In January of 2020 on the day Toronto recorded their first case of Covid, I moved permanently to the blue-collar town of Port Hawkesbury after a lifetime living in downtown Toronto. Locals refer to Port Hawkesbury as a “service town” – a place to pick up supplies before heading off to the beauty of Cape Breton. Most Cape Bretoners wonder why any of us "come from aways" would choose to live here. I am here, because I met my partner - a sea captain - through my long-term project Trading Places and this is where we now make our home.

Port Hawkesbury boasts a deep ice- free harbour, a tiny yacht club whose boats mostly sit languishing unloved, tethered to the dock, a commercial boatyard, and home to the NSCC Nautical Institute. Yet, there is an utter lack of recreational water use. Our home is 100 metres from the commercial dock - a pier that surprisingly, (to me), remains open to the public by vehicle or on foot. There is an adjacent public boat ramp. My home studio looks onto the harbour. Curious, I became fascinated by the ongoing stream of mostly solitary drivers – of all ages- in pickup trucks and cars. They drive to the dock, park, remain in their cars, drink Timmies, fondle their phones and blankly gaze out at the harbour for five to ten minutes. Having seen what they came to see, they spin around and drive off to parts unknown.
In warmer months, a few fishers will congregate at the end of the pier.

I am an avid sailor – for thirty years I raced around Lake Ontario, on an historic wooden sailboat without a motor! And so, I wonder at the utter lack of recreational water use in this town that has such an accessible harbour. Toronto has a deep outer harbour with water so cold that for most of the year a three-minute submersion results in hyperthermia and yet, the Toronto waterfront is abuzz with activity. Kayakers, dinghy sailors, rowers, dragon boat paddlers, paddleboards, keelboats – sail and power, and kite surfers are all out there enjoying the water. In winter, which is often considerably colder than here, there is even a growing surfing scene!

In the summer of 2020 I purposely led by example and kayaked around the Strait of Canso. Portaging from my home to the boat ramp, I would launch my kayak and provoke conversation. While paddling I recorded my travels with video, sound and stills, Did I become that crazy artist eccentric who lives on the corner? A summer widow, whose captain is at sea with no rooftop viewpoint to climb up to. Did this create dialogue? Yes. Did I encourage others to view their waterfront differently? Yes. 

I am now delighted to see a racing sailboat dinghy out and about. I see the odd paddler. Slowly, slowly, I am thrilled to see that there is change afloat.

Listen to Mayor Brenda Chisholm Beaton speak with me about waterfront development


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