First Cape Breton Christmas for families that traded West Coast for job, free land

Two families who traded their West Coast lives for the promise of a job and free land in Cape Breton are celebrating their first Christmas on the island.

'Keep it simple, keep it slow, just enjoy our time together,' Kerry Walkins says

Farmer's Daughter Country Market in Whycocomagh, N.S., is ready for Christmas with its new employees. (Farmer's Daughter Country Market/Facebook)

Two West Coast families that took up a Cape Breton shop's offer of a job and a plot of free land are celebrating the first Christmas in their small adopted community.

Sonja Andersen and Kerry Walkins, both from B.C., were hired at Farmer's Daughter Country Market in Whycocomagh after a help wanted ad on Facebook drew thousands of applications from around the world.

Andersen, a single mother, moved to the community of 800 from Vancouver with her 11-year-old daughter.

She plans to bring her family's traditional Danish dishes, like red cabbage, candied potatoes and rice pudding, to multiple dinners for the holidays. 

I feel safe. I feel secure. We feel welcome.- Sonja Andersen

"We were alone in the big city," said Andersen. "But we're not alone here."

Andersen said her daughter was bullied in Vancouver, but now is "the happiest she's ever been in her entire life" with her new friends, a new school and now — new Christmas traditions.

"I feel safe. I feel secure. We feel welcome," said Andersen. 

'We have dreams to grow our life here'

The family-owned general store and bakery — a community fixture for about 25 years — offered prospective employees about a hectare of land to balance out the low wages and attract hard-to-find staff to central Cape Breton. 

The deal with Farmer's Daughter stipulates that if the new employees are still working at the market in five years, the land becomes theirs.

Walkins, her husband and two children are settling in and say they're already making plans to build an off-the-grid house in the rural community.

"We have dreams to grow our life here. We're not just coming to kind of stick around a little while and go," she said. "We want to be permanent fixtures in the community here in Whycocomagh."

The Walkins and two other families were drawn from across the country to new lives in Cape Breton thanks to a Facebook ad posted in August by the Farmer's Daughter Country Market. (Kerry Walkins)

Walkins said she's received invitations from new friends for holiday get-togethers and will be spending a dinner with Andersen — a stranger turned co-worker.

"Keep it simple, keep it slow, just enjoy our time together, which is what it's all about," said Walkins.

"We didn't want to rush around anymore."

Small-town life not for everyone

Market co-owner Sandee MacLean said one of the new hires, a woman in her 40s, recently quit the market.

"It was shocking that the third person quit, but at the same time, when we reflect on it, I'm not terribly surprised," said MacLean, who runs the store with her sister, Heather Coulombe.

"This is a really hard job."

MacLean said the woman struggled with the busy, physical work and did not integrate well into the community.

Another new staff member, a chef and baker from Alberta, is expected to join the team in April, and MacLean expects to hire another four after that. 

Princesses and people who are not used to hard work, please do not apply.- Sandee MacLean

"It's going to be exciting to see who comes," MacLean said.

"Princesses and people who are not used to hard work, please do not apply."

She said the market will be expanding to offer craft beer, wings and pizza to winter sport enthusiasts visiting Whycocomagh.

The staff will also be featured in a documentary series proposed by a New York production company about the town, the new employees and sustainable living, she said.

With files from Gary Mansfield