After the storm, the sun shines on Cabot trail writers festival

December 2, 2022

Last September, as the Cabot Trail Writers Festival prepared to return to a full-capacity festival for the first time in two years, they got wind of a brand-new challenge… a weather forecast predicting that Hurricane Fiona would land in Cape Breton the same weekend as their festival.

Since 2009, the festival has been an annual highlight for lovers of literature and the arts, its autumn program of events creating a place for writers and readers to connect and enjoy the pleasures of words and storytelling together.

“The festival, by design, is friendly, welcoming and unpretentious,” says artistic director Rebecca Silver Slayter. “That means anybody—from the most devoted reader to someone who can’t recall the last time they picked up a book—can enjoy inspiring conversations about what drives writers to the page, alongside good music, good food, and great company.”

Past festival events have included forest walks, live painting to fiddle tunes, storytelling, round dances, and panels on Gaelic songwriting, as well as author readings, workshops and interviews.

By the time Hurricane Fiona appeared in the forecast, the festival had already “weathered” two years of challenges, like so many other organizations. In March 2020, the pandemic brought early programming plans to a halt and necessitated rapid reinvention. That September, the festival took to the internet, the radio airwaves, and the outdoors to reach their audience with events built around the theme of “The Resilience of Art & Community,” more than doubling the usual festival lineup and duration.

In 2021, the festival adapted again, returning to a half capacity in-person festival, showcasing only Nova Scotian writers (to avoid potential travel restrictions), with events that travelled from community to community in six different locations across Victoria and Inverness County.

Slayter says both shifts proved deeply rewarding.

“It made blazingly clear the incredible talent just within our province’s borders,” she notes, “and helped us reach new audiences in their home communities.”

Still, after two years of COVID, the festival team was excited to finally return to full capacity in 2022, with a lineup of events and guest authors from around the province and across the country.

“And then,” Slayter remembers, “on opening night, Hurricane Fiona reached our shores.”

By then, the festival had already notified all the artists and refunded all the tickets, after the forecast made clear there was no way to proceed. In the storm’s wake, as the terrible losses faced by so many Nova Scotians put the festival’s cancellation firmly in perspective, Slayter and the festival board met to determine what funds and resources remained, and how to go forward.

With the generous support of their audience and funders, the festival quickly assembled a new program of events to run through fall and early winter, offering opportunities for Cape Breton and Nova Scotian authors to share their work and honouring the local communities that have supported the festival from its earliest days. It wasn’t possible to fly in the out-of-province artists from the original program (though some took part in subsequent online programming), but all the Nova Scotian artists were invited back, with additional local authors expanding the lineup.

“What was most wonderful about it all,” Slayter recalls, “is that these events became an opportunity to really celebrate our own communities and homegrown literary talent.”

Highlight events of the “post-hurricane edition” of the festival included a local launch of Mabou writer Kate Beaton’s new book Ducks (a 2023 Canada Reads nominee); a cozy, fireside evening of music and readings at an outbuilding of Margaree’s Front Porch Farm; and a return to North River Hall, where the festival first launched 14 years earlier, with readings by a lineup of six Cape Breton writers.

Acknowledging that the past three years have certainly presented some challenges for the festival, Slayter adds that the experience has only renewed the organization’s excitement for the festivals to come.

“This September, we’ll celebrate our festival’s 15th anniversary,” she says, “and we’ve got some incredible plans in the works. We can’t wait to gather with Cape Breton readers again this fall, on the other side of all this, with a few lessons learned…and a story to share.”