Suzanne Rent continues her series of profiles of women over 50 who, in their own often quiet ways, make significant contributions to our society outside of the corporate world.
Heather LeBlanc was just a young girl when she visited Port-Royal, the reconstruction of a French habitation and now national historic site overlooking the Annapolis Basin, but she remembers that visit well.
“I can remember vividly driving through Granville Ferry. I remember the houses, I remember the trees, I remember what it looked like,” LeBlanc said in an interview. “And now I’m living in one of those houses that I remember from when I was 12 years old. That’s how connected I feel to this area.”
LeBlanc, now 71, grew up in Saint John, NB, but would return to Annapolis Royal years later when she and her husband, Bill, moved to the town after he was laid off from his engineering job in Yarmouth in the 1980s.
At that time, LeBlanc said she thought they’d only stay in town for a couple of years and she was worried she might not find work or anything to do. But she found a place for herself in the historic waterfront community of about 500 residents. LeBlanc found work and got involved with boards and committees for local dance, music, and theatre groups.
“I like the sense of community, I love the sense of place. I love its deep cultural background that goes back thousands of years. The architecture, the archeology, and the stories. It’s really deeply engrained. There’s a sense of being home if this isn’t your home. It’s almost a sense of being rooted,” she said.
LeBlanc said she can’t imagine living anywhere else, and her current work is putting Annapolis County on the map.
The beginnings of Mapannapolis
LeBlanc is the project designer on Mapannapolis, a volunteer-led digital mapping project in which the history, stories, and assets of Annapolis County are collected and shared in storymaps on a website. These are the “hidden” stories of the county you don’t see on conventional maps.
When you scroll through the storymap section, you’ll find stories on heritage homes, historic wharves, the Acadian Deportation, Bear River trails, a walking tour of Annapolis Royal, and more. There is also a blog that shares more stories, including details on some of Mapannapolis’ other projects.
LeBlanc is the manager and coordinator for Mapannapolis, so she writes the grants and works with partners and the groups that fund the work. She also organizes all the public and group meetings around the projects.
The project’s beginnings really started back in the 1980s when a group of residents decided to do something with the mountains of photos and records on heritage homes and other structures in Annapolis County that were hidden away where no one could access them. That group collected 2,600 photos and documents, which would be the first collection Mapannapolis volunteers scanned to be put on the website.
“They scanned so many papers that one volunteer said if she went to another room and didn’t hear the sound of the scanning, she’d panic that something broke down,” LeBlanc said. “That’s how it started and it just grew from there.”
In 2012, a seniors’ group asked students at the Centre for Geographic Sciences (COGS) at the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) to teach them how to create digital maps to use to store the history of the county’s heritage homes, cemeteries, churches, and more. Together, they made that collection of heritage homes into a storymap. More projects and more collecting would follow.
Over the years, LeBlanc owned her own business, and she worked as the executive director of various cultural organizations. When CFB Cornwallis shut down in the 90s, she led a program to help civilian staff with resumes and interviews so they could find new work. She briefly worked in the health care sector, too.
Then in 2009, LeBlanc was diagnosed with a chronic illness, which she said made her “adapt her life accordingly.”
“When that come along, I really had to reevaluate what I was able to do,” she said.
LeBlanc long had an interest architecture and in the protection and restoration of heritage buildings. She’s lived in two heritage homes in the county, including her current abode in Granville Ferry that overlooks Annapolis River.
Taking on the role as project designer for in Mapannapolis was a perfect fit, given her collection of skills and interests.
Besides LeBlanc, there are about 15 to 20 volunteers working on projects at a given time. All of the information the volunteers dig up is brought to life in storymaps of photos, maps, and the written word. And it’s available for anyone to browse any time. All that information that was long hidden in cabinets, cupboards, and shelves now has a life online.
LeBlanc and the team at Mapannapolis have done far more than putting the documents online. They are organizing groups to get out in the community, digging, and working with consultants and archaeologists to find more stories. One of the projects the team has worked on was the search for Acadian ancestral graves and the first Acadian church in the area, which the group suspected was near the Garrison Graveyard at Fort Anne National Historic Site.
LeBlanc said Parks Canada, which runs Fort Anne, has become an important partner in Mapannapolis by giving its students and volunteers access to the cemetery to do more research. Boreas Heritage Consulting is involved, too, offering to search the cemetery using ground-penetrating radar to find anomalies that could be grave sites. LeBlanc said they knew through oral history that there were about 2,000 people buried at Garrison Graveyard, but only 234 of the graves are marked.
The search for the Acadian graves began in 2018. The team also used Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data to help identify other features near the cemetery. Meanwhile, a group of researchers with the Applied Geomatics Research Group at NSCC conducted an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle survey of the burial ground.
The team found anomolies of what they believe to be 19 unmarked graves. The search was expanded and the group found the foundation for the first Acadian church, as well as artifacts dating to the Acadian settlement of the Annapolis area.
“That’s a whole area now we know that we can say it was the birthplace of Acadian culture and heritage and it started here and went out to all the communities,” LeBlanc said. “That was a huge discovery. That was very, very exciting, not just for our community, but an international community.”
Of course, the search for the Acadian ancestral graves are documented in a storymap at Mapannapolis and the entire Garrison Graveyard is mapped out, too, with all the details of who is buried in the marked graves. Anyone visiting the site can simply click on a number on the right-hand side of the map for more details on who’s buried in that plot.
Genealogists used the website in their searches for family. So do PhD students and archaeologists. Many others check it out simply out of interest in the community. LeBlanc said Mapannapolis is a way to preserve the oral history of Annapolis County so the stories don’t get lost. But she said the project maps also provide a way to show people how the area has changed through deforestation, rising sea levels, or development, and how to better plan for the future.
LeBlanc said she’s not really interested in the genealogy or the dates and places of the usual telling of history. She said she enjoys the storytelling of the projects.
“From the very beginning, the interest I’ve always had was, ‘What are the stories out there? What are the stories people want to tell? What’s important to them?’ Not something that is superimposed on them because of a mandate of an organization or government,” LeBlanc said. “It’s more this is what this place means to them.”
Searching for the graves of Black Loyalists
LeBlanc and the Mapannapolis team continue searching the graveyard at Fort Anne.
Last October, Micha Cromwell, who leads the Black Loyalist Descendants Committee with Mapannapolis, a group of volunteers, along with staff of Boreas Heritage Consulting, searched the cemetery for unmarked graves of Black Loyalists.
As they did with the search for the Acadian graves, Boreas used ground-penetrating radar. Cromwell and volunteers were on site and the public was even invited to stop by to learn more, maybe even trying out the ground-penetrating radar equipment themselves (the Halifax Examiner wrote about that project here).
That project got national attention, with Cromwell doing interviews for press across Canada. And the project captured the attention of a younger generation just down the street. LeBlanc said students from the elementary school nearby came to take part. Some of the students even did interviews for TV news, even though they were a bit nervous, LeBlanc said. Mapannapolis is linking generations with its work.
“Some of the students were two or three generations removed from this and they didn’t know. They knew nothing about the stories, and they were totally amazed this was their history, this was their sense of being rooted somewhere,” LeBlanc said. “They were extraordinarily interested.”
The Acadian World Congress is taking place in Nova Scotia in 2024, only the second time the international event has been hosted in the province. Technology has changed a lot since 2004, so LeBlanc said the work of Mapannapolis will be updated for the 2024 congress. The website story maps are in French, too.
‘Most moving experience of my life’
LeBlanc has a personal connection to this work that cements her roots to Annapolis Royal. Her father, Herbert, grew up in an Acadian community in Saint John, NB that went back for generations. But the community was becoming poor, so in 1924, Herbert’s parents moved the family to a nearby English community. LeBlanc said Acadians were often bullied for their culture and language.
“I remember talking about this,” LeBlanc said. “Not very often, but once in a while he’d talk about what it was like to grow up and how they were treated as a family.”
LeBlanc said the family encouraged younger members to become Anglophones.
“My dad was the first person [in the family] to marry a non-Acadian. We all grew up and all my cousins were all Anglophones, even though we’re Acadian.”
When there was a resurgence and interest in Acadian culture in New Brunswick starting in the 1960s, LeBlanc said her father was “thrilled” that people were interested and sharing Acadian stories.
Decades later, when Mapannapolis was doing the work to uncover Acadian graves and the church in the cemetery at Fort Anne, LeBlanc was thrilled to learn more about her own roots.
“Moving here and being involved with an Acadian project here and finding the graves and finding the church, it was probably one of the most moving experiences of my life. Being able to hold a bit of a piece of pipe, or knowing that this was there and underneath my feet were my ancestors, and knowing how proud my dad and uncles and my aunts would have been,” LeBlanc said.
“I had no that I was going to feel that so deeply. I didn’t know it was that deeply engrained in me and how it affected my father’s family, my aunts and uncles, and how difficult it was for them.”
Encouraging others to map their stories
More than 10 years since it started, Mapannapolis still has stories to tell. LeBlanc said there are three more storymaps in the works, including on on archaeology and how a dig works. Some of the students from COGS who worked with them on those first projects in Mapannapolis from 10 years ago are now helping with more storymaps.
LeBlanc said it’s sometimes tough to get funding because explaining what they do with Mapannapolis is so complex. But when she shows them the website, people get it. She has other communities asking how they can do something similar. LeBlanc tells them it takes time.
LeBlanc said she would like to see some of the work of Mapannapolis be made into hands-on experiences for people to learn more about Annapolis County’s history. She imagines there could be workshops, retreats, educational opportunities, and seminars. Maybe there could be wine events or dinners. LeBlanc isn’t short of ideas on how this all could be mapped out.
“I never, ever dreamt that it would get to the place where we are now,” LeBlanc said. “And there are still so many opportunities there of things that can be done.”
When she’s not working on Mapannapolis, LeBlanc spends time traveling, enjoying gardens, or visiting with her daughter, who lives in Greenwood with her family. While LeBlanc said Mapannapolis is fun and creative, it consumes much of her time and energy, and she’d like to find someone who can take over eventually.
“I would like to stay as long as it stays creative and we’re allowed to do some of the things we do and make sure that all the information we get ends up in a safe place,” she said.
So, what would a storymap of LeBlanc’s life and work say?
“Hopefully, it would say she made a difference in how stories, or maps, or heritage, or geography is translated into a language that people understand and want to read about,” she said. “And it encourages them to action or maybe think about something they could, even in a small way, preserve. Whether it’s a family history or a little bit of a graveyard. How can they become involved in culture, the arts, development of some kind. That’s what I think I’d like to be known for.”
Great article and Heather is a treasure! I love the fluid way Mapannapolis has evolved. It’s inspiring to think there is a place to collect some of the stories I’ve heard from old-timers here, stories that express the nature, strength and true wealth of this part of the province.
What a wonderful story! I wonder if something similar is being done to preserve the history of Halifax, especially in the areas that have become poorer over time and which were once quite historic.
Heather has done such a tremendous job to locate and preserve history that has been buried in Annapolis County! We are very proud of her, her work and the volunteers she has led to further research.