Nova Scotia

Prolific Cape Breton storyteller Jim St. Clair has died

Cape Breton lost a piece of history Tuesday night with the death of Jim St. Clair, an author, historian and storyteller on the island.

For more than 30 years, St. Clair's booming baritone voice was heard across the CBC Cape Breton airwaves

Cape Breton historian Jim St. Clair in 2018, when he donated a pair of leather baby shoes worn by his great-aunt to the Red Shoe Pub. The pub is owned by members of the Rankin Family, who are also descendants of St. Clair's great-aunt. (Steve Sutherland/CBC)

Cape Breton has lost one of its greatest storytellers. 

Jim St. Clair died Tuesday night. The Mull River, N.S., resident was 90 years old. 

St. Clair was a historian, teacher, environmentalist and community organizer. He was born in Belmont, Mass., but his mother was from Cape Breton and after visiting the area every summer, he eventually moved to Mull River full time.

St. Clair was known for his many contributions to his community and for preserving Cape Breton history, but many knew him best through his talents at storytelling — both in English and Gaelic.

For more than 30 years, his booming baritone voice was heard across the airwaves every week in his column Then and Now on CBC Radio's Information Morning Cape Breton.

"Jim documented so much in thousands of columns over decades for CBC, and it was a privilege ... that we're able to play a part in helping to make some of his original research come alive," said Steve Sutherland, host of Information Morning Cape Breton

Sutherland said St. Clair carried knowledge of people and places that no one else did. 

"What was up here in Jim's head and in his heart, it's stressful to me to think that it's gone," he said.

St. Clair donated a large portion of his family's land to create the MacFarlane Woods Nature Reserve.

He also volunteered with the Nova Scotia Highland Village Museum in Iona for more than 40 years and led the charge to preserve and move two buildings to the museum site, including the historic Malagawatch Church by barge on the Bras d'Or. 

Many visitors to the site have fond memories of St. Clair leading them on candlelight tours.

St. Clair was also passionate about teaching and especially loved working with children. Rodney Chaisson, director of the Highland Village, credits St. Clair with developing much of the children's programming at the museum.

A photo of Rodney Chaisson, Jim St. Clair and Catherine Arseneau taken at the Highland Village in 2013. The Nova Scotia Museum had presented Jim with an award to mark his 40 years as a volunteer at the Village. (Submitted by Rodney Chaisson)

Chaisson was a student of St. Clair's when he taught museum studies at Cape Breton University. He and Sutherland spoke fondly of the times St. Clair would come along for drives or walks in the woods and turn the excursion into a tour of the past.

"Every moment with Jim was a teaching moment, you would learn something about this place and about its people," said Chaisson.

"He really opened the door to the specialness of Cape Breton and its people and the importance of not only looking at the past so you have a better understanding of the past, but how can you learn from the past to better help today."

St. Clair was heavily involved in community development and the arts throughout Inverness County, and was a great supporter of young people.

Donna Tourneur, minister of Trinity United Church in New Glasgow, served in the Whycocomagh area for 10 years and knew St. Clair for three decades. St. Clair mentored Tourneur as her educational supervisor while working on her master's degree.

"Everybody who looked to him for advice knew that they mattered to him, that they had a special place in his heart," she said. 

"There were very few things in Inverness County that Jim did not have a hand in, especially things that were successful."

Information Morning Cape Breton's show on May 19th will be devoted to highlighting St. Clair's life and contributions to the island.


Brittany Wentzell

Current Affairs Reporter/Editor

Brittany Wentzell is based in Sydney, N.S., as a reporter for Information Morning Cape Breton. She has covered a wide range of issues including education, forestry and municipal government. Story ideas? Send them to