Politics and Perseverance in Isle Royale (long version)

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Some time ago, John Whalley, the economic development officer for Cape Breton’s largest municipality said – according to the news media – that, “Cape Breton should think about becoming Canada’s fourth territory along with Nunavut, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.”

Whalley is quoted as saying that the (existing) economic development model is wrong, that “it is leaving Cape Breton behind,” with the mainland “pushing continued development in Halifax.”

Walley may have a point. But the model is long in the tooth, and the tooth is well sunk into the Cape Breton foot. It will take more than a light shake to get folks taking a second look at the way things are. To understand how things are, you have to look at how things got to be the way they are. And to do that, we have to go back – way back. (Not as far back as Sheldon in Big Bang goes to explain physics to Penny).

We have to talk about Lord Durham. With all this “separation” and “economic model” talk, we have to go back to basics. And there’s nothing more basic than Durham.

No, we’re not going to discuss Durham wheat, or Durham county which is somewhere in Upper Canada. We’re going to talk about the Durham that wrote a Report. It was a capital “R” Report. It was a Report that every school child, every politician, every newspaper columnist in Canada should have read. It was a Report written in 1839 on behalf of the British Government on the state of His/Her Majesty’s colonial properties north of the US border posts.

Generations of Canadian students should have committed this report to memory. But have not. And never will. Never mind.

Never mind that it was so important that its findings and recommendations found their way into the constitutions of Canada, Australia, South Africa, Newfoundland and New Zealand. But that is all another world, another lace. Here we are focused on the Highland Heart of Canada, and in that regard there are only three things that bear noting:

1. After backbreaking research we find that the Earl of Durham had a name. It was John George Lambton. “Lambton” means little or nothing to anybody, but all of us of course will remember Johnnie’s father-in-law…Earl Grey…after whom the tea was named. Johnnie was also known as “Radical Jack” (I’m not making this up).  Knowing all this will make you unbeatable in Trivial Pursuit.

2. Lord John Durham spent his time roving about “Upper” and “Lower” Canada (you’ll have to roam around Wikipedia to get a handle on that nomenclature) and hardly, if at all, had a look at the east coast. As far as we know the only eastern contact he actually had was to have one of his staff look up “Maritimes” at a Toronto library. He was, you see, preoccupied with the stresses and strains then being experienced in “Canada,” which is what some folks thought was all-important at that time.

3. When he finished his research, Durham said things in “Upper” and “Lower” Canada were in pretty terrible shape. He said they had an, “ill contrived constitutional system” that suffered from, “practical mismanagement of its affairs at every turn.” Hmmmmm.

As somebody probably told him to “not forget the Maritimes,” he did go so far as to add a Maritime footnote to the Report. He wrote, “Them folks is right happy down there and we should leave ’em alone.” Well, that’s the gist of what he wrote. John George and his helper Eddie Wakefield were a little more formal than that.

The Report actually says (about the “eastern provinces and Newfoundland”) that, in contrast to those Upper and Lower fellows, things were not so bad in the Maritimes, in fact….”if in….the Maritimes…. there is less formidable discontent and less obstruction to the regular course of Government, it is because in them, there has been recently a considerable departure from the ordinary course of the colonial system and a nearer approach to sound constitutional practice.”

That’s how they used to talk then. Today we’d say, Maritimers had chucked all the old bad stuff and were really trying to make a go of it with some new stuff. And doing a whole lot better than them Upper/Lower Canadians. Good on us, eh?!

[Nova Scotia deserves a stroke here (they aren’t all bad on the mainland). Johnnie Durham said (in his most important recommendation) that the key answer to “the problem” was “responsible government” in the colonies. And Nova Scotia was first off the mark on that one (in 1846). (There must have been some Cape Bretoners on the team)].

But did we hear that right? Did Lord Johnnie say that, in the mid-1800’s, a mere hundred plus years ago, we had it all over them guys in Toronto and Montreal….that they had “discontent” and “obstructionist government”….but in our dear old Maritime backwater…things were just going tickety-boo? It’s true. And that’s both fascinating, and puzzling.

It does sound like CB, NS, NB and PEI had their…er, manure together back in them days. But so what? The Maritimes were just a tiny mole on the backside of “Upper” and “Lower” Canada……right? Not so.

Stand by for data download.(You might get your calculators and scratch pads out for this)

In 1861 the population of CB was 63,173. Nova Scotia was 330,857. (Thus, CB had 19% of Nova Scotia…keep that in mind for later).  Now at that time your Upper Canada (by now Ontario) was 1,396,091 and your Lower Canada (by now Quebec) was 1,111,566. That means CB was 4% of Ontario and 5 1/2% of Quebec (keep that in mind for later too).

At the time of Confederation…note that Cape Breton was 63,173 of a total CANADIAN population of 3,171,418. That makes CB 2% of Canada by population at that time.

And by anybody’s reasonable reasoning, 2% owner of the entire shootin match of what the country was worth. Now some grinch out there might say…….”ummmmmm, no, them other provinces are equal partners….right? Well, no. I want to see what they paid when they joined. If you got a partnership, everybody kicks in. If the partnership breaks up, well, you divide by what people kicked in, then you divide the profits.

We got, accordingly to my calculations, 2% of Canada. Yep, our little island of Cape Breton owns a whole chunk of the country…right from Libido Bay in Newfoundland to Vibrator Cove on the west coast of Vancouver island. We’re not talking about Number 2 here…we’re talking about 2% folks. Two one hundreds. A fiftieth. A piece of the Rockies. More than a few buckets worth of the Great Lakes. More than a couple of Arctic islands. A piece of downtown Toronto. (Well, they can keep that bit.)

As interesting as this is – and it’s powerful interesting – I don’t want to talk about it. 2% is not enough. Cause we’re in there for the whole shootin’ match. We joined, we stayed.

Instead, I want to talk about the basis on which we’re staying. I want to talk about the Province of Cape Breton.

Go back 41 years before all these population numbers, to 1820 – to that evil day in the history of Cape Breton. The day the Province <shudder> of Nova Scotia re-annexed the Province of Cape Breton – this island, this rock in the sea.

Johnnie D. is no sooner on the boat heading back to old Mother England when (it had to be the middle of the night when everyone was asleep),Nova Scotia swoops in and steals the “Highland Heart.” The land of Out On The Mira. Donald of Bras D’Or. Scaterie and Meat Cove. D’ya suppose some Halifax bureaucrat was sent down to stick a flag on the shore at Port Hawkesbury? Now that would have been something to see. Taking the ferry with a great big Nova Scotia flag under his arm.  Was he met by John Cabot Trail the First?

Who was living here in CB back then anyways? Well, we don’t have good 1820 numbers. But we do have good 1861 numbers. Cape Breton was more than a bump on a log in the early 1800’s. It was big. It had about a fifth of the whole provincial population! Heck, it was big in Nova Scotia, and it was big in Canada.

And Nova Scotia…without so much as a “by your leave Isle Madame” brought the independent Province of Cape Breton into the loving arms of the mainland.

Yep…independent. Yep….”Province.” Cape Breton even had its own army – the Royal Something or Other. Oh, wait now. I’ve got it right here: The 33rd Royal Regiment. Stationed in the capital city of Spanish Bay, wherever that was.

Do you suppose the Nova Scotia government in its wisdom held focus groups and visioning workshops about this?  Was there an analysis done to determine the socio – cultural – economic – environmental impact?  Doubtful. I bet they didn’t even hire a polling firm to gauge public opinion on annexation. They probably didn’t even bother appointing a Royal Commission.

If they had, Nova Scotia might have found out the whole deal was probably illegal. The jury is still out (nobody called them back in I guess) on whether Nova Scotia’s action was constitutional or not. Top constitutional authorities are still pondering whether N.S. had the right to plant that flag and build that tourist bureau on the beachhead. (The legal bill to date is likely scary).

Hmmmm. So what we had here folks was a big hunk of attached land with a whole bunch of people deciding…on their own….that a smaller hunk of (detached) land with a smaller bunch of people ought to be annexed and pay their taxes to Halifax rather than Spanish Bay (wherever that is).  And the “finest legal minds of the day” (I’m quoting from a book on Cape Breton written quite a while back) were not sure if it was legal. And still aren’t.

Well I think it wasn’t. Cape Breton was BIG 135 years ago…..and Upper and Lower Canada were just provinces like Cape Breton, and Nova Scotia.  But Nova Scotia won it all. What if now we said: “Hey, we tried it, we thought it over for 175 years, and we decided it probably wasn’t a good idea after all”?

What if they say “Drop dead!”?  What if we took em to court?  What if we wrote to the House of Lords in England? (E-mail wouldn’t cost a lot).  I think the House of Lords would see it our way.

Think about the possibilities if we won it all back! We’d have an Independent Cape Breton again. Our own flag (well, we got that). Our own symbol (well, we got Mac Puffin). Our own tartan. Wait now. What is it we want anyway? There has to be something. Oh yeah: Here’s what we want:

1.  Our own money. If they can have loonies and toonies in Canada then we want Puffin Bucks and Puffin Chips (for the casino). And a three dollar coin. We could make it gold coloured and call it the “Bras D’Or.”

2.  Our own stamps. Postes Cape Breton Post. And not 85 cents either. Stamps would cost 50 cents and whoever got your letter could write back for free.

3.  Copyright to the Cape Breton accent – and the right to say “hey bye” forever.

4.  The right to go out and find Spanish Bay and afterwards, free tea at the Tea Room.

5.  And last, but by no means least, the right to enter into Confederations. With proper people. Which is another way of saying “islanders.”

Just think about it. A new Cape Breton Empire! We could Confederate with Newfoundland, or St. Pierre and Miquelon (or just St. Pierre if we wanted to go gently) or PEI, or……..or…. Bermuda. “Donald of Bermuda” could be our theme song! The Turks and Caicos are just sitting there waiting – and so is Antigua, St. Maarten and all the rest of the Caribbean. (And please don’t forget – Vancouver used to be a British colony too – and they might have had it with B.C. and their ferry service).

If none of those islands would have us, we could always look to partnering with a province or a state that’s stuck to the continent. But if they wanted to partner, they’d have to ante up. We shouldn’t come cheap. We got took 175 years ago and we won’t get took again. (As US President Bush once said, “take me a second time, you done tooked me twice”). Joining Cape Breton, the Independent Nation of Cape Breton would be like a shot of adrenalin for most places … and more important …. think how lucky they’d be to be linked to one of the top five vacation destinations in the world. That’s so BIG it would even make them look better.


Ladies and gentlemen, we now take you to the streets of Cape Breton, where this story now connects with the comings and goings of ordinary folk.


At the Tavern

Billy: It’s true bye. This used to be a separate kingdom. I read about it in the Cape Bretoner’s Christmas issue.

Bobby: BS. You mean like there was a King of Cape Breton! That’s B.S.

Billy: No. What I mean is, we was separate from Nova Scotia. We were our own place. We were even separate from Canada. Well. Tuh tell ya the truth, there wasn’t even a Canada then. Was a long time ago.

Bobby: I think yer full of the best crap I’ve heard of since those guys said there was gold in the peat bog over near L’Ardoise. You’re sayin’ that this place. Right here. Was once on its own. Like, ‘independent!?’

Billy: Yeah it was……wait now…..I got it. It was a “colony.” Just like Newfoundland, and Bermuda.

Bobby: Personally I’d take Bermuda.

Billy: Yeah. Yeah. But listen. We had our own Governor fer chrissakes. We were gonna have our own money even.

Bobby: What….’Puffin Bucks?’ Ha ha.

Billly: Now get serious will ya and listen to me. We had ‘er by the bag man. We could have done whatever we wanted. We cudda done like them South Sea islands do. They make their own postage stamps and money and they sells them to collectors. In some of those places, they are all rich and they don’t pay taxes.

Bobby: No shit. Rich, and no taxes?

Billy: You got it. If you’re an independent place, you can do that. You can make your  own money and stamps, and stuff. And booze. And you can have legalized gambling. And do all sorts of stuff they don’t let you do now.

Bobby: And like where’s the RCMP and thuh Cape Breton-Regional-Police-Establishment in all this?

Billy: They works fer us man. But there’s no RCMP. They wouldn’t be allowed across the causeway bye. Not without a passport. And we sells passports for money. If we don’t like ya, you don’t get one.

Bobby: So lemme see if I got this straight bye. We was independent. We could have done whatever we wanted. Made our own money even. Charged people ta come here. And no cops getting in thuh way. No taxes. And – tell me if I got this right – we gave this all up right?

Billy: Well no, not exactly Bobby-Boy. Halifax sent a letter and said, “the games over you bunch of Capers – yer with us now”. And that was the end of that.

Bobby: Didn’t we at least send a nasty letter back to them with a puffin stamp on it?

At The Wrecker’s

Al: So you got a transmission for a 67 Dodge or not?

Gord: I tole you. Even if I had one you couldn’t afford it.

Al: Listin. Are you with Rev-en-yew Canada or what? How do you know how much I got? Or ain’t? This here is Cape Breton pal, and you got to deal with me, not the revenooers.

Gord: It’s not the money buddy. There isn’t a 67 Dodge anywhere in Cape Breton. Leastwise one that got a transmission on it that’s not rusted to dust.

Al: Look. I drove all the way out here, cause the guys at Harvey’s Shell said you got everything. They even showed me a calendar you sent out. It says, “We got everything.” And now you tell me you haven’t got a transmission for a 67 Dodge. How come your poster doesn’t say “Everything but a transmission for a 67 Dodge”?

Gord: What are you doin with a 67 Dodge anyway? That piece of junk shouldn’t be on the road. If I sold you a transmission for it, I could be charged by the cops with accessory to murder. Yours.

Al: So! You think I haven’t got the money. And you think you know better than I do about what I should or shouldn’t do. What is this, “The First Church of Automobile Morality”? Just sell me that transmission and let me outta here.

Gord: OK. I’ll sell it to ya but don’t you tell anyone that I did. I don’t wanna have to answer for helpin you get that piece of junk back on the road. <pause> Here it is. That’ll be $185 plus tax.

Al: $185. Are you crazy? I knew I shudda known better. I can get one almost new over to Bras D’Or for half that. See ya round. Ya crook.

At the grocery store

Arnold: Are you the manager?

Manager: Yes sir, I am. Thank you for shopping at Sob-laws. How may I help you?

Arnold: I’m here looking for dog food.

Manager: Well, we have lots of that. In fact we have a special on this week. Just over there.

Arnold: I saw your special. But it’s only for dogs with no name. Says so right on the package. ‘No Name Dog Food.’  My dog’s got a name. I calls ‘im ‘Spot.’

Manager: No, no sir you misunderstand. That is what we call a “generic” product. ‘No name’ means that the product doesn’t have a name.

Arnold: But my dog wouldn’t know that! He’d see that big package dumped in the house. And he’d be on to it right off. He used to think he was adopted you know, but I finally got him off that.  Now if I show up with “No Name Dog Food,” he’ll think that I been lyin’ to him all these years about his name. You want me to have a mentally ill dog on my hands?

Manager: Sir, I think I can see your point. Do you happen to know the other grocery store just two blocks down the street…..the one with the big new flashy sign on it that calls itself the largest grocery store east of Montreal? Yes? Great. Will you just go down there and ask to see the manager personally. His name is Freddy. He’ll be happy to give you just what you want. Tell him I sent you.

At Billy’s Garage

Billy: Yeah. I’ll put er in for ya. Cost ya 300 bucks. Cash.

Al: But the transmission only cost me 90. And you want more than three times that to put it in? Look that thing cost original about a thousand. All you gotta do is drop her in and tighten a couple of nuts. Take you what, 2, 3 hours? If they can give me $910 off on the transmission you should be able to knock down the installin’ to one and a quarter.

Billy: I got expenses. And I’m busy. Got 12 cars lined up in the yard. See? And if you want that transmission in it’ll cost ya. You can go down the road to the dealer if ya want. And they’ll want $800. Up front. Just to open the bonnet.

Al: Ok. can ya start right now?

Billy: Right now?! I tole ya I got 12 cars lined up in the yard. Bring her in tomorrow.

(Later) At Billy’s Garage

Al: Whaddaya mean it’s the wrong transmission?

Billy: I’ll spell it out for ya Al. W-R-O-N-G. It don’t fit.

Al: But that cost me good money down in Bras D’Or. Guy promised me. Said it was just took out two weeks ago. Even had ‘67 Dodge’ written on it in white paint.

Billy: Yeah. I seen the paint. And what I’m seein’ is a transmission for a ‘86 Chrysler.

Al: Well can ya, like, fix it?

Billy: One’s two feet shorter than the other Al. And besides, the reverse is gone in this one. And second’s about to go. Show me the one in your car and we can compare them.

Al: Well, there’s no transmission in the Dodge Billy.

Billy: Well where is it? Maybe we can fix it. What you got here is just no good.

Al: There was no transmission when I got the car. Guy took $100 off cause it didn’t have a transmission.

Billy: You bought a car without a transmission?

Al: Well I got a real good deal.

Billy: Look Al. You go back to that guy and get your money back and get a proper car. Or you go to a wrecker, and get the right transmission. And then you come back here, and I’ll put her in. For 300. Cash.

Al: But the only one on the Island is owned by a guy over in Mira Ferry. And, I sorta insulted him.

Billy: Well you better go over there and eat a little crow Al baby. Cause this little Dodge ain’t goin nowhere without the right parts.

At The Wrecker

Al: Whaddaya mean $600? You tole me you’d sell me that for $185 just a week ago.

Gord: Well since then I found out this is the only one left on the Island. So it’s worth lots. And sides, I got someone comin’ over to look at it. Tomorrow.

Al: Listin buddy. I’m not payin’ any 600 lousy bucks for a second hand piece of junk. But I’ll tell ya what I’ll do. I’ll give ya $50 and throw in a beautiful transmission for an 86 Chrysler. Whadda ya say. Even-steven? That’s almost 10 years newer than the one I want.

Gord: Well lemme look at it. Hmmmm. So where’d ya get this?

Al: Got it from a guy that runs a classic car restoration company. He’s brilliant. Makes millions on this stuff.

Gord: Did he tell ya that reverse is gone? And second’s about shot?

Al: Whaddaya talkin about? That is in prime condition. Got a buddy who fixes cars who said ya could put that in and go, like in about 30 minutes.

Gord: The only place you’re gonna go with this transmission is nowhere. And it ain’t comin’ here either. Now you gonna give me $600 or what?

Al: How about 400?

Gord: One more minute and I’m goin up to eight.

Al: D’ya take Master Card?

At Billy’s Garage

Billy: So. You went out there and did the right thing and got the right transmission. Good for you. So I’ll get right on it.

Al: But listen Billy, I paid a lot of money for that thing and I need a break.

Billy” I”ll give ya a break Al. You pay me $300 right now, and I won’t break your arm.

Al: OK, OK. Here’s the money.

Billy: You’re doin’ the right thing with this transmission. In a few hours, you’ll have the best installed transmission on a ’67 Dodge on Cape Breton Island.

Al: I knew I could count on you Billy. You’re the best.

Billy: I’m the only one you can trust Al, and that’s why I’m telling you right up front that I’m gonna give that car a full goin’ over after I put the transmission in. When she leaves here bye, she leaves in good shape.

At the Wrecker’s

Freddie: So didja get rid of that – tell me again Gord – ’67 Dodge transmission!’ Ya know ya really break me up with that.

Gord: Yep. That transmission – whatcha call yer ‘generic product’ – designed to fit, with a little work – just about every Ford, GM and Chrysler product put out over the last 40 years – will do the job just fine. Listen Freddie, roll up another one to the front yard will ya.

At the Tavern

Bobby: So what’ll we put on the stamps?

Billy: What stamps?

Bobby: The new Cape Breton stamps. You know. Like we talked about.

Billy: We can’t put stamps out Bob. We’d have to be….independent.

Bobby: Yeah!? Well let’s do that then.

Billy: That would, you know, like take a lot of work.

Bobby: Oh yeah. I guess it would. Well let’s just pretend anyway.

Billy: Pretend what?

Bobby: That we were, like, you know….independent. And we were in charge of the stamps. What would we put on ‘em?

Billy: Well I got one idea about what we don’t wanna do. I wouldn’t put Allan J. MacEachen or Dave Dingwall on them.

Bobby: Me neither. I don’t want any politicians on my stamps anywhere, anyhow. I want birds and things.

Billy: ‘Birds and things?’

Bobby: Yeah. You know. Like flamingoes. And penguins. And stuff.

Billy: But we don’t have them things here. They’re from away.

Bobby: So what? We use stamps with the Queen on them. And she’s from away.

Billy: I think you just don’t get it Bobby. If we’re gonna have Cape Breton stamps, then they gotta have a Cape Breton theme. Like something that means something to people here.

Bobby: Oh I get it. So we’ll just use UIC stamps on our letters then.

At Billy’s Garage

Al: So. She fixed now?

Billy: I got bad news for you. The transmission is in. And I put a motor in her. But the car won’t start. Was she runnin’  before?

Al: I tole you. I bought her without a transmission. And no, I didn’t try to start her.

Billy: Well I think the engine’s seized. You want it fixed?

Al: What’ll that cost me?

Billy: Well I got an engine out back that’ll work. Let you have er for about a grand.

Al: A grand! I only paid 350 fer the damn car. Well, and add on what you and that wrecker guy hit me up for. And the guy in Bras D’Or that I couldn’t find.

Billy: Well what do you want to do. I’m busy. Got 12 cars in the yard.

Al: I can’t afford a grand. I been outta work for three years.

Billy: I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I think the rear end is pretty good on this car. I’ll give you 50 bucks for it. But you gotta haul the body away.

Al: How am I gonna haul that away? On my back?

Billy: I’ll do it for ya for fifty dollars. Take it or leave it.

Al: I’ll tell ya what I’m gonna do bye. I’m takin out my tranmission. And I’m takin the rear end. And I’m takin the radio and seat covers. And I’m leaving the rest of that pile of crap right here in your yard. You can keep yer 50 bucks. And stick it in yer rear end if that’ll make you feel good.



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