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Dr. Robert J. Morgan

Today, it is generally accepted that work is necessary to earn an income. But through time, work for many has also meant a way of life. Take the Mi’kmaq for instance. They did not work just to generate an income. For them, work meant fishing, hunting, foraging, and making clothing and shelter. In crafting their tools and clothing they expressed their cultural values in the colours, patterns and symbols that represented their spirituality and relationship to nature.

In this series of studies, we wish to show that work is in fact much more than simply making a living: it expresses values, and involves people in relationships with their environment and communities. When European settlers arrived in Cape Breton they worked in the fisheries, the woods, the mines, built ships, began trade, and eventually produced steel and other manufactured goods. While this was work, in the sense that it sustains individuals and families, each group was also influenced by the geography and climate of the island; without the fish, without the coal, without a plentiful supply of wood and lush vegetation, most of the work would have been impossible. At the same time, the way people worked – mining, fishing, and farming for example, left a lingering imprint on the evolution of Cape Breton culture. Boats had to be produced and newspapers had to be published. Years in mines deep under the sea, fishing in the stormy Atlantic and raising farm animals for uncertain markets, have all left their mark on our values, many of which centre around tenacity, community and perseverance.

Despite the intensity of their labourers, basket weavers, coal miners, rug hookers and wool spinners were not without their moments of reprise – singing Gaelic or Acadian songs, vying with others for basket or rughooking designs, assigning nicknames to co-workers on the railway, planning plays for local rugby teams and composing humorous verses to entertain each other through long shifts and long nights.

Over the years, work has provided people with new opportunities. The opening of lobster canneries in the later years of the nineteenth century gave many women the chance to leave home for the first time, make a living on their own and meet new people. The opening of the quarries at Dingwall and Cheticamp meant new economic opportunities for people from as far away as Arichat and Whycocomagh; opportunities that allowed them not only to diversify their income, but to discover new talents and build new communities.

Work has left a deep imprint on the evolving character of life and culture on Cape Breton Island. On this website, we examine four broad spheres of work that highlight the deeply woven connections between work, life, culture and values: women’s work, industrial work, professional work and rural work.

Too often when we think of work, we think of men toiling in tough occupations. Yet what of women? Did they not keep the sheep, make clothing, produce food, educate children, and pass on religious and other cultural values? In the first section of this site, local authors, researchers and historians look at women’s contributions to Cape Breton economies and work values. In the nineteenth century, many worked with their husbands (or, if widowed, with their children and neighbours) on farms. Others, either as a sole occupation or in addition to their work on farms and in fisheries, produced practical and decorative goods to earn or supplement an income - several of the stories on this site will examine rughooking and quilting and how much of themselves women put into these expressions of beauty and usefulness.

As industry on Cape Breton evolved and especially as two World Wars changed the gender dynamics of the workplace, more and more women left farms and fishing communities to work in factories, in burgeoning steel and mining towns on the island, and through this adapted to new pastimes and work opportunities. We will look at a few of these new opportunities and their attendant challenges through the eyes of women living in Whitney Pier in the shadow of the steel mill, working in early clerical occupations as switchboard and telegraph operators, and even as prominent and cherished media figures.

In the next section, we consider what many think of as quintessentially “Cape Breton” – its industrial life over the last 120 years: its canneries, woolen mills, railway work, and of course mining and steel plants. It is in these areas of work that modern Cape Bretoners were forged – with their dedication to hard work, their resiliency in the face of hardship and their desire to “turn their hands to anything.”

Much like the work performed by women, professional labour is an important and trying area of work and cultural expression. Like mining and fishing, teaching and administering medicine in early rural Cape Breton meant dealing with harsh climates, undeveloped landscapes and frequent travel and isolation. In the third section of this site, we hear doctors, teachers and newspaper publishers speak, and read about entrepreneurial merchant families. The roles assumed by these individuals in employing thousands of others (in printing, commerce, and education) formed a pivotal part of Cape Breton’s development.

In many of the stories on this site, rural work reflects work that was done before industrialization. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people fished, shod horses, farmed, and built ships for trade or the fishery. Given its position in the Atlantic, many Cape Bretoners held jobs related to the sea - lighthouse keeping, boatbuilding, shipping and fishing. This work molded early residents of the island; they lived modest lives in the country with still vivid memories of Scotland, Ireland, or indeed Louisbourg during its colonial era. These memories blended with their often difficult, but rewarding, Cape Breton work experiences.

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This digital collection of reflections, conversations and narratives, many of which have been gathered and preserved from earlier interviews and published accounts, has provided an excellent opportunity to bring together the varied threads of Cape Breton’s work history to people both within and beyond our beautiful island. We hope this site will transmit to learners, young and old, the diversity, creativity, perseverance and community implicit in the work that molded and continues to influence the direction and aspirations of Cape Breton.



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