A State of Mind

Colleagues at Cape Breton University are getting used to my observation that being a Cape Bretoner seems to be more of a state of mind than a feature of birthplace or heritage.

Since moving to Cape Breton last April I have been constantly amazed by the warmth and generosity of spirit of ordinary Cape Bretoners.  Hundreds of families and businesses reach out actively to CBU’s students to welcome them into homes and job opportunities; young people’s organisations like the Cape Breton Partnership’s youth wing Next Gen bring a powerful sense of optimism and entrepreneurial drive to our community; volunteer organisations like Rotary and Kiwanis take a local and global view of how to make the world  a better place; and there are tens of thousands of individuals who contribute regularly to good causes across Cape Breton Island such as CBC’s highly successful  ‘Light up a Life’ campaign for Feed Nova Scotia.

There is no doubt that our sense of community is a huge part of the Cape Breton Island shared identity.  And of course CBU students, staff, faculty and alumni are major contributors to that – culturally, economically and academically.  According to the CBRM Vital Signs report launched on October 1st last year 75% of Cape Bretoners have a sense of belonging to the community – compared to 71% for the rest of Nova Scotia and just 66% for the rest of Canada.

This is very good news for a region that wishes to build on its social, cultural and human assets.  But is it enough to have a strong sense of community if our economy is stalling and out-migration continues?   What else do we need as part of the Cape Breton identity to ensure that future generations of Cape Bretoners – including ‘new Cape Bretoners’ (otherwise known as immigrants) – can settle and build their lives here with their families?

As someone who has lived and worked in many different parts of the world and who has chosen Canada – and now Cape Breton – as my home for life, I spend a lot of time thinking about identity. What qualities make Canada such a great destination for immigrants? What are those elusive characteristics of societies and regions within Canada that promote ambition and success?  In my experience, this is a topic that Canadians discuss more than most nationalities.  And it is a topic that we have to place at the centre of our thinking if Cape Breton Island – and indeed the whole of Nova Scotia – is to flourish in the future.

The Forging of the Canadian Identity

Recently I read Charlotte Gray’s gripping story of a celebrated murder case in Toronto – the killing of a playboy scion of the Massey dynasty: Charles Albert Massey in February 1915.  Bert Massey – grandson of the 19th century agricultural industrialist Hart Massey – was shot in the heart by his 18 year old English-born housemaid Carrie Davies.[1] The popular response to the murder was a fascinating mix of identity-based opinion, prejudice and emotion played out against the backdrop of the First World War. Ms Gray’s book concludes with an exploration of how the Great War led to an eventual redefinition of Canadian identity – a topic of ongoing debate among historians as well as ordinary Canadians.[2]

Over the last 100 years we can trace how Canadian ‘hybrid identities’ of the early twentieth century eventually gave way to a more self-confident and independent national identity perhaps starting on the slopes of Vimy Ridge but eventually reinforced symbolically by Lester Pearson’s flag in 1965, Canada’s accession to the G8 in 1976 (giving us a clear and independent voice in global economic and foreign affairs), and the recent decline of Quebec’s secessionist tendencies.[3]

So why is all this so important for Cape Breton Island?

Developing a Multi-Cultural and Entrepreneurial Identity for Cape Breton Island

Cape Breton’s story has followed a similar trajectory to much of ‘Upper Canada’, with French, Highland Scots and Irish Gaels, British and Eastern European immigrants supplementing the early Aboriginal populations of Unama’ki.  Cape Breton is no stranger to embracing and transcending hybrid identities, and so the fundamental question now for all Cape Bretoners is what will our shared future identity be?

Are we ready to embrace multi-culturalism and social inclusion as a core driver of future economic prosperity as Ontario and British Columbia have done?  And is our narrative to be self-confident, aspiring to world class innovation and entrepreneurialism for the 21st century, consistent with the legacy of Alexander Graham Bell and led by our University and Community College, our schools and municipalities and our industrial and social partners?

Following the publication of the final report of the Nova Scotia Commission on Our New Economy Now or Never: An urgent call to action for Nova Scotians, no-one has been left in any doubt about the urgency of transforming attitudes to economic growth and entrepreneurialism across Nova Scotia.  So perhaps the most important question for all of us on Cape Breton Island is this: can we now build a culturally vibrant, socially inclusive and entrepreneurial identity for our Island?

Based on my experience of the last twelve months and thousands of conversations with Cape Bretoners I believe the answer should be an emphatic ‘yes’.  But from hereon the attitudes that Cape Bretoners strike and the stories we tell about ourselves will matter a great deal to our collective future. No-one wants a self-fulfilling spiral of out-migration, rising childhood poverty, youth crime and under-employment. So we must now build that self-confidant state of mind, and promote a regional identity  that will help make Cape Breton one of the most culturally and economically vibrant places in Canada to live and settle.

A shorter version of this blog appeared in the Cape Breton Post on January 9th 2104.


[1] Ms Gray’s brilliant evocation of Canadian history will be known to many in Cape Breton through her authorship of the definitive biography of Alexander Graham Bell: Reluctant Genius.

[2] In The Massey Murder (HarperCollins, 2013) Charlotte Gray describes how Carrie was fortuitous enough to be represented by the brilliant and eloquent trial lawyer Hartley Dewart who had his own score to settle with the Massey family. Carrie was found not guilty by an all male jury impressed by her naïveté, basic good character and legitimate fear of future unwanted attentions by her employer. However the facts were that Carrie gunned down Bert Massey on his own doorstep, with his own gun, and with no immediate assault in prospect. So how did she escape conviction for manslaughter with mitigating circumstances rather than being found not guilty of either murder or manslaughter? The back story to the trial included intense rivalry between Toronto newspapers vying for the loyal readership of (mostly British) working class immigrants and the beginnings of Canadian engagement in the Great War. Canada mobilised more than half a million volunteer participants in the conflict from (mostly British) working class immigrants and descendants loyal to the ‘Mother Country’. Aboriginal and black Canadians were not especially encouraged to volunteer; neither were non-British European immigrants. Thus it was a conflation of the Toronto Evening Star’s (British) working class readership ambitions, its pro-British Empire sympathies, and the predicament of a poor English girl threatened by an assumed wealthy Canadian that led to the acquittal, assisted by a highly selective summing up by a seriously sentimental judge.

[3] Nova Scotia Commission on Our New Economy, 2014. Now or Never: An urgent call to action for Nova Scotians. Accessible via onens.ca (accessed 03 February 2014).