As I began my twelfth year in the fall of 1983, my Canadian comedic antennae had received some direction from a year’s worth of Wayne and Shuster broadcasts, but I wasn’t getting much clarity in terms of news and current affairs, especially in terms of provincial and federal politics.
Despite the best efforts of my family, particularly in the heated political discussions that usually erupted at my maternal grandparents’ house after Saturday or Sunday Mass in L’Ardoise, my preteen political knowledge began and ended with Pierre Trudeau being the Prime Minister and Joe Clark being a bit of a laughingstock. That was it.
Fortunately, I was about to get a great Political Science teacher, and he would also school me in the fine art of self-deprecating homegrown humour while offering some early encouragement for my own satirical work, including my fledgling career as an editorial cartoonist.
That man was Dave Harley – but you likely know him better as the wise-cracking alter ego that set politicians, celebrities and the Canso Causeway in his comedic cross-hairs for over three decades, General John Cabot Trail.
His classroom was the airwaves – on Sydney’s CJCB AM Radio in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and then CBC-TV’s regional network. I first saw Dave as The General in October 1983 on the Sunday morning youth series Switchback; he would return to the show early in 1984, promoting a fictional training facility for the quasi-military Cape Breton Liberation Army that included such instructors as Olivia Newton-John (who would perform, depending on her classroom, “Let’s Get Physical,” “Let’s Get Chemical” or “Let’s Get Historical”), and school assemblies that featured Loverboy “singing their big hit, ‘Queen of the Broken Nose.'”
For those appearances, Dave may have tailored his material to suit Switchback’s younger audience and its musical tastes. But at the same time, General John Cabot Trail was launching a lengthy run as a weekly political commentator on CBC Halifax’s supper-hour news show, First Edition, where he would remain for the better part of the following decade, making his opening line “How’s she goin’, b’ys?” and his closer, “Down with the Causeway,” household words.
This late-1983 appearance on the CBC Maritimes variety series Night East is a good snapshot of The General’s early-to-mid-’80s schtick. Exaggerating the twang that likely emerged from Harley’s hometown of Sydney Mines, his mustachioed hero took lighthearted pokes at local, provincial, national and global leaders with a rapid-fire ammunition of ripped-from-the-headlines humour, goofy gags, and just enough edge to distinguish General John Cabot Trail from the typical political commentator or your garden-variety stand-up comic.
Through it all, The General made local news, communities, and characters more accessible to a mass audience, eventually spreading across the country through national CBC Radio interviews and guest shots with the likes of The Royal Canadian Air Farce and Lorne Elliott’s Madly Off In All Directions, but Dave Harley never dumbed it down.
Sure, we got some elementary-school style groaner puns and silly reworked names. Former Port Hawkesbury Mayor Billy Joe MacLean, who was expelled from (and then, as an independent, re-elected to) the provincial legislature in the mid-’80s following an expense account scandal, was renamed “Billy Joe Complain” and “Billy Joe MacLame.” The Tory Premier that encouraged MacLean to enter provincial politics in 1981, John Buchanan, had a bizarre lapse during a heated legislature debate in 1989 and started barking (yes, “woof woof” barking) at Opposition Liberal Leader Vince MacLean; The General recast him as “Premier John Bu-Canine” and declared that Buchanan “is always welcome in the CBLA clubhouse, he’s just not allowed on the couch.” And Harley certainly wasn’t the first and only person to label a certain late Libyan leader “Muammar Gaddafi-Duck,” nor is he likely to be the last.
However, Dave simultaneously infused The General with a genuine affection for the targets of his punchlines, from political figures to ordinary Nova Scotians. Unlike some other Atlantic Canadian comedians who have built their careers by portraying their friends and neighbours as backwoods hicks, General John Cabot Trail avoided simply rehashing tired old “dumb Newfie” jokes and instead celebrated the colour and craziness all around us.
And, in doing so, he became the first to show me that Cape Breton was indeed a funny place, full of funny people, and showed me the sheer joy and catharsis of getting through hard times by finding ways to laugh at ourselves. Phony commercials for such products as “Down East Airlines” and “Oil Rig Soap” (“The favourite of the politicians, because it starts out dirty and it stays that way”) will always stick with me because of their delicate balance of flat-out silliness and the extra layer of humour for those familiar with the headlines that inspired them. The same holds true for this pitch for the CBLA’s first (and only) daytime soap opera, “General Fish Plant”: “It’s the story of a young fillet who has no ‘sole’ until she meets Captain Highliner, who turns her raw, quivering flesh into light crispy batter.”
Inspired by The General’s character and irreverence in the winter of 1985, I wrote him a fan letter in the character’s faux-Cape Breton vernacular and also included my earliest attempt at a political cartoon, “The Anatomy of a Not-Too-Swift Politician.” (The gags included “fingers hidden in pocket, always crossed”; “extra campaign buttons”; and even “marijuana joint, to allow him to get in Richard Hatfield’s good books.” I doubt I would have even known New Brunswick’s premier had been caught with pot in his suitcase during an airport security check in 1984, were it not for The General’s weekly skewering of “Richard Hashfield”.)
A few weeks later, I was astounded to receive a typed reply, signed “General John Cabot Trail” and clearly written in The General’s “voice,” thanking me for the cartoon: “I put it on the wall of the CBLA clubhouse, next to the dartboard, which is next to the picture of [then-Prime Minister] Brian Mulroney, which is next to the picture of Brigitte Bardot clubbing a seal hunt protestor.” He added: “I would encourage youse to keep drawing, because youse have a real talent…although I would suggest a new box of crayons.” (I had photocopied the original drawing, so The General got a black-and-white version of what had previously been a coloured-in caricature.)
To say I was thrilled is an understatement; we had the letter laminated and it even inspired me, two years later, to rework the drawing as “The Anatomy of a Typical Politician” and send it, along with some other ideas, to MAD Magazine. Their editors described it as “an interesting idea” but added that a similar piece was already scheduled to run in an upcoming issue. Still, at least I got MAD’s attention, and I had General John Cabot Trail to thank for that.
My family and I remained fans for years; I have fond memories of the entire Mombourquette clan listening and laughing along with the first of three General John Cabot Trail comedy albums in the late stages of our Christmas 1987 gathering at the grandparents’ house where all those political debates had taken place throughout my formative years. And Dave Harley became forever linked with the holiday season in Cape Breton when he kicked off his second album, 1989’s The General, with the radio single “Let’s Go Santa,” a reworking of his 1987 update of Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas that saw the CBLA come to the rescue of Santa Claus when he was unable to produce the $1.50 fee required to cross the Causeway and enter Cape Breton prior to the tolls’ disappearance in 1991.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing for Dave Harley and The General. In 1991, following an RCMP investigation of provincial cabinet minister Roland Thornhill that forced the veteran Tory to exit his party’s caucus for a brief period (and threaten the majority status of then-Premier Don Cameron), General John Cabot Trail remarked during one of his CBC-TV commentaries that Thornhill was contemplating a vacation: “Well, you know what they say – a change is as good as an arrest.” Dave happened to be working in the civil service at the time – specifically, the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism and Culture – and was suspended for his trouble. (He was also off the air for a week, during which CBC Halifax received several letters defending Dave, including one from that former 12-year-old who, emboldened by The General’s encouragement in 1985, had become the editorial cartoonist for Port Hawkesbury’s weekly newspaper, The Reporter.)
The General was also known to occasionally dip into more ribald humour; his first two albums had extended “Cape Breton sex ed” sections (“Placenta is not a place in Newfoundland – although Dildo is”) and his third release, 1998’s Rants and Raves, included lists of “Top Ten Things About Cape Breton That Sound Dirty But Are Not” and “Top Ten Things About The Legal Profession That Sound Dirty But Are Not.” (The latter list sounds like a basic internet meme; I actually enjoy the former list on the same level that I enjoy George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” bit.) Still, I figured Dave was smart enough to recognize when to hold off on the PG-13 material, so I was disappointed to hear that, during a 1998 appearance at the Port Hawkesbury Creamery’s Tuesday Night Ceilidhs series, he had dusted off the creaky old joke about the guy who had “a tiny piano and a 12-inch pianist.”
And yet, all of that quickly evaporated the first time I finally met Dave Harley – out of uniform and without The General’s trademark mustache – in the winter of 2000, while we were volunteering backstage at an East Coast Music Awards event at the legion hall on Sydney’s Dorchester Street. I was MCing portions of the ECMA 72-Hour Jam and also interviewing musicians for the live broadcast of the event by Eastlink Cable TV. (Here’s a sample; I was rather surprised to find this on YouTube, quite by accident, a few weeks ago.)
Not recognizing Dave – or even knowing his last name – as we hustled musicians on-and-off stage at the Sydney legion branch, I wasn’t ready for the exchange that occurred midway through that Saturday afternoon in February:
“Did you say your name was Adam, and you were from St. Peter’s?” Yes, I did. “Well, my last name is Harley.” While my brain processed this information and my mouth dropped open, he asked another question: “You sent me a fan letter and a drawing in 1985, right?” Yes, I did. “Did I write you back?” Yes, you did. “Oh, thank goodness.”
And, finally, I got to thank him for all the laughs and the inspiration, and learned a disappointing factoid about the late-1997 recording of Rants and Raves: Dave’s producers convinced him to do the latest version of The General’s act during a post-Boxing Day “Wing Night” at Bunker’s Peanut Lounge in Sydney, so the spaces that should have been filled with laughs are instead taken up with muted stretches of hungry Cape Bretoners devouring chicken and wiping wing sauce off their fingers. At least I got to give Dave the props he deserved for some of his more inventive latter-day material, including a “Wedding Announcement” for the marriage of Marion Bridge and the Sydney River Bridge, featuring cameos from several other bridges and ferry crossings across Cape Breton. (“The Canso Causeway was ‘tolled’ not to come.”)
Little did I know that Dave Harley and I would work together again five years later, as part of the Canso Causeway’s 50th anniversary celebrations. I was one of three producer-participants in the “Causeway Ceilidh,” a re-telling of the Causeway story and the general cultural history of the Strait of Canso that took place at Port Hawkesbury’s SAERC Auditorium. Of course, we couldn’t envision this type of show without General John Cabot Trail, and with Dave already booked to play the character three nights later at the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre for an all-star “Golden Gala” that would officially wrap up the Causeway anniversary celebrations, we asked him to concoct a special monologue specifically for our event. (To Dave’s credit, he not only allowed us to vet the script but also did the gig for half his usual fee.)
Watching my personal DVD of the Causeway Ceilidh in preparation for this blog post, it’s wonderful to hear the gasp of recognition and the boisterous applause that greeted The General when he strutted onstage. A few of his monologue’s jokes were already in circulation by the time he hit Port Hawkesbury in August of 2005 – this YouTube clip from that part of Dave’s career includes a few of them, such as “Differences Between Canadians and Americans” and “Long Fiddle-Tune Names.” But he also created some fresh gags that combined the CBLA’s longtime distaste for the Canso Causeway with the celebratory nature of the event: “As we speak, the Cape Breton Liberation Army is training 50 million black spruce budworms to descend on Port Hastings and munch the Causeway into sawdust.”
The climax featured the General gleefully telling the sold-out SAERC and Civic Centre audiences that the CBLA claims victory over the Causeway through a deal with the Canso Canal staff:
“Some people believe that the building of the Canso Causeway stopped Cape Breton from being a true island – but that is not the case. See, I got a secret: The guy that operates the swing bridge at the canal is a member of the Cape Breton Liberation Army. And he works the backshift, and every morning at 3 o’clock, just as I’m getting in, I gives him a call and I gets him to push on the lever just a tad, just to move the bridge a little bit – just to make Cape Breton an island again, just to make us free.”
“And I never identify myself – he knows who it is. I just reveal the secret code – I whisper in his ear, those four little words that mean so much – Down With The Causeway!”
Dave’s contribution to the Causeway celebrations didn’t begin and end onstage, however. As a freelancer for The Reporter at the time, I was one of a handful of media folks who interviewed him about The General’s long-running punchlines about the link between Cape Breton and northeastern Nova Scotia. Much to my surprise, Dave spoke glowingly about the Causeway, even describing it as “one of the great engineering marvels of the 20th century.” I still treasure that interview, and I still find it cool that, following our brief professional arrangement as booker-and-entertainer, Dave called me up one day to get some updated contact information for venues that might consider booking The General, including Mabou’s Strathspey Place. (To put this in context, remember the 12-year-old boy who sent a cartoon and a fan letter to The General all those years ago. He definitely didn’t think that, someday, he might be in a position to help his hero.)
I didn’t realize that this particular phone call would be the last time I would speak to Dave Harley, who was claimed by pancreatic cancer in late 2012, only a couple of years into his sixties. Culturally and personally, it felt like a death in the family; I was touched by the fact that Dave’s passing rated a brief flashback on CBC Radio’s As It Happens to an interview by past host Dennis Trudell (in which The General stated that the CBLA’s ideal version of free trade would involve “trading Barbara Frum and The Journal for Huey Lewis and The News“). I was also intrigued by compliments from former First Edition host Jim Nunn, who “threw it” to The General in the ’80s and early ’90s and also befriended Dave during that time:
He was an expert on Canadian parks. He was a photographer and had two interests: He shot the graves of Fathers of Confederation and the graves of victims of Vimy Ridge. He traveled all over the country getting these photographs.
Five years after Dave Harley’s death, General John Cabot Trail’s legacy of comic anarchy lives on. He was named in song and portrayed by a wordless cast member in The Return of the Cape Breton Liberation Army, a wildly successful show that attracted sellout crowds during its run at Sydney’s Highland Arts Theatre this past spring. The show’s author, Wesley Colford, was inspired by the chronicles of the CBLA – with and without The General – in “Old Trout Funnies,” an independent comic book launched by Paul “Moose” McKinnon in the mid-’70s and celebrated in 2015 by the book Old Trout Funnies: The Comic Origins of the Cape Breton Liberation Army.
Now, in the interest of journalistic accuracy, I should point out that the relationship between McKinnon and Harley has not always been rosy, nor has The General’s place within the CBLA mystique. Here’s how McKinnon, speaking to co-author and Cape Breton University associate professor of folklore Ian Brodie, describes the meeting that may have planted the seeds (literally and figuratively) for General John Cabot Trail’s emergence:
I had started doing this comic while still at Charlottetown’s Holland College…I was either on a March break or had finished school and was heading for Sydney when I stopped in Port Hawkesbury to see my friend Dave Harley, who was working as a DJ at the local radio station at that point. We discussed the story line and smoked some herbs and came up with some ideas (that I’m sure must have been wonderful, if only I had written them down)…and I drank his beer and slept on the sofa.
Clear as mud, right?
According to Brodie, however, The General’s depiction in a handful of Old Trout Funnies products – including the 1990 CBLA calendar “PCBs: Professional Cape Bretoners” (above) and the unpublished fifth edition of Old Trout Funnies (below) – portray “a strain between Harley and McKinnon with respect to whose creation the CBLA was and who should profit from it.” Brodie goes on to point out that, in a 1987 interview for The Toronto Star, Dave makes no reference to McKinnon or the various CBLA products not specifically related to General John Cabot Trail.
Now, because Dave Harley isn’t with us any longer and therefore can’t defend himself, I’m not going to pick sides in terms of the specific creation of the Cape Breton Liberation Army. You now have as much information as I have, so you can make up your own mind (just as any of us could make up our own minds over the past four decades about whether General John Cabot Trail was actually funny and relevant or merely a one-note buffoon).
For me, the facts are these: (1) He gave me my first real exposure to Nova Scotian, Canadian and world politics; (2) He gave me encouragement when I was brave enough to share my early creative endeavours with him; (3) He remembered me when I met him years after that childhood encounter; (4) He gave me, my family and friends decades’ worth of laughs; (5) He made a memorable week-long celebration even more special…
…and: (6) I still miss him.
Thanks for everything, General Dave. And you’ll be happy to hear that, after all this time, I finally have a new box of crayons.