Story by Liz Campbell
CHÉTICAMP, CAPE BRETON ISLAND, NOVA SCOTIA — Dorothy had it right — there’s no place like home. But for one week of the year, I want to make my home in Chéticamp.
Comfortably nestled in a sheltered harbour on the west coast of Cape Breton Island, this tiny town, population 4,000, lies at one entrance to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and is a part of the famed Cabot Trail. Compelling as this reason is, it’s not why I would like to live here.
Chéticamp is home to Le Portage Golf Club, one of Cape Breton’s outstanding golf courses. But I’m unimpressed. I don’t play golf.
The rug-hooking tradition of the area would certainly appeal to me. Surrounded by clever-fingered artisans, I can’t imagine a cosier way to spend a long winter. But no, that’s not enough to tempt me.
And then there’s Acadian cuisine, a happy blend of French food with that of the Scots and the Mi’kmaq First Nations. The result is a delicious mélange that includes dishes like fricot, a rich stew of fried chicken that has its roots in France, and bannock, an aboriginal flatbread whose name is pure Scots. Local fishermen pull lobster and crab from the ocean so seafood chowder has become something of an art. And this area is famous for its fudge. Each family has its own recipe and I find myself wondering if this sweet is a derivation of taiblet, a similar treat from Scotland.
But all this delicious food is not the reason I want to spend more time in this village.
What draws me to Chéticamp is the fact this community is one of only a handful around the world that still celebrates Mi-Carême.
Literally Mid-Lent, Mi- Carême is a holiday break from the deprivations of Lent, supported by Christian churches, whose strictures normally enforce Lent. For this brief time, Chéticamp reverts to the animated merrymaking of Mardi Gras. Most of us know Mardi Gras as a time of serious partying. In places like Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans and many Caribbean islands, Mardi Gras festivities include colourful costumed parades, loud music, and plenty of food and drink.
A Festival Unlike Any Other in Cape Breton
But Mi-Carême in Chéticamp, encompassing many of these elements, is a whole different party.
For this holiday, the town is divided into “watchers” and “runners.” Runners dress in elaborate costumes, designed to keep the identity of the individual concealed. The aim is to remain unidentified, all night if possible. The role of the watchers is to unmask the masqueraders.
“We will change the way we walk, our voices, everything, so they can’t figure out who we are,” explains Lucille Soucie, a runner who returns from her home in Ontario every year to take part in Mi-Carême. She even travelled back to participate from Germany when she worked there. And who can blame her? This is a celebration not to be missed.
Watchers gather at various homes, bringing food — pots of fricot, tasty tourtières (ground meat pies) and lots of fudge.
Runners move from home to home and, once unmasked, enjoy some libation and food. Watchers only have 20 minutes to figure out the identity of each runner. After the deadline, the costumed runners might show themselves. “My identical twin sister still lives here,” says Soucie. “They have a hard time figuring out which of us is which.”
The prize? “Bragging rights for a whole year!” declares Soucie.
We meet her at the Mi-Carême Interpretive Centre. Yes, a whole museum celebrating this annual insanity. It tells the history and shows off some of the ingenious costumes that have been created through the years. The masks are works of art — zany creatures, animal heads, funny faces. The costumes can be bizarre.
“A wedding dress, Power Ranger mask, and boots — crazy combinations make it harder to guess,” resident Donna Larade says. “People’s creativity comes out. Even at school they’re encouraged. There are no exams that week.”
Larade is a watcher who tells me she bought her dream home here mainly because it has a shed. It’s been electrified and heated especially for Mi-Carême. “That way people can come to us, and eat and drink without messing up the house,” she explains.
Lent, after all, annually occurs in a season of winds and snow in the Maritimes. In 2017, the festival will take place from March 19-25. Others in Chéticamp open their homes but line the floors with sheets of protective cardboard.
Perhaps because Mi-Carême takes place at such a miserable time of the year, the community has created a summer festival in mid-July. The Festival Masque et Mer is a weekend of history, competitions of all kinds, an artisan fair, seafood chowder and, of course, fiddle music and dancing. Indeed, these latter two form a large component of Mi-Carême celebrations. Larade’s daughter, Amelie, in a crazy bacon-and-eggs mask, demonstrates a step dance to the music of the two fiddlers. The building comes to life with hands clapping and feet stomping along. I’m trying to picture this magnified several hundredfold.
Our last task at the museum is to create our own masks. Children eagerly splash paint around. The adults carefully create neat designs. It doesn’t seem to matter how it’s done, the result is a vibrant and unique trophy to take home.
But Mi-Carême is more than masks and costumes. It’s an annual pause for joy in the hard life of an Acadian fishing village. It’s a time to set aside the normal village rivalries and arguments of workday life and concentrate on the important things — fun and a debate on who has the best costume.
For this one week each year, wouldn’t it be fun to live in Chéticamp?