Tribute: Leon Dubinsky, 81, a musician devoted to his native Cape Breton and its people

Leon Dubinsky (Supplied by family)

Leon Dubinsky died Jan. 17 at the age of 81. He wrote the unofficial anthem for Cape Breton, “We Rise Again,” which has also become the anthem for the March of the Living, as well as hundreds of other songs. He was the musical director of the Cape Breton Summertime Revue and Rise and Follies for 12 years, and was a founding member of the band, Buddy and the Boys. In 2002, Leon received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the East Coast Music Awards.

These are excerpts from eulogies delivered at his funeral by Max MacDonald, a member of Buddy and the Boys, and his nephew, Uri Carnat.

Max MacDonald:

(singing) Home in my harbour at the edge of the sea

And when we are parted, she calls out to me

Wonderful words by a wonderful man.  Songs of home, of missing home. I love that he gives Cape Breton a personality. Cape Breton becomes a person in his songs

But then the next day, he could turn around and write [singing] “B-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-bar-b-que.”

I met Leon in 1972 when he auditioned me for a job as an actor for a summer theatre company called Theatre on the Island. I never imagined that we would become creative partners, band mates and friends.

I really began to get to know Leon by getting to know his family. His father Newman was a larger-than-life character who so loved Cape Breton that he printed up cards printed up with a caricature of a kilt-wearing bagpiper with two holes that you could put your fingers through to make the legs. And, at the top was the name of the piper was printed: Norman MacDubinsky.

Newman’s birthday parties in August at the farm were legendary. Several hundred people would attend and the only rule was, no presents allowed for Newman. Instead, he gave a present to everyone who attended.

Leon’s mother Esther quietly ran the whole show behind the scenes but never shied away from expressing an opinion. She gave me my best singing lesson ever. I ran into her at the bank one morning after an early Buddy and the Boys gig that she attended and asked her how she enjoyed it.

She said that it was very nice but was disappointed she couldn’t understand the words to the songs better. “You were mumbling”

BOOM! I’ve paid attention to my diction when performing ever since and have also shared this invaluable insight to a few others who I thought needed to hear it.

I was also always amazed with the unconditional support given to Leon from his siblings for his choice to take the road less travelled.

So the themes of family in Leon’s work should come as no surprise. Except in Leon’s case the notion of family was more broad. He saw ways to include groups of people with a shared experience. He had no doubt that what was good for the group was good for everyone in the group.

He wrote about coal miners and steelworkers as a family or tribe. Indeed, he encouraged us to think of our shared history and experience as Cape Bretoners as belonging to a tribe. And not just to belong but to take pride and celebrate that fact. “We are one world, one hope, one dream” he wrote.

He also kept a very sharp pencil for those who would threaten the tribe. BESCO, the British Empire Steel Company that ran the steel mills and coal mines in the ’20s became The British Vampire Company. [singing] “If there’s punishment for evil, if there is a devil’s door. Open it up for those parasites. NO one deserves it more.”

I am a better man for knowing Leon Dubinsky.

The course of my life was changed for the good the day I met him. I learned the importance of passion for your work, and I learned that it was work, that it was a craft that needed to be learned. Leon used to say that song writing was 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

Leon was a transformative figure in our culture. He gave us the tools to believe in ourselves. That is an exceedingly rare thing. He didn’t aim for that. That wasn’t his goal. He just wanted to do the right thing. And he did.

Uri Carnat:

Since Leon passed on Tuesday morning, the family has been overwhelmed with support and love, and part of that is seeing and understanding how widely this grief and sadness are shared by the wider community (as Max said, the larger family) and the many worlds Leon lived in.

Unless you’ve wandered in off the street (in which case you’re still welcome if you did), or if you’re in a self-imposed media blackout (for which you’re understandably excused), and if you didn’t already know, Leon had more than a lifetime of accomplishments for all the worlds he inhabited:

At 9, the youngest member of the synagogue choir, his folk-music life, early theatre, Buddy and the Boys, Genie Nomination for Life Classes, The Rise and Follies, the Cape Breton Summertime Review, the enormous catalogue of songs, Pit Pony, the Rotary Shows.

His honorary doctorate from Cape Breton University (you’ll see in a moment how lucky he was that it honorary), the Stompin’ Tom lifetime achievement award at the East Coast Music Awards.

His environmental and social activism. His integrity.

You probably know these things. Good people have shared them and can share these stories better than me, so I’m going to share some stuff about my uncle Leon.


I always saw Leon as a kind of rebel and an iconoclast.  I ‘almost’ wore a Hawaiian shirt under this suit today to honour him. Almost. It was a last-minute audible. I cancelled it.

He wore a suit jacket and Hawaiian shirt a few months ago to his daughter Ella’s wedding.  The suit jacket said, “OK, this is an important event.” The Hawaiian shirt said, “and I’m going to do it my way.”

But, Leon rebelled early, actually first against death.

At one year old, he suffered from pneumonia, and in 1942, with the limited availability of penicillin, he was held against an open window, to help him breathe.

Having survived this, he moved on to an unorthodox approach to his education.

As smart and educated as he was, his brother Leslie said that Leon and formal education were never a great fit.

He had to repeat Grade 1.

Argyle School in Sydney, as some of you may know, had separate boys’ and girls’ entrances on opposite sides of the school.

So, his oldest sister Sylvia taking him on his first day of school, dropped him off at the boys’ entrance, dutifully, and walked around to the other side of the school to the girls’ entrance.

Now, when she was out of sight, Leon decided he didn’t want to go to school, and he ran away. And he ended up at Sydney Springs Metal Works, which was halfway between his house and the school. And he did this every day.

The guys at the metal shop I guess just shrugged and gave him a chair to sit in. He had his own spot—a regular at the bar.

When he saw out the window that the kids were walking home for lunch, he jumped out of the shop and joined them, went home for lunch, and then in the afternoon, he’d make his way back to the shop.  And this proceeded day after day. His mother, Esther, couldn’t understand why she kept finding metal filings in his clothes,

The truth didn’t come out until report card time, and Leon didn’t have one.  He did, however, get a gold star for attendance at the metal shop.

To bookend this academic success, he also repeated a year after Grade 12. Apparently, his first go-round was dedicated more to basketball and working with his parents at Sydney Ship Supply. He knew what hard work was, rolling 45-gallon drums onto the boats.

Leon also sagely waited until his younger brother was old enough accompany him to St. Francis Xavier University, where he could have an on-site academic coach and personal alarm clock.

Now, even with this personalized assistance, I’ve heard that some pluralistic, broadly ecumenical, divine intervention was required to get him his degree.


Even when we don’t live here, Cape Breton is our family home.  As Max said, Leon inherited his father’s love of this island.

Wherever Newman Dubinsky would travel, or whoever in the world came to his doorstep, he would hand out Cape Breton tartan souvenirs. This survives in multiple ways in our family, including the way we print out kippot (like the one I’m wearing) for family events—bar mitzvahs and weddings.

You can walk into many synagogues in Toronto and elsewhere and see someone wearing a Cape Breton tartan kippah. If you don’t know them already, it’s certainly a conversation starter

Leon tried Toronto. It was not for him.

In his song “Goodbye Gotham City,” his farewell to his time in the city, Leon wrote, “Goodbye, to Gotham City, it’s coming on to summertime, Cape Breton Island, hello.”

Everything he needed was here.

He tried some other places, too.

On a trip home from Mexico with his brother Leslie, they got pulled over in Arizona, driving Leslie’s green MG, and in a case of mistaken identity, ended up laying on the road, guns pointed at them, hands behind their head, until they could be handcuffed

When things eventually got straightened out, Leon was quiet on the way home. Leslie asked Leon what he was doing, and Leon told him he was writing a song. It was “Every Mile.”

Without getting into all of the details of Leon’s fight against the quarry on Kelly’s Mountain, it really consumed two years of his life.  He certainly received help from many people, and collaborated closely with the Mi’kmaq First Nation, but think about how many other people could have pulled this off.

Leon told me at the time how this project consumed all of his thinking and all of his creative time. It’s not that he regretted it, but he noted to me how mindful we have to be about what we choose to allow to consume our lives and our time.

But his creative energy and love for language was always there. You may remember or still have your “Don’t Take Me for Granite” T-shirts. 

Leon, we don’t.

The Dubinsky Passover seders in Leon’s living room, or my parents’ home, or at Sylvia and Louis Allen’s in New Waterford, are also such precious memories of place.

If you were lucky enough to be there in Englishtown, you wanted to freeze time, the family harmonies set against the darkening sky, St. Ann’s Bay, the farm, and the mountain.

At the end of the seder, there’s a song we sing—the lyrics are “Next Year in Jerusalem”. Leon, amongst other playfully heretical puns and personal additions to the family service, would replace that with “Next Year in Englishtown.”

Leon honoured Cape Breton in his work, and he received that love back.  His work is a tribute to the community who supported, contributed to, and facilitated his craft.

For those not in self-imposed media exile, you know that Leon lived a series of identities and lives.

He was a student (sort of), athlete, ship chandler, teacher, actor, director, singer, songwriter, band-mate, sheep farmer, poet, son, brother, husband, brother-in law, uncle, godfather…

May we all get to experience life like this.


I tried to organize some family stories, but I think I’m just going to throw them at you and you can create your own order. Leon sometimes spoke that way. You had to summarize on your own.

My cousin Jonathan Allen reflected on the fact that this accomplished creator had opportunities all over Canada and travelled, but in every family picture from our events over the years, he’s in it.

Except in his own wedding picture, because he and Beth ran off and got married in Ottawa.


We Rise Again” was composed watching his father, in failing health, sit at the edge of the swimming pool he built on the farm, and watching his grandson, my brother Daniel, playing in the water.

Who knows.  Maybe those “waves out on the ocean” may have originally been in that pool, although for those of you who know the farm, the ocean was right there.

And when Newman died, Leon wrote “You and I Around the Fire,” for the many community bonfires his father would hold on the beach in early trips to Englishtown.


The advice many young Jewish women receive is to grow up and marry a Jewish doctor.

Leon’s take was typically slightly different. Leon provided the “Jew,” Beth the “doctor”.

Anyone who knows them knows how lucky Leon was to have found her.  They had fun, creatively and musically.

Beth loved Leon even before they met for the first time at the Misty Moon in Halifax. And in his song “Still Get the Thrill,” Leon said about her. “There may be better ways to feel, but I haven’t felt them yet.”


Shortly before Leon’s passing, Ella and Beth performed, on Leon’s behalf and on their own behalf, at a memorial concert for Ralph Dillon, Leon’s bandmate in Buddy and the Boys

They opened up with a message from him, “I am Leon Dubinsky speaking to you through my two sweethearts”.

Ella shared with me some of the things she talked about with Leon after the concert that night. He was first of all enormously proud that they had performed with musicians for whom he had so much respect.  “That’s not a door that opens for just anybody,” he said.

The last thing he wrote, while Ella was rubbing his head after the concert, was “Wonderful way to end the day, wonderful night of life.”


Leon’s songs often bring us to tears. 

My father recently asked Ella, “How many times have Leon’s songs made me cry?

“‘Not enough’ would be my father’s answer,” Ella said.