Cape Bretoner renews separation debate

A Cape Breton man has launched a new campaign to turn the island into Canada's 11th province.

A Cape Breton man has launched a new campaign to turn the island into Canada's 11th province.

Mark MacNeill, a law student from Inverness County, says now that the Québécois have been recognized as a nation within Canada, it's time for Cape Breton to seek new status.

"We have a new Conservative government that is very bold, and I think there's an opportunity to change and that with a plan and some purpose, that we can make things better," he said.

Cape Bretoners have a unique identity and culture just as the Québécois do, MacNeill says.

The idea of Cape Breton separation from Nova Scotia has been around sincethe two were unitedin 1820.

In the 1980s, an actor and comic called himself General John Cabot Trail, head of the Cape Breton Liberation Army. His rallying cry was "down with the causeway," referring to the only physical connection between the island and the mainland.

Comedy aside, there has long been a sentiment in Cape Breton that the legislature in Halifax is more preoccupied with affairs on the mainland than on the island.

In February 2000 as the future of coal mining on the island looked uncertain, about 200 people in Baddeck used Farewell to Nova Scotia as a theme song at a meeting about Cape Breton independence.

The Cape Breton Regional Municipality commissioned a study in 2002 asking whether the island would be better off on its own.

The report by two professors from Newfoundland said if Cape Breton were to be recognized as a separate entity, itwould get transfer money directly from Ottawa and the power to decide how to spend it.

But the report also concluded there was no possibility that it would happen.

Like many before him, MacNeill says Cape Breton would be better off if it controlled its own budget and affairs rather than taking orders from Halifax.

MacNeill has started a website and letter-writing campaign urging politicians on the island to hold an assembly in the new year to discuss the idea of separation.

His campaign doesn't seem to be catching on with local politicians.

The CBRM isn't pursuing the idea of independence. Instead it has filed a lawsuit against the province of Nova Scotia, claiming the provincial government isn't distributing federal transfer payments fairly across Nova Scotia.

On the streets of Cape Breton, many people like Alex MacGregor are not convinced that separation is the way to go.

"Thousands of people have left here, so unless they're able to bring some sort ofindustry that would sustain and bring some people back, how would they support it in the first place," MacGregor said.

But MacNeill says he believes there is a base of separatist sentiment on the island.