A grandfather’s legacy: Clive Doucet’s latest is a memoir, a family history and a cri de coeur

Clive Doucet has written a sequel"of sorts" to a book he wrote some 38 years ago.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.

— As You Like It, William Shakespeare

We find Clive Doucet today in his sixth age. He is in that time when, the Bard writes, a person has shifted “into the lean and slippered pantaloon / With spectacles on nose and pouch on side.”

The former city councillor and mayoral candidate (twice) has lived a full life as a writer of books, poetry and plays. He has been a passionate advocate for sustainable cities and the environment and, in some ways, he has been a quixotic figure tilting at the windmills of development.

These days he’s returned to writing with a passion.

He is now, he says, a man in a hurry. The first of many books that he intends to bring forward in the next several years is now out and it’s called Grandfather’s House: Returning to Cape Breton.

It is, he said in an interview, “a sequel in spirit but not in a normal way.”

The first book was written some 38 years ago in Doucet’s third age.

He wrote My Grandfather’s Cape Breton then and it explored the stories and the charismatic personality of his illiterate Acadian grandfather William Doucet.

“My grandfather couldn’t read or write and the idea of him writing about his life was impossible. His whole life was expressed in his stories to me as a child.

“People say in the village that if anyone was suited to be the grandfather of a writer, they would have picked (William). He was a great storyteller. a step dancer and he had all the old skills from the woods and the farm.

“When I first went there I was 12 and I realized right away I was in a special place. This was in 1958-’59 when many kids were going to camp and doing stuff like that.

“I was shipped off to this very remote entirely French Acadian village (called Grand Etang) with a grandfather who had a big farm that he farmed with horses. It was between the mountains and the sea.”

Doucet said he had an idea very early on to write book about his grandfather but it took a bit of time to get it done.

When he finally did sit down “I wrote it all really quickly in old Ottawa South in a garage in the course of one summer. I’ve written many books and many have been hard to do. I’ve laboured over them intensely for years. My Grandfather’s Cape Breton was one draft and never a word changed. The summers just came out and wrote themselves onto the page.”

That was then.

Grandfather’s House was a different writing experience.

“One thing it has in common with the first book is the place. It was written largely in the same village.” Doucet has a home just two klicks down the road from his grandfather’s farm.

There is another connection. These days Doucet is a grandfather himself, with four grandchildren.

“I thought I would write it from that perspective. I thought I would write about my life and being a grandfather. It is about the same place and the same family but it’s about a much different life experience. I have several degrees. I am literate. I have had a complex life with lots of different threads to it.”

So, in addition to being a sequel, Grandfather’s House is as a memoir of sorts. It talks about his parents and it talks about his personal philosophies. There is a lot of history and there is a strong representation of what it means to be Acadian in Canada.

He writes about his father, Fernand, an economist who studied the global fishery and was warning about the sustainability of fish stocks decades before the cod almost disappeared from the Grand Banks.

“One of the aspects of the book is to teach and to pass on to my children and grandchildren a little of their ancestors’ lives.

“One of things you are conscious of as you age is there is really very little transmitted from one generation to another. Most people can’t tell you much about their grandparents.”

In explaining the Doucets, he has ended up explaining a bit of the history of Canada.

The Acadians arrived at Port Royal on the Bay of Fundy with Champlain in 1604. The first Doucet, he says, touched down there in 1632 and he was a captain and in command when the Americans seized the community.

It’s a lot of work being the custodian of a family history. He has a simple answer for why he took it on.

“My father married outside the tribe. He married an English girl from London, England. She had never been outside London. when they were married.

“I was confronted from very earliest age two huge cultural divides. One branch was Acadian/Canadian, the other was English Londoner. I was aware of how different cultures are.

“In trying to explore who I was I ended up exploring our family and why they were the way they were.”

This, though is mostly about the Doucet side.

“My mother is just as important to me as my father and I did spend a summer in London with my English grandparents but my mother was an only child and her parents remained in London. Getting to know them was harder.

“My father had seven brothers and two sisters and they were all in Canada. But also maybe it’s personality. My youngest sister is much more attached to the English side of the family. She’d be happy to live in London.

“Part of it is circumstance and part of it is that I did feel this need to explain that part of my family history not just to me but to the world.

It took Doucet about four years to finish this book.

“I was trying to make sense of a bunch of different aspects. It is about the village as it is today. It is about the relationship with my grandchildren. It’s about the history of Canada. It’s about family. And it’s about how to build a more sustainable world. That is a lot to cram into one little book.”

It was also hugely emotional.

“I find everything I write now is infused with the thought that this may be my last book, my last word. It really gives writing an intensity that it never had when I was younger.”

He is in more of a hurry now.

“It’s funny: You are in more of a hurry but you are slower. On one hand I have a great urge to get the words down right away, but I’m less inclined to be satisfied with what I have done.”

Part of the book was therapy, he said.

“This book is a bit of a cri de coeur; it’s a bit of history; it’s a bit of who grandfather is and what he believes in and who the family is.”

He said the book was basically done when he made a last minute decision to run for mayor in 2018.

“No one else was running against Mr. Watson. I have never agreed with his policies at all and since no one else was there, I decided to do the stupid thing and oppose him.”

The 2010 run for mayor was different, Doucet said.

“I had a big team, twice the money and we had lead up time. We really thought we had a chance to become mayor. and redirct the city. That’s what I found so mind-numbingly stressful. When I was defeated I knew the developers would run the city.

“When I lost, it was devastating. My whole life got trashed. I still can’t escape that feeling that I failed. I was not a party person ever. I have basically been a citizen who cared about cities. I was interested in cities and how they worked and the best way to affect change was to be a city councillor or a mayor.”

He calls his time as a councillor for Capital Ward when Bob Chiarelli was mayor “eight of the best years of my life.”

Doucet continues to write. He has two more books on the go. As time marches on, he’s racing to the finish line, ready to pass the baton.

Grandfather’s House: Returning to Cape Breton
Clive Doucet (Nimbus Publishing)

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.