Q+A with Zac Tomas

Zac and a friend’s dog get ready to go dirtbiking, in Whistler.

1. How old are you?

I’m 29 years old.

2. Cape Breton born and raised? Or recent transplant? (Plus whatever biographical details you feel like giving).

Yeah, I was born and raised in CB, but after high school I headed west, and haven’t lived back home permanently since then.

3. “What are you up to these days?” I.e. what do you do for a living, what are you working on, are you a student, in the workforce, etc?

Last summer I moved from Whistler B.C., where I was doing landscape construction, to Toronto. I moved to go back to school and I’m just starting on a new career path taking a “Sustainable Energy and Building Technology” program at the Humber Institute. I plan to work in the sustainable construction industry after school.

4. Why did you decide to move off the island? Was it something you’d always known you would do?

I think growing up I always had a sense of adventure and wanted to explore the world. As soon as I finished high school I headed for B.C. and got a summer job planting trees. At that point there wasn’t a lot of work for young people on Cape Breton, and I also just wanted to see some more of Canada.

So I guess my primary reason for leaving was more about my desire for travel and adventure then a lack of work, but the cash was an incentive.

5. What are your favorite things to do when you do come back for a visit?

When I get home for a visit I usually catch up with old friends, hike through the woods, and just spend some down time in the hammock with a good book. When I was younger I was bored by the slow pace and relaxed lifestyle, but now I really appreciate the quiet peacefulness of my parents’ house out in the woods.

I also like to just spend time outdoors, hiking, camping at the beach, playing soccer and hockey and the occasional snowboard trip.

6. What do you like to do for entertainment?

Well, I spent the last five years snowboarding in Whistler. The big mountains and deep powder enticed me out west. While in Whistler I bought a dual sport motorcycle and spent a lot of time biking around exploring the mountains and back roads in the summer time. I also enjoyed the nightlife in Whistler, but last year I decided to take up boxing, and so I cut back on the clubs and the bar scene.

Now that I’m in Toronto, I’m just getting back into boxing, and exploring the city in my free time. But I don’t have much free time; I spend most of my time in school or studying.

7. When you chat with people out West about Cape Breton, what are their reactions and responses?

They either ask “Where is Cape Breton?“ or “Oh, you’re from Nova Scotia, so you’re a newfie?”

I was surprised at how little people know about Cape Breton. Most western Canadians that I met can’t even point to Cape Breton on a map, unless they grew up on the east coast. And in Whistler, Canadians are a very small percent of the population. And Toronto is mostly new Canadian immigrants, so it’s very multicultural. I really like being able to meet people from all corners of the world; there are so many different perspectives and worldviews.

I guess I don’t spend much time talking about Cape Breton, because the people I talk to don’t usually know anything about it.

However the Sydney tar ponds, Alexander Graham Bell, and Digby’s tidal energy plant have all come up in my class lectures.

8. Do you think you’d ever move back here? What would have to change for that to happen?

Yeah, I could see myself settling down in Cape Breton someday. But I haven’t really made that decision yet. Honestly, I don’t think anything would have to change. I’ve come to appreciate the fact that nothing ever changes when I go home. I used to want to change the island, make it more like other parts of the world, but now I’ve grown to really appreciate it for what it is.

If I do move home someday, it will be because I want to come home to the simple, relaxed lifestyle, the slow pace, and the sense of community. I guess considering my current studies, I’d like to come home and work on some sustainable projects, either construction, or maybe power generation. Nova Scotia has a lot of potential for renewable energy projects, and there has been some slow progress, but there’s still a long way to go to get the province off of coal and oil.

9. What is a typical “day in the life” for you, these days?

I commute an hour each way to school by transit. My bus from the subway to school takes 25 minutes and there’s always about 90 people crammed into a 36 seat bus. Being from Cape Breton I have a hard time adjusting to the city’s overcrowding and lack of personal space. After class I either do some homework or go to the gym. On the weekends I like to do some random wandering through the city. I like that I’ve been here for 7 months and I can still explore places I’ve never been to that are within a 15 minute walk from my house. Toronto has lots to do, and I’m still just getting to know my way around the city.

10. Finish this sentence: Being from Cape Breton, to me, means…

That no matter what happens to the rest of the world, I will always have a secret island paradise to escape to. In a world of exponentially accelerating change, it’s nice to have that safe haven where time stands still. As a kid growing up in the woods, I took the pristine untouched wilderness for granted. Now I consider it to be one of Cape Breton’s greatest assets. Its lack of economic development can be a challenge for the people living there, but that’s also what makes the island such a special place.

This Q+A with Zac is part of an ongoing series of interviews with people associated with Cape Breton in some way – mostly young people, but not necessarily. The complete list of interviews is here.

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In the background


I’m just taking a small break from posting right now, but I will be back soon (like probably tomorrow!).

It’s just so nice out, here at the end of summer.

PS I found that sweet bowl for $1 in Mahone Bay, yesterday.

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where is the summer going?

That’s what I wanna know.

It’s nearly the end of August!

Time does indeed march on.

I got myself some new shoes on the occasion of a friend getting married (which is where I’m off to, today – Lunenburg!)

The Outdoor Store in Baddeck is a dangerous place for me to wander in to. I go in for shoes but as I walk around I want everything there. (See previous post about impulse spending. Yeah.)

This picture and the one at the beginning of the post were taken on Water Street in Baddeck, where I parked yesterday for lunch. At one point an entire parade of tourists walked by me – I’m thinking a bus tour. I sat there with my window open and one foot practically out the window as they wandered by me, and I got to catch snippets of their conversations with each other.

A few minutes later I saw them, far away, in a cluster head out onto the Community Wharf, no doubt to take a ride on the Amoeba.

Later that same day one of our dock attendants, an 18-year-old guy, came in the store to the desk where I was: “Hey, wanna see a cool boat.”

(Yes, that punctuation is correct. There was no question mark.)

“Yes! Always!” I said, coming around the desk and jogging out the door after him. This was it – a two-masted boat with a sweet cabin. (That’s about as technical as I get with boat terms.)

I just barely caught it with my phone before it went behind the wharf.

Later that same day I headed to North River for a meeting (Cabot Trail Writers Festival directors). It was at my friend Mary Ann’s house. Before everyone had arrived I went around her gardens to snap some shots. She has the best gardens, does Mary Ann.

This is a snap of the table of the meeting. Assorted papers, water glasses, napkins, snacks. The tables around which work gets done – would be an interesting photo series. Hmm.

So now I’m off to Lunenburg for a friend’s wedding! It’s fun to go to a place I’ve never been before. I’m looking forward to taking lots of pictures, and dressing up. I do love weddings!

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Q+A with Chef (and blogger!) Bryan Picard

Right now the culinary event known as Right Some Good is taking place around Cape Breton Island. A local chef, Bryan Picard, will be cooking with international chef Surjan Singh Jolly, at the Keltic Lodge, for an event called “Restaurant Take-Over.”

Bryan took the time to answer some of my questions in between his full-time job cooking at the Chanterelle Inn, moving into his new house with his fiance, and preparing for his Right Some Good event. Thanks Bryan!

1. Tell us about where you grew up and your childhood. Did you always love to cook? What were the foods your family ate?

I grew up in Saint-Hilaire, a small rural village in New-Brunswick, and we always had good food. My mom stayed at home, so she had the time to cook delicious meals from scratch, and a lot of the greens and root vegetables that she served were grown in the backyard by my grandfather. We also ate a lot of wild meats and fish like moose, grouse, trout since my dad is an outdoorsman. Our whole family has always been excited to try different foods and recipes. Even now when my parents discover a new favorite cheese, they call me just to rave about it.

2. How did you get into cooking as a career?

I went to the University of Montreal for a stint before opting for a more hands-on career. I then applied for a place in the professional cooking program at the Institute of Tourism in Montreal (ITHQ–Institut) and was accepted. But even after graduating two years later, I continued to learn new techniques and preparations while working in various professional kitchens in Montreal. The process has been a lot of fun.

3. Your blog The Bite House is widely read. You must work hard on it! Why did you want to start a blog? What do you get from it?

I started the blog last December while in New Jersey visiting my fiance’s parents. I was cooking all that week and everyone was in the holiday shutterbug kind of mode, so a lot of my dishes became artsy photographs. Because my own family was still in New Brunswick, I was keeping them updated on the festivities down south via email. So it wasn’t too great a leap to start uploading the food photos onto a blog webpage instead of an email.

Now every time I make up an interesting dish, I post it on the blog. The feedback has been terrific. I love hearing that someone across the world has prepared and relished one of the plates. Even the process of writing and presenting clear, user-friendly, and, of course, appetizing recipes has allowed me to hone my English (French is my mother tongue) and to learn more about photography and web design. The Bite House has also given me the chance to meet other avid bloggers such as yourself!

4. Why are you excited to take part in Right Some Good? Tell us about the event you’ll be part of, too, please!

Our event is at the Keltic Lodge and is called the Restaurant Take-Over. We will be serving a lot of food from Cape Breton to celebrate the island’s outstanding bounty.

Participating in all Right Some Good events will be an renowned international chef, one of Cape Breton’s own professional chefs, and an aspiring chef in training from the area. I’m really excited to meet the Restaurant Take-Over team and to get cookin’.

5. How did you come to live in Cape Breton? Do you think you’ll stay for a while?

I moved here with my fiance from Montreal in search of more space, ethical food, lush environs, and a sense of community. We needed a serious break from the big city. Now we live near Baddeck, and I work at the Chanterelle Country Inn, whose owner Earlene Busch has always prioritized local, organically cultivated food (different from the label “organic”, which is often too expensive for small-scale farms to adopt).

Cooking at the Inn has made me prouder than ever to be a chef. Food tastes the best when it hasn’t had to travel thousands of miles, and by supporting local food the Inn also supports local communities. What could be better?

For all these reasons–the fresh food, the friendly people, and the gorgeous landscape–Cape Breton feels more and more like home to me, and I definitely hope to stay a while.

To read more interviews that I’ve done with Cape Bretoners, click here!

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Frugal Friday: Getting Thrifty

Last week in this column I published a piece by Brian Dean. his thoughts on thriftiness, and how to be truly free of money.

Ever since then, I can’t stop thinking about it.

I’m an impulse shopper, for sure. I buy magazines, candy bars and gum while waiting in line at the grocery store. I make snap decisions about most purchases. If I’ve picked something up or put it in my cart, chances are I’m going to buy it – it’s pretty rare for me to change my mind and put something back on the shelf, or walk into a store and then walk out again, empty-handed. I’m kind of the opposite of Brian, you might say.

I’m also definitely nowhere near my savings goals. I think that’s related to the impulse-buying thing. #sarcasm

In his piece, Brian says, “Your dollars are little soldiers. Knowing this is your first step to personal wealth. You send your soldiers out, and some of them come back to defend your realm, while others leave for good, going to defend other realms. The net soldiers protecting your realm as opposed to those of others, defines your relative wealth, and this can be extended out to your neighbourhood, your province, your country – this is the basis of the economic flow.”

My dollars are little soldiers. I like that thought! For some reason I imagine them as little wooden peg soldiers, painted in bright blue and red. They are in long lines, like dominos, just waiting to be deployed where I choose to send them.

(Is that just me? OK. Not awkward at all.)

I also liked what Brian said about budgeting: “This is the time to be reasonable: the number one reason people abandon their latest effort at a budget is because they get too optimistic, too aggressive, and forget reality. You need something which is livable, and which is easy to track.”

Holla! Over here! Yes! I’ve had so many different ways that I’ve tried to budget over the years, and each one I abandoned because it was too much work and so in the end, didn’t help me, really.

So, I’m trying Brian’s “piece of paper on the wall” idea. So far, so good. All I have to do is write shit down. But, it’s making me super aware of what I buy. Now when I buy something, I think, “OK, now I’ve got to keep the receipt til I get back home and I can write it down.”

Do you budget? What does it look like?

The other Frugal Friday posts on this blog:

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Summer Welcome Series at the Baddeck Library

Would you pay to listen to this girl talk?

No? Well, good thing it’s free then!

Yup, good thing indeed.

Oh man, I might just be nuts.

Anyway, tonight at the Baddeck Public Library, at 6:30, as part of the library’s Summer Welcome Series, I’ll be doing a presentation about my blog, and about some of the folks I’ve interviewed or featured.

Here is the Facebook event info.

Come on out and say hi!

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Our Man In Judique: Dwayne MacEachern on Being “Someone”

By Dwayne MacEachern

We can do anything we set our minds to. I was told that sort of thing growing up. I’m just not sure if it was a mistake to believe it or not. I think we believe it at first but as we grow older and we meet any number of failures, we give up – many times too easily. It is a simple fact, however, that you can never truly fail at something if you never give up – and so often success is hiding just around the corner. My favorite example to illustrate this is a story about frustration. Luckily, it is also a story about how easily success can be found.

A number of years ago, in 2004 if I remember correctly, I was working with our local development association in Judique. The office was in the Judique Community Centre, and one day I was at the seniors’ building next door chatting it up with the residents who were taking in some sunshine in the courtyard. I realized while talking with one resident, Kay, that getting to and from the Community Centre must be tremendously difficult for here. The seniors’ building parking lot is barely 30 meters (less than 100 feet) from the Community Centre, but there’s a huge ditch running between the two properties. For most of us, perhaps, and certainly for me, I never thought much of it jumping down and across this ditch and up the other side. But for some seniors this would be challenging, to say the least.

For Kay, this was impossible, really. She is in a wheelchair.

I have seen Kay at so many functions at the Centre I had to ask how she managed, and she told me that usually someone would drive to the seniors’ building, help her into the car, pack up her chair, drive around from the building to Keltic Drive, then onto Route 19, then into the Community Centre parking lot, get the chair ready and help her out of the car.

My next question was obvious, and in reality, isn’t it the same type of question we usually come up with. “Why hasn’t anyone built a walkway across the ditch?”

According to Kay people had tried to for years before to do something but nothing ever came of it. I said this was a story of frustration, but the more I think of it, Kay’s frustration had long since withered away. It wasn’t even disgust on her face I saw, it was acceptance – acceptance that her onetime hope of the simple ability to wheel herself to the Centre across that ditch was lost. I didn’t mention before, that of course, Kay could wheel herself around the roads to the Centre sometimes if she needed – right on the highway, perhaps, as there are no sidewalks in Judique, and only in the summertime when it’s dry. But to get across that ditch was never going to happen for her.

And here, my friends, is really how simple it is sometimes to change things. That ‘Someone’ who should do something – it’s usually you. But until you realize it, it won’t ever happen at all.

I went inside the Centre later on and I called the Housing Authority who runs the seniors building. The area manager said he’d love to see something done – and if we got the ditch filled in he’d build a walkway across it. I happened to be on the Board of the Community Centre so I made some calls and no problems with the idea except that I learned the ditch itself was an easement owned by the Department of Transportation. I made another phone call to their area manager, and literally within three days the ditch had a culvert and was filled in and a pathway of compacted crusher dust was laid across it. The next week the Housing Authority built a boardwalk, complete with a bench and flower planter upon it.

All I did was make a few phone calls and ask. It took less than an hour of my time to have something done in my community that had been desired for years. And perhaps that is also part of the challenge – that the desire was not our desire as a whole, but just the desire of one individual, a senior citizen in a wheelchair.

Am I proud of this? Well, yes. The first time I was walking outside the Centre after that and I noticed two wheel tracks in the crusher dust I almost broke into tears – but it was also something else I felt – not quite embarrassment, but a feeling like I could not figure out why something so simple was not done a long time ago.

I realize, now, that it’s because finally – after all those years – ‘Someone’ took care of it. It didn’t have to be me. It just happened that way. So next time you see something ‘Someone’ should take care of – it’s probably you!

Click here to read Dwayne’s first post, from back in March. Dwayne MacEachern lives in Judique.

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