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For as long as Darlene MacDonald could remember, the 12-metre pine in the backyard of her Pictou, NS, home stood tall against any weather. But that was before Sept. 24, 2022, when the remnants of hurricane Fiona ripped it up and threw it down like a toothpick, not far from where the Hector had deposited 189 sea-battered Scottish emigrants centuries before.

The Hector, not the storm, occupied her thoughts that morning. For years, she and other local volunteers had been working to restore the replica’s seaworthiness in time for the forthcoming 250th anniversary of the landing, and she wasn’t about to let a hurricane stop her now. “I wonder if Vern Shea could use that tree,” she thought as she grabbed her phone.

Project manager Shea, a ship designer by trade, had been up half the night keeping vigil at the harbourside work site, where, for two years, COVID-induced labour shortages, supply-chain foul-ups, escalating material costs, and tightening budgets hampered work on the 20-year-old facsimile. Natural disaster or not, he appreciated the call.

“I’ll bet you there’s a lot of wood around that we could use,” he told her. “Why don’t you ask on Facebook?”

MacDonald laughs recalling what happened next.

“An hour later Vern calls me back and says, ‘Take it down. We’re getting too many calls. They all want to donate their trees,’” she says. “We had calls from across the province and from PEI. We had calls from New Brunswick. People had massive trees that had come down, and wanted to know how to get them to us. Someone actually said he was coming with a portable sawmill to mill all that wood for us. It was shocking.” 

Anniversary year

With 2023 shaping up to be one of Pictou’s busiest years on record, MacDonald and her North Shore community of 3,200 have set themselves up for a sea change, the likes of which hasn’t seen since the first colonists landed. Apart from the launch, projects during the economically unpromising and climatically unpredictable times include a new Hector Interpretive Centre, wharf, marina, and boardwalks, plus extensive renovations to the deCoste Centre for Arts & Creativity, which will host a new public library. And, oh yes, happy birthday: the town is turning 150.

The federal, provincial, and municipal government are spending $10 million to $15 million on the projects, except the ship restoration, which will probably cost private donors —
contributing through Ship Hector Society, the not-for-profit that MacDonald and others run — around $2.5 million.

Officials expect to feed, water, and entertain thousands of visitors from across North America. “I’ve been in touch with people from California to Florida, from Oregon, Vancouver, Prince George, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Toronto — everywhere really — and they’re all booking their hotels and making it a priority to be here,” says Brenda Hutchinson, project leader of the Ship Hector Descendants Project.

Mayor Jim Ryan concurs. He’s a gentlemanly guy you’d want holding the door for you in the middle of any storm, but if he knows what’s in store for his community, he also knows what his community is made of and what it wants. “We’ve been talking about this moment for years and regardless of where we are and what’s going on, we are going to celebrate,” he says.

Adds recreation services manager Michelle Young: “What’s really exciting about these projects is that they are all community-fed. Each step along the way, there’s been extensive community consultation. And that’s really what it’s been about: By the community for the community.”

Civic pride

MacDonald, who’s worked all her life in the area, points to a renewed sense of civic pride in Pictou. “We have great volunteers putting in the time,” she says. “We do the best we can under the circumstances, and we always keep moving forward, no matter what.” Adds Pictou-born-and-raised Shea: “Sometimes, there’s so much negativity out there you just got to find ways to swing it back around. I think that’s what we’re doing.”

Troy Greencorn agrees, and he’s only been here for 10 years. The founding artistic director and producer of the Stan Rogers Folk Festival, now in its 22nd year in his hometown of Canso, NS, is also the executive director of the deCoste Centre. “There’s been a growing momentum in this community over the past decade,” he says. “Pictou is about to pop in a big way. The whole region is just beginning to see Pictou for what it is and what it can be. It’s one of only a couple of communities in Nova Scotia where you can drive up to a beautiful waterfront have a choice of five or six restaurants, great shops, several museums. Plus, there’s a tall ship.”

For this reason, Greencorn says, the timing for the new deCoste complex is perfect. “Over the past few years, we’ve tripled ticket sales at this theatre. That’s practically unheard of nationally in this sector. Many theatres are kind of just holding their own, especially in rural communities, but not here. This wonderful growth story points to the need for infrastructure that will enable us to grow.”

The new library will be key to what he says is the expanded 23,000-square-foot centre’s “value proposition.” According to the Pictou and Antigonish Regional Library’s website, this branch “must reflect the aspirations and needs of the community, socially, economically, and culturally.”

It must also complement the fully upgraded theatre, new visual arts and exhibition facilities, and community meeting spaces. Meanwhile, accessibility features will make the whole complex more inclusive, and new electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems will make it highly energy efficient.

“It really is a beautiful vision,” says Greencorn.

As for the fully restored Hector, which will sit about 150 metres away, he laughs, “I think we all understand that she’s the real (star).” That doesn’t make her any easier to direct in Pictou’s ever-evolving waterfront show. After all, she does have her progenitor’s reputation to live up to.

If you were an average European bloke in 1773, the main reason you left Scotland on a Dutch-built inshore cargo vessel was to escape unrelenting poverty. Still, the crossing was no picnic. Storms blew the Hector off course three times, adding 14 weeks to the voyage. Stores ran low. Disease broke out. Nineteen people died.

When the ragged farmers from Ullapool, who spoke only Gaelic, disembarked at Pictou, they found that the land colonial officials promised was unusable. They owed their survival to the resident Mi’kmaq of Piktuk who, according to a backgrounder from the Ship Hector Society, helped them weather “unfamiliar conditions, displacement, and hardship.”

Telling the story the right way

For Pictou, the challenge has always been telling this story in the right way at the right time, when community leaders, volunteers, potential funders, and even fate are all pointing in the same direction. They certainly were in the 1990s when town burghers commissioned the Hector’s full-sized, floating replica. About 34 metres from stem to stern and seven metres amidships, it was a beauty. JB McGuire Marine Associates Limited of Pictou built the new vessel from American and Nova Scotian oak, with pine, spruce, Douglas fir, and elm for deck, ceilings, spars, and blocks.

But as beautiful as it was, it eventually became clear the replica would never reach its full potential either as a cultural icon or, more prosaically, an anchor for tourism. Worse, it was expensive to maintain.

“It was a static display,” MacDonald explains. “There were no engines in it. There were no sails. There was none of that. It was a museum that was getting old and tired. To maintain a ship in the water, to ensure its longevity, you need revenues coming in. To preserve it, and to maintain interest in the site, you need to be able to take people out on the water. A moving ship is a lot happier than a non-moving one.”

In 2020, the Ship Hector Society, which took ownership of the vessel from the Town of Pictou 10 years before, lifted it out of the water to repair the damage that years of weathering had caused and prepare it to become the fully operational flagship (both literally and figuratively) of the 2023 commemoration.

At the same time, planning for a new interpretive centre began. According to a Society information circular, “Our overall objective is to create a destination tourist attraction that will benefit the entire region. The Pictou Landing First Nations will be a featured component of the site and play a major role in telling their story and contributions made. We are striving to create an equitable, diverse, inclusive, and accessible environment that is welcoming to all members of the community … By engaging our youth through training opportunities and on-site educational programs, the Hector Heritage Quay will provide a legacy for the future.”  

The COVID effect

All of which was hard enough for a small town with an outsized appetite for impressive displays of cultural cohesion (not to mention all the other waterfront works municipal officials conceived to complement the initiative). Then came COVID.

MacDonald almost groans. “I know, we don’t like to say it anymore, but that was massive; it was a huge, huge roadblock for us and, obviously, other community organizations too. But just as we were trying to launch the whole awareness campaign and fundraising campaign? I mean, come on! It couldn’t have come at a worse time.”

Vern Shea almost groans even louder. “The whole thing really went ass backwards from then on. Normally, with projects like this you get your funding and then go ahead. But our plan got totally compressed.”

Nevertheless, they persevered — learning the now-infamous, if necessary, “COVID pivot” — deftly squeezing a multi-year project into a little more than a year to meet the 250 deadline. For Shea, that meant changing schedules and work lists to accommodate the often wildly fluctuating availability of workers and materials. The trick was maintaining the original vision and standards of the reconstruction, despite the difficulty of staying on course.

“The vessel will be wood, but covered in epoxy and fibreglass cloth, so completely watertight,” he says. “There will be composite material on the top sides. To keep the traditional look, I’m putting Douglas fir sheathing on the deck tops. Down below, the decks will be rigged just like 1773. We’re going to have a little reception area for, say, a corporate sponsor who wants to have a meeting on board or go for a sail. There’ll also be the new crew accommodations. After all this, we’re going to wind up with maintenance savings of around 60 or 70 per cent per year, which is unbelievable.”

And the downed trees from Fiona? 

Says MacDonald: “These are some beautiful pieces of wood. I think the idea is to use them in areas that are more visible to the general public.”

The Society has managed to raise (or, at least, obtain commitments for) most of the money for the restoration from local citizens, corporate or otherwise. The federal government is on board for (or, at least, hasn’t yet bailed on) a big chunk of the estimated $4-million cost of the interpretative centre. And the official launch is still on track for mid-September.

Indeed, if one didn’t know better, one might say things are proceeding exactly according to plan.

“The North Shore, and Pictou in particular, has been underappreciated,” Jim Ryan says. “Things move slowly here, but they can also change pretty quickly, too. The point is: It’s all coming together.”

Pick a near-impossible civic challenge to overcome. Time it to coincide with a global pandemic and economic catastrophe. Throw in a once-in-a lifetime weather disaster for good measure. Then, expect the best.

That’s crazy, right?

No, but it is Pictou. 

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