Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Fourth Maritime Province

In 1993, I published a book called Sniffing the Coast, the story of a memorable 600-mile cruise from Cape Breton to PEI, New Brunswick and the Magdalen Islands.

Sailing our engineless sailboat Silversark, my late wife Lulu and I met the shades of K.C. Irving, La Sagouine and Anne of Green Gables, hung out with Grand Prix hydroplane racers, and learned more than you'd believe about potatoes. We foregathered with poets, sand sculptors, silver fox farmers. I declared, quite confidently, that a bridge to PEI would never be built.

And we discovered a new province. Here's the story, as recounted in the book:

Around 1653, the government of France created a Province de la Grande Baie de St. Laurent, notes Mark Haines, a devoted amateur historian in Guysborough County. The new province took in all the Gulf coast from the Isthmus of Chignecto, between today's Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, to Canso, Nova Scotia. It was a properly constituted jurisdiction; its governor was Nicolas Denys.

Just a year later, in 1654, the British captured Acadia; in 1670 they gave to back to the French; in 1690 and 1710 they recaptured it; and in 1713, under the Treaty of Utrecht, they forced the French to give up, forever, “all Nova Scotia or Acadie with its ancient boundaries.”

But what were the ancient boundaries of Acadia? Nobody knew, and an international commission was appointed to decide. The commission inaugurated a venerable Canadian tradition. It abducted and absorbed the issue as completely and permanently as a black hole absorbs light: it sat for 60 years and never reached a conclusion.

In the meantime, Acadia – including a great stretch of the adjoining continental land mass – became Nova Scotia. The continental territory was split off in 1784 and became New Brunswick, and both colonies became part of Canada in 1867. In all these transactions, the terrain covered by Denys's Province de la Grande Baie de St. Laurent was assumed to be part of Acadia-- but Mark Haines can find no record that the province was ever extinguished or legally conveyed to the British. So the coast down which we sailed may still be a French colonial province.

I am eager to get a speeding ticket in New Glasgow or Antigonish. I will fight it on the grounds that the court has no jurisdiction, since the alleged offence did not take place in Canada, and Canadian laws do not apply in the Province de la Grande Baie de St. Laurent.

Readers and reviewers said all manner of nice things about Sniffing the Coast. When the hardcover's run was finished, however, the publishers declared that an affordable paperback would require a print run of several thousand copies – and they weren't sure they could sell thousands. So the book went out of print.

At roughly the same time, my friend Charlie Doucet and I produced a VHS videotape called Cape Breton's Bras d'Or Lakes: A Sailing Tour with Silver Donald Cameron. Sailors and tourists loved the video, but we never found an efficient way to distribute it. We got caught up with other projects, and then VHS itself became almost as obsolete as the eight-track. So the video also vanished.

Fifteen years later, information technology came to our rescue. Unlike a videotape, a video on DVD can be duplicated easily and marketed on the Web or transmitted electronically as a download. So can a book. And book production has been transformed by a technology called print-on-demand, which allows publishers to produce books in tiny print runs – five books, fifty books – and still keep prices affordable.

So Sniffing the Coast has just been re-issued by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, a literary press operated by a medical doctor named George Vanderburgh in Shelburne, Ontario ( Meanwhile, Charlie has digitized the Bras d'Or Lakes video, and we've re-packaged it as a DVD.

Neither product, however, is available in traditional stores. Both are available on the Web at Ron Caplan's site, . I'll also be selling them at events like the Halifax International Boat Show, where I'll be showing the DVD and reading from Sniffing the Coast next Saturday.

All of which illuminates the fate of fine independent book stores like The Book Room, now closing after serving Haligonians faithfully for 170 years. These wonderful stores were created to serve a local market – but that market has almost gone away. Book buyers shop globally, lured by big boxes like Chapters and on-line vendors like Amazon, which can afford to carry almost everything and ship it anywhere. And though niche publishing and bookselling survives, it too is global, selling special-interest books to narrow world-wide markets.

There may be three people in New Zealand who will want our DVD. They'll find us, and we'll sell it to them. How truly odd is that?

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