Over the Causeway, Stories are Told: Studying Cape Breton Out-migration History as an Out-migrant of Cape Breton

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] Despite the total population of the island not dropping as drastically as he had suggested, the decline is evident.


Family photo: Here is a photo of my mother, myself and my two sisters a few short weeks before we made the move to Alberta. Back row (left to right): my mother Lisa, my older sister Nikkie. Front row (left to right): myself, my younger sister Kaylin.

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.

The pattern of continuous out-migration echoes through much of the island’s culture. Once such example is a well-known folk song by the Barra MacNeils entitled “The Island.” Although it was written in the 1980s and reflects heavily upon a period of the island’s history that has long since passed, the relevance of the lyrics is not lost on present generations. Although this song begins by telling of a new immigrant discovering all the island has to offer, it moves on to talk of being forced to leave:

Over the highways and over the roads, over the causeway, stories are told. They tell of the coming and the going away,[ah the] cities of America draw me away. Oh and the companies come, and the companies go and the ways of the world we may never know.[5]

This notion of leaving is embedded not only in the island’s culture but also in the very ethos of being a Cape Bretoner. The feeling of having to leave in order to make a decent life for yourself or family is something that just is: it goes hand-in-hand with being from Cape Breton. ‘Leaving,’ if you will, is very much part of Cape Breton identity. It is this sentiment, this lament for having to leave Cape Breton, that compels me as a historian to study the history of out-migration from the island.

As an Atlantic Canadian historian, and specifically as a historian from Cape Breton, I have struggled with how to balance this pride and sentiment with being as objective and unbiased as possible. For my undergraduate honours thesis, I wrote about correspondence relating to 19th-century Scottish immigrant communities on the island. Then, in the first year of my graduate studies, I switched focus quite substantially. My graduate research work now focuses on Joseph R. Smallwood and the 1959 International Woodworkers of America (IWA) Strike in Newfoundland. Despite my newfound love for the history of Cape Breton’s neighbour to the North, I can’t ever picture myself completely walking away from researching and writing about Cape Breton. With this realization, my mind is immediately drawn to Jill Lepore’s “Historians Who love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography.” Specifically the line, “getting too close to your subject in a major danger, but not getting to know her well enough is just as likely.”[6]


Sydney Steel Plant: Here is a photo taken of the Sydney Steel Plant, as seen from Whitney Pier. Whitney Pier was the community that the majority of steel plant workers and their families lived, including my grandfather’s. The photo was taken as part of Project Steel, sometime in the mid 1980s. Source: Sydney Steel Plant, Whitney Pier, ca. 1985. 91-743-22704. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.

Last semester, I seized the opportunity to work once again on Cape Breton history. The topic this time, although similar to what I talked about in my honours thesis with migrant correspondence, was one I had felt compelled to write about for quite some time. The paper discussed the use of migrant correspondence in studying the pattern of Cape Breton out-migration throughout the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century. Being of Scottish heritage, I certainly was able to identify on many levels with the people who wrote the letters I used to write my honours thesis. It is undeniable, however, that what compelled me to specifically study out-migration from the island was my own personal experience with being forced to leave the island, both in my childhood and in my adult life as a prospective historian. I’ve found myself reflecting back upon my own situation and questioned whether or not I was even in a position to be able to talk about out-migration from Cape Breton without biases. As a historian who is personally invested in the history of the island, who has experienced first-hand the impact of economic disparity and having to move away, and who understands the lament for what could have been, is it possible to write about Cape Breton without bias?

The answer to the question is simply no, I cannot write without biases. However, I have come to realize, with the encouragement of my fellow historians, that this does not discredit my work as a historian of Cape Breton. Rather, my position as an out-migrant from Cape Breton, someone who can wholeheartedly relate to sentiments evident in local folk songs and cultural gems such as “The Island,” gives me and other historians in my position a particular advantage in discussing the history of our island, and specifically the history surrounding patterns of out-migration. Being able to identify with shared emotions and relatable circumstances with out-migrants from the island aides me and other historians in fully comprehending the context surrounding their emigration. Coupled with a thorough understanding of the historical time period as well as the particular social, political, and economic conditions in the area, this makes for a very valuable advantage.

While researching for and writing this paper, I often found myself thinking back to the words of “The Island.”  For me, these lyrics provoke the academic in me along with something much more personal. When hearing the lyrics  “… within these new townships, oh what do I see? I see the black pit heads, the coal wheels are turning, the smoke stacks are belching and the blast furnace burning,” heralding back to golden age of Cape Breton’s steel industry, I cannot help but think of my grandfather’s brothers, his father and his father before that – all of whom were employed at the Sydney steel plant for the majority of their adult lives.[7] When hearing the Barra MacNeils sing of being forced to leave the island, my mind is drawn to my own move from Cape Breton. For many reasons, I think my experience with being forced to leave not only draws me to study the history of the island, and in particular the patterns of out-migration, but makes it my duty as a historian to do so. Perhaps, when I finish my graduate study, academia and working with island’s rich history will earn me a permanent ticket home. But until then, for myself, these words still ring true: “we’ll follow the footsteps of those on their way, and still ask for the right to leave or to stay.”[8]

Dana Campbell is an MA candidate in History at Dalhousie University.


[1] Wes Stewart, “Duferco bows out of deal to buy Sydney Steel Plant, “ Cape Breton Post, 19 January 2001. https://nouveau.eureka.cc/Search/ResultMobile/22. Accessed: November 1 2018.

[2] Jim Guy, “Out-migration Not Only Problem Facing CBRM,” Cape Breton Post, 10 October 2001. https://nouveau.eureka.cc/Search/ResultMobile/18. Accessed: November 1 2018.

[3] Guy, “Out-migration.”

[4] Census Profile, 2016 Census, Cape Breton [Economic Region], Statistics Canada, 2016. http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/details/page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo1=ER&Code1=1210&Geo2=PR&Code2=62&Data=Count&SearchText=Cape. AccesedA&SearchType=Begins&SearchPR=01&B1=All&TABID=1. Accessed: November 1 2018.

[5] The Barra MacNeils, The Island (Toronto: Barra Music Ltd., 1989).

[6] Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” The Journal of American History, 88, no. 1 (2001): 129.

[7] The Barra MacNeils “The Island”.

[8] Ibid.


Guy, Jim. “Out-migration Not Only Problem Facing CBRM.” Cape Breton Post, October 10, 2001. https://nouveau.eureka.cc/Search/ResultMobile/18. Accessed: November 1, 2018.

Lepore, Jill. Historian Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography. The Journal of American History 88, no. 1 (2001): 129-144.

The Barra MacNeils. The Island. Toronto: Barra Music Ltd., 1989.

Statistics Canada. 2016. Census Profile, 2016 Census, Cape Breton [Economic Region]. http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/details/page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo1=ER&Code1=1210&Geo2=PR&Code2=62&Data=Count&SearchText=Cape&SearchType=Begins&SearchPR=01&B1=All&TABID=1. Accessed: November 1, 2018.

Sydney Steel Plant, Whitney Pier, ca. 1985. 91-743-22704. Beaton Institute, Cape Breton University.

Stewart, Wes. “Duferco bows out of to deal to buy Sydney Steel Plant.” Cape Breton Post, January 19, 2001. https://nouveau.eureka.cc/Search/ResultMobile/22. Accessed: November 1, 2018.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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