By Dana Campbell
Every Cape Bretoner knows the heartache of leaving home – or, of having a loved one leave home. While the Sydney steel plant and the numerous coalmines use to prosper, most of the heavy industry in the industrial heartland has now been closed for nearly two decades. The flatlining of the island’s economy coincided with an economic boom in Western Canada and, as result, many thousands of Cape Bretoners have been leaving home to find better employment and economic prospects in other parts of the country. This has not only affected those residing within the industrial hub of Sydney, but people across the island of all ages and demographics. If it’s not families packing up and moving on, its young men and women leaving directly out of high school.
Having been born in Cape Breton in the early 1990s, I never saw the island in its heyday/golden age, but I did witness the final closure of the Sydney steel plant in 2001. On 19 January 2001, an article in the Cape Breton Post stated in very simple yet, charged terms, “Sydney’s designation as a steel town ended Thursday with word Swiss-owned Duferco Steel Corp. backed out of the deal to buy SYSCO.” The failure to sell the steel plant spelled the end of an era in Cape Breton. Although out-migration had been occurring for many decades from the island at this point, this decision further exacerbated it. In his October 2001 article for the Cape Breton Post, Jim Guy highlighted how “since 1996 over 6000 Cape Bretoners left the island for greener pastures.” These numbers foreshadowed what was to come. He suggested that the population of Cape Breton would be less than 100,000 if the decline kept up at the present rate. According to Statistics Canada, by 2011 the population of Cape Breton sat at 135, 974. Five years later in 2016, the population of the island was 132,010. Despite the total population of the island not dropping as drastically as he had suggested, the decline is evident.
The year following the plant’s closure, my own family moved to Alberta. We came home in 2008 following the economic recession, a return I am still thankful for today. My parents instilled in me from a young age that leaving Cape Breton was a necessity if we were to have any shot at a decent future. At the same time, though, my sisters and I were raised with a strong sense of pride and belonging to Cape Breton. My pride in being a Cape Bretoner has never wavered, despite the economic disparity that exists on the island.