Jigs, reels and sounds of Newfoundland resonate in Quebec classrooms

One teacher's dedication to bring traditional music workshops to schools along Quebec's Lower North Shore is highlighting the ties that bind Quebec to the music and culture of Newfoundland and Labrador.

School project revives musical roots along Lower North Shore, highlights bonds between isolated neighbours

From left to right, Mike Sixoanate, Caitlin Collier, Jim Payne, Brooklyn Robertson and Fergus O'Byrne, who shared their passion for music in a workshop at Mecatina School last week. (Submitted by Kelly Anderson)

Students in Quebec's Lower North Shore region are learning that they share much more with their neighbours in Newfoundland and Labrador than a provincial border.

A trio of Newfoundland musicians has been travelling to different communities along the coast over the past week for a series of songwriting workshops, stopping along the way to perform for residents, young and old.

Grade Eight student Brooklyn Robertson said she was surprised to hear just how much she could relate to the musicians.

"How we live close to the water, how we live off the land, the isolation," Robertson explained between two workshop sessions at Mecatina School, in La Tabatière, Que.

The town of around 500 people is located 175 kilometres east of the Labrador border — and around 1,200 kilometres from the provincial capital.

The geography explains, in part, why this region and this town, where four out of five people consider English as their first language, may have much more in common with the neighbouring province than they thought.

"Nobody realizes that the cultures are so similar. I mean a lot of people don't even know that this part of Quebec is not a part of Newfoundland," said Kelly Anderson, a teacher at Mecatina School who put the whole project together.

Education 'not just academic'

During a trip to Newfoundland, Anderson met Fergus O'Byrne, a musician who had given similar workshops locally.

Anderson said her own love of music compelled her to start writing letters to ask for her school board's support to bring O'Byrne and two of his fellow musicians on a two-week tour of the region's small communities.

''Education is not just academic," said Anderson.

Fourteen-year-old Brooklyn Robertson says she recognized her family's own traditions in Newfoundland's music. (Submitted by Kelly Anderson)

Jim Payne and Mike Sixonate joined O'Byrne for this year's second edition of the project, hopping on planes between Bonne-Espérance, La Tabatière and Blanc-Sablon, where they will be setting up next week, before returning home on Thursday.

Fourteen-year-old Robertson said the instruments the musicians brought along reminded her of her own family gatherings, sitting around a crowded room, listening to her grandfather play music.

"There are people from all over — neighbours gather in one house and play all kinds of instruments," she said of a traditional Christmas dinner.

Musician Jim Payne said that shared passion for music is illustrated in one of the instruments he plays, a four-button accordion, that he has only ever seen in two places outside of his native Newfoundland: on Louisiana's Acadian music scene, and on the Lower North Shore.

The accordion was popular because it could belt out loud tunes without amplification — an asset for remote regions, Payne said, where power outages were not uncommon.

Payne, who followed in the footsteps of his own family, said the accordion also catered to Irish music's instrumental dance tempo.

"The 6/8 rhythm is practically built into the instrument."

Nurturing local talent

Payne toured with fellow artists on the Lower North Shore in the past, and had fond memories of performing in town halls, school basements and people's homes.

"If someone in any of those communities didn't hear us, it was because they didn't want to, because we didn't really stop playing at all," Payne joked.

Those trips gave Payne a clearer idea of "just how strong the family links were" between both provinces, with residents detailing how their ancestors crossed the strait of Belle-Isle from Newfoundland to settle on the Lower North Shore, bringing their instruments with them.

People from the community in La Tabatière came out on Thursday evening for a performance by Mike Sixonate. (Submitted by Kelly Anderson)

Inviting the entire town to see this week's performances was an important part of the project for Anderson.

"It's a wonderful thing because a lot of our seniors have grown up listening to all this music."

So did Grade Seven student Caitlin Collier, whose grandfather taught himself how to play the guitar and the accordion.

The 12-year-old was pleased to hear Payne and the others using the same kind of slang she's accustomed to.

She was also happy to see how other communities face the same harsh weather and isolation as people on the Lower North Shore.
Secondary I student Caitlin Collier hopes that people in her community will continue celebrating the region's musical heritage. (Submitted by Kelly Anderson)

"It's nice to know people are living in the same conditions as us."

Grateful for the hours her teacher put in to get the project off the ground, Collier said she hopes it will entice people in her town who may have put away their instruments to dig them out.

"There are a lot of people here who have talent, and they would like to play, but there are not too many people who teach it." 

The song Collier wrote during the workshop with her peers will travel back to Newfoundland, where Payne, Sixonate and O'Byrne will make a studio recording.

Collier shared a few lines before heading back to class, explaining the song is a kind of "running joke" about the transport delays people put up with on the Lower North Shore, something Newfoundlanders can likely relate to.

"I've been waiting all day, to get on the plane..."

With files from CBC's Breakaway