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A Christmas parade float sits in the fire hall of the volunteer department in Glace Bay, N.S., one of the Cape Breton communities where a recent decision by the regional government has limited the hours when parades can be held.

Photography by John Morris/The Globe and Mail

When the groundfish industry collapsed in the 1990s, there wasn’t much to celebrate in Louisbourg, N.S. The seaside community of just more than 1,000 people had lost its only school, shops were closing up and jobs in the local seafood processing plants were rapidly vanishing.

A handful of volunteers went looking for a way to boost people’s spirits. So they threw a Santa Claus parade. And they did it at night, so they could bring some lights, music and joy to their town during one of the darkest times of the year.

“When we started this, our whole town was dying. Our fishery was gone, our population was down, our young people were going out West,” said Rose Steylen, who has been organizing parades in Louisbourg since 1998. “We really needed something to lift the town’s spirits. So that’s when we came up with the parade.”

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Ms. Steylen says that’s why a recent decision by the Cape Breton Regional Municipality to ban all parades after dark has sparked such an emotional reaction in Louisbourg, and in small communities across the Nova Scotia island. Daytime parades, while still allowed, struggle to draw volunteers and have led to scaled-down celebrations or even cancellations of the holiday tradition.

The nighttime ban was made in the name of safety, after a four-year-old girl was run over by a float during a nighttime Santa Claus parade in Yarmouth last year. But in this rocky corner of Nova Scotia, people say their municipality has gone too far, ending an important source of community pride in small towns where people feel many of their traditions are already being lost.

For many of these communities, Santa Claus parades are the unofficial start of the holiday season, a major public gathering that people planned their vacations around. The floats were often homemade, sometimes as low-budget as a man pushing a Christmas tree in a wheelbarrow, a decorated excavator on a flatbed or a grandmother riding a snowmobile illuminated by LED lights.

The parade ban has reverberated around Cape Breton. While some communities said goodbye to parades that have run for decades, others are planning contemplated “static” parades using floats stationed in parking lots as a way to get around the nighttime restrictions. “It felt like the Grinch stole Christmas,” Ms. Steylen said. "This was such an important event for the children. My kids grew up with those parades.”

Rose Steylen stands next to a lobster trap Christmas tree in Louisbourg, where she's organized parades since 1998.

John Morris/The Globe and Mail

In many rural Cape Breton communities, volunteer firefighters are tasked with running the local parades. Organizers say they can’t get enough help to run the parades during the day because many of those same firefighters have other jobs, and that’s led several communities to cancel their long-running Christmas parades outright for the first time.

That includes North Sydney, where for the first time in decades there will be no Santa Claus parade. It all has Lloyd MacIntosh, the community’s volunteer fire chief, so worked up he has to pull over his truck just to talk about it. “It’s another nail in the coffin,” he hollered through the phone. “We’ve already lost everything else. The community feels like this was the icing on the cake. This is like that bully in the room pushing everyone around, and the community is fed up.”

The response to the nighttime ban was swift and emotional. In nearby Glace Bay, where the Christmas parade was also initially cancelled, the fire chief said he didn’t want to leave his house after he decided the beloved parade couldn’t continue in the daytime. Some called him a “child hater” and demanded his resignation. “The worst feeling was wanting to take the uniform off for the first time in my life,” Fire Chief John Chant said. “When people started attacking my firefighters in the coffee shop, it got pretty ugly. … There was some very vulgar language.”

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In Glace Bay, firefighter Stephen White inspects some of the 2,000 lights being put up before the annual Christmas tree lighting.

Glace Bay's fire department chief, John Chant, said he and his firefighters faced public anger and verbal abuse for a controversial decision about the Christmas parade.

In response to the ban, Ms. Steylen and others in Louisbourg organized a Christmas village where people can see floats, just not moving along a parade route. She’s hopeful it will start a new tradition in her community, one that will still help the local food bank and allow children to get their picture taken with Santa.

After a week of sleepless nights, and an offer of volunteers from the minor hockey association, Mr. Chant also decided Glace Bay’s parade will continue, albeit in a smaller, daytime version on Nov. 30. But with all the threats and negative backlash over his initial decision to cancel the parade, he admits it’s a bit more difficult to get into the Christmas spirit.

Others think the regional government acted too hastily on the advice of insurance companies, who warned them to mitigate any risk. Mr. Chant points out the municipality also passed a new resolution dramatically increasing the amount of rules governing daytime parades – including banning parade entrants from throwing candy from floats and limiting vehicles to speeds of four kilometres an hour.

Float inspections have also been increasing. Last year, Cape Breton Regional Police removed three entries from the North Sydney parade because they didn’t have the required paperwork, Mr. MacIntosh said. People complain it’s all taking the fun of what used to be homegrown community parades, where neighbours and businesses would try to out-do each other with unique entries and vie for prizes. “I’m not sure the police wouldn’t crack down on us even harder this year,” Mr. MacIntosh said.

Police inspections of parade floats have been increasingly strict in recent years, North Sydney Fire Chief Lloyd MacIntosh says.

A petition and emotional community meetings were unable to persuade the municipality to reconsider the ban on nighttime parades. It’s also stirred up some old wounds over regional amalgamation, created when eight municipalities in Cape Breton County merged in 1995, and the concern some of Cape Breton’s smaller communities are losing their unique identities.

“We have to protect these traditions,” said Amanda McDougall, a regional councillor who tried unsuccessfully to get the municipality to rescind the ban. “Some people have been very upset, very hurt by this. We have to remember that people feel genuinely connected to these events, and we have to take that into account in the decision-making process.”

Regional councillor Amanda McDougall stands beside a Christmas tree in Glace Bay.


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