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What is a Cape Bretoner?

Before I start, I'm obviously not the right person to be answering this question. I still can't confidently answer the question "Where ya from?" even though it's usually the third question I get after meeting someone around here. It typically comes between "Where ya living?" and "What's your father's name?" (Mira and Robert respectively). I lived in Georgia for twice the amount of time I lived here, but I wouldn't consider myself Georgian either.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

It seems to be a very important thing to be from here, and even if I'm not confident in calling myself a Cape Bretoner (fear of being presumptuous mainly), when other Cape Bretoners find out I grew up on Rigby Road, and spent my summers playing board games in Port Morien, they more than welcome me as a native.

Little Rory back in Port Morien doing... something?

Really though, I don't think I've ever been to a place where being "from here" was more important. When people ask you where you're from, the answer they're looking for would rather be Glace Bay than Texas. I don't know what it means to be a "Come-from-Away" but the fact that we have a word for it must mean something. I'm not saying this is a bad thing or a good thing. I see both pros and cons to the whole idea of the entire Cape Breton population belonging to some unspoken club. I just wonder why it's so important, and what does it even mean to be part of it?

"The first rule of Cape Breton Club: you do not talk about Cape Breton Club."

So what is a Cape Bretoner? If it's so important to be one, it should at least be defined, right?  Or at least attempted to be defined, which I am now going to attempt and probably fail to do. Let the stereotypes begin!

I've been here for 15 months now, and I can safely say that we're not suddenly going to become the fashion capital of Canada anytime soon. We can face the facts that we're not the most elegant, or the richest, or a hub of Canadian film industry (not after last budget). But when I think of Cape Bretoners, one word comes to mind: scrappy.

Our scrappiness goes to 11.

I was walking the lighthouse trail in Louisbourg the other day, and it was beautiful, but one thought kept running through my head, "this place will kill you." The rocks will kill you. The sea will kill you. The cold will kill you. The fog won't kill you, but it's spooky. There's very little about the place that you could call safe. Maybe the moss. That seemed friendly enough. It's a strong sea bashing against hard rocks 24 hours a day for much longer than you or I ever existed. 

Gorgeous and homicidal, just like my ex.

And this place has killed people. Just yesterday Jenna was telling me about these ship graveyards. Islands that apparently weren't mapped anywhere, and in just the right kind of foggy mystery pit to cause enough sea disasters to earn the title of "ship graveyard." And there's three of them. Imagine being stuck on a ship from England for 2 months only to get caught in a fog bank and bash into St. Paul's Island. That's a raw deal if I ever heard one.

Then there's the work. My parents have told me about the family on Flint Island near Port Morien who manned the lighthouse. 6 miles from Port Morien Harbor. No bridge. No ferry. No grocery store and definitely no movie theatre. If you were on Flint Island and got bored, you stayed bored. Every trip to the mainland was a harrowing boat ride that could end in tragedy. "Sorry Johnny. You can't join little league because our family can't risk your death 12 times a year." People died manning that lighthouse, and that's to say nothing of the lives that the fishing, coal, and steel industries has taken over the last 300 years. 

I would still spend the weekend out there.

Maybe it's a shared sense of hardship that creates the social binding between Cape Bretoners. It seems Cape Breton history is full of outside forces coming in promising more and leaving us with less. The Crown came for the fish, the Crown Corporation came for the coal, and the Government came for the steel. They brought jobs and money, but when the fish ran dry, and the coal ran out, they left. Why wouldn't they? Can you even blame them? 

But we can't forget that it was our grandfathers and their fathers who caught the fish, mined the coal, and smelted the steal, and they had the callouses on their hands and the soot in their lungs to prove it. They had hard jobs and hard lives, with only tasteless root vegetables and whatever they could kill to get them through it. 

To this day, Cape Bretoners eat more mashed turnips than any other population on the planet. Personally, I think they taste like pickled hate.

Maybe I'm romanticizing Cape Breton a bit much here. I still have a level of distance to this place that allows for that. Maybe the Island has changed from the old days of coal mining and fishing through the foggy deathbanks of Louisbourg. There's no denying that this place is strange though. No other place on Earth can you go to a ceilidh that is completely sincere, and learn how to square dance with 0% kitsch involved. We have parties in the kitchen because it's closer to the fridge, and own an unhealthy amount of very large cats.

It's the way I like to see us though. I like to see us as scrappy and tough, and dirty and generally hard to kill. I like to think that not only did my ancestors survive the work and the winters, the sea and the wars, they had enough time between to have and raise kids that would eventually end up as me writing some article in Dr. Luke's about an identity I don't fully comprehend. 

Someone put it this way to me. "You were nine when you left here to Georgia, but imagine if you were nine COMING here from Georgia." Even with the culture shock of confederate flags and fried chocolate bars, it would have been more of a shock to move here.

Would somebody please bring back suspenders.

When I think of this place, that's the kind of guy I see.

There are other opinions though...

So, I could be totally off-base here. Maybe I'm just running into the tired trap of being nostalgic of a time that never really existed. Maybe Cape Breton has changed to an extent that our identity can't and shouldn't be tied to the coal mining, cod fishing ruffians of the past. Like I said, I'm not the most qualified person here to be making these judgement calls, but I have opinions.

Why is being from here so important? What does it mean to be from here, and what does it mean to be a "Come-from-away?" How do we see ourselves, and how do we see outsiders, and what makes us different? 

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Steven Rolls Follow Me
I said it at work and I will say it here. If ya accept us you are one of us. What does that mean: - If you can enjoy the island and the people - If you can accept the pace, the lifestyle, the people, and the wages - If you start every conversation with the weather because you know we have it in common - If you stop to let someone cross the street because you would hate to hear about them getting killed when you didn't - If you answer the question "What's Your Father's Name" and the answer actually leads the asker to a connection between you and them - If you or your parents were born her and willingly still live here - If you can hear that I bought my house while my wife and I were on EI and don't question it - If you would rather be unemployed here than working anywhere else That pretty much says it. If you love it here, you can be a Cape Bretoner... all ya gotta do is ask. In fact, you don't even have to ask, you just have to be willing to state it.
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madeline yakimchuk Follow Me
There are the real capers, the come from aways, and worse, the come back from aways! I am of the last sort. We are both more of a pain in the arse to the real capers, and more unlikely to fit in, ever. But seriously, I think a lot of how we are experienced by others is part of being an island. It was similar in Cuba, and I hear that PEI and NL are the same too. Sometimes it is some other kind of isolation that does it, like Chile, where I also lived for a while. In Chile, the people who came back educated, with foreign spouses and money, were resented, even if they had been tortured and exiled during the dictatorship. I think that on an island, whether it be physical or for some other isolation, there is a stronger sense of US vs, THEM than elsewhere. We are very friendly on the street, but we have our own circles, and you are not one of us.
Joanie Cunningham Follow Me
I'm a Cape Breton Barbarian, well we all are, or didn't you know! Yes, I'm a harry and scary one, that's how the mainland sayings go.
Richard Lorway Follow Me
It's an interesting question on many levels. I was born here, but my kids were born at the Grace in Halifax while we lived there. But they grew up and spent their formative years here. I believe they would self-identify as Cape Bretoners if asked, even if they now live "away." Really, I think it's about cultural identity and wanting to identify as a Cape Bretoner. The last big influx of immigrants occurred when the steel plant was built in 1900 or so. People from all over the world came here - Greeks, Italians, Jews, Arabs, Russians, Poles, Ukranians, West Indians, and so on. We welcomed those folks and they have enriched the fabric of our community. I believe that we should likewise welcome any and all newcomers now. We will need them if we are to survive. Bottom Line: If you want to live here and be a part of the community, then you're one of us - a Cape Bretoner. I think that that should be the message.
Mathew Georghiou Follow Me
continued ... 16. You think people from Sydney have an accent. 17. You think heavy garbage pickup is a hillbilly fleamarket. 18. You wear pajama pants while trekking through the snow. 19. You never tie the laces on your winter boots. 20. You're not crazy but you still have way too many cats or dogs. 21. Your gourmet three-course meal consists of fishsticks, fries, and a beer. 22. You buy your pizza from the same place your parents did. 23. You think that driving a Civic with leather seats is too flashy. 24. You have never owned an umbrella. 25. You go shirtless as soon as the temperature hits 15 degrees C. Sorry in advance! *Disclaimer (not all may apply to YOU).
Mathew Georghiou Follow Me
You know you are a Cape Bretoner when ... 1. You know what a Pork Pie is. 2. You wear your "good" hat to Tim Hortons. 3. The theme song at your wedding was Hockey Night in Canada. 4. Your honeymoon did not start until after the game. 5. You love the Maple Leafs even though you hate Toronto. 6. Your trigger finger itches when you hear the words "Halifax" and "bureaucrat" used together. 7. You vote for the same political party as your father and grandfather. Just because. 8. You think the "Trailer Park Boys" is a History-channel documentary. 9. You still call Open Hearth Park the Tar Ponds. 10. You play the fiddle (but not the violin). 11. Your name is Cecil. 12. Your father's name is Cecil and your mother keeps telling him to "Get outta that waaater Cecil, bye." 13. Your longest road trip has been to Maine to shop at the outlet stores. 14. You studied at the University of Maine. 15. All your friends have nicknames.
Ken Clark Follow Me
Leaving aside leaving Cape Breton (twice) - I arrived in Saint John New Brunswick, alongside all the Herring Chokers - a fella I worked with came to Saint John from New Glasgow 25 years earlier - and they still called him that fella from Pictou County. When I got to Manitoba I asked how long it would be before I would be considered a Flat Lander - and a friend from Altona said "What time is it?" Suggesting that now was a good time for that even though I'd been there for 15 minutes. When I got to New Zealand - well that is a place where i was invisible until I opened my mouth, but they still knew the CFA concept. Now I live in Fiji, in the heart of the South Pacific, and they still argue about how long it takes to become a local- here we have I Taukei, FBI's and "Others". (FBI = Fiji Born Indian). I'm an other, though I've been here a long time. What's my point? Welcoming is better than rejecting and we belong where our hearts are. Cape Breton is a place our hearts never leave.
Mathew Georghiou Follow Me
Nice life experience, Ken!
Gwen Andrews Follow Me
I have been bringing my Irish partner to Cape Breton in recent years. Here are the things he likes about it: - The people talk to him. In fact, he can't stop them. - The music is fantastic - even better than Ireland, sometimes. - Perry's Gym in Glace Bay is a great place to work out. - He misses Tim Horton' s more than he thought he would. - And most of all, everyone offers him tea. Don't know if that makes him an honorary Caper, but at least he understands me better since he's been here.
Rory Andrews My Post Follow Me
Well when they hear Marin's accent, there has to be follow-up questions. And yes, nowhere in North America do they offer people so much tea. I drank less tea in China.
madeline yakimchuk Follow Me
Watch this young girl tell us who is a Cape Bretoner https://youtu.be/4LSn9e8-p7A?t=4415
madeline yakimchuk Follow Me
From New Dawn's Youth4Change event this evening.
Richard Lorway Follow Me
Very powerful. Thank you for sharing this.
Christian Murphy Follow Me
I've been enjoying the show. Thanks for sharing.
Joe Ward Follow Me
To be a Cape Bretoner, you just have to have held an address here for about, let's say, a year. I.e. live here. There is a sort of celebrated "Cape Bretoner" that people think of themselves as, but don't realize that others are quite distinct from them in many ways other than mere shared geography. The drunkard's think the spirited parties they have routinely make them true Capers, and the church folk and community leaders think the same, as do the artisans, the old boys of the biz and political scene, and the unions, etc, etc. Name a distinct category, and they certainly feel that they are Cape Bretoners, of the legendary sort. However, perhaps the true unifying theme of what a Cape Bretoner is boils down to mindfulness and persistence. Despite the socioeconomic issues of the region, most find a way to love something about it, and they find a way to scrape by or even achieve a level of prosperity. Finding a way to be happy in adverse conditions is a great disposition.
Mathew Georghiou Follow Me
JOE, NICE OBSERVATION: "Despite the socioeconomic issues of the region, most find a way to love something about it, and they find a way to scrape by or even achieve a level of prosperity."
Ray Calabrese Follow Me
I moved west for work in 2003 when I was 22. I worry about the day when I will have lived in Ontario longer then CB. Getting home 3 er 4 times a year helps though.
Bob Inglis Follow Me
I am not from Cape Bretoner but I have landed immigrant status since 1979. I fell in love with the culture in the late seventies and I own almost all of the Rise and Follies records ( round black vinyl object with groves and a hole in the middle which I play on my vintage floor model Clairtone stereo made in my home town on New Glasgow ) . I have lived in New Glasgow, Saint John NB ( good lord don't spell it St. John for fear of death from the locals ) Halifax, Antigonish, Mulgrave and spent a few months working in Ireland ) where do you think I found people like Cape Bretoner's, bingo, Ireland . There is something to be said about island mentality and having a history of rocky times . There can be an out and out riot between 849'ers (Glace Bay people were affectionately referred as 849's years ago when telephone numbers weren't nearly so complicated and Sydney hockey players but don't dare pick on my Glace Bay friend if you are from "Off Island" We support each other and will do anything for our neighbor. Family means everything and we are humble and respectful .What an awesome place to raise a family which we did . May I stay please.
Rory Andrews My Post Follow Me
I'm far from an official welcoming committee Bob, but I like you here! Also, since you've lived here longer than I've been alive, I think you've earned the right to kick your feet up and call yourself a Caper. I don't know who hands out these titles. Let's call them all unofficial. Capers aren't the overly formal sort.
Alan Ross Follow Me
Hey Rory I enjoyed your article "what is a Cape Bretoner?" Although not being born as a Caper, three of my ROSS grandfathers were born in Northeast Margaree. My dad (Donald Ross) and mum vistited CB a few times. Both living in Vancouver where I was born, he made the comment upon returning from CB, "if you ever make it to Margaree and mention you are a ROSS, the folks there will welcome you with open arms". I certainly found that to be true when our ROSS family traveled down east to the island to take part in a 200 year celebration of the different ROSS families that settled in the Margaree area. Am I a "Cape Bretoner" - not likely.. Just another one of those 'wanna be's', sending greetings to all true CBer's. Alan Ross (Kenai Alaska)
Rory Andrews My Post Follow Me
Thanks Alan, I actually wrote an article about a famous Ross of Cape Breton. It was my third episode of "Famous Cape Bretoners You've probably Never Heard of". If you would like to read about one of your maybe ancestors, take a look: https://capebreton.lokol.me/episode-3-the-woman-who-fought-bears-and-smallpox Her name was Granny Ross, and was a generally awesome human being. Thanks for reading. -Rory
Kelly Bennett Follow Me
I just wanted to say thx for this little rant. It made me both laugh out loud and tear up. I'm what's called a displaced Caper... Born n raised, lived there for 30 years and go back to visit as often as I can. I've lived in and visited a lot of places round the world since moving from my home and I can attest that Cape Bretoners are a people like no other. Scrappy is a good word to use... but happy, friendly and unique are also a big part of the description. Proud to say I'm from Cape Breton, no matter where I am at the time I'm saying it. Oh and btw - I am, was and always will be a New Waterford Girl :)
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