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Cape Breton mourns Rita MacNeil: 'She had the guts to get up and do what she did'

Rita MacNeil, a singer-songwriter from small-town Canada whose powerful voice explored genres from country, to folk, to gospel, died Tuesday night following complications from surgery. She was 68.

Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Cape Breton is mourning and the flags are flying half-mast as a tribute to the island's famous daughter, Rita MacNeil.

In Big Pond Wednesday, where the singer grew up, Ivan Doncaster is playing Ms. MacNeil's iconic song – The Working Man – and the flag outside his home has also been lowered.

Mr. Doncaster is the councillor for Big Pond, a community of about 200 people. He has known Ms. MacNeil for decades.

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Ms. MacNeil, he said, had three big loves – "She loved to sing, she loved Cape Breton and she loved Big Pond."

His wife, Viola, was moved to write a poem for Ms. MacNeil Wednesday when she heard of her death. She called it: We Keep Rita's Love Alive.

"Rest in peace dear Rita, you have blessed so many souls … our thoughts go back to Big Pond and your early concert years when timidly you came on stage, your songs brought us to tears …"

The poem is just an indication of the outpouring of emotion from the Nova Scotia island that was so proud of Ms. MacNeil.

Her tea room in Big Pond, which opened every summer, would attract bus tours from all over. If a customer was lucky, Ms. MacNeil would sometimes be the server. Her restaurant made a fabulous seafood chowder and biscuits.

"She was very humble," recalled Mr. Doncaster, who saw her recently. She was in the hospital, in a wheelchair, and asked how he was doing, deflecting the conversation from herself.

"And she's not one of those people who were stuck up," he said. "She'd come over and talk to you."

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Josephine MacNeil is her first cousin. Her father, a steelworker, and Ms. MacNeil's father were brothers in a family of 12.

Rita MacNeil wrote of what she knew. She wrote a song about her father, the carpenter.

Her cousin described how they would play in the back of the local general store, which Rita MacNeil wrote about in her song Angus Anthony's Store. It was on her first album, Born A Woman.

Rita, she said, started singing in local bars. It was tough for her, being such a large woman. Ms. MacNeil said she was "mocked" and people would talk over her.

Extremely shy, she was also born with a cleft palate.

"She had the guts to get up and do what she did," Ms. MacNeil said. "By God, it turned out well for her in the end."

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She was discovered during a six-week stint at Vancouver's Expo 86.

"It was the West that actually made her a little bit famous," her cousin says . "And it was so nice that happened to her. She was late acquiring it. She wasn't like the poster glamour girl."

Ms. MacNeil still lives in Big Pond. She last spoke to her cousin in the summer and had heard recently that she had gone into hospital with an infection.

It didn't sound good. She said that Ms. MacNeil had not been well for quite a while. In fact this past summer she had to sit down as she performed at her annual concert at the Big Cove fire hall.

Recently, she renovated her tea room and was living in it.

"God love her," Josephine MacNeil says .

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