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The day Cape Breton seceded from Nova Scotia

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
View from Mount Franey | Clarence Barrett
View from Mount Franey | Clarence Barrett
The day Cape Breton seceded from Nova Scotia

Some 15 years ago this day, the Inverness Oran, the community newsweekly on the west coast of Cape Breton Island, reported that the impoverished island, home to some 150,000 people, had decided to secede from the province of Nova Scotia, Canada.

The story, a banner headline covering the entire front page, was an exclusive by the authoritative, award-winning Oran, established in 1976.

Quoting “inside” and “confidential sources” in the island’s regional administration, the paper cited officials who decried decades of regional discrimination since the colonial confederation of Canada was set up in 1867, and super exploitation by mainland financiers based in Halifax who, together with foreign mainly US bondholders, controlled Nova Scotia’s purse strings.

CB officials projected they could do no worse by establishing a self-reliant economy based on the island’s rich natural resources, a skilled industrial working class with a rich heritage of struggle for social justice, augmented by the return of tens of thousands of educated and talented youth who had “gone down the road” – migrating to Ontario and Alberta.

Home to the co-op movement of the 1920s and 1930s, they envisioned the creation of scores of producer co-operatives in the fisheries, the countryside and towns to develop the economy and ensure that the fruits of Cape Breton labour would be used to advanced the well-being of Cape Bretoners themselves.

By making Gaelic a second language, they projected that Cape Breton, whose musicians are second to none, could brand itself as the “cultural capital” of the emerging Celtic world.

The Acadian French language would be introduced in all services such as senior’s homes and hospitals in Inverness and Richmond countries. Nation-to-nation relations would be established with the Mi’kmaq Indigenous people, and the Mi’kmaq language would be taught in school.

The first official act would be the nationalization of the Canso Causeway, which links the island to the mainland of Canada.

The paper warned that government-to-government deliberations would be required to negotiate ownership of federal installations such as military bases and the coast guard college, CN’s Marine Atlantic ferry to Newfoundland, and the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, all of which are administered from far-away Ottawa. Acadian and Scottish lands and homes expropriated in the late 1930s to build the world famous Cabot Trail and the park would be returned to their owners, along with an official apology.

In addition, The Inverness Oran provided statistical evidence from StatsCan documenting the discrimination of Cape Breton Island as an oppressed region officially called “regional disparities.” It estimated real unemployment between 30 and 40 per cent, as compared to the federal figure of 9 per cent. People had no say whatsoever in governance. “Who decides? We decide!,” it seemed to affirm.

The centrefold provided a historical overview by author and writer Silver Donald Cameron. “From 1882 to 1968 (i.e., nationalization of the coal mines and steel mill), foreign corporations exploited Cape Breton as vigorously as they could, paying meagre wages for 12-hour shifts in appalling working conditions, and profiting again from company-owned housing and company stores. In the fishing ports, a similar set of relationships made inshore fishermen into virtual slaves of the fish-packing companies and local merchants. Union organization and mass action had been met with armed resistance by the companies, abetted by government.”

“Their bitter history,” Mr Cameron opined, “has also taught Cape Bretoners ‘regular channels’ don’t work, but civil disobedience does. There is no time like the present.”

In May 1985, the Premier of Nova Scotia had already in a burst of generosity proclaimed ‘The Island” the official anthem of Cape Breton, forming a precedent for secession.

The major story understandably caused animated discussion, joy and hope on the beleaguered island. A shiver of excitement ran through its collective spine.

Needless to say, the report cause consternation and panic in Halifax, the media capital. The sensational news dominated the radio news and talk shows throughout the day.

News cameras from CBC’s Maritime Noon zoomed in on the face of an Islander. “Look, b’y,” he said, in that distinctive Cape Breton voice, guaranteed to grate on the genteel mainland ear, “we’re jist out here lookin’ fer justice, and we ain’t goin” back till we gets it.”

Cut to a suit in Halifax, one of the Powers-That-Be. He shook his head in sorrow. Those people, he implied, are woolly-minded, ungrateful wretches. They’ve been treated more than fairly. And look what we get for our pains!

Provincial cabinet ministers to a man clung to “no comment” answers.

Pundits from the Halifax Chronicle Herald thundered with grave exasperation. Cape Bretoners are shortsighted, ignorant and unreasonable. Their irresponsible, illegal behaviour will spook investors (who only yesterday, one gathered, were lining up at the Canso Causeway, eager to shower the island with new plants and jobs.) Cape Bretoners are fouling their own nest.

The Holy Alliance of the Left preened itself, fulminating that Cape Bretoners “are splitting the working class movement.”

In Ottawa, Federal Minister Peter MacKay reportedly interrupted his afternoon rugby game to phone Condi and find out what to do.

Around 6.00 p.m., nearing the end of the day’s news cycle, The Inverness Oran issued a two word press release:

“April Fools!”

Or so I recall.

Tony Seed is a former features writer with the Toronto Globe and Mail, editor and publisher of Nova Scotia’s Shunpiking Magazine, contributor to Halifax Media Co-op, and now publishes his own blog.

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