HALIFAX (CP) - With Ottawa's recent decision to recognize the Quebecois as a nation, federal politicians have unwittingly breathed new life into the separatist movement - in Cape Breton.
The idea of separating the rugged island from Nova Scotia - politically, that is - has been kicking around since the 1970s. Over the years, various groups have advocated breaking away and creating a new province, including the Cape Breton Labour party and the comic Cape Breton Liberation Army.
In 2000, a handful of regional politicians raised the possibility of seceding from the mainland, with one saying: "There's no employment here on the island, so how worse off could we be on our own?" Though fuelled by the widespread perception that the island has long been neglected by the provincial government, the fringe movement has laid dormant for years. But members of this small, disparate group say Prime Minister Stephen Harper's historic parliamentary motion, adopted last month, has revived their dream.
Mark Macneill, a vocal proponent of making Cape Breton a province, says the motion has placed Canada on a slippery slope toward constitutional change. "Where there's change, there's often opportunity," says Macneill, a longtime Cape Bretoner whose low-key campaign has included letters to politicians and media outlets.
"There's going to be an opportunity . . . to see if we can negotiate Cape Breton as one of Canada's newest provinces."
Macneill, an educator from Mabou who does not claim membership in any official movement, says Harper's parliamentary motion could inspire similar movements in Labrador, northern Ontario and northern Manitoba. He says a "predominant majority" of the island's 150,000 residents support separation. Some Cape Bretoners, including retired radio host Bill Davies, say the island never willingly gave up its independence after it became a separate colony in 1784.
"We were annexed without our knowledge," he says, referring to its unification with Nova Scotia in 1820.
Davies, a resident of Glace Bay, plans to circulate a petition advocating provincial or territorial status for the island.
"People are talking now about Quebec and eventually they'll come up with, well, (Cape Breton is) distinct, we should be on our own."
Historian Michael Earle says dissatisfaction in Cape Breton can be traced to the collapse of the island's coal and steel industries.
"Most of the area now has very high unemployment," says Earle. "Most of the young people move away."
But he says, as far as he's aware, that hasn't translated into popular support for separatism.
"I've always thought of it as a very small movement without wide support."
A 2002 poll of 405 Nova Scotians showed that 82 per cent of the Cape Bretoners surveyed were either completely or mostly opposed to separation. Still, the survey was part of a study prepared for the Cape Breton Regional Municipality that concluded "dramatic changes in governance are needed" to address the island's economic struggles. The study named separation as one possible solution, though it conceded "provincialism cannot solve everything." Scott Boyd, manager of the province's Cape Breton cabinet office, says many of the problems faced by Cape Bretoners are not unique to the island.
"As a province, we can get together, make (people's) stories heard and hopefully find a solution."
Boyd says previous provincialist movements have hardly been legitimate, but admits "there are people out there that would like to see us try to set up as a separate province." The Nova Scotia government established the office in 1999 to ensure local concerns are heard by cabinet ministers.
For some Cape Bretoners, the cabinet office is just a token measure.
"If we had our own government, we would be better able to control what happens here," says islander Sharon MacLeod.
"A lot of things are done from a mainland perspective."
MacLeod, who lives in Big Bras d'Or, says provincehood would allow local control of the island's resources.
"That doesn't mean we want tons of money or anything else," says MacLeod. "We want to be able to have some say in our destiny."
So what does everyone think of this here? I guess it was inevitable that after Quebec was declared a Nation with in Canada that other people were gonna jump ship.