‘Only he could’ve written this’

With his final book, Silver Donald Cameron wanted to bring healing to the Nova Scotian community that he so loved

I

t’s poignant that what turned out be Silver Donald Cameron’s final book is dedicated to the people of Isle Madame. He was born in Toronto and had a home in Halifax for many years, but his heart was really on the Cape Breton island, where the story behind his book Blood in the Water unfolded.

The true story, which Penguin Canada published in August 2020, was among the most challenging projects he tackled. He was awaiting its release when he passed away on June 1, 2020 at age 82.

His publisher offers this preview of the book: “In June 2013, three upstanding citizens of a small Cape Breton town cold-bloodedly murdered their neighbour, Phillip Boudreau… Boudreau was a Cape Breton original—an inventive small-time criminal who had terrorized and entertained Petit de Grat for two decades. He had been in prison for nearly half his adult life. He was funny and frightening, loathed, loved, and feared… Are there times when taking the law into your own hands is not only understandable but the responsible thing to do?”

That’s the question that has hovered over Isle Madame since the killing. Cameron knew this was a story worth telling but was unsure he was the person to do it. Wife Marjorie Simmins urged him on.

She is also an author and occasional Halifax Magazine contributor, and now helping promote the new book. “Don thought long and hard about being the writer to tell this story,” she recalls. “For some time, he really wasn’t sure if he wanted to… He hesitated because he loved this community with all his heart. He had no wish to cause more hurt than the event already had. I suggested that there was actually no other writer better suited for the task than he was, and that it could be his love letter to Isle Madame. I believe these ideas stirred feelings of responsibility in him, to tell the tale accurately and fully, with deep respect for and understanding of the people he lived among.” 

And it’s fitting that this final book by Cameron would be an attempt to help heal the community he so loved. “It’s kind of strange to me that it’s a summation of everything he could have been talking about and thinking about over the last 50 years,” says friend and fellow author Linden MacIntyre in an interview with The Reporter newspaper in Port Hawkesbury. “It’s not just about the murder… It’s about the communities there, it’s about the people… Only he could’ve written this.”

In the following interview, Marjorie Simmins shares more about Blood in the Water and Cameron’s rich, influential career.

Halifax Magazine: Why do think this story meant so much to Don?
Marjorie Simmins: Don had long been fascinated by the way that small Maritime communities worked out their troubles day to day, year to year, and so on. How they lived together so well. The fact that upstanding citizens were not able to peaceably work out their troubles this time told Don that there was far, far more than a “Murder for Lobsters” going on. He, along with everyone else on Isle Madame, abhorred that simplistic and erroneous sound bite. 

HM: What was the process of telling this story like?
MS: The days in court were long and demanding. You are listening intently and watching everything around you with keen eyes. Of course Silver Donald Cameron, being the exceptional writer he is, he made the courtroom sections of the book fascinating and vivid, even funny at times. He also worked with the transcriptions of the testimonies, which again was intense work and made for long hours at his desk. There were indeed many ah-ha moments, some related to never-before-known details and stories about the murder victim, Phillip Boudreau. When he interviewed people for the book, Don would come home afterwards brimming with enthusiasm and delight. “Oh, the stories!” he’d say. “All of them are so good.” He would relate some, complete with the particular accents he loved so much. Don was also fascinated with the “imperfect legal system” that dealt with this event, and others of course. He was particularly pleased with a blurb from writer Jacques Poitras who wrote “… [this book] deserves a place in criminal law classes, yet feels like a yarn spun by a gifted raconteur next door.”

HM: Often writers will have a favourite scene, character, or passage in their works. Did Don mention any standouts in this story?
MS: Whichever person Don was writing about in a particular week was the person he was most fascinated by. He loved dig, dig, digging until he better understood a person’s motives or actions. That said, he was under Phillip Boudreau’s spell while writing the book, and afterwards. He found the “character” of Phillip to be a deeply tragic and yet riveting one. He didn’t get much of a fair shake in this life, that’s for sure. Which doesn’t make his violent actions and numerous transgressions necessarily forgivable. But you might understand them, at least if you knew the facts of Phillip’s life, which many people did not. 

HM: How did Don reflect that in telling this story?
MS: Don never, ever forgot that Phillip Boudreau was a flesh and blood person about whose life, he, the writer, was chronicling without having met him before. He wanted to be as fair in his treatment of him, as any of the other, living characters about whom he also wrote. He took that responsibility very seriously. Over and over again he expressed profound respect for all the people who played a role in this sad story. This very much includes all the principle characters, along with the lawyers, the judge, his Isle Madame neighbours and friends connected to one or even both sides of the families, and so on.

HM: How did Don’s experience make him uniquely suited to tell this story?
MS: Don has been a homeowner on Isle Madame since 1971. He often told me that he came to the community as a man broken from tough life circumstances and stayed, to heal and thrive among people he respected and loved. He delighted in all the peoples of the island and the region. And as a lifelong scholar, he loved to learn more about their histories. For example, he revelled in the fact that the Acadians have been on Isle Madame since the time of Shakespeare. All of Isle Madame’s peoples—the Irish and the Scots, the Jerseymen, the First Nations, the Black Nova Scotians—have venerable histories here, most particularly the Mi’kmaq, whom Don had deep respect for. He was delighted to share his knowledge about these different groups as they fit into the story he told.

HM: Can you elaborate on Don’s understanding of small-town Nova Scotia?
MS: Again the word respect comes to mind first. Raised in Vancouver, a newer part of the country to European settlers, if not Aboriginal peoples, Don was endlessly absorbed by the long history of European settlement in Atlantic Canada. He was equally absorbed by the far longer history of the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet, and other First Nations. He loved this province of Nova Scotia on sight, and that never changed… He first came to Isle Madame to cover the Nova Scotia Fishermen’s Strike of 1970–71, about which he wrote in his classic book The Education of Everett Richardson, which was reprinted just last year. Don deeply respected men and women such as fishermen, and other tradesmen, who of course have so many skills, and work so hard for their living. Fishing licences didn’t used to cost a million dollars! In times past, most fishermen barely got by. Don admired fishermen for their work ethic, of course, but also for their courage and for living life on their own terms. 

HM: Often when one writes this sort of book, you’re talking about events long past. In this case, the events are still fresh and many of the people still live in the community; did that affect how Don approached the project?
MS: In the Acknowledgements section of the book, Don relates a story that answers this question perfectly. Even toward the end of the process of writing the book, Don was still worried about “causing pain to the people I love,” by presenting the story in print form. A friend he greatly admired and respected, Edgar Samson from Isle Madame, thought carefully on the question and answered: “You should finish the book. You’ll be fair and honest, and the book will help the island to heal.” That’s all Don needed to hear… Don sincerely wanted all the people who were affected by the event—and you may as well say that was the whole island, and beyond—to heal. You can feel his gratitude for this place and this people on every page.

HM: While you have a great deal of experience promoting your own books, the experience of promoting Don’s book is obviously quite different—how are you making out with it?
MS: Well, you are my first interview, so you might have to tell me how I am doing! I feel a strong sense of responsibility, coupled with enduring love, to do for Don what he cannot now do for himself. It was a huge disappointment and sorrow for his family and friends that Don could not be here to celebrate this masterpiece of a last work. I believe I can speak for Don better than anyone else can, obviously because of our close tie of marriage and best-friendship, but also because I lived with him during the time he wrote the book, and because we talked about writing and storytelling almost every day of our 24 years together. I was in awe of Don’s writing when I met him in 1994 to interview him for a magazine, and I remain in awe of his abilities. My older sister, a writer, once said that Don’s writing was like the ping of a fingernail on crystal. I loved that. And it’s true. His clarity is a rare gift. His writing can also be robust, lively, funny as hell. And moving, very moving.

HM: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
MS: So many people are missing Don terribly… We didn’t expect to lose him when we did; I didn’t expect to lose him ever, not really. He was far too vital and far too focused on coming work and adventures to travel on just yet. As for me, life without Don was unthinkable. But he did need to go on, so I have to reshape my life to honour him, and honour our love. On days when I can’t bear his absence, I find one of his books to read. The comfort of hearing his words in my mind is immeasurable. Silver Donald Cameron is one of the world’s finest stylists. Don’t miss the opportunity to read his last, some say best, book. Trust me, it’s great to spend time with this big-hearted, brilliant man. He’ll take you to other worlds and other times, and offer you much to think on, and experience, word by word.

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