Travel

The untold story of the “Canadian Mayflower:” A family roots journey in Nova Scotia

A pilgrimage to Kejimkujik reveals centuries-old connections between descendants of Nova Scotia’s first Scottish settlers and the Mi'kmaq who saved them 

  • Published Mar 15, 2024
  • Updated Mar 19
  • 2,441 words
  • 10 minutes
Birchbark canoes, made by Mi'kmaw Elder Todd Labrador, on the shore of Kejimkujik Lake. (Photo: Parks Canada/Alicia Brett)
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From behind locked gates, we spy the grey-tarped profile of the 18th-century Dutch-style tall ship at the Hector Heritage Quay in Pictou, Nova Scotia. No masts. It’s in mid-restoration in spring 2022 when we visit. Massive new Douglas fir ribs contrast with grey, rotted oak planks, yet to be replaced. The whole work site and visitor centre won’t open for the season until tomorrow. But still, I can’t believe we’re here. Finally.

For as long as I’ve known my husband, Tim, Hector, a 26-metre three-masted brig-style ship, has been part of his family lore. Some call it the Canadian Mayflower. Its harrowing 11-week voyage from Ullapool, Scotland, delivered some 189 souls to the shores of Pictou Harbour on Sept. 15, 1773. A framed copy of the ship’s manifest has hung on our den wall in Caledon, Ont., for more years than I remember. Eighteen of the children listed onboard were buried at sea. When the vessel finally landed, it was too late for the growing season, with none of the promised accommodations, and limited provisions. If not for the Mi’kmaq, those who made it ashore would have perished that first winter, too. 

A pre-restoration Hector is docked at the Hector Heritage Quay in Pictou Harbour. (Photo: Nova Scotia Tourism)
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Of course, the Voyageurs and the Acadians arrived to this Mi’kmaw homeland long before. Still, for all sorts of reasons, they didn’t so abruptly and overwhelmingly alter the trajectory of the people and the land that was here long before them — nothing like the landing of Hector would. Tim’s Fraser clan and their fellow passengers would be the first of an onslaught of Scottish colonists — almost 185,000 over the next 100 years — all starting not long after the British conquest of New France. And the American Revolution would deliver another wave of colonists to the region.

Now it’s time for Tim to embark on a family roots journey in Nova Scotia. And somehow the timing of this journey seems fitting. Maybe it’s the moment we’re in as a country as the impacts of colonization finally become mainstream knowledge. Or maybe it’s this one stark fact: If not for the Mi’kmaq, Tim wouldn’t be here.

“I wonder if we can find places in Nova Scotia that can help us envision what the Mi’kmaw world was like before Hector arrived — to imagine that moment before everything changed?” Tim asked the question months before, when we first imagined this trip. It was a good one. “My dad, my sisters all talked about coming from Scotland, but what about the people who greeted us, those who helped our ancestors survive? How did we change their world?” Now in early spring, we’re hitting the road to find answers in a part of the Mi’kmaki, the traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq, that might not look too far different from what it was before 1773. 

(Map: Chris Brackley/Can Geo)
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The Mi’kmaki district of Kespukwitk at the south end of Nova Scotia translates to “land ends.” It is home to the Tobeatic Wilderness Area, the Maritimes’ largest protected wilderness area. These 120,000 hectares encompass massive stretches of Acadian forest, wetlands, rivers, barrens, outwash plains and kettle lakes, all undeveloped, unmaintained and home to the Mi’kmaq for thousands of years. Bordering on a big chunk of the massive Tobeatic is Kejimkujik, or “Keji,” National Park and National Historic Site — Canada’s only national park with both designations. Early colonists like Tim’s family began settling on this ancient Mi’kmaw homeland from around the 1820s. But even its recent history is complicated. In the early 20th century, the Keji area became a sport hunting and fishing reserve, then later, private cottages began appearing. By the late 1960s, the national park formed. Keji got a national historic site designation in 1995, finally spotlighting its true Mi’kmaw heritage. 

Since the end of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago, the Mi’kmaq and their ancestors used this region’s complex system of rivers and lakes to travel between the south and north coasts, with Keji a meeting place at the centre of the network. A handful of other Mi’kmaw archeological sites in Nova Scotia might be as old or older, but none encompass such diversity — the remains of seasonal camps, burial grounds, eel weirs, portages and other sites spanning the entire period from the late Archaic (about 5,000 to 2,000 years ago) to colonial times, when Tim’s ancestors enter the picture. Our journey here begins with one of the most dramatic of these sites.

In spring 2022, Hector was in the middle of being restored. (Photo: Liz Beatty)
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“I would describe this as a library or textbook,” says Parks Canada cultural interpreter Nick Whynot. Together, we stand barefoot, surrounded by dozens of images scratched into an outcrop of exposed bedrock on the shores of Kejimkujik Lake. Our bare feet are a sign of respect, but also an act of preservation, reducing the wear and tear of shoe soles on these fragile etchings as we venture out onto the rock. “A lot of these images may be just doodling or a kid playing. But a lot, I feel, have to have a story.” 

Inviting coves flank us on both sides. Views of cottage-less islands span out before us. This is the second largest collection of petroglyphs in Canada. Whynot’s direct ancestors left these marks here over the past hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years. A couple of hours is not enough time to take in all the stories these images inspire.

Petroglyphs at the Peter Point site on Kejimkujik Lake depict a European sailing vessel with two Mi'kmaw men. It likely dates to the period of British colonial rule (late 18th and early 19th centuries). (Photo: Parks Canada)
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“We see a lot of these peaked hats. They were only worn by the women, and the design on each hat is unique,” says Whynot of images from a woman’s clan, or family. “They’re almost a portrait.” Whynot then points out a handprint and a face that he says are probably very old as well. “Here’s one that’s been damaged over the years from canoe strikes, and there’s writing all over it.” He then pivots our point of view, and a clear image emerges. “It is actually [a drawing of ] two feet.”

This spot here is one of five highly protected sites across the park, displaying about 500 known petroglyphs, all on the shores of Keji Lake. Despite the care, erosion from Mother Nature and desecration by paddlers have already claimed many images. But a few of the images that Whynot shares take us aback. They are more recent.

“You see here ships, big sailing ships. You wouldn’t have seen them on this lake. That’s obviously a story from along the coast, brought back here to be told,” explains Whynot. “So you’re going out on the ocean waters to hunt for porpoise and seals in a birchbark craft. And then you start seeing these massive sailing ships. You’re not going to forget it. You’re going to come back. You’re going to draw and tell people, ‘You’re not going to believe the size of the canoe I just saw!’”

Tim and I exchange glances. It’s entirely possible that one of these images of a European sailing ship is Hector. It feels like we’re standing at the intersection of two cultures, and in a moment in history that would change both forever.

Later, Tim and I paddle the inlets and coves of Keji Lake, then settle in at our campsite in the park. We gaze at the remarkable heavens, before falling asleep to a chorus of spring peepers.

A springtime view up Grafton Brook from Kejimkujik Lake. (Photo: Parks Canada/Eric Le Bel)
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As master naval architects and revered shipwrights in Pictou reclaim the history of New Scotland through the restoration of Hector, the Mi’kmaq of Keji are doing exactly the same with their own ancestral vessels.

“It’s good if you can find a hard- wood hill where birch trees are, but you spend a lot of time checking hundreds of trees before you find the right one,” says Todd Labrador, Mi’kmaw Elder, cultural archeologist and renowned birchbark canoe builder, who lives in the nearby Wildcat community. The plan today was to join Todd and his daughter, Melissa Labrador, in digging for spruce root in Keji’s mossy forest floor — a ritual for them every spring. More than 200 metres of root go into each canoe to secure the vessel’s seams. But Mother Nature has other plans. It’s pouring rain today. Instead, we meet beside Todd’s 6.5-metre birchbark canoe on display within the park’s visitor centre.

Visitors tour a petroglyph site with guide Donna Morris. (Photo: Lachlan Riehl)
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Parks Canada cultural interpreter Nick Whynot. (Photo: Liz Beatty)
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“We put a sail in the centre and sailed this one with the Bluenose II last summer,” says Todd, resting his hand on the gunnels. Todd’s great-grandfather Joe Jeremy built the mast hoops for the original Bluenose in Lunenburg. He’s also the namesake of nearby Jeremy’s Bay.

As Nova Scotia’s last practising Mi’kmaw birchbark canoe builder, Todd’s knowledge on sourcing the materials and crafting his vessels reaches back many generations and from both sides of his family. He has also spent decades reclaiming additional knowledge through archival photographs, speaking to Elders and just being on the land here, along with Melissa. These days, they’re concerned that a bark disease, possibly aggravated by climate change, is threatening their local supply.

Indeed, this landscape has long been a sanctuary for the Labradors. In the 1840s, Todd’s ancestors were granted the tract of land that included the main petroglyph site we had just visited. As young children, Todd’s father and his siblings hid in these forests from residential school agents who came to collect them. Today, Todd and Melissa find solace prying out lengths of spruce root across Keji in spring and harvesting birchbark as thick as a loonie on steamy July days. Their people have connected to and moved through this homeland for millennia.

A view of the lake. (Photo: Parks Canada/Eric Le Bel)
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“Sometimes we lived by the ocean year-round. Sometimes we travelled inland. And Keji was sort of the centre between the Bay of Fundy and the Atlantic Ocean,” explains Todd. “Our ancestors didn’t have boundaries. This is Keji. This is where we live. But then the settlers start moving in. And then when our ancestors came back, there was no room.”

In his gentle way, Todd makes clear how the wrongs of the past are not just part of some distant colonial era. “When I first started working here at Keji back in 1982, as a Mi’kmaw person, I was not allowed to go to the petroglyphs sites,” he explains. He and Melissa’s late mother both worked here. For 10 years, they pushed for permission to build a birchbark wigwam but were told it wouldn’t fit in the national park. “Well, I was thinking, okay, if it wouldn’t fit in Keji, where would it fit?” 

Later, he suggested building a canoe as part of an interactive park program with visitors. The answer was no again. So in 2004, Todd quit his job with Parks Canada to build canoes elsewhere. He travelled to France, where his skills were widely celebrated. In 2009, Parks Canada asked Todd to build the canoe that now takes pride of place in the visitor centre. And finally, in 2014, Parks Canada asked if he would run the canoe-building program that he had suggested a decade earlier. He agreed, and today people from all over the world sign up to help Todd build a canoe on summer Sundays. “The response has been incredible,” he says.

Todd Labrador (rear) and his daughter Melissa Labrador launch a birchbark canoe they made in 2022. (Photo: Parks Canada/Alicia Brett)
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At first, Melissa stands behind her father quietly as he speaks to us. Still, her work for her people is far from in the background. She is also a revered community leader. “I’m an artist, but first I’m a mother. The term Indigenous Guardian kind of covers the rest of what I do,” says Melissa, “as far as the preservation of landscape, culture and history together.”

This work starts with the homeschooling of her 10-year-old twins to ensure they fully absorb their culture. Melissa is also an assistant canoe builder and a well-known artist in her own right, with paintings showcased in both galleries and magazines. Finally, there’s her cultural guardianship.

“Just outside Kejimkujik Park, there are a couple of wilderness areas that I helped to create and to reclaim their Indigenous names,” says Melissa. She’s drawing attention as well to some culturally rich Mi’kmaw areas on Kespukwitk’s south shore. Melissa also partners with her father to pass down their canoe-building knowledge to Mi’kmaw youth in communities across the province and spends time researching documents in the provincial and national archives that corroborate the oral histories of her family’s prominent standing in the region.

Todd Labrador is hands-on during his canoe-building workshops. (Photo: Parks Canada/Natasha Hirt)
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One of the stories she shares has been handed down from an elderly distant cousin. It’s about ancestors in ocean-going canoes coming back and telling others about seeing bears on floating trees appear over the horizon. “But what it was, was the Europeans with big beards. From a distance, they looked very hairy, going up and down the masts on the
sailing ships. It was something very strange for them to explain,” says Melissa. There it is again. That surprising, long-past intersection point between our two families, our two cultures. It’s an oral artifact of two worlds converging.

As we say our goodbyes, I’m feeling our time today with Todd and Melissa hasn’t been about the past. It’s been about helping us learn what this 1773 moment — this unheralded part of the New Scotland story — means today. For certain, Tim and I are experiencing a sea-change moment happening across this province — a period of emerging celebration of the Mi’kmaw culture, as well as the myriad other voices of Nova Scotia’s past and present.

“People will sometimes ask me, when was the last time you faced racism? I say, ‘yesterday,’” explains Todd. “And although we face a lot of hurdles and a lot of barriers, we just keep going. We just want the story to be told truthfully and that our ancestors here get recognized for what they were and who they were.”

Todd Labrador shows a visitor how to process spruce root. (Photo: Parks Canada/Natasha Hirt)
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In September 2023, Todd and Melissa were in Pictou to mark the 250th anniversary of the Hector’s landing and the re-opening of the Hector Heritage Quay Interpretive Centre. For the first time, the centre now includes the story of the Mi’kmaq before and after these first colonists landed.

With even Bluenose sailing in for these quarter-millennium celebrations, the plan had always been to launch the sparkling new version of Hector. But COVID, supply-chain issues and then hurricane Fiona had other plans. Instead, this old brig will set sail again (under electric motor power) on the waters of Pictou Harbour sometime in 2024. Tim and I hope to be there. Maybe we’ll see Todd and Melissa there too.

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