Politics and Perseverance in Isle Royale (short version)

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So the issue of C.B. separation has arisen – phoenix like – from the ashes once again. Well if we are going to dust off that particular bird we should start by having a look at some of the background and facts surrounding this issue. 

To start with, we have to talk about Lord Durham. We have to start with the basics. And there’s nothing more basic than Lord Durham. 

No, Lord Durham was not the founder of Durham wheat. Lord Durham wrote a Report. Yes, a capital “R” Report. One that every school child, every politician, every newspaper columnist in Canada should have read. 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. A Report that generations of Canadian students should have committed to memory. But have not. And never will. Never mind. 

Never mind that it was considered so important that it fed into the constitutions of Canada, Australia, South Africa, Newfoundland and New Zealand. 

Here’s a pocket guide to Lord Durham that you can use to impress your friends and win at Trivial Pursuit™: 

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 will remember John George’s father-in-law…Earl Grey … after whom the tea was named. John  George was also known as “Radical Jack” (I’m not making this up). 

Lord John Durham spent his time roving about “Upper” and “Lower” Canada (wherever that is). He was, you see, preoccupied with the stresses and strains then being experienced in “Canada”. He thought things in Canada were in pretty bad shape. He said that Canada had an, “ill contrived constitutional system” that suffered from “practical mismanagement of its affairs at every turn.”  Hmmmmm. 

Having found Canada in rather dreadful shape, he turned toward the east (which is always a good thing to do) and gave the Atlantic region a once-over. Faith and Begorrah! He found that unlike in Canada, “Them folks was right happy down there and should be left well enough alone.” Well, sort off. John George and his helper Eddie Wakefield talked, and wrote, a little more formal than that. 

The Report actually says, 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. 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” in the colonies was “responsible government.” In 1846 Nova Scotia was first off the mark on that one. (There must have been some Cape Bretoners on the team). 

But am I hearing all this right? Did Lord Johnnie really say a mere hundred plus years ago, that we had it all over them guys in Toronto and Montreal, that they had “discontent” and “obstructionist government” and “mismanagement at every turn?” But in our dear old Maritime backwater, things were just going tickety-boo? 

Sounds like CB. NS, NB and PEI had their, er, manure together back in them days. But so what? The Maritimes were just a tiny, insignificant mole on the backside of “Upper” and “Lower” Canada. Isn’t that right? Well, not really. Upper and Lower Canada were provinces just like Nova Scotia, and Cape Breton. 

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).  At the same time, Upper Canada (by now Ontario) was 1,396,091 and 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. 

Six years later, at the time of Confederation in 1867, Cape Breton was 63,173 of a total CANADIAN population of 3,171,418. So Cape Breton had 2% of Canada’s population at that time. That meant CB was holding 2% of the shares in Canada Inc. And yes, Canada has grown in partners (provinces and territories) and population since Confederation, but they all came later. 

In my view, our little island of Cape Breton, a founding entity in the Canadian nation, became a founding shareholder in 1867. And today, well that investment surely paid off. Now Cape Breton’s 2% has resulted in owing a whole chunk of a country that extends from Libido Bay in Newfoundland to Vibrator Cove on Vancouver island. We’re speaking of 2% of the second largest country in the world. 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.) 

Interesting, eh? Who would have thought Lord Durham and Canadian Confederation would have been significant to Cape Breton – that rock in the sea? But there are other facts here that need mentioning. We have to go back even further – back before Lord Durham – back to when Cape Breton was the equal of Nova Scotia. 

Cape Breton was more than a bump on a log in the early 1800’s. It was a free, independent colony of the British Empire with a population about 20% of Nova Scotia’s. Cape Breton even had its own army – the 33rd Royal Regiment. It was stationed in the capital city of Spanish Bay, wherever that was. 

Now things were just fine until one (evil) day in 1820, the (neighbouring) Province of Nova Scotia walked over and re-annexed the free, autonomous Province of Cape Breton. Must have been one Saturday afternoon when we were all out on the Mira. 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. Imagine. 

So here was Cape Breton. A large population. A happy folk. A key (2%) player in Canadian Confederation. Destined to become a significant shareholder of the Canadian Dream. But lurking, just over the other side of Canso Strait. The Province of Nova Scotia. Just waltzes in, plants their flag and steals the “Highland Heart.” The land of Donald of Bras D’Or. Scaterie and Meat Cove. Neil‘s Harbour and the Morien Wharf.

Do you suppose some Halifax bureaucrat was sent down to do the nasty? Did he take the ferry with a great big Nova Scotia flag under his arm?  Was he met by the Mayor of Port Hawkesbury? Did he register at the tourist bureau? 

And before he waltzed in here, do you suppose Nova Scotia consulted with Cape Bretoners about all this? Did they hold a referendum? Do surveys? How about talk-back programs on CJCB? Were there focus groups and visioning workshops?  Did our Mighty Neighbour to the West conduct an analysis to determine the socio – cultural – economic – environmental impact of assimilation?  I doubt it. We didn’t have John Cabot Trail on our side those days. 

They probably didn’t even appoint a Royal Commission. And it’s probably a good thing they didn’t. They might have found out the whole deal was probably illegal. Nobody called them on it back then (still out on the Mira) but there’s more than a small chance that Nova Scotia’s action was not constitutional. And by “constitutional” we mean by the laws of the Empire, and Her colonies, and by generally accepted playground rules. According to a history written round about that time, the “finest legal minds of the day,” could not determine whether Nova Scotia had acted legally. And it has still not been proven. 

But any fool can see that, quite clearly, a large bunch of folks on a big piece of land decided that a smaller bunch of folks on a smaller piece of land ought to pay their taxes to Halifax rather than Spanish Bay (wherever that is).  

So fast-forward to the 21st century. It’s cold on the Mira. We’re huddled in front of our Pennsylvania coal burning stoves, and our minds have gone to wandering. And wondering. 

What if we said, “Hey, we tried it, we thought it over for 186 years, and we decided it probably wasn’t a good idea after all”? What if they say “Drop dead!?”  

What if we took them to court?  What if we wrote to the House of Lords in England? They probably have e-mail. We wouldn’t even have to pay postage. 

I think the House of Lords would see it our way. This was, after all, the Empire where the sun never set. And surely they would not be happy to see that the sun set on Cape Breton in 1820. 

Remember too that those Brits have long memories, even if they are a little short on geography. In the War of the Austrian Succession – just a few years earlier – when George II was on the throne – the French were running around burning things to the ground, like Canso town and Annapolis. In Britain they were thinking that Nova Scotia was lost, but Governor Shirley of Massachusetts sent his Captain Ryal to London (to visit the King).

Now what’s important about all this is that when Ryal was received, the Prime Minister is reported to have said upon reading his report:  “Annapolis must be defended.  Pray where is Annapolis?  Cape Breton an island!  Wonderful!  Show it me on the map.  So it is, sure enough.  I must go and tell the King that Cape Breton is an island.” So today they know that Cape Breton is an island, even if it is no longer a part of the Empire.

But that could change! Consider the possibilities of a re-born, independent, Province of Cape Breton. A proud, independent Member of the British Empire. [Well, the Commonwealth at any rate.] 

We’d have our own flag that they would have to fly in the Garden of the Provinces in Ottawa. We could escalate Mac Puffin to the status of a national icon. Federal and Nova Scotia politicians would have to wear the CB tartan when they came to call. 

And there’s a few things we could make happen that we have always wanted: 

1. We’d have own money like they have in Scotland. Canada has its loonies, and CB needs Puffin Bucks and Puffin Chips for the casino. Plus, Cape Breton needs a three dollar coin that we can call the “Bras D’Or.” 

2. There’s be our own stamps: Postes Cape Breton Post. And to be sure it will cost less than 51 cents to send a letter in Cape Breton because they won’t have far to go. 

3.Cape Bretoners will have the right to go out and find Spanish Bay and afterwards, have free tea at Rita’s Tea Room. 

4. And last, but by no means least, CBers will have the right to enter into all sorts of confederations. There will be the Empire of course, but how about a confederation of islanders? We could confederate with Newfoundland, PEI, Baffin Island, Vancouver Island and St. Pierre and Miquelon. We could link up with Bermuda, and Cuba and the Turks and Caicos. 

If none of them would have us, we could always join a province or a state that’s stuck to the continent. If we had too.  But they’d have to come crawling. And they’d have to deal with the Mayor of Port Hawkesbury, drive Highway 4 like the rest of us locals, and get used to sticking on Puffin Postage. 

After all, we Cape Bretoners have our standards. 

When all is said and done, the issue here is not about separating from Nova Scotia. It’s about re-joining. As an equal province under the Canadian confederation. With our 2% share. After all, Cape Bretoners don’t back out. They want to play the game by the same rules and on a level playing field. Personally I can’t wait to go visit my share of Banff national Park.

 [This essay appeared in The Cape Bretoner Christmas issue, 2003.



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