andrew burke





Nova Scotia Heart

Posted on: 2020-05-21

I've been doing Toastmasters for the last few years to polish my speaking technique. The talks tend to be pretty ephemeral, but I've found it has given me focus to do some of my best writing in the last while. It turns out the 5-to-7-minute time limit for a Toastmasters talk makes a good length for a blog post. So I'm going to share some of my favourite talks here on my blog.

Here's one I just did, a cathartic expression of my feelings about this whole pandemic situation and the multiple tragedies that have struck Halifax in the last few weeks:

In late March of 2020, while Nova Scotia struggled to get used to the "new normal" of lockdown and social distancing as the worst global pandemic in over a century came to our shores, a teenager in PJs picked up her fiddle on a Facebook Live video.

As her father prompted her with "okay, your contribution to the COVID kitchen party!", Emily Tuck played a slow waltz called "In Memory of Herbie MacLeod". When she finished, her father proudly exclaimed "there's some fiddle for ya!"

Just a few weeks later, father, daughter, and mother, among many others, would fall in the deadliest mass murder in the history of this country.

Shortly after that, as the province and those who love it worldwide reeled in shock, another video was made, this one of a young Navy Officer on deployment in the Ionian sea. Sub-Lieutenant Abbigail Cowbrough played "Amazing Grace" on her bagpipes on the deck of the HMCS Fredericton, as a tribute to all those who had fallen.

Mere days later, she and five other crew, half of them Nova Scotians, perished as their Cyclone helicopter crashed into the waves.

In response to these cascading tragedies, the RCAF Snowbirds flight demonstration team organized "Operation Inspiration" - fly-bys across the entire country, starting in Nova Scotia, with special detours over Portapique and then up to Fredericton, to commemorate the victims of the shootings and the helicopter crash. Who here caught the fly-by? I did. The best view, of course, was caught in a video taken from inside one of the jets, shared on social media by Public Affairs Officer Captain Jenn Casey, taking footage of her long-time home town of Halifax.

As "Operation Inspiration" continued in Kamloops B.C. just a few days ago, Jenn Casey perished as the Snowbird she was in crashed just after takeoff.

People use "unprecedented" a lot these days, but I think we can all agree that the last month or so has been unprecedented in its wave of tragedies for Nova Scotia. These would have been rough at any time, but especially so while our normal lives and our normal ways of dealing with things have been put on hold indefinitely.

In response to all of this there's been a lot of talk of "Nova Scotia Strong", in hashtags and on billboards and in windows. That's fine and understandable, and it's done many people some good, but it's never quite felt right to me. Variations of the term have been used all over the place, since it originated as "Boston Strong" in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2014. Most recently I've seen it in California, as "Santa Rosa Strong" after the wildfires that swept through the city in recent years.

Maybe it's because it's already been used a lot and I'm just a hipster or something - but I think the main thing about it is that it's redundent: Nova Scotians are already strong, and we know it. Even a cursory glance at our history shows that we have to be strong or we wouldn't even be here:

Colonial wars and piracy? We're still here. The collapse of the cod fishery and coal mining and Sydney Steel? Still here. Deadly hurricanes and epic nor-easter blizzards? In the same year? Still here. Mining disasters? Still here. Our Migm'aw brethren subject to centuries of dispossession and dislocation? Still here. Acadians deported en masse in the 18th century? Many came back as soon as they were able! And yup - still here. The immigrants and refugees who have come here over the centuries, often with nothing, and built communities? Still here. The people of Africville, bulldozed in the middle of the night? Still here. The largest non-nuclear man-made explosion in history right in the middle of Halifax? During a war? And followed by a brutal blizzard in a city where all the windows had been blown out? We're. Still. Here.

Nova Scotia Strong. Sure. But we've always been strong. And as long as there are Nova Scotians, they will be strong.

But there's another iconography that these incidents have inspired that seems more fitting to me. The heart.

I have seen hearts all around Nova Scotia: on sidewalks, in windows, and a pilot even traced one in the air with his plane over Portapique so it could be seen by flight trackers.

The heart of course means love, but it also means strength - the word "courage" itself comes from the Latin and French words for heart. So in many ways the heart also means "Nova Scotia Strong" but implying less the strength of a fist but the "heartening" strength of knowing that we are all in this together as a community and have each others' backs.

I live in the North End, just a few blocks from the Northwood managed care faciliity, the epicentre of the pandemic here, where most of the cases and nearly all of the deaths have happened. I walked by there recently, and I saw that all the houses across the street from the complex have hearts in their windows, sharing messages of love and support in the one of the only ways possible while still social-distancing - and the windows in Northwood are also filling up with hearts and thank yous in response. This is how we do it here.

We've been led to believe by Hollywood and apocalyptic fiction and the like that when disaster strikes societies simply collapse and it's every man for itself. But the societies that survive disasters best are the ones where people look after each other, where people have heart. It may seem to be a bit of a paradox, but it's because of our history of disasters that Nova Scotians have a worldwide reputation for being such good, friendly people. We have to be, or else we wouldn't still be here. Tied together by community, and caring, and especially music.

Here's one thing I discovered recently: the Snowbirds were formed in 1971, when Anne Murray's song of the same name was on top the charts across North America, so it's not a stretch to assume there was some influence. Anne Murray is from Springhill - a town known for two things: the sunshine pretty singer of upbeat country-folk tunes; and some of the deadliest mining disasters in Canadian history. These things would seem to be contradictory, but they aren't. Not in Nova Scotia.

Emily Tuck was playing music to help us feel better (and did anybody else see Natalie McMaster's heartbreaking posthumous duet?). Abbigail Cowsbrough was playing music in tribute to the fallen and as comfort to us all. Jenn Casey was coordinating a nationwide show of solidarity. All of these acts showed heart, and in a distinctively Nova Scotian way.

We Nova Scotians have great, often musical, hearts - not in spite of the hardships and disasters in our past, but because of it. Let's make sure our latest tragedies give us even greater, glowing, hearts. Nova Scotia Hearts.

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