Even the storekeepers who often give us free rein among their shelves!

I appreciate the opportunity this Pioneer Award gives me to remember these people, to offer them my gratitude, and my thanks.

Caplan still has goals, including getting his books and the 74 issues of Cape Breton’s Magazine into the island’s school curriculum.

And he’s at work, as we speak, gathering stories for this year’s Cape Breton’s Christmas book. Everyone whose story is published gets a copy of the book, royalties from which go to Feed Nova Scotia. The deadline for submissions in September 15 and Caplan asks that you send him your Christmas stories and memories by email or snail mail (Ronald Caplan, 45879 Cabot Trail, Englishtown, NS, B0C 1H0).


Tattoo Update

Art historian Jamie Jelinski tweeted an update on his efforts to gain access to items from the Cabinet of Dr. Wilfred Derome — by which I mean the Derome collection, on loan to Quebec’s Musée de la civilisation.

If you haven’t read the Spectator‘s story on the subject, you should, but the gist of it is that Jelinksi, who wrote his PhD thesis on the history of commercial tattooing in Canada, discovered the museum had a collection — the above-mentioned Derome collection — that included pieces of tattooed human skin. Derome, a physician who ran Montreal’s Laboratoire Provincial de Recherches Médico-légales, the first forensics lab in North America, began by collecting medical specimens but expanded this to items related to the crimes he investigated.

One of the tattoos in question was taken from the arm of a Sydney woman named Mildred Brown who was murdered in Montreal in 1929. Jelinksi discovered that her story was included in Derome’s Album des causes célèbres — essentially, two scrapbooks about his most famous cases. Jelinski has been trying to get access to the book and to other items from Derome’s collection but has been blocked by the museum and by the Public Security Ministry, which owns the collection.

On Thursday evening, Jelinksi tweeted:

The scrapbook says, “Murder of Millie Brown by Nancie Morrison in a slum on Rue Clark,” which reminded me that one of the points Jelinksi has made about Derome’s collection is that it illustrates the power he had over lower and working-class people. If Millie Brown were not a working-class woman murdered in a “slum,” the theory goes, Derome would have been far less likely to have removed and preserved her tattoos.

Surgeon's Hall Museums AdWhen I spoke to Jelinksi, he noted that Derome’s collection was not unusual for a physician of his time and Paul MacDougall has pointed out to me that other cities, particularly European cities, have similar collections which they display publicly.

He directed me to Edinburgh’s Surgeon’s Hall Museums which reopened to the public in 2015 after a major redevelopment project and which include the Wohl Pathology Museum, home to “one of the largest collections of pathological anatomy in the world.” I had been on the museum website for less than two minutes before I found myself looking at an amputated gangrenous foot in a jar. (The things I do for you people.) But as the site explains:

The collection at Surgeons’ Hall Museums represents the changing nature of medical and scientific teaching and research since the late 18th century and it is worth noting that the specimens were collected at times that held different ethical and moral values from our own today.

The specimens within Surgeons’ Hall Museums are displayed acknowledging the debt to those whose suffering has advanced our knowledge of medicine, surgery and disease. The specimens within the Museums are governed by the Human Tissue (Scotland) Act 2006, which allows for the public display of human remains. By exhibiting human remains, we aim to help people learn more about science and history. Human remains can bring people into contact with the past and help encourage reflection.

The collections now found in the Surgeon’s Hall Museums were initially for teaching purposes, but they also contained “curiosities,” some of which were items connected to famous crimes. (As MacDougall explained in this Cape Breton Post piece, crime and medicine have historically been rather closely entwined in Edinburgh.)

But whereas the Scots have made the collections accessible to all (and run pretty cheeky advertising campaigns to draw attention to them) the Musée de la civilisation is limiting the access of researchers. There’s probably a thesis to be written about this difference in approaches to controversial, publicly owned materials.

Jelinski hopes to change the museum’s mind. He will be arguing his case before the Commission d’accès à l’information du Québec this month and next.