Nova Scotia

Cuba and Nova Scotia's connection runs deep

From a Cuban consulate set up in Yarmouth in 1903, to a Nova Scotia premier's visit in 1994, this province has long been tied to the Caribbean country.

Dalhousie professor says the province could be doing more to exploit its good relationship with the island

When Cuba's first president was elected in 1903, one of the first things he did was open a consulate office on Main Street in Yarmouth. (Google)

You don't have to travel to Cuba to see some that country's rich history — why not visit Yarmouth instead?

When Cuba's first president was elected in 1903, one of the first things he did was open a consulate office on Main Street in Yarmouth. The town was considered the hub of North America's salt cod industry at the time.

Cuba's supply of salt cod, a cheap protein, traditionally came from Spain. After it gained independence in 1898, Cuba started to look north to Nova Scotia instead.

John Kirk, professor of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University, says Nova Scotia has had a unique connection to the Caribbean island for more than a century.

"They looked at Canada as a means to bring down potatoes and lumber and especially the salt cod, which was a staple of the Cuban diet under Spain," Kirk said.

More rum than whisky

Even today he says our kinship with Cuba is subtly on display.

"That's why if you go into a liquor store here you'll see more shelf spent for rum than whisky, where as anywhere else in Canada whisky has a greater concentration."

In the mid-1990s, then-Nova Scotia premier John Savage made history by becoming the first Canadian premier to lead a trade delegation to Cuba.  

Savage went twice, in 1994 and 1996. The visits came at time when relations between the U.S. and Cuba were still quite chilled.

"You've got to put this in the perspective of international trade," Savage told CBC News at the time. "Spain, Germany, Italy and Portugal — every country in the world, virtually, trades with Cuba and the issue for Canadians is that as long as the federal government decides that we trade, we trade."

Fidel Castro, the Cuban president at the time, had planned to return the favor and visit Nova Scotia in 1996.

A 'great relationship'

Castro was flying to Paris to visit the dying president of France, Francois Mitterand, and apparently called Savage to say he'd stop in to Nova Scotia. 

Castro even sent his security team to Halifax in advance to check out the airport and prepare for a visit.

Kirk says Castro jokingly assured Savage he wouldn't do what General Charles de Gaulle did in Montreal when he said in a speech "Vive le Québec libre" (Long live a free Quebec). There would be no, "Viva Nueva Escocia libre," speech from Castro on the balcony of City Hall at Grand Parade.

"They had a great relationship," Kirk says of Savage and Castro. 

In the end though, Castro ended up staying a few extra days in Paris and the layover in Halifax was cancelled.

"If Mike Savage were to go down it would be very highly regarded," Kirk said of Halifax's mayor, who is John Savage's son.

Today, Kirk says Nova Scotia should pay more attention to Cuba. Cubans are fond of Canadians for not siding with the Americans when the U.S. got most of the western hemisphere to stop trading with the island.  

Canada and Mexico defied American wishes, and "Cubans remember that," Kirk says.

Nova Scotia 'ignored' potential Cuba offers

Kirk says Terry Fox is a hero in Cuba, with about one million Cubans taking part in an annual run in his name.

"I'm astonished that the provincial government has ignored the potential that Cuba offers precisely because of the Savage visit," he said.

Kirk says the window of opportunity Nova Scotia has to exploit its good relations with Cuba is about to close as the U.S .gets ready to end its embargo.

One of Cuba's most lucrative exports is nickel. It accounts for about 30 per cent of the world's supply. Most of it is shipped to the Halterm container terminal in the south end of Halifax. From there its put on a train and sent to a refinery in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.

That route may be in question if the U.S. and Cuba decide to land that nickel in Florida instead.

Kirk says Nova Scotia should redirect some of its trade away from the "Boston States" and Europe and concentrate on Cuba "before the Americans get in."

"If you look at the Ivany report and what it says about doubling and tripling our exports, Cuba would be a great place to start."

About the Author

Preston Mulligan has been a reporter in the Maritimes for more than 20 years. Along with his reporting gig, he also hosts CBC Radio's Sunday phone-in show, Maritime Connection.

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