I was excited to read and review Silver Donald Cameron’s Blood in the Water: A True Story of Revenge in the Maritimes (Viking 2020) because its story takes place in Petit de Grat, a small Acadian fishing village off the coast of Cape Breton Island. My family is spread across Nova Scotia, but my roots are in New Waterford, located at the tip of Cape Breton. Cape Breton Island is known for its breathtaking natural beauty and welcoming islanders, so it was surprising to learn that in June of 2013, Phillip Boudreau was murdered in Petit de Grat after three local fishermen saw him vandalizing their lobster traps. Infamously referred to as the “Murder for Lobster” case by the media, Cameron’s text takes a deep dive into the crime as well as the community that it occurred in, complicating the media’s salacious and oversimplified explanation of the crime.
Phillip Boudreau is described as a complicated figure within his community. One of the many wonderful things about Cameron’s text is that he does not ask you to take his word for it—he brings you to the people who lived it. He interviews the people of Petit de Grat and relays their perspectives in mini-sections he calls “Island Voices.” These parts of the book were some of my favorites because you get a real sense of the community and the realities of the case from the people who were there. Cameron describes Phillip as someone who was frequently in trouble with the law and at odds with many folks in the community. One community member similarly stated that “Phillip would steal the beads off Christ’s moccasins. But then if you needed them, he’d turn around and give them to you” (28). Another mentioned that “He’d steal…but if you needed it, he’d give it to you. I used to call him Robin Hood” (29). One particular quote within the “Island Voices” section perfectly describes Cameron’s approach to the case: “But as bad as he was, he never hurt nobody. He never deserved what happened to him” (28).
Cameron does not downplay the harm Phillip created in his community through his thievery and the general chaos he could often create. But he also acknowledges that murder was not the solution to Petit de Grat’s Phillip problem, and he relays the complex community dynamics that were at play both pre-and post-murder. The story of the murder itself has been contested by the people that lived through it. However, the generally accepted version is that Craig Landry, James Landry and Dwayne Samson went out on their fishing boat and saw Phillip messing with their lobster traps. They become angry, as this was not the first time Phillip had stolen from their traps and/or vandalized them. Phillip, as well as his boat, was shot by one of the men in the fishing boat. Phillip’s boat began to capsize, and allegedly, to make his body sink, they tied an anchor around him until he fell to the ocean floor. Cameron goes through the various stories that were told with warranted skepticism, and he criticizes the ways that the facts of the case were established by the court. This book is just as much about a murder that occurs in a small community as it is about the failures of the Canadian justice system. Cameron spends time going through all court proceedings (proceedings he attended as a journalist) and attempts to makes sense of the twists and turns of our often-futile system. His critical eye translates well: through Cameron, we can see where the justice system failed Petit de Grat, the perpetrators, and Phillip himself.
Another aspect of Cameron’s text that I loved was the history he gives of Acadians in Nova Scotia. Cameron never loses sight of the fact that Petit de Grat is an Acadian town. In his surveying of the community, we are made to understand how the history of Acadians effect towns like Petit du Grat years later. Cameron also explains what the general character or code of Acadians are, describing it as “the Golden Rule, with teeth. It’s a system of rewards and responsibilities, developed by the community, that shapes general behaviour” (53). Cameron also relays the history of major industry in Cape Breton (mining, fishing), religious histories, and Acadians’ relations with the Mi’kmaq peoples. These sections were fascinating and well told.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the way it not only criticized the Canadian criminal justice system, but also turned to Indigenous systems of legal knowledge to make sense of the case. In chapter fourteen, “The Nature of Law,” Cameron states that:
“There are other legal traditions, however, and some of the most sophisticated and sensitive ones belong to the First Nations…As the great Anishinaabe legal scholar John Borrows explains, law is ‘what provides guidance for people in their lives,’ and it is found in ‘the things that deserve respect in the world. So, if you see a good set of behaviours from elders, you would find law emanating from those people, because they are worthy of respect, because they have demonstrated that worthiness through their actions, the way they have talked and they’ve lived’”(230).
Cameron also quotes Borrows as saying that Indigenous law comes from non-human sources as well:
“If you see a bird and the way that bird takes care of its young, and you recognize in that interaction there is something that you should be taking into your own life…you would find law in that source as well” (230).
Cameron uses Borrows’ legal wisdom and understanding to reflect upon Phillip’s case, stating that when looking back on it, “one can discern two distinct systems of law. One is the formal system of prosecutors and juries and courthouses. The other one, the informal community system, is very like the Indigenous system, rooted in a community’s daily life, its history, and its most cherished values” (231). Cameron acknowledges that both systems failed in this case, but while the failures of the community system has caused “its members anguish and self-criticism,” the formal legal system “barely even suspects that it failed” (231). The beauty of Cameron’s book is that he leaves no stone unturned. He surveys the community and its history while also relaying the story of the case and the legal failures therein. In so many ways, Cameron’s book resists equating this case to a classic story of revenge. Instead, his book is a cultural artifact, a story about a complex community who is still picking up the pieces from this disaster while the rest of the world has moved on. True crime fans will love this book, but because it goes above and beyond the classic true crime structure, all lovers of non-fiction will appreciate this excellent text.
Please add Blood in the Water to your Goodreads shelf.
About the Writer:
Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature. Her work on women in twenty-first century true crime is forthcoming from Crime Fiction Studies.