One-fifth of Nova Scotia's total population live on Cape Breton Island, but over 70% live in industrialized Cape Breton County, which has been steadily declining in numbers since the Second World War. Its principal city is SYDNEY, a large industrial, commercial and administrative centre, which is surrounded by a group of declining coal-mining towns, the largest of which is GLACE BAY. More recently, there has been a surge of urbanization in the southeast corner of the island, where a substantial oil-refining and pulp- and paper-making industry has emerged at Port Hawkesbury, taking advantage of the large harbour created by construction of the causeway to the mainland.
The island was probably known to BASQUE fishermen as early as the 15th century and was sighted and identified by John CABOT (1497) and Jacques CARTIER (1534). Claimed by the French as part of Acadia, it remained largely undeveloped and unsettled, apart from a minor role as a fur-trading and fishing outpost. When the Treaty of UTRECHT, 1713, ceded most of Acadia to the British, the French retained Cape Breton, which they renamed Ile Royale. Shortly thereafter, they began construction of the fortress of LOUISBOURG at a small harbour along the southeast coast. For its time, it was the most imposing European-style fortress in North America. When Louisbourg and the rest of New France fell to the British during the SEVEN YEARS' WAR, the fortress was destroyed; the Treaty of PARIS, 1763, ceded the island and France's remaining possessions in the area to the British.
Cape Breton became part of the colony of Nova Scotia in 1763, but it remained largely undeveloped until 1784, when it became a separate colony, as one of several separate jurisdictions created for the LOYALIST refugees. The Loyalists, who made Sydney the capital of their new colony, were soon overwhelmed by successive waves of Scottish immigrants. They occupied most of the available arable land along the seacoasts and around Bras d'Or Lake, and with a few hundred returning Acadians made up the bulk of the island's largely rural population, which subsisted mostly on farming and the inshore fishery. In 1820 the island was reunited to the jurisdiction of NS following almost 40 years of tempestuous separate status.
The emergence of a vital and expansive coal-mining industry from the 1830s on completely transformed the island economy. The mines surrounding Sydney harbour attracted the excess population of the already overpopulated rural areas and weighted the island towards the industrial base emerging in Cape Breton County. While the area was the most dynamic growth zone in the Atlantic region up to WWI, its boom was short-lived. When the coal mines were depleted and the steel mill became obsolete, the central Canadian capitalists who had come to dominate the industrial advance abandoned the area for greener fields, leaving the industrial sector to survive on a succession of inadequate subventions from federal and provincial governments. The result was a heritage of industrial decline, labour unrest and a massive out-migration.
Today the island is recovering somewhat. New coal seams are being exploited and the industry has rebounded somewhat from its post-WWII collapse. Smaller industries have taken root to some extent, and the rebirth of the fishery and an expanding pulp and paper industry has combined with the oil refineries and the promise of offshore petroleum resources in pointing to a better future. Despite continuing high unemployment (15.1% in July 1987), investment in Cape Breton doubled between 1980 and 1986 (to more than $95 million). BADDECK and Fortress Louisbourg (a magnificent reconstruction of the 18th-century site). CAPE BRETON HIGHLANDS NATIONAL PARK preserves the rugged beauty of the island's northern cape, around which curves the scenic Cabot Trail.
Author D.A. MUISE
Links to Other Sites
Beaton Institute Archive
The Beaton Institute is an archive and research center mandated to collect and conserve the social, economic, political, and cultural history of Cape Breton Island.
Watch the Heritage Minute about explorer John Cabot from the Historica-Dominion Institute. See also related online learning resources.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada
This illustrated Parks Canada website describes the ecology, geography, and history of Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada.
Men of the Deeps
Discover the music of Cape Breton's Men of the Deeps, North America’s only coal miner’s choir. Their website features a concert calendar, reviews, discography, and audio clips from their recordings.
The Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts
Ciad Mile Failte! This Nova Scotia college specializes in educational programs about Gaelic language, music, dance and crafts. Be sure to check out the nicely illustrated “Great Hall of the Clans Museum” and “The Norman MacLeod Heritage Series.” Also features links to Gaelic dictionaries and related websites.
Cape Breton Giant
Fascinating story about the life and times of the legendary Angus McAskill.
Cape Breton Miners' Museum
Dig into the history of Cape Breton coal mining at the Miners' Museum website. Features an extensive glossary, great photographs, and notes about the geological development of Cape Breton's coal field. The acclaimed "Men of the Deeps" choir performs at the museum during the summer season.
Cape Breton Celtic Festivals
Dedicated to Celtic music, song, and dance. Click on the "Celtic Colours" link for the latest festival highlights and biographies of participating musicians. Requires various media players. From the Virtual Museum of Canada.
Galaup, Jean-François De, Comte de Lapérouse
A biography of the noteworthy French naval commander Jean-François de Galaup. From the “Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.”
Cape Breton Céilidh
This site is devoted to Gaelic culture and heritage of Cape Breton Island. Meet the Gaels of Cape Breton and explore their ancient language and its vibrant traditions of song, storytelling, music, and dance. From the Virtual Museum of Canada.
Nicolas Denys, one of the leading figures in Acadia for over half of the 17th century. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
A History of Mining in Cape Breton
A great information source about the history of coal mining in the Cape Breton region of Nova Scotia. From Library and Archives Canada.
Nova Scotia's Natural History
An online guide to the natural history of various regions in Nova Scotia. From the website for the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History.
The "conquest" of Acadia, 1710
This site offers online excerpts from "The 'conquest' of Acadia, 1710," a book about the conquest of Port-Royal by British forces in 1710. Relates to Acadian history, native studies, native rights histories, and the socio-political history of the eighteenth century.
Cape Breton Regional Municipality
The website for the Cape Breton Regional Municipality in Nova Scotia.
Destination Cape Breton
This tourism website for Cape Breton Island features news and information about local historic sites, cultural events, outdoor adventures, and more.
The Canso Causeway's History and Impact
An illustrated history of the Canso Causeway, which crosses the Strait of Canso to link Cape Breton Island to mainland Nova Scotia. A Virtual Museum of Canada website.
Boularderie Island Historical Society
Check out the interactive map for details about the many heritage sites on Boularderie Island. From the website for the Boularderie Island Historical Society.
A tourism website for the Ingonish region, located in is actually a cluster of five small communities in the Cape Breton Highlands.
Inverness County Museums
An illustrated guide to Inverness County museums. A PDF document.
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