Research Collaboration with the Mayo Clinic & Arizona State University
We are developing our first international research collaboration: more details to follow soon.
The Emotional and Economic Landscapes of Cape Breton Island, Canada
With its iconic rust-red cliffs and lush highlands, the small island of Cape Breton (Unama’ki) off the coast of Nova Scotia in the Canadian Atlantic is renowned for its natural beauty. The island’s pulchritude is enhanced by its diverse peoples. Its Indigenous inhabitants are the Mi’kmaq, whose territory was first penetrated by the Basques when they came to fish cod five centuries ago. French and English colonizers, arriving in the 17th Century, left a more enduring and disturbing mark, while also establishing a European notion of industry that would define the island for the next 400 years.
There was a repeated changing of hands throughout the island’s colonial period, with the French and English each claiming it in frequent succession. Both had black slaves. Over the decades, more black people—some slaves, some free—arrived from America as Loyalist refugees. Under English rule the French ‘Acadians’ were deported, but many remained in hiding, protected by the Mi’kmaq. Settlement was finally achieved with the arrival of Scottish settlers, many of whom were uneducated Gaelic farmers. They immigrated to Canada as a result of the Highland Clearances, and their descendants now comprise Cape Breton’s largest ethnic group. A number of Irish immigrants also arrived in the mid-19th Century, fleeing the potato famine, though Cape Breton faced its own potato blight around the same time. In the last century, Eastern and Central Europeans along with a number of Italians, Greeks and inhabitants of the West Indies, contributed to Cape Breton’s thriving economy as they arrived to seek work in the island’s steel plant and coal mines. A small number of draft dodgers escaped to Cape Breton in the 1970s and have endured as a vibrant part of the arts community. Most recently, Syrian refugees have made this craggy island home. A large number of the island’s settlers and their descendants are from the working classes.
Despite its beauty and diversity, one of the island’s most striking features is the precipitous decline of its emotional landscape. When the steel plant and last coal mine closed in 2001, Cape Breton’s economy was driven into rapid retreat. Along with it went a disconcerting amount of its population, many of whom sought work in the oil sands in Alberta. These migrant labourers were separated from their families as they sought money ‘out West’ to send home. Divided families, high unemployment and generations of learned dependencies have severely compromised the general well-being of the island’s inhabitants. Post-colonialism and post-industrialism have resulted in particularly high illiteracy, obesity and drug abuse rates, along with one of the nation’s poorest urban postcodes and deeply troubling numbers of suicides.
What has been called a ‘hemorrhaging of doctors’ from the island has also affected Cape Bretoners’ physical and mental health, with patients waiting nearly 250 days longer than those in the province’s capital city, Halifax (on the mainland), to be seen by mental health teams. Necessarily, action groups and government officials are beginning to address the mental health crisis in Cape Breton. In June 2017, mental health expert Dr Stan Kutcher arrived in Cape Breton to begin an exhaustive study of the current situation and make recommendations to the Province of Nova Scotia to intervene.
But intervention in practical ways needs to come more quickly. Non-government organisations are already addressing the dreadful consequences of teenage bullying. Individuals are also joining the battle against the island’s mental health crisis. Very recently, over 100 bikers made regional news when they escorted a badly bullied boy to school. Groups such as iCreate Cape Breton have begun to foster youth resilience despite a grim economic reality. The island’s talented music groups also regularly join other artists in fighting the stigma of mental illness. Nevertheless, Cape Breton is hungry for more modes of intervention. The ReLit Bibliotherapy Foundation can play a vital and collaborative role in combatting the overwhelming need in Cape Breton for the restoration and reinvigoration of its emotional landscape.
This strand of work is being led by our International Ambassador, Dr Julie Sutherland.