© 2020 Donna Hébert, all rights reserved.
I’m an American and this is Canada. Everything here is just a bit different and other aspects are very different indeed. One noticeable foundation of Cape Breton life is a strong and active sense of community that includes people who are different and diverse, who didn’t grow up here, as well as families long embedded in the island.
Here I find institutions – banking, food markets, music production, and more – that are actively and successfully cooperative. The food Co-op, at least on the west coast, is almost the only place to buy food, so of course everyone joins. Everyone shops there. The woman (also a Donna) who took my quarantine phone orders at Margaree Forks recognized Bob by his four digit Co-op member number!
Friends see each other buying food, just like we do in Massachusetts and though the scale may be smaller, you have a wicked bigger chance of seeing someone to whom you are related. That connection will be reinforced if you are a church-goer, as many are. The first Europeans were Catholic – first the French, who called it Ile Royale, then the Highland Scots, expelled by the British after the Highland Clearances. The island, with both French and Scots professing, is overwhelmingly Catholic. That and a lot of intermarriage between families contributes to a real sense of relatedness.
Even though I’ve been a self-employed sort-of capitalist since the mid-’70s, I’m also a band leader and musician who believes deeply in group energy and what we can do together. Up here in the relative wilderness, life is tough and people count on each other for real life needs, so perhaps this leads them to cooperate more easily than our individualistic and competitive society does. It’s true that Canadians are usually nicer and more genuinely welcoming. Kinder, overall, than we are, as well. But there aren’t that many people around once you get 100 miles north of the U.S. border, are there? Does that make everyone more important to each other? That fellow from down the road you may not get along with will still help you with a roadside emergency. This sense of community, of belonging to each other, is sadly at risk of disappearing in the states.
Coming back to the cooperative model, Bob and I have been reading the back issues of the Inverness Oran (The Voice in Scots Gaelic). This weekly publication knits the community together. You won’t find a rehash of global news, but you learn about how the community is coping with global, national, and local events and how they are supporting and helping each other. In other words, far more good news than the average newspaper.
One of Chéticamp’s leading lights died recently and as I read about his life, I was touched to the point that I was grieving that I never met Raymond Doucet or talked with him. I could have learned so much from this remarkable man about how to hold a community together and make it grow and thrive. Chéticamp Co-op manager Doucet is remembered as “someone who dedicated his life to the economic and social development of his community.” (The Inverness Oran, 15 July 2020). To fully understand what he accomplished in a life’s work, you have to look at geography. The town is the largest settlement on the northwest coast of Cape Breton. North are only the Cape Breton Highlands.
In summer there are tourists (not so many this year) but in winter, this is a rough place to live, right on the Baie de St. Laurent. No regular icebergs like Newfoundland, but then that’s only a ferry ride away and the winter pack ice here still keeps boats in the harbour. North of Chéticamp, there’s only wilderness inland and small fishing settlements along the coast. The Cape Breton Highlands can get up to 20 feet of snow and the ONE main road, the Cabot Trail, can close quickly. Now picture driving the school bus twice a day from the top of the island to five miles south of Chéticamp in Terre Noire where the consolidated school is. The district finally got wireless communications for the bus drivers a few years ago after one of them got stranded in a storm with a bus full of kids. The last actual town going north into the Highlands, Chéticamp is 45 miles and an hour’s careful drive south to Inverness on rough roads and sometimes the winds get so strong they have a name for them: Suetes or “southwest winds.” One almost toppled my substantial body right over on Christmas my first year here.
Chéticamp is an isolated, mostly French Acadian community, with organizations and events that celebrate their culture and history. It’s also a town whose economy depends on fishing and tourism. For that reason, I was surprised to find that, unlike the smaller stores in Margaree Forks and Inverness, the Chéticamp Co-op is a cave of riches. It’s big. They can sell you anything, including lumber, hardware, housewares, and of course, the liquor store is right next door. This was the closest I’ve been on the island to a supermarket and this was largely Mr. Doucet’s doing. His energy pretty much built Chéticamp’s recent economy through co-operative enterprises that expanded into many other areas. You can even listen to a Co-op radio (CKJM) with local DJs all day long and have a co-op funeral home send you on your final journey. For several weeks, the Oran has reverberated with eulogies talking about how important he was to the community and what a gentle and kind man Raymond Doucet was in an outpouring of love and admiration for a life well lived. I’m sorry that I never met him.
A lot of daily life here reminds me I’m not in America and honestly, that’s an unimaginable relief. I am weary of savagery, greed and fear being the main economic motivators in our ‘Untied’ States. Cooperation is worth studying because it WORKS. We need a new, inclusive economic model. It’s about time and it’s not as though we as individuals don’t care about each other in the States but maybe it’s time to say it out loud, to band together, to speak in unison, to cooperate for the common good. Canada has a lot to teach us if we’re humble enough to learn.