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John Allan Cameron

The town of Fergus has lost a piece of its heart with the death of Cape Breton musician John Allan Cameron, who served as honorary chieftain of the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games for more than 20 years.

Cameron, 67, died November 22, 2006 at Scarborough's Centenary Hospital after battling bone marrow cancer and leukemia for more than a year.

"He was Cape Breton born and raised and he was loved by the entire country," said Deb Dalziel, who is general manager of the Centre Wellington Chamber of Commerce and music co-ordinator for the Fergus games.

"We were so privileged to borrow him for one weekend a year."

Great Big Sea played a tribute concert to the musical giant -- known as the Godfather of Celtic music -- at the Fergus festival in 2005. But he was too ill to attend the festival this past summer. His son Stuart Cameron assumed the role in his place.

"Everything I learned about Celtic music, I learned from John Allan," Dalziel said. "He was such a mentor to us at the Scottish Festival and he believed wholeheartedly in what we were doing. "He had a wonderful soft spot in his heart for all of us in Fergus."

"He was a great, strong presence within our festival and whenever he travelled, he'd figure out a way to mention Fergus when speaking to his audience," added Caroline Laing, past president of the Fergus games. "He was a real spokesperson for our festival and our town."

Cameron was born in 1938 in Cape Breton to a family with strong musical genes. His mother, Katie Ann, and brother, John Donald, were avid fiddlers and his uncle, Dan Rory MacDonald, was a renowned fiddler and composer. Cameron started to play guitar as a teen and in the 1960s he began picking traditional Scottish pipe tunes on his 12-string.

He switched career paths in 1957 and moved to Ottawa to become a priest. He spent seven years with the Order of the Oblate Fathers, taking his final vows in 1964. But just six months later he received a papal dispensation to return to performing.

In 1968 he played traditional Irish and Scottish music at the Newport and Mariposa folk festivals and soon after signed a recording contract with Apex Records. His debut album, "Here Comes John Allan Cameron," would later become a seminal Celtic folk album.

Cameron became a well-recognized fixture on CBC Television's "Singalong Jubilee" in the 1970s, sporting his trademark kilt, which he also wore while playing at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.

"He told me about that performance," Dalziel said. "Some people wondered if he should wear a kilt in Nashville. 'They'll either love me or hate me,' John Allan told me. Needless to say, they loved him."

Cameron played on CBC's "The Irish Rovers" before getting his own variety show in 1979. "The John Allan Cameron Show" featured such guests as Roger Whittaker, Ian Tyson and Bruce Cockburn.

He recorded 10 albums over his 40-year career and paved the way for such musicians as Rita MacNeil, Jimmy Rankin, Natalie MacMaster, Ashley MacIsaac and the Barra MacNeils.

Becoming a member of the Order of Canada in 2003 was recognition of his role in bringing Celtic music to the mainstream.

"He was part of the fabric of the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland games," Dalziel said.

"He was so full of life and full of malarkey. I know I'm a better person for having known him."

Craig MacGregor, president of the Fergus games, considered Cameron a personal friend, so the loss is deeply-felt.

He said during the 2003 and 2004 games it was apparent Cameron was struggling with some kind of health issue and to outside audiences he may have appeared intoxicated because his memory and speech were particularly affected.

"The cancer affected his brain first," MacGregor said. "In hindsight it all makes sense."

On a lighter note, MacGregor recalled an incident about eight years ago when Cameron was still in the peak of health. It was the Sunday night after the games were over and a few organizers and Cameron got into the scotch.

Cameron's wife Angela was the designated driver and she stopped at MacGregor's home, where his dog North came out to say hello.

"Angela leaned over and said, 'I'll offer straight trade Craig. John for the dog,' " MacGregor said with a laugh.

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