Disaster Songs!

Many web designers have started down the path toward “website that looks like an old newspaper”. But, finding it too cheesy, too tricky, or simply a poor match of form and function, have had to turn back. With disastersongs.ca, making a website that looked like an old newspaper made perfect sense. (And based on user feedback, others agree. Phew!)

Three academic researchers, including Dr. Heather Sparling from CBU, have mined the Canadian disaster song tradition and come up with almost 300 pieces. They’ve begun publishing their results, starting with songs about Mining Disasters, with Ocean Disasters, Airline Disasters, Lumbering Disasters, and Railway Disasters to follow.

The last underground mines in Eastern Canada closed in the 1990s, bringing an end to a way of life that had been a part of the region for over two centuries. Nova Scotia’s coal deposits in particular were among the deepest underground in the world, some extending far under the ocean, making them among the most dangerous to mine. Flooding, asphyxiation, spontaneous combustion, falling rocks, and “bumps” (underground earthquake-like events that resulted from the removal of coal and the lack of replacement support) killed 2500 miners over the years, maiming and seriously injuring so many more. This in addition to those who died from chronic illness including lung infection.

While major disasters were transformational and dramatic, the commonplace occurrence of injury or death in the normal conduct of mining was equally palpable for miners and their families…

The communities that grew around the mines were unlike most communities. The manner of exploiting coal required lots of community support in order to reproduce the daily labour of the thousands of men and boys underground. The dangers associated with the industry produced a close knit and interdependent community.

But dealing with death and injury on a regular basis also produced a wide variety of coping mechanisms; something necessary if men were to keep going into the pits in spite of accidents. Songs were a part of a coping-process, just as were various other forms of commemoration and memorialization of workers who lost their lives. Annual commemorative occasions, museums, commemorative plaques, statues to fallen miners, etc. abound throughout the region as a way of signifying the breadth and depth of the sacrifices made.

Destination Cape Breton Association

Someone at Destination Cape Breton Association, the island’s official tourism industry association, must have taken a logic class in university. Watch how the association’s mandate arrives at its slogan with an elegant sort of natural deductive reasoning:

Maximize tourism;


Contributing to the economic development of the region;


Enhancing the quality of life on the island;


“Tourism Is Everybody’s Business.”

A › B › C = I made dcba-info.com

CBU Press

For 35 years, CBU Press has served as a link between Cape Breton University and its broader communities, publishing (mainly) works related to Community Economic Development, Culture and History – “literature of significance to Cape Breton Island and that which enhances knowledge about the Island, its history and cultural preservation.”

With this redesigned website, we hope to continue to serve this function, cultivating a reading community both online and off. Look for more interactivity and even an e-book or two in the future.

Continuing the tradition of making connections within and between communities, CBU Press recently published The Failure of Global Capitalism: From Cape Breton to Colombia and Beyond, by CBU professors, academics and social justice activists (and good friends of mine) Terry Gibbs and Garry Leech.

The book looks at how two coal-mining communities are deeply effected by globalization as companies in the global North (Canada, the US and Europe), taking advantage of free-trade deals and neoliberal policies in general, exploit the natural resources and cheap labour of the global South (Latin America, Africa, Asia). The result is “militant labour struggles, repression, economic insecurity, population displacement, social inequality and environmental devastation” – in both hemispheres.

Published in 2009 but written prior, the book exposed the failure of transnational capitalism – before the global financial crisis made it plain for everyone to see.

CBU Press has also published local calls, a book of poetry by another good friend of mine, Sean Howard of Main-à-Dieu. Click here to read my introductory remarks from the book launch.

Company House Records

Company House Records is home to some of Cape Breton’s most well-known artists: Slowcoaster, Carmen Townsend, and The Tom Fun Orchestra. The new website is part of the indie label’s rebranding effort.

The label is named after the iconic houses built between 1850 and 1920 by mining and steel companies to house their workers. They now represent one of the most potent connections to industrial Cape Breton’s identity: labour movements, cooperatives, multiculturalism, community. Many miners and steelworkers were later able to purchase the homes.

Heritage Canada Foundation recently added the Cape Breton company house to its list of Top Ten Most Endangered Places. The list raises awareness about historically significant sites that are threatened with demolition, the goal being to prevent sites on the endangered list from making it onto the list of the worst heritage losses in Canada.

With coal mining and the steel plant gone, many company houses have fallen into disrepair from neglect or abandonment. But they may be saved, according to the Heritage Canada report, as advocates for the preservation of company houses work with advocates for affordable and assisted housing, for example through HomeMatch. Rebranding, indeed.

Buck and Kinch

I only got as far as the first sentence in James Joyce’s Ulysses, but that was far enough to meet “Buck” Mulligan, the namesake of Cape Breton grit-folk duo Buck and Kinch.

The website I made for Hinson and Merlin (not sure whom is Buck and whom Kinch) invites you to galk at the pair, inflict their music upon yourself, even do both at the same time. And maybe – just maybe – do both at the same time in real life.

“Kinch” is one of Buck’s nicknames for Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alterego whom we meet earlier in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which I have read!).

Bras D’Or Lakes Biosphere Association

The Bras d’Or lakes may be deemed a biosphere reserve if the Canadian Commission for UNESCO accepts the nomination document submitted today by the Bras d’Or Lakes Biosphere Reserve Association (BLBRA).

A biosphere reserve is an area which demonstrates a balanced relationship between humans and the environment. It’s an enlightened approach to sustainability, in that it doesn’t exclusively prioritize the so-called ‘natural’ environment over the socio-economic human one – which is no less natural.

I designed blbra.ca with this balance in mind. The aesthetic is “wilderness austerity”; the functionality is opposable-thumb-friendly.

What’s interesting about the designation is that it doesn’t confer any special powers to a governing organization over the area. The principal benefit is international recognition. And the main goal is education and the promotion of sustainable development – in a way that includes all those with an interest in the area:

  • The Biosphere Reserve may chose to expand the scope of existing conservation, research, monitoring, and education projects.
  • Local students might become more involved in research and monitoring projects.
  • College and university students could carry out projects in areas such as tourism or community development and ecosystem studies.
  • Governments, corporations and other agencies could help to finance these projects.

There are over 550 biosphere reserves in over a hundred countries, including 15 in Canada.

Beaton Institute Music

Cape Breton’s four distinct musical traditions – Acadian, Mi’kmaq, Gaelic and songs of the coal mining tradition – are featured in a new website launched yesterday by the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University.

MUSIC: Cape Breton’s Diversity in Unity features over 100 songs, more than 20 videos, and more than 175 photos from the Beaton’s archives. The digitization of the materials ensures their preservation while increasing accessibility to the public. The Internet is made for projects like this.

Each page includes info about the song, a short bio of the artist and/or performer, lyrics, translations, transcripts in the case of videos, and educators’ resource guides that teachers can download and use in their classroom.

For various reasons, they couldn’t use a content management system, so the site is pure old-fashioned HTML, hand-coded, from scratch, by me.

It was a pleasure to work with the project’s team which included the Beaton’s staff. The songs were selected and re-mastered by Allister MacGillivray. Music consultants were John Alick MacPherson; Janice Tulk; Dan Doucet; and Jack O’Donnell of the Men of the Deeps. Educational consultant was Eric Favaro. Christie MacNeil did pretty much everything else.

Community on Aging Knowledge Exchange

CAKEns (Community on Aging Knowledge Exchange) is a project of the Gerontology Association of Nova Scotia (GANS). The website’s primary audience is those who work with older Nova Scotians, but it may prove to be especially valuable to seniors themselves, especially those living in remote or rural areas (so long as they have internet access, either at home or at their community centre or C@P site).

Shortly, I’ll be developing a discussion forum on the site for seniors interested in socializing with other seniors. GANS will train groups of seniors to use the forum, with the expectation that those seniors will then train others.

The goal of the forum is to reduce the risk – and effects – of social isolation. In this respect it can benefit rural- and urban-dwelling seniors alike given that isolation need not be a matter of physical proximity. It can take the form of emotional ‘distance’ from family and friends, or be the result of health or financial issues. Isolation increases not only the risk of suffering from depression and developing chronic health problems but indeed social isolation has a direct effect on mortality in those over the age of 65.

And don’t think for a second that it’ll never work because Seniors resist new technologies. StatsCan reports that seniors are the fastest growing group of internet users.