Friends look back at the life of Silver Donald Cameron

    Award-winning author, environmentalist and local community leader dead at 82

    D’ESCOUSSE: Award-winning author, environmental activist and long-time local volunteer Silver Donald Cameron passed away on June 1 at the age of 82.

    An Order of Canada, Queen’s Jubilee Medal and Order of Nova Scotia recipient, Cameron passed away in Halifax three weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Cameron was also a former journalist, university teacher, playwright and documentary filmmaker. He was a columnist for provincial and national newspapers, including The Reporter.

    Cameron was married to award-winning author and freelance journalist Marjorie Simmins, who is a contributor to The Reporter.

    On June 1, Cameron’s niece Tassie Cameron posted on Facebook that the author contracted pneumonia three weeks previous and never recovered.

    “Silver Don was a renegade, raconteur, author, journalist and sailor – and a passionate environmentalist,” she posted. “A sad day for my family as one of our oldest friends has passed – in my humble opinion – much too soon. The world had much more to hear from him.”

    Born in Toronto, Cameron both taught and was the writer-in-residence at several schools in Canada. He was the first Dean of the School of Community Studies at Cape Breton University. He held a Ph.D from the University of London, as well as honorary doctorates from the University of Kings College and Cape Breton University.

    He taught English at the University of New Brunswick in the 1960s, where he helped start an alternative news magazine, The Mysterious East, which ran for three years.

    Cameron came to the Strait area in 1970 as a journalist covering a strike by trawlermen at fish plants in Canso, Mulgrave and Petit de Grat which later culminated in his novel The Education of Everett Richardson. This book was recently republished four decades after its original appearance.

    Celebrated author and award-winning journalist Linden MacIntyre first met Cameron while both were covering the strike 50 years ago.

    “He was around a lot and I kept seeing and hearing about him and I figured he was one of many outsiders who show up, they take an interest, they get very fascinated by the place and the stories, then they disappear,” MacIntyre recalled. “The next thing I know, he’s moved in to Richmond County. Again I figured this won’t last long because this a big city guy, roots are elsewhere, he writes books, and he’s not going to be around long. Anyway, he settled in and became part of the local scene.”

    In 1971, Cameron purchased a home in Isle Madame, and a couple of years later, another along the waterfront in D’Escousse, which became his residence for decades with his wife, the late Lulu Terrio-Cameron and later his son Mark.

    It was from his home on Isle Madame’s north side where Cameron wrote some of his most memorable novels including Wind, Whales and Whisky, which detailed a voyage on his yacht the Silversark from D’Escousse to Florida. As in the case with almost all of his writing, the communities, characters and stories of his new home were a frequent part of the novel.

    “The voice of Isle Madame was in a lot of his writing, even if it wasn’t about Isle Madame,” Janvrins Island resident Gloria Hill told The Reporter.

    But not just willing to rest on the laurels of his celebrated literary career, Cameron became deeply involved in the effort to overcome the collapse of the groundfishery in the early 1990s, which resulted in the closure of the Richmond Fisheries plant in Boudreauville, and the loss of hundreds of jobs from Isle Madame.

    Cameron was an original board member of Development Isle Madame Association, and in 1994 was one of the founders of Telile: Isle Madame Community Television, which continues to this day.

    A former general manager of Telile, Hill remembers a man who truly cared for his community and neighbours and worked tirelessly to help Isle Madame.

    “Don bought the old Marbro Motel that housed the Telile studio, so I mean that’s pretty dedicated,” Hill recalled. “He was a real leader. Telile wouldn’t be here without Silver Donald Cameron, I have no doubt.

    “He gave his skills, his friendship to us, it was really a special time. The closing of the fishery was horrible but really some good came out of it in the end.”

    Even after Isle Madame was able to contain the economic and social damage from the loss of its main employer, Hill remembers Cameron stayed involved in the community, remaining on the board of Telile until the community television station moved to its current location.

    “Really after the codfishery collapsed, he could’ve stopped,” Hill stated. “He could’ve just said, ‘I did my share’ – which he did very much do his share at that point – but he didn’t.

    “He’s a nationally-known author and he gave of his skills and ability to us to help our community.”

    Hill believes he was guided by a love for his adopted community.

    “Don was fascinated – as an outsider, even though he wasn’t an outsider, he lived here – by the community, by Isle Madame,” she noted. “He was fascinated by people, personalities, characters, the history and the depth of personality of the people, and the kindness. It just fascinated him as a person, who lived in a city, the whole community fascinated him. And you could tell in his writing, even when he was writing for the Globe and Mail, he had an article every week, he just delved into the community, shared his thoughts and really did a great job of talking about the community, and about, how from his eyes, what kind of place it was.”

    This was a sentiment echoed by MacIntyre

    “He became very much a part of the Isle Madame community and identified strong with the place. He became a Cape Bretoner,” he noted. “He was very much a part of the landscape of that community, very involved, very engaged, and increasingly over time, he got to know the place, Isle Madame, which is a unique place; an island, on an island. It’s got a unique history.”

    Although he was a long-time supporter of the New Democrats, and was once asked to offer as a candidate for the NDP, in last fall’s federal election, Cameron’s environmental activism led him to support the Green Party.

    In recent years, Cameron was the host and executive director of The Green, a series of more than 100 interviews with people like Margaret Atwood, Jane Goodall, David Suzuki, and Nova Scotia teenage scientist Stella Bowles about green issues and moving toward a more sustainable future. Cameron assembled his conversations over a period of 10 years of global travel and research.

    “At the end of his life, that seemed to take over his writing and passion,” Hill noted. “He kind of took his energy that he put into the community during the fisheries crisis… If he could help in some way to make the environment and the world a better place, he was going to do it. He went into it like he did everything else he did, he went into it 110 per cent, head first and he didn’t look back.”

    At the time of his death, Cameron was Cape Breton University’s first Farley Mowat Chair in Environment.

    “Dr. Cameron will be greatly missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing him, and we will carry on his legacy through Cape Breton University’s dedication to the protection of the environment,” a statement from CBU reads. “His contributions to our CBU community were vast, and will not be forgotten.”

    Farley Mowat’s son, Matthew eulogized Cameron in a Facebook post last week.

    “Silver Don is the one who endlessly encouraged me to continue with my writing each time I heard from him, and would slap me on the back when he saw me in person, ‘what the hell are you waiting for, write the damn book!’ the post read. “I still haven’t, but can hear him saying that tonight.”

    Cameron’s 20th and final book, Blood in the Water: A True Story of Revenge in the Maritimes, will be available in August.

    The book details the death of Philip Boudreau on June 1, 2013 in waters off Petit de Grat.

    Cameron argues that the Boudreau killing was a direct reaction to credible and dire threats that the authorities were powerless to neutralize. According to the book’s publisher Penguin Random House, this is a story not about lobster, but about the grand themes of power and law, security, and self-respect. It raises the disturbing question of whether there are times when taking the law into your own hands is not only understandable but the responsible thing to do?

    Hoping to do a television documentary on the case, MacIntyre recounted that he touched base with Cameron during a 2015 bail hearing as part of the trial and later learned Cameron was writing a book. Since then, MacIntyre was asked to read the manuscript and provide a blurb for the cover.

    “He was very excited about this book, he was very excited about having pulled it off and it is an excellent book,” MacIntyre stated. “It’s kind of strange to me that it’s a summation of everything that he could’ve been talking about and thinking about over the last 50 years. It’s not just about the murder of Philip Boudreau; it’s about the communities there, it’s about the people; a lot about the history of the place; the inter-dependence of people and the complexity of relationships; and the unusual history of the Acadian communities of Isle Madame, in particular. It’s a deep, deep book and it also has a lot about what happened.

    “Only he could’ve written this because the kind of book it turns out to be, it had to be written by someone from inside the heart of the community and there aren’t too many people who had the skills and the connections to do that.”