Leonard LeBlanc didn’t aspire to be a fisherman when he was growing up in Cheticamp.
Although he comes from a long line of fishermen on Cape Breton Island, Leonard’s dad quit fishing in the early 1940s to join the Canadian Navy in World War II. When he returned from overseas, the elder LeBlanc took a job as a diesel mechanic on a fisheries patrol boat.
Subsequently, Leonard didn’t have a fishing enterprise to inherit from his dad, but even if his father had still been a fisherman when Leonard finished school, he might not have been the heir apparent anyway because Leonard was born the fourteenth in a family of 19 children or, as Leonard puts it, fourth from the bottom.
Whichever direction you look at it from, it would have put Leonard toward the end of the line of succession.
Leonard enjoys talking about his large family. He laughs when he says that five or six of his older siblings had left home by the time he was born and he’s not sure that all 19 were in the family home at the same time, other than on special occasions like Christmas or family reunions.
“I think there were 64 of us at our parents 50th wedding anniversary — and that was just immediate family; brothers, sisters, their spouses and children,” he laughs.
Leonard remembers meeting some of his oldest siblings for the first time when he was a child. “They would come home for a visit and dad would say ‘this is your brother Peter or this is your brother so and so.’”
Although Leonard didn’t fish as a teenager, the call of the ocean was ever present. Cheticamp has a rich history of fishing and its appeal was never far from Leonard LeBlanc’s mind. Even a six-month stay in Halifax in his late teens wasn’t enough to persuade Leonard that life would be better in the city.
“That was the only six months I’d ever been away from home, but it was long enough to know that it was not the life for me.”
It took several years before Leonard decided to try fishing. He discussed it with his father who gave his son some sound advice.
“He said before you invest in it, check it out first,” he told me.
Leonard checked it out and for a while it looked like he might not be investing in the industry.
“I was seasick for 10 straight days but I wouldn’t give up and I guess on the eleventh day God said ‘OK, you win’ and I haven’t been seasick since.”
Leonard fished with his father-in-law for a few years but in his late 20s, he decided it was time to make it on his own.
He studied navigation and then put the word out that he was interested in buying a boat and fishing gear. It wasn’t long afterwards when Jimmy Desveaux, a long-time friend of his dad, dropped by with an offer.
“He and dad were real close friends. They were in the Second World War together and he told me that he had some offers to buy his boat and gear but if I was interested, he’d rather let me have it because of the close friendship that he and my late father had, especially during their years overseas.”
Leonard was grateful for the offer and he especially liked the family nostalgia that came with it, so the two men made a deal.
But, like his first 10 days of seasickness discouragement, Leonard soon faced several more setbacks in his attempt to make it on his own.
He worked with Jimmy before the lobster season opened, building lobster traps and upgrading the wooden plank boat, but when they put the boat in the water, Leonard was dismayed to find it leaked like a basket.
“I thought it was gonna sink but Jimmy said ‘no, no, don’t worry, just make sure the pump works.’”
Leonard had visions of having to keep the pump operating all the time until he learned that the planking was caulked with an oakum compound that took a day or two to “plim” (expand) and then it would be fine.
But that wasn’t the end of Leonard’s initial discouragements in getting into the fishing business. When it came time to test other things, he discovered engine troubles in his newly acquired lobster boat. A mechanic looked at it and told Leonard the engine was “shot.”
Leonard talked to Jimmy and he agreed to pay for a replacement. During the conversation, Leonard mentioned he needed a helper for the spring lobster season, which was about to open, so his friend offered to fish with Leonard for a month or so. They had hardly finished working out the terms of the deal when Jimmy suffered a heart attack.
Leonard persisted and found a helper at the last minute, although he admits wondering if God was trying to tell him something.
“He sure tested me, but I was too stubborn to give up,” Leonard chuckles, adding that when you’re from a family of 19, you learn a few things about survival.
Leonard’s inexperience as a skipper got a good laugh from his peers at first.
“We didn’t have a GPS or anything and on our first trip we dumped the lobster traps in the water all at the same time.”
Leonard says the boat must have been moving in a circular pattern because it turned out that the traps went out and fell to the bottom in a circle.
“All the older fishermen were laughing their heads off but, as luck would have it, the next day, I had more lobsters than they did so I had the last laugh,” he says, still laughing at his own folly.
Leonard was smart and soon figured out how to be a good fisherman. He continued fishing lobster but added groundfish and snow crab to the mix in later years.
He retired in 2015.
Leonard quickly became aware of the various organizations that influenced the fishing industry in his region and decided he wanted to help so he offered himself for election to voluntarily serve on various boards. And, if he saw a need for a new association, he would create it.
He has continuously held key leadership positions in several important and influential fishery organizations for over 20 years. He was the first and only president of the Cheticamp and Area Fishermen’s Association, now the Gulf Nova Scotia Fishermen’s Coalition (1986-present).
He has been a member of the board of the Fisheries Safety Association of Nova Scotia since 2009, president of the Gulf Nova Scotia Crab Company since 1995, past president and current secretary of the Gulf Nova Scotia Fleet Planning Board (1997-present), past president of the Lobster Council of Canada, current executive member of the Nova Scotia & New Brunswick Lobster Eco-Certification Society and advisor to the Snow Crab Solidarity Fund Association (1997-2014) helping local plant workers.
Leonard’s extensive knowledge of the fishery and the scientific work undertaken by the organizations has attracted the attention of post-graduate Masters and Doctoral students from across Canada and even France.
Leonard retired from the fishing boat a couple of years ago and is now able to spend a little more time with his wife Annette in their home in Cheticamp, but he is still active in many of the organizations on which his fingerprint is indelibly etched.
Leonard is proud of his accomplishments but he is emphatic that he would have not accomplished much without Annette’s support. He says she has always been more than the wind beneath his wings. She was, and still is, his wings.
“She’s been there alongside me all the way. She’s been involved in pretty near all the associations that I’ve been in. She’s been a treasurer, secretary and bookkeeper and in some cases, she’s straightened out a few fishermen better than any of us [men] could have done. She’s been a full partner — a vice president without being called a V.P.,” he says glowingly.
Just recently, Leonard received a major award in recognition of his work to build a better future of his fellow fishermen. In February 2017, he was inducted into the Atlantic Canada Marine Industries Hall of Fame during the Eastern Canadian Fisheries Expo held in Yarmouth, N.S.
For all his accomplishments and successes, Leonard is probably best known for his tremendous efforts to improve safety at sea. His tireless work to make fishing safer started in 1989 and it came largely as the result of great personal loss.
Join us next month for Part II of Building a Better Future when we tell you about a horrific accident that changed the lives of Leonard and Annette forever.