Background

Port Royal, Nova Scotia

The nail as status symbol? Yes, in New France.

As my fingers traced Port Royal’s rough doors, I was feeling this community’s social strata. Here, artisans lived communally, doors bound by a smattering of metal. The gentlemen’s quarters — larger, private dwellings — have entrances punctuated by large nails. The door that feels like Braille’s alphabet fronts the governor’s ample residence— its round iron bolts an ostentatious sign of authority.

Minding such minutiae, Europe’s formal colonization of Canada began. Port Royal, founded by Sieur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain in 1605, was this country’s first French settlement, modeled on austere Norman habitations. This fortified rectangle of wooden buildings, painstakingly reconstructed with period tools, once housed 45 men who traded furs with Mi’kmaq natives.

Brisk winds always blow off the Bay of Fundy. Guides, dressed in authentic costumes and wooden shoes, pull capes tightly about them. Imagine Nova Scotia’s winters, centuries ago. Bone-chilling, interminable. So unlike France. Despite waters alive with fish, productive hillsides, and bounteous game, the men suffered horribly. Twelve succumbed to scurvy their first year.

But a stroke of Gallic brilliance fostered some love for this land of early frosts. Champlain inaugurated the Order of Good Cheer, embraced by fourteen colonists, including Parisian lawyer Marc Lescarbot. The members engaged in culinary one-upmanship throughout winter, preparing delicacies for all from local game and fish, amid song and ceremony. Wine flowed freely, Mi’kmaq chief Membertou and other natives were esteemed guests.

“All had as good a time and meal as at any restaurant in Paris,” Lescarbot wrote. In 1613, Port Royal was burned by a captain out of Jamestown, Virginia, but not before a small group of Frenchmen gave us a peaceful, sociable beginning, and a hedge against winter.

“Canada is not a country for the cold of heart, or the cold of feet,” former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau once noted.

Port Royal shows it’s always been thus.

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