From the Field

Beauty, evil and truth in Petit-de-Grat

Posted: Jun 14, 2013 1:50 PM ET Last Updated: Jun 14, 2013 1:50 PM ET

If it's truth you are looking for, the back roads are best. It hides there, the way the real essence of a place does. That's certainly the case when you drive to the fishing village of Petit-de-Grat. It sits inside a sheltered harbour near the end of Isle Madame -- a tiny island tucked beneath the southern tip of Cape Breton Island.

Leave the main highway in Arichat and you are there. Not in Petit-de-Grat yet, but in the real Isle Madame -- a place where population is measured in hundreds, not thousands, where salt brine fills the morning air like a heavy fog you can taste but not see.

The road through Arichat runs true. Businesses and homes hug it. Man has conquered that space with will and engineering. Veteran's Memorial Drive speaks to the simple acceptance of what cannot be tamed. It bends with the waves, rises above rocky outcroppings and plunges back to the surf.

Tiny islands covered in hardy spruce pop above the waves here. Sunshine bounces from dark, wet rock, speckled with sea moss. Simple, breathtaking beauty. A photographer, a painter, any artist could sit for a lifetime and never capture it all.

The sound of water sliding over stone never ceases in the places where the surf meets the land. It thumps and crashes when the ocean is riled and hisses and gurgles in a calm sea. Tiny gravestones sit beneath a white church beside the road Veteran's Memorial Drive -- people who lived full lives to that endless symphony.

A new marker will appear on this Island soon. It too will mark the final resting place of a man who heard, tasted and smelled the sea from birth. Phillip Boudreau was just 43 when his time here ended. In those years he travelled this road, saw this beauty.

Phillip Boudreau also witnessed terrible things. Evil things, far from these stunning coves and inlets. He heard the merciless clang of steel grabbing steel. He heard shouts of pain and fear in the night.

Boudreau tasted salt brine but he also tasted the bitter reality of a second hand, an hour hand, a calendar page that like the tides and waves will alter their pace for no man. Phillip Boudreau lived the life of a prisoner, locked away and forgotten.

As you leave Veteran's Memorial Drive you enter Boudreauville and then Petit-de-Grat, where Phillip Boudreau was friend and foe, loved and feared, evoking opposing emotions in the same people.

He was a thief who destroyed the property of others, his temper legendary. He would threaten to burn down your home at a simple slight. Those who knew him best say the threats were just Phillip's way, not to be taken seriously. Others feel differently. Everyone seems to agree the other side of Phillip Boudreau was quick, funny and full of life.

Days before he died, he poured water on the hood of an elderly woman's car. She was once a Catholic nun and he used his holy water to bless her car with a quick sign of the cross, a bright smile and a wink. In life he cast a dark shadow in this idyllic place. His death leaves a darker stain that may never be washed away by the tides.

The finger wharves lining the inner harbour hold the boats tight here. This is the place where man raises his fist to the ocean he cannot tame, where boats hide from storms and then slip out to pry a living from the ocean floor. Life here is about negotiating with nature, fighting and cajoling a sea that does not care. It's a tough living.

Lobstering is part fishing and part hunting. Boats set out to stalk a prey they cannot see, to place traps beneath the waves where they believe the lobster crawl in search of food.  Fishing captains have their favourite spots, secret spots, places that have always paid off. They cherish those spots, race to place traps and lines there before another captain arrives.

There are rules, of course. The fisheries department draws lines in the water they must not cross. There are other boundaries too. Old agreements that chop up the ocean, setting territory for each small wharf and its fleet.

It's those unofficial boundaries that often see tempers flare on the water. You see, even in a place as timeless as this -- where everyone really does know everyone -- where tradition stands above law; where nature howls with delight at the tiny insignificance of human desire; even here man will find a way to fight his fellow man.

It's hard to imagine evil in such a beautiful place. Yet the facts gathered by RCMP officers -- who are quite good at gathering such things -- suggest evil visited this harbour with the power and fury of an October gale. It happened only days ago.

In the end, Phillip Boudreau saw an evil more vile than any he found in prison. It was right here, just a few rolling waves beyond the home he grew up in. In his final moments, in a small open boat, amid gunfire and hate he saw it. Then he saw no more.

If those facts gathered by the RCMP are to be believed, they suggest Phillip Boudreau died doing what he did in life -- breaking the law because he believed it was the right thing to do. Just as the three fishermen charged with murdering him were breaking those traditional boundaries because they believed it was the right thing to do.

They came from an Arichat wharf and set traps off Petit-de-Grat. Phillip Boudreau was cutting their lines, protecting his brother's fishing grounds, protecting an unwritten law as surely as he was breaking a written one.

It's easy to imagine the final moments as you peer out there. A big boat and small boat collide. Three hard-working men break an unwritten code to support their families and clash with the village trouble-child who refuses to accept any code but his own.  

That part is easy to see and even hear. Shouting, the crunch of hulls slamming, threats, accusations. It's the gunfire that's tough to imagine. A deadly ending to a stupid debate over lobster turf.

The facts gathered by the RCMP tell a disturbing tale. A gun is a fact, bullet fragments in a small boat are simple facts. They will match or they will not. Damage that lines up from boat to boat. Easy to prove if true.

People will eventually hear the facts but they will be filtered through a justice system that rarely uncovers real truth. Real truth lurks deep in the shadows of the heart. It hides beneath the facts the way the real Isle Madame hides beneath the main road. Courts filter facts through abstract legal concepts that muddy the water and hide it further.

Three local fishermen are the only people who know the truth of what happened out there. Perhaps they did nothing illegal, nothing wrong. The courts will decide that. That will be a fact. Perhaps they will return to this place among the waves.

But, tonight they will not hear water rolling on rocks. They will hear the clang of steel, the screams of fear, the slow pounding of the second-hand. They might even hear echoes of Phillip Boudreau. They might hear the truth.

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About the Author

Phonse Jessome has been chasing stories down the main streets and back roads of Nova Scotia since the spring of 1981. So far he is showing no signs of giving up the chase.

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