Senator calls for Cape Breton independence discussion

The topic of Cape Breton autonomy has been raised again, this time by well-respected Sen. Dan Christmas.

Dan Christmas says the island is dying under the current governance model

Sen. Dan Christmas says it's time to revisit the notion of Cape Breton independence. (Elizabeth McMillan/CBC)

Could Cape Breton Island become Canada's 11th province?

The topic of Cape Breton autonomy has been raised again, this time by well-respected Sen. Dan Christmas.

Christmas was in his home community Thursday to deliver the first annual Father Greg MacLeod Lecture to an audience of nearly 200 people. 

In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada: Reflections on an Island, the country's first Mi'kmaq senator offered bleak statistics on depopulation and poverty rates in Cape Breton. 

"The hard and the fundamentally tragic reality is that Cape Breton is dying," said Christmas, who predicted the trend will continue unless something changes drastically.

"Is it now time for Cape Bretoners to take full political responsibility for ourselves as an island and take complete charge of our own future?" asked Christmas. "Is it time to think about Cape Breton Island once again becoming its own political body or its own province within Canada?" 

Not the first time

This, of course, is not the first time the idea has been proposed.

In fact, Cape Breton was an autonomous colony briefly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Cape Breton Liberation Army comics and calendars of the 1970s and '80s, along with humour character General John Cabot Trail, touted the rallying cry, "Down with the Causeway!"

In 2000, some people looking at the island's economic development started seriously talking about independence, and those discussions continued over several years. 

Sen. Dan Christmas says he'd like to see an 'honest, objective discussion' about Cape Breton autonomy. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

The issue has also been close to the heart of John Whalley, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality's former economic development officer.

In that capacity, Whalley extensively researched equalization payments, federal transfers and population decline. 

He helped former mayor John Morgan file a lawsuit against the province over equalization payments in 2005. It failed.

"This is a very fundamental issue," said Whalley. "I really, really appreciate the fact that he [Christmas] would speak on this and indicate he's dedicated to addressing this during his time in the Senate. I thought that was just brilliant on his part."

Self-reliance

Christmas acknowledged it won't be simple.

"This discussion may take 10 to 15, maybe 20 years, perhaps well beyond my time on Parliament Hill, maybe beyond my own lifetime," he said, "but let's begin an honest, objective discussion."

Whalley says there's never been such a critical time. 

"The elected representatives have to see that the place is dying and there's a really fundamental change that's required."

Christmas wants Cape Bretoners to face that reality.

In his former role as Membertou senior adviser, Christmas was pivotal in the revitalization of that community, now one of the most prosperous Indigenous communities in the country.

He sees the same need for self-reliance for all of Cape Breton. 

"I see a parallel from my experience in Membertou and what I see in Cape Breton and I know from what we did in Membertou that we can do this in Cape Breton as well," Christmas said. "It's possible. I know it's possible."