This is a story of the working people of Cape Breton. It is not your usual kind of history. It is not about kings and queens, explorers, adventurers, politicians and prime ministers. It is a history of the common people of Cape Breton, of their day-to-day fight to improve their working conditions and their struggle to build a better way of life. The story of Cape Breton tells us a lot about the social system that Canadians live under, and about how ordinary men and women, when they work together, can change it.
This booklet, we hope, will be read and learned from by both Cape Bretoners and workers across the country. For Cape Bretoners it will chart the poorly known courses of the great struggles and accomplishments of the past and tell why the basic causes of those struggles has yet to be resolved. For Canadians generally, it will picture the little-known history of Cape Breton in its true light —— as a birthplace of militant working class struggle in Canada. This is the people’s history.
The earliest history of Cape Breton is shrouded in controversy. The arguments are about who first discovered Cape Breton Island. Some say it was Leif Erikson, who crossed the AtlantIc with his Norse Sailors in 1000 A. D. Others say it was’ Basque fishermen, who sailed here after the cod fish. The most popular version says that John Cabot, the Italian explorer working for the British Crown, landed here on his famous voyage of 1497.
Really, none of these people were the “discoverers” of Cape Breton. They couldn’t be, since the island was already inhabited. At the time of’ the so-called “great discoveries” Cape Breton was part “of the territory of the Micmac tribe of Indians. These people led a wandering hunting and fishing life style which was rudely disrupted by the intrusion of Europeans eager for fortune and empire. The mark of the Micmac people has been left on the island in the form of place names -- Baddeck, Malagawatch, Whycocomagh and the people themselves have not perished entirely either.
The Europeans, when they claimed Cape Breton for themselves, were the conquerors of a foreign land. The bountiful fishing grounds and the strategic location of Cape Breton on the Atlantic coast were the island’s great attractions. In the long battles for control of the North American empire, Cape Breton changed hands more than once. Eventually the British won out and the future of the island -- called Oonamagik by the Micmac people and Isle Royale by the French -- was settled. To consolidate their victory the British destroyed the mighty French fortress at Louisbourg.
New kinds of people now joined the Micmacs and scattered French settlements. The main source of the population of Cape Breton were the Scottish highlanders. They came to North America, mainly in the 1820’s, because there was no room left for them in Scotland. The Scottish landowners had decided to turn most of their land over to sheep farming and had to get rid of the families farming the land. Most of them came to Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. After this period the main waves of immigration, to Canada largely bypassed Cape Breton, although the opening of the coal mines did bring experienced mining families from the British Isles.
The greatest resource of Cape Breton was its coal. Coal, the fuel of industry, made Cape Breton a very attractive piece of real estate to the builders of industrial empires. In l826 a British duke was given sole right to the coal resources of all Nova Scotia. He got rich by leasing land to mining companies. A long parade of corporations followed, all of them dedicated to mining coal as cheaply as possible and selling it at as a high a price as they could get.
Over the years, say these corporations, Cape Breton was “developed.” We would prefer to say it was robbed blind. It was a one-sided process; the coal was extracted and shipped off to Montreal, Upper Canada and New England. The steel industry, located at Sydney because of the enormous quantity of coal it needs, followed the same pattern. Its iron and steel went to feed manufacturing and industry in the heartland of the empire. Hundreds of millions of dollars of profits created by the coal miners and steelworkers of Cape Breton have been invested not here, but in distant industrial centres. All this was made possible because the riches of our country are not distributed wisely and rationally; they are distributed by the business decisions of huge international corporations. Cape Breton, more than almost any other part of Canada knows this well.
What was the price of all this “development” of Cape Breton? The past is strewn with untold stories of starvation and murder, children who were worked like dogs, 24-hour shifts and seven-day work weeks. Its conditions that make people rebel, that turn them into radicals and revolutionists. In this booklet we look at some of those conditions and at the system which produced them. We also look at the answers working people found as they struggled through victory and defeat to the present day. The patterns of the past have not changed; the struggle is not over. The day has not yet come when the working people of Cape Breton own and control the riches of their land and the products of their hand and brain.