Thousands of Cape Bretoners Worked on the Great Lake Ships

For many years I was of the opinion that Cape Bretoners if they couldn’t find meaningful and profitable work at home should get up and go where the work was especially if they were young and without ties. I don’t mean ties to family, we all have those I mean a wife and small children which makes it more difficult. Many individuals were able to stay and marry and raise a family and eke out a living to their satisfaction, some even prospered and did extremely well for themselves. I applaud those that have but there are others who quit school far too early and did all kinds of odd jobs and didn’t do so well and some even became a burden onto themselves and to their communities – some still are. Work opportunities over the years and over the centuries keep shifting and those that want work must shift with the times and the opportunities. Much like Trudeau said many years ago. “You want a job and work, well get up and go where there is work and get a job.” In other words look around, see where the jobs are and get off your arses and go where your labour and skills are required.

If you want evidence of this movement to find jobs just look within your family and friends. Just think of our own families as examples. I have hundreds of friends and relatives in Cape Breton and ‘away’. I have sisters in Halifax and Boston, cousins and friends in Mexico, Europe, and Calgary and Oregon and California. Friends and relatives from Cape Breton respond to my Blog who live all over Canada and the U.S. They all got there because they moved to find work, married and settled. That is the way of the world. That doesn’t stop us from longing for Cape Breton – it was ever thus.

When researching ancestors we should remember that historically people moved to find work — just as they do now. Many family historians are quick to learn that their ancestors didn’t stay put. This is so prevalent that two scholars recently paid tribute to family historians for their work in tracing the movements of people within and among communities, countries and continents.

Cape Bretoners did well in the Auto Plants

When tracing family members, a useful, if often neglected, path of inquiry is the job trail — the idea of following family migrations in terms of employment opportunities. Historically, as now, people tended to go “where the action is.”

People have always moved to cities from the country. In Britain, the Industrial Revolution drew thousands annually into factory towns such as Manchester and Birmingham; in later years the mill towns of New England absorbed legions of Maritimers and Québecois.

History suggests there has been an underlying tendency over the past two millennia for human populations to migrate westwards. The Germanic tribes impacted the Roman Empire, the Franks became the French, and the Angles and Saxons pushed back the Celts. The Slavs arrived, in front of the Magyars and the Tatars, and so forth. Europeans, once in the Americas, moved west from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Atlantic Canadians, and not just the genealogists among us, need to heed the record. Populations move from the country into towns, and people of European backgrounds have had a penchant for seeking their fortune in the West. The Highland Clearances, the Great Potato Famine and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes pushed many of our forebears on the emigration trail, but migration involved pull as well as push, and the pull was the opportunity to support oneself — and prospeWork Where you could Find it – Black Smith

Ask yourself a few questions. What drew men from Newfoundland to Cape Breton in the 1890s and early 1900s? Why would one immigrant move to Albany, NY, in the 1820s, while his brother remained here? Why would several families from Chester, NS, relocate to Minas Basin or across the Bay of Fundy, to St. Martins, NB? The answer is one word: work.

Did our Newfoundlander abandon fishing because the Sydney, NS, mines and steel mill offered cash wages? Was our Irish immigrant a mason or a navvy, and wasn’t the Erie Canal being built near Albany? It was built by poor hard working Irishmen with wheel barrows.

Did his brother get steady employment in Saint John or Charlottetown? Were Chester men shipwrights or riggers, and were they building wooden ships on the Noel Shore and St. Martins?

Tar Sands – Alberta

What skills or what trade did ancestors possess? That could tell you where they came from or where they went. And what happened when wooden sailing ships yielded to steam-powered steel hulls? What skills could a ship’s carpenter take into future employment? What did blacksmiths and wheelwrights do when the automobile replaced the horse and team? What became of the people who worked for the Dominion Atlantic Railway? Did people learn a new trade, or did they move on?

Ask yourself what sorts of jobs drew a work force to new locations. Tanneries employing curriers, skinners, cutters and labourers were situated near a source of hides, such as livestock farms and meat packers. Saw mills required sawyers, loggers and teamsters.
Grist mills and breweries attracted people to the area to work as brewers, millwrights or bottlers. Quite likely a neighbouring employer produced glass or porcelain bottles. Before semi rigs and multinationals dominated the scene, most production was carried out in relatively small plants near the market for their products.

Many Cape Bretoners went to Gloucester and Fishing Careers – Grand Banks Schooner

Make no mistake about it: more people moved in search of employment and food than due to religious and political oppression.

Today, when we lament people leaving for work, perhaps we should be asking what we can do to keep them here.

(Most of this article was written by Dr. Terry Punch and published in the January/February 2009 issue of Saltscapes. Dr. Terrence M. Punch is the resident genealogist on CBC Radio, and author of the forthcoming second volume of Erin’s Sons; Irish Arrivals in Atlantic Canada, 1761-1853 (Genealogical Publishing Company, 2008).

Matthew Cook will speak at the next meeting of the Old Sydney Society on 27 January, 7:30 PM at the Centre for Heritage and Science, 225 George St., Sydney. The title of the talk is: Going Down the Road: Rural Migration to the Sydney Steel Plant, 1899-1920

(Here presented by Matthew Cook is an example of the movement of people to find work and to prosper. I wish I had been closer to hear this talk – CAPER)


Sydney Steel Plant

When  construction  began on the Sydney steel plant in 1899, the new industry  hired  thousands  of  labourers,  many  from overseas, especially Europe  and  Newfoundland.   A  small percentage came from five Cape Breton rural  communities  –  Ingonish,  St. Ann’s, East Bay, Margaree, and Mira – where  the  cashless  economy  was  dominated  by  fishing and agriculture.


Matthew  Cook  has  written  an  essay  which  looks  at  the permanence of migration  from  the  five  rural  communities  by  analysing an electronic database  of  Sydney steelworkers.  The essay, “Going Down the Road:  Rural Cape  Breton  Migration to the Sydney Steel Plant, 1899-1920,” won the 2009 David  Alexander  Prize, awarded annually for the best essay on the history of  Atlantic  Canada  written  in course by an undergraduate student in any university.

Home Construction – Alberta 

In the steel plant’s first twenty years, most workers from rural Cape Breton moved to Sydney permanently and had lengthy careers at the plant. Some  men,  however,  spent  a  short time at the plant before returning to their  rural  communities  where they pursued other employment options that those  communities  offered.   The essay discusses the lives of some of the

people  who  gave  up  a  rural  life  for  an urban one at the turn of the twentieth century, and those who did not give up a rural life, but returned to it or attempted to maintain it while employed in an urban setting.

Matthew’s paper is the first historical study that draws on the database of Sydney Steel Plant employment records. This award-winning essay has been published in the latest edition of The Nashwaak Review, which is to be launched on Thursday, January 27, at the monthly meeting of the Old Sydney Society at the Lyceum in Sydney, 225 George Street, 7:30 PM.



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