LOUISBOURG, CAPE BRETON, NOVA SCOTIA — No lawyers were allowed in colonial Louisbourg. Louis XIV wanted to build a utopia on this side of the Atlantic and anyone who was out to practice law could only undermine that dream, the Sun King thought. So rules were enforced by the governor of Île-Royale and an appointed council. But lawyers? They were left to eat cake — or learn to bake it.
Today, Louisbourg still exhibits the spirit and mindset of its founders. Set in 1744, toward the end of French rule of the territory on Cape Breton, the recreated historic village replicates life as it was for the blacksmiths, tavern owners, military personnel, government officials and citizens in the 18th century. To enter the fortified city, visitors must first pass through a gate defended by militia who will test whether you’re a British spy or ne’er-do-well before allowing you to enter. Thoroughly fascinating, Louisbourg is so well done as an attraction you almost lose sight of the beauty of its setting. Almost.
Cape Breton’s natural allure never quite relinquishes its grip and the scenery surrounding Louisbourg is reminiscent of the French coast, with a torrent of waves and swatches of thick, golden reeds that from certain angles appear to mask the fortress as you approach.
“Louisbourg is the jewel of the national parks system,” says Linda Kennedy, who runs Point of View Suites, a sensational property just outside of the entrance to the historic site.
For those who have been to colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Fortress Louisbourg will seem familiar. But it is much more of a living museum than a commercial enterprise, although you can purchase meals and pay to take part in a murder mystery tour or night-time lantern walk.
In 2013, Louisbourg celebrates its 300th anniversary and will do so with panache, earning it the distinction as the No. 1 place in Canada to visit in 2013 from Vacay.ca.
The Louisbourg300 festivities feature a month-long fête with additional music, cultural attractions and a harbourside market in July. A series of other events and celebrations will take place during the summer, including a much-anticipated regatta on the waters surrounding the fortress. As Louisbourg heralds its tricentennial, it gives Canadians an opportunity to reflect on how important of a place it is to the nation’s history.
“Louisbourg in some ways is a microcosm of what Canada eventually developed into, which is a multicultural, multilingual society,” says Barbara Landry, one of the Parks Canada officers at the fortress.
On any given day in the early 1700s, you could hear five or more languages spoken within the fortified walls. That multiculturalism was due to the fishing industry and the variety of Europeans it employed. Louis XIV was enamoured with the prospects of Île-Royale because of the coveted cod within easy reach. More than 1 million pounds of the fish were exported annually at the height of Louisbourg’s fishing operations. Cod was much more valuable than salmon or any other fish because it shipped well.
However, despite Louis XIV’s wishes, the colony was far from a utopia. The winter cold was relentless and unbearable for many. Even though there were no lawyers, there was plenty of crime, including grisly murders detailed in historical documents. And there was the constant threat of the British, who eventually won control of Louisbourg in 1758 when the French surrendered.
Louisbourg was founded in 1713 by French fishermen displaced from Newfoundland. At its height, more than 6,000 people were living within the walls. More than 750,000 documents were used in the recreation of the park, which is only one-fifth of the original Louisbourg.
“We have 5.5 million artifacts. Those go a long way in determining how people furnished their home and the economy and what their lifestyle would have been like,” Landry says.
There’s more to Louisbourg’s story than what took place inside the walls, though, and that’s where Kennedy comes in.
On the surface, the Beggar’s Banquet that she operates out of the Point of View Suites seems like campy dinner theatre. Guests dress in period costumes provided by he property while Kennedy takes on the persona of Sebean, an 18th-century tavern owner/wench with a knack for turning men red-faced with her wit and flirtatiousness. While she entertains, her staff serve what’s billed as an authentic peasant’s feast, featuring the diners’ choice of lobster, crab, halibut or roasted chicken. (Get the crab.)
“That was what the poor ate back then. Cod is what the upper class in France wanted, it was what the fishing industry here was built on,” says Kennedy, who has also worked as a guide at Fortress Louisbourg and is currently a musket-carrier when not at the Point of View Suites. “Cod, when it was salted, was easier to preserve, and fish was very important because in the Catholic faith there are about 145 days of the year when you can’t eat meat.”
With sailors, soldiers, fishermen and merchants always present, Louisbourg had a lively atmosphere. Kennedy, when she started the dinner theatre three years ago, wanted to augment what the national park was showing about life within the walls with a glimpse at how people existed outside of it. The saucy character named Sebean gave her a way to inject her sense of humour into the project. Each night, the Beggar’s Banquet takes place at the Point of View Suites and the word is spreading that it’s a fun night out.
“It’s all I heard anyone talk about for the past two days,” says Patty Albert, who made the five-hour drive from Halifax.