Cape Breton Island

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Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada

Cape Breton Island (French: īle du Cap-Breton, Scottish Gaelic: Eilean Cheap Breatuinn, Mi'kmaq: U'namakika), sometimes shortened to just Cape Breton, is a large island on the Atlantic coast of North America. It is part of the province of Nova Scotia, Canada, although physically separated from the peninsular Nova Scotian mainland by the Strait of Canso. The island is located east-northeast of the mainland with its northern and western coasts fronting on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, its western coast also forming the eastern limits of the Northumberland Strait. The eastern and southern coasts front the Atlantic Ocean, its eastern coast also forming the western limits of the Cabot Strait.



Cape Breton Island's first residents were likely Maritime Archaic Indians, ancestors of the Mi'kmaq Nation, who later inhabited the island at the time of European discovery. Giovanni Caboto reportedly visited the island in 1497 to become the first Renaissance European explorer to visit present-day Canada however, historians are unclear as to whether Caboto first visited Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island.

The island saw active settlement by France with the island being included in the colony of Acadia. A French garrison was established in the central eastern part at Ste-Ann in the early 18th century before relocating to a much larger fortification at Louisbourg so as to improve defences at the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and defend France's fishing fleet on the Grand Banks. The French named the island "Īle Royale." It remained part of colonial France until it was ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Britain merged the island with its adjacent colony of Nova Scotia (present day peninsular Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Some of the first British-sanctioned settlers to the island following the Seven Years' War were Irish, although upon settlement, they were assimilated into the local French communities. From 1763 to 1784 the island was administratively part of the colony of Nova Scotia and governed from Halifax. In 1784, Britain split the colony of Nova Scotia into three separate colonies: New Brunswick, Cape Breton Island, and present-day peninsular Nova Scotia, in addition to the adjacent colonies of Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. The colony of Cape Breton Island had its capital at Sydney on its namesake harbour fronting on Spanish Bay and the Cabot Strait. In 1820, the colony of Cape Breton Island was merged for the second time with Nova Scotia; this being present-day peninsular Nova Scotia.

Beginning in the early 1800s and lasting until the mid-1800s, Cape Breton Island experienced an influx of Highland Scots numbering approximately 50,000; a result of the Highland Clearances. Today the descendants of the Highland Scots dominate Cape Breton Island's culture, particularly in rural communities. Until the 1970s, the Gaelic language was still spoken by many older generations who would have learned it prior to learning English in rural farming and fishing regions. A campaign by the provincial government during the 19th and early 20th centuries aimed to eradicate the use of Gaelic among school children. The growing influence of English-dominated media from outside the Scottish communities saw the use of this language erode quickly during the 20th century.

Tourism promotions beginning in the 1950s recognized the importance of the Scottish culture to the province (although it wasn't dominant throughout Nova Scotia), and the provincial government made attempts to encourage use of Gaelic once again. The establishment of funding for the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts and formal Gaelic language instruction in public schools are intended to address the near-loss of this culture to English assimilation.

The southeastern part of Cape Breton Island fronting the Atlantic Ocean is home to the Sydney Coal Field, an extensive underground coal seam extending at an angle from the shore beneath the seafloor of the Cabot Strait. This high-sulphur coal was first extracted by French soldiers from Fortress Louisbourg in the 18th century at nearby Port Morien. By the late 1800s, the Industrial Revolution had reached North America and Cape Breton Island's coal became extremely attractive, given its proximity for shipping from ports at Sydney and Louisbourg. The Sydney and Louisburg Railway was built to haul coal to its namesake ports.

By the early 1900s, two steel mills were erected on Sydney Harbour to take advantage of this energy source, smelting iron ore shipped from nearby Bell Island, Newfoundland. The coal and steel industries had a tremendous effect upon Sydney and surrounding areas. The booming economy experienced immigration from Newfoundland and Eastern Europe to fuel the labour demand. By the 1940s, a single company named Dominion Steel and Coal Company (DOSCO) controlled most mines and one of the two steel mills (the other having closed). DOSCO was at one point the largest private employer in all of Canada.

The urban area of eastern Cape Breton County influenced by the coal and steel industries came to be referred to as "Industrial Cape Breton" - many rural Cape Bretoners from fishing and forestry communities in Cape Breton, Richmond, Inverness and Victoria counties like to make this distinction (to this very day).

Following the end of the Second World War, Cape Breton coal fell into disfavour as a result of its high-sulphur, high-pollution geologic properties. In the 1960s, DOSCO fell into financial difficulty as the importance of railways declined and their consumption of coal and steel decreased. When it became apparent that DOSCO would close permanently, throwing thousands of workers out of their jobs, the federal and provincial governments decided to purchase DOSCO assets with the aim of cushioning the blow by following an orderly but gradual shut-down of the two industries. The provincial government would operate the steel mill as Sydney Steel Corporation (SYSCO), whereas the federal government would operate the coal mines under the Cape Breton Development Corporation (DEVCO).

Politics and other factors such as the OPEC energy crisis following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, saw the demand for coal sky-rocket. The federal government decided to use DEVCO as a regional economic development agency and funded a myriad of make-work schemes, in addition to increasing coal production (rather than the planned decrease and eventual shut-down). By the 1980s, the provincial government decided to modernize the steel mill, despite the uncertainty of markets, however it became apparent by the 1990s to both levels of government that their intervention was actually making the economy of Industrial Cape Breton worse, rather than better as unemployment and out-migration was only increasing.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, post industrialism came to Cape Breton when both SYSCO and DEVCO closed permanently, and the federal government provided funding to diversify the island's economy. Sydney faces a significant challenge in the long-delayed cleanup of the Sydney Tar Ponds, a tidal estuary contaminated with a variety of coal-based wastes from coke ovens that supplied the steel industry. After extensive public consultation and technical study, a CDN$400-million cleanup plan, jointly funded by the Government of Canada and Nova Scotia, awaits further environmental assessment.


The island measures 10,311 km2 in area (3,981 square miles), making it the 75th largest island in the world, and is composed mainly of rocky shores, rolling farmland, glacial valleys, barren headlands, mountains, woods and plateaus. Geological evidence suggests that at least part of Cape Breton Island was originally joined with present-day Scotland and Norway, now separated by millions of years of continental drift.

Cape Breton's landscape is dominated by the Bras d'Or Lake system which the island wraps around, Boularderie Island, the Strait of Canso, and the Cape Breton Highlands, which are considered a continuation of the Appalachian chain. Principal freshwater features are Lake Ainslie, the Margaree River system, and the Mira River. Innumerable smaller rivers and streams drain into the Bras d'Or Lake estuary and onto the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Atlantic coasts. Cape Breton Island is divided into four counties: Cape Breton, Inverness, Richmond, and Victoria.

Cape Breton Island is now joined to the mainland by the Canso Causeway, completed in 1955, enabling direct road and rail traffic to and from the island, but constraining marine traffic to pass through the Canso Canal at the eastern end of the causeway.


The four main cultures are Mi'kmaq, Acadian, Scottish, and English, with respective languages Mi'kmaq, French, Scottish Gaelic, and English. English is now the primary spoken language, though some Gaelic and Acadian French are still heard.

Later migrations of black Loyalists, Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans enriched the eastern part of the island around Industrial Cape Breton. Cape Breton has been seeing a population exodus in recent years.


Sydney on the east coast of the island has traditionally been the main port, with various facilities in a sheltered harbour. The Marine Atlantic terminal at North Sydney is where large ferries have daily departures year-round to Channel–Port aux Basques and seasonally to Argentia on the island of Newfoundland. Point Edward is the location of Sydport, a former navy base now converted to commercial use, as well as the Canadian Coast Guard College. Petroleum, general cargo, bulk coal, and cruise ship facilities are also located in Sydney Harbour. Port Hawkesbury has risen to prominence since the completion of the Canso Causeway created an artificial deep-water port, allowing extensive petrochemical, pulp and paper, and gypsum handling facilities to be established.

The Canso Strait is completely navigable to seaway-max vessels, and Port Hawkesbury is open to the deepest-draught vessels on the world's oceans. Large marine vessels may also enter Bras d'Or Lake through the Great Bras d'Or channel whereas small craft have the additional use of the Little Bras d'Or channel or St. Peters Canal.

The principal road on the island is the Trans-Canada Highway, Nova Scotia route 105. Nova Scotia route 125 is an important arterial route in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, and Nova Scotia routes 104 and 4, as well as the Cabot Trail, are important secondary roads. Railway connections between the port of Sydney and mainland Nova Scotia via Port Hawkesbury and the Canso Causeway are maintained by the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway.

The economy of the island has been in a steady decline, primarily due to the lower demand for coal, which was the primary source of both income and jobs for those living on the island. Most of the island's coal mines have been closed, and the mining operations have left a large number of toxic waste sites that preclude further development. Despite the efforts of the Canadian federal government to encourage employers to establish industry on the island, it's isolation and limited transportation options (for example, there is no railway connection to the rest of the country) make shipping most goods to larger markets prohibitively expensive. Although the island is a popular tourist destination, the island suffers severe winters and, due to quirks in climate, even summer temperatures can be unseasonably cool.

Cape Breton Island is famous for:

See also

de:Cape Breton fr:Īle du Cap-Breton


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