(September 2, 1952 – July 24, 2021)
We lost our Kenzie so unexpectedly Saturday night but as he would have wished, with family, song, a full moon, and as little fuss as possible.
While best known for his song “The Island,” which was declared the official Cape Breton anthem in 1985, Kenzie had a career in songwriting, acting, producing, directing, and writing for films, television, and radio for over forty years.
Kenzie inherited his love for family, music, and community from his parents, John Angus and Anastasia (Borden) MacNeil. As the youngest of seven, Kenzie learned the art of storytelling and the beauty of the Gaelic culture from his father’s knee. John Angus, a Gael from Gillis Point, was an educator, field worker for Moses Coady, and a leading member of the Antigonish Movement.
Kenzie proudly grew up in Whitney Pier and studied at the University of Lesotho while accompanying his parents on field work with CIDA in Africa for three years. At Little X, he was greatly influenced by his professors, who became friends and colleagues, especially Charlie W. MacDonald, Donnie F. Campbell, and Harry and Liz Boardmore. Centred around the College Pub, a close group of the Island’s greatest talents came together and formed the heart of the cultural renaissance of Cape Breton in the 1970s: poetry readings, plays, revues, skits, open mics, festivals – all of which laid the path for the Boardmore Playhouse and put Cape Breton story and song on the national stage.
Many people across the country grew to recognize Kenzie’s distinctive voice through his contributions to Peter Gzowski’s This Country in the Morning and Morningside on CBC Radio, and on some of the most popular television shows of the time: Singalong Jubilee, Ceilidh, Tommy Hunter, Ryan’s Fancy, Ian Tyson, and many others. Kenzie had an active theatrical career performing in productions like Tom Gallant’s Step/Dance and with Gordon Pinsent in John and the Missus, and was nominated for an ACTRA award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Last Night in Town. He was integral to the production of the National Film Board’s Empty Harbours, Empty Dreams, 12,000 Men, Scoggie, among others.
He served as the Artistic Director/Producer of the Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island and the Cape Breton Music and Theatre Company, Director of the UCCB Press, and Editor/Publisher of The Cape Bretoner magazine. He was immensely proud of his work as Chair of the Nova Scotia Film Development Corporation and the creation of soundstages across the mainland and on the Island, and in particular, bringing Pit Pony and New Waterford Girl to Cape Breton. He loved the collaborative process of filmmaking.
The songs that Kenzie wrote were deeply rooted in his feelings about family, spirit in the face of decline, and the importance of storytelling and laughter to the Island’s culture. On his beautiful 12-string Guild guitar, he composed songs such as “Johnstown Boogie,” “The Bungalow,” “Stubborn Spruce,” and “The Barbarian.” His soaring voice could fill a theatre just as it would captivate an audience around a bonfire on the Bras d’Or. His duet with Raylene Rankin of Stanley Collins’s “Oh Do You Remember” will endure in the hearts of many Cape Bretoners. His booming laugh was unrivaled, so infectious you couldn’t help but laugh yourself. Kenzie’s girls always knew where to find him in a crowded room or outdoor concert by following his laugh.
Kenzie had some incredible adventures to points far and away, but he always came home to An Innis Àigh, for which he had a deep and unwavering love, full of stories and lessons and having shared his love for the Island wherever he was found.
Beyond all, his greatest pride was being a father to his four girls and grandfather to his eleven grandchildren. He was the ‘sun in splendour’ to his wife of 44 years, Lauren; the adored father of daughters, Caitriana (Juan Tun), Christie (Devon Morrison), Mary (Elias Rassi) of Ottawa, Anna (Gary Hatcher); and ‘Papa Kenz’ to his best friends Marcos Alejandro, Javier Santiago, Litza, Elsie, Elena, Samuel, Sadie, Sandy, John, and twin boys coming in August.
We are gratefully supported by his devoted sister, Mary B. Hureau and her son, Tom, brothers John and Angus, nieces and nephews, and his dearest friend, Father Ora MacManus. He enjoyed a wide circle of friends who shared his great love of Cape Breton, and who fought for its autonomy and its future. He loved his Margaree home and his friends and neighbours who made life there special.
“Bear me upon your wing and fly me to the Highlands, where heaven’s birds sing.
There’s a song there upon the wind, where the ocean meets the sky,
Sounding like my father’s violin as he gently played a lullaby.”
He was loved for his character, humour, good will, optimism, and generous spirit. While left with a tremendous grief, we will be forever grateful to our Dad for the gifts of song and stories for the generations to come and the extraordinary life he gave us all. We will host a gathering in the fall to celebrate together. In his memory, please donate to the Highland Arts Theatre, share a book with a loved one, sing one of his songs, watch the film Empty Harbours, Empty Dreams. There are no words to describe how much he will be missed.
“And if I should ever lose you, or if death comes upon our door,
And our lives have been lived well, I could not ask for more.”
‘Caitriana’ by Kenzie MacNeil
Funeral arrangements are entrusted to the care and direction of Pier Community Funeral Home.
Our most sincere sympathies to the family and friends of MacNEIL Kenzie Bernard 2021..
Death notice for the town of: Sydney, Province: Nova Scotia