The power of story and community

By: Marjorie Simmins

TORONTO: Sometimes people have to travel far from their place of origin, to know what they’ve been given.

For award-winning journalist and author Linden MacIntrye, who has lived most of his adult in Ontario, Cape Breton Island remains an inspiration in his work and life.

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“I grew up knowing the power of storytelling,” says MacIntyre, 75, who was raised in Port Hastings, and has a summer home in Judique. “I saw that people were respected for telling stories well. It made ordinary people extraordinary.”

MacIntyre has told a few captivating stories himself. Most notably, he was co-host of The Fifth Estate from 1990 to 2014, producing almost 25 years of hard-hitting investigative journalism.

He is also the author of two non-fiction books, one of which, Causeway (2006), is a memoir, set at the time the Canso Causeway was built. He has written five novels, including the Giller-Prize-winning The Bishop’s Man (2009).

One of three children of Dan Rory MacIntyre, an itinerant hard-rock miner, and Alice Elizabeth Donahue, a teacher, MacIntyre was born in St. Lawrence, Newfoundland. He came to Cape Breton as a two-year-old. He attended a two-room school in Port Hastings where his mother taught all grades.

“One year I was the only Grade 9 student,” he says. “I’d listen as my mum taught all the younger grades, and then later, at our kitchen table at home, she’d teach me.”

He finished Grades 11 and 12 in Judique, went on to St. Francis Xavier University, then starting working as a journalist in Ottawa.

He returned to Cape Breton in 1970, when his father died. He worked there for the next six years. Then came the CBC television years, from which he retired in 2014. Writing continues to absorb him.

“My new book is non-fiction,” says MacIntyre. “It’s set in 1929 to ’79, and focuses on an earthquake in Newfoundland, and the environmental disaster that followed.”

The 7.2 (M7.2) “Grand Banks Earthquake,” as it is sometimes called, actually occurred approximately 250 kilometres south of Newfoundland under the Atlantic Ocean. People felt it as far away as New York and Montreal. On Cape Breton, chimneys tumbled down and roads were blocked by minor landslides. Considerable damage occurred in the Atlantic Ocean, where the earthquake triggered an immense underwater slump, severing 12 transatlantic cables and generating a tsunami.

“The tsunami wiped out the fishery,” says MacIntyre.

Soon after, an American company came in and started a fluorspar mine in St. Lawrence.

“My father worked there as a hard-rock miner. He was maybe 23 years old, and the underground captain for the mine.”

Calling himself “obsessively curious about human nature,” MacIntyre again links his Maritime raising to this trait.

“It’s a survival mechanism to listen well,” he says. “In a small place, you need each other. You don’t want to risk giving offense to your neighbours and families because you depend on each other in times of need. So you’re respectful, even if it’s for self-interest. There’s a civility in our communities, and a desire to keep things running smoothly.”

In June 2017, MacIntyre’s mother died, in her 101st year. MacIntyre, who is married to journalist and author Carol Off, and has five adult children from two earlier marriages, says he and his family of origin felt greatly supported.

“Bereavement and loss, there’s still a genuine response to it,” says MacIntyre. “Our mother was well-known and respected. That appreciation was shown to us.”

Caring as he does for his home region and town, MacIntyre wishes that “the clouds of uncertainty would disappear. Stability, both economic and social – I wish that would come here.”

MacIntyre credits Cape Breton with giving him “a solid sense of identity.”

This knowledge came to him from his environment, his parents, and preceding generations.

“My grandparents would come down MacIntyre’s Mountain to Port Hawkesbury, and once there, never spoke Gaelic. They thought they might be mocked.” The fact that almost everyone else “had the Gaelic” too, didn’t change their minds. They spoke English “in town,” and Gaelic at home. Linden’s father and uncle were also fluent.

“My mother didn’t speak it. I learned fragments, could understand quite a bit, but as was customary, was not encouraged to join adult conversations – in any language. So I never achieved fluency beyond pleasantries.”

The “solid sense of identity” he received from Cape Breton has been a lifelong blessing, he says.

“When I moved away from Nova Scotia to work, I had no doubt about who and what I was. I didn’t realize for many years how rare that was. You have an advantage over other people.”

And if you are more fortunate yet, as MacIntyre knows he is, you return home each year, to reconnect once again, with the people and land that shaped you.