Out on the Mira, election talk isn't very popular, either

Getting to Canada's far east can be as expensive as getting to Australia

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The Gazette, Sunday, August 16, 2009

Nobody flies to Cape Breton anymore. No one can afford it. (Well, almost no one - but more on that later.)

I found out for myself just how expensive it was last weekend, when I had to fly to Sydney for a family memorial service. Getting to Halifax with Air Canada would be easy; connecting to Sydney would cost about $1,500 return.

"I want to go to Sydney, Nova Scotia, not Sydney, Australia," I told my travel agent, Mike Pacifico. In fact, I could have flown to Australia for less.

This is a real sore point in the smaller regions of the country, where Air Canada still enjoys a virtual monopoly, and can charge uncompetitive fares.

"The only people who fly to Sydney," one relative later put it, "are coming home from Fort McMurray." These would be workers from the oil sands, coming home with cash stuffed in their jeans. Other folks, going south for a winter holiday, drive to Halifax and park their car at the airport for a week or two.

Suddenly, fly and drive became an option. Even with the price of a gas, the saving would be about $1,300. My mother, who was famously parsimonious, would have approved of such savings in honour of her memorial - the burial of her ashes beside my father, next to his parents, in a Cape Breton country cemetery at Hillside, Mira.

"Do you have a map?" I asked the young man at the Budget car rental desk.

"No maps," he said. "They did away with them with the recession."

No problem. Turn right at Truro, straight through New Glasgow and Antigonish to the Canso Causeway, where Nova Scotia ends and Cape Breton begins. Up either side of the Bras d'Or Lakes to Hillside, on the Mira River, halfway between Sydney and Louisbourg (pronounced Lewisburg). If you know the song, Out on the Mira, that's where it is, a farm home that has been in the family for a century and a half.

This is a road, the Trans-Canada Highway, that I occasionally travelled as a boy with my grandfather, Angus J. MacDonald. Half a century later, they are still building it.

The four-lane portion of the TCH ends at Peter MacKay's front doorstep in New Glasgow. The rest is two and three lanes that pass right through the middle of several towns: Antigonish, for example, a busy university town with three traffic lights. A week ago Friday, with traffic at a standstill and backed up halfway to New Glasgow, it took an hour and a half just to get through it. Well, there was a nice view of St. F.X.

MacKay happened to return my call, as I was sitting in the middle of this traffic.

"Don't you have some influence in this province?" I asked. "Can't you do something about this?"

"We're on it," replied the defence minister, who is also the senior Atlantic minister in the federal government. "We're building a bypass at Antigonish, $58 million. It's the biggest construction project in the province."

And guess what? There's a labour shortage. All those guys working in Fort McMurray, and flying into Sydney. This is called labour mobility, and it's one of the issues underlying the EI debate. If the threshold to qualify for benefits is lowered to 360 hours of employment, as the opposition is demanding, recipients won't necessarily look for work in other regions of the country.

MacKay, briefly encountered on the return trip through New Glasgow, was in the middle of his summer rounds, from strawberry socials to tartan festivals.

Sitting in his backyard, sipping a Nova Scotia-brewed Keith's, he said he detected no appetite for an election anytime soon, least of all over EI, an issue that's very well understood in Atlantic Canada. Of course, it all depends on the Liberals, and whether Michael Ignatieff wants to jump off that ledge.

In an extended-family focus group in Cape Breton, there was equally a strong sense that politicians had more serious business to do, in the current economic context, than plunging the country into an unwanted election. And while there was no great affection for Stephen Harper in the room, he was the devil they knew, whereas Ignatieff was the one they didn't.

Cape Bretoners are exactly like Quebecers: they bring far too much food to family events, and the first thing they ask is: "How long since you've been home?"

Far too long, not since Gracie was a baby, and that was 18 years ago. The house is as it has always been, with my grandmother's rocking chair still in the front hall at the bottom of the stairs. Martha Anderson MacDonald knew everyone in Cape Breton. "Now she was a MacAskill from Marion Bridge," she would say, "who married a MacInnis from Gabarous."

Most of them, it seems, are buried in this lovely country cemetery, of which my grandfather was president, and where I spent summers helping the caretaker mow the grass before the annual memorial service in mid-August.

This time we had our own, well worth the drive, and the journey home.

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