Seawater in their Veins (A Bourgeois Family Legacy)

Based on an Interview with J. Daniel Bourgeois by Mary Anne Ducharme

This is a story of my family starting with my grandfather. In a time when all that was needed in the communities came by boat, they played a part in that era. I am one of the grandsons who never went to sea.

My grandfather Phillip A. (Fulgence) Bourgeois lived in Cheticamp all his life. I never knew him because he died in 1927 and I was born in 1928. The funny thing about him was that he never went to sea himself, except for a little fishing to feed his family and for extra money. But he was a lightkeeper for a while, making sure that there was oil enough to last the night. He raised eighteen children, seven girls and eleven boys. I think that is why he never went to sea. He had to stay and help out on the small farm that most people had in those days.

His descendants have the sea in their blood, as some people say. Eleven of them made a career on the sea, and four of them spent a few years on small boats bringing freight to communities along the coast of Cape Breton.

One of Phillip's sons, Cyrille, was my father, and he spent his life as captain on coastal freighters along the shores of Cape Breton, P.E. I., and the Magdalene Islands. He served on both the Kinburns, the Playmaid, and the Roo. He was licensed for Canadian and U.S. shores. It was my observation that the coastal freight trade was a monotonous life, but a busy one, and that my father loved it. Now and then my father would choose one of his children to spend time with him on the boat, and we were treated extremely well by him and the crew while we were aboard. It was an honour. I was fascinated and impressed by being in the wheelhouse where the action was. I don't really know why I kept to the land for my own living.

The shipping season ended around Christmas time, depending on the weather, and then my father had to take the Kinburn or the Roo to Halifax for the winter. He came home by train as far as Inverness, and I remember times when he had to walk the rest of the way to Cheticamp because there was so much snow in the roads. He was content to be home for a while, getting in firewood or doing odd jobs around the house, but by early spring he grew restless and abstracted and when you talked to him , his mind was somewhere else. His mind was on the ice going out so that he could go back to sea, and one time he didn't wait long enough. The Roo was trapped in drift ice for two days. I could see the boat from the shore and worried about it, but my father knew the ice was drifting north and that was where he wanted to go anyway.

My father made a decent living on the coastal freighters. In Cheticamp getting a steady, year-round salary was a hard thing to accomplish. Another perk of my father's trade was that he had access to wholesale markets for household items that we needed. Most of the men worked in the woods, or they fished, and in those days fishermen were getting 4 cents a pound. There wasn't much for cash around in Cheticamp. We did comparatively well, there was enough for our needs, but I remember that one of us getting a bicycle was an incredible event. That was it, the family bicycle, to be handed down. But we were one of the first families to have a radio and electricity, and there was always a person hired to help my mother, Louise. One of things my mother did was wash and iron the linens for the Kinburn passenger cabins.

My father was aboard the Kinburn I when it wrecked in a snowstorm, and I almost caused my father to run aground another time at Fraser's Mill. I had a bungalow facing Cheticamp Harbour and I had a lamp with a red shade in the window. There were two lighthouses in the same area and my father took this light for one of the lighthouses. We got rid of the lamp. My father died in 1958, just around the time when the coastal freighters were being replaced by the big trucks.

My three brothers, Gabriel, Willie Arthur, and Wilfred, all now deceased, served on many vessels in various capacities. Gabriel was my father's first mate on the coastal steamers, but when the war broke out, he joined the Navy where he was a motor mechanic, and at the end of the war, he resumed his work with my father. Willie Arthur worked the coast as second engineer, winch operator and deck hand.

Wilfred had some interesting stories about his life at sea. He was a captain, but he found this a huge responsibility and when he worked for Imperial Oil for a while, he decided that he was better off as first mate on the oil tankers. The pay was nearly as good and there was less pressure. He went as far north as Ellsmere Island delivering oil to an early warning station owned by the government. He did not care for the experience. He had to pass through a channel that was extremely narrow-- there were only a few feet on each side-- and the water was so rough and choppy that the rudder of the ship was completely out of the water at times. He decided that life at sea was not for him, and he tried working in a rail yard after that. But from there he could see the big boats, and he was miserable until he had the deck of a boat under him again.
In the late 1950's, a fleet of tugs was hired to tow a number of Canadian boats to Cuba because they had been sold to Castro. One of the tug captains was quite elderly and Wilfred was hired on to help him because he was skilled with the use of a sextant. When they were offshore near Havana, several boats stopped them, men in uniforms boarded, and they ordered the crews to go ashore on the small boats. Wilfred thought they were being taken as prisoners and all was lost. However, when they landed, they were taken to the fanciest hotel in Havana where they stayed for three or four days and were treated like royalty. When the time for departure came, the captain of the tug fleet asked Castro directly about how much their high class holiday was going to cost Canada. Castro said: "Not a cent. This is compliments of Fidel Castro."

Wilfred ended his career as one of the harbour masters in the Port of Montreal. Daniel Bourgeois is one of Cyrille's grandsons and he spent twenty-five years in the Navy as a chief petty officer, 2nd class in electronics, radar and navigation. He is now retired and living in Belle Marche. Another grandson, Cyril, spent eight years on lake boats as a wheelsman. Cyrille's great-grandson, Gilles Poirier, carries on the tradition. He has his papers up to 1st mate, coastal, and 2nd mate foreign, and plans to upgrade to coastal captain.

My uncle Fulgence also carried on the Bourgeois marine tradition. He was captain in home trade, was a harbour pilot for a gypsum company at one time, and spent most of his life on coastal freighters along the shores of Nova Scotia. His son Louis Phillip, spent a few years as deck hand on small freighters, and another son, Edmund, worked as a cook on the coastal freighters. Their brother Joseph, was a pilot on lake boats for a while, and then was captain on freight boats, moving up to captain on oil tankers, and he is now retired. In the summer of 1994, he was the captain of Macassa Bay, the ferry from Cheticamp to the Magdalene Islands, and on this boat his brother Gerrard served as engineer. They both thought that the Macassa Bay was not quite suitable for the open sea, especially for the rough waters about midway where the currents are strong.
Gerrard also worked on government patrol boats. And in the 1950's three Bourgeois served on board the Fergus which went from Charlottetown to St. John's Newfoundland with cattle and farm produce: my brother Wilfred, my cousin Gerrard, and my uncle Calixte. The family of my uncle Calixte was no less involved in life at sea. Calixte was in the Navy during World War I, then was captain aboard freighters along Nova Scotian's shores. He finally purchased his own vessel for coastal trade, the Josephine, which served Cheticamp to Halifax ports and points between. He was a man always in a hurry and there is a story that during World War II, Calixte wanted to enter Halifax Harbour, but at the time there was paranoia about harbour security and a navy vessel approached demanding identification. Calixte decided that he was not going to take time for this foolishness and he sped on as shots were fired at his boat.

Three sons of Calixte followed the sea: Jerome was an engineer on government boats until retirement; Oscar started out on small boats, then worked as tug captain for 27 years until retirement; and Ernest, engineer, who started on freight boats, and then went on to lake boats until retirement.