Cape Breton Post
The Cape Breton dream
Newfoundlanders found work, stability in Sydney
SYDNEY — In the early 1900s Alexander Rolls left his home in Bonavista Bay, N.L., to find work.
He found a job at the Dominion Iron and Steel Company and eventually worked his way up to operate the crane at the company dock. His wife Amelia Falconer came to join him and their family has been in Cape Breton ever since.
The understated influence of Newfoundlanders on the culture of Cape Breton is interesting.
This is the story of how the labour market in Sydney flooded with Newfoundlanders.
In 1899, Henry Melville Whitney began constructing a steel plant in Sydney. He needed a place to use the coal he was digging in his coal mines. The industrial development of the steel plant resulted in an explosion of the demand for labour, both skilled and unskilled. This demand was further heightened when a second steel plant was built in Sydney Mines.
At the same time there was a crisis in the fishing industry in Newfoundland.
The price of salt cod drastically declined. The lower price for fish occurred simultaneously with an increase in the price of daily necessities. This meant that many fishers who lived in the small outports experienced extreme financial distress.
These two factors created the perfect storm for a mass exodus of Newfoundlanders to the bountiful jobs in Cape Breton.
The Canadian government also actively recruited Newfoundlanders to work in the West, but some Newfoundlanders never made it that far. The Canadian government paid bonuses to steamship companies for every immigrant they brought to Canada from overseas. It took 10 years of lobbying by Cape Breton members of Parliament to convince the government to subsidize the Newfoundland ferry bringing Newfoundlanders to Cape Breton.
The Dominion Iron and Steel Company began to send its recruiting agents to Newfoundland. As the company employed workers on Bell Island, the company had a good reputation and it was a desirable employer.
These recruiters often placed advertisements in the St. John’s newspapers. When the demand was high, these advertisements ran daily.
One recruiter, Mr. Kelly, arrived in Glace Bay with 120 young men and planned to return the following week with another group. It seemed as though there was a neverending supply of labour in Newfoundland as some men came seasonally and returned home in the summer and others came to Cape Breton permanently.
The company also used the local clergy to recruit new workers.
In 1900, Rev. Macdonald of Glace Bay teamed up with Rev. Murphy of Holyrood to bring 100 men to Cape Breton.
As these fishers were unskilled in mining and steel making, the Newfoundlanders became a relatively cheap form of unskilled labour.
Between 1901 and 1921, more than half of the Newfoundlanders who lived elsewhere lived in Nova Scotia and over 57 per cent of those Newfoundlanders who lived in Nova Scotia, lived in Cape Breton. By 1911 that number had increased to 68 per cent.
In 1901, there were 6,246 immigrants in Cape Breton — 3,392 were Newfoundlanders, 1,553 were from the British Isles, 679 came from the United States, 110 from Italy, 94 from Russia, 92 from France, 82 from Norway and Sweden, 68 from Austria-hungary, and 60 from Lebanon.
Clearly the Newfoundlanders represented the majority of immigrants.
Before the Newfoundlanders began coming to Cape Breton, the largest group of immigrants were from the British Isles, mostly from Scotland.
The influx of Newfoundlanders represented a significant shift in the cultural development of Sydney.
The working conditions offered were physically demanding or dangerous. They worked 13-hour days, often six or seven days a week. Because they were unskilled, the Newfoundlanders were given menial and dangerous work, which resulted in high accident rates.
The Evening Herald claimed that “Fatal accidents have been too numerous at the works and collieries this summer, and in most cases the victims were Newfoundlanders. Almost every week a coffin is forwarded to some point of Newfoundland by the Bruce, containing the remains of some unfortunate labourer whose life was cut short in some terrible manner.”
In 1903, the Trade Review reported that 83 men had lost their lives at the Sydney works, of which 49 were Newfoundlanders.
At the time, Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada. Only those labourers who arrived through official channels had the proper permission to work in Canada. Some of the Newfoundlanders who worked in the mines or at the steel plant were essentially illegal immigrants. As such they were scared of being deported back to Newfoundland and would take any work offered without question.
Newfoundlanders came to Cape Breton for work. While many left to return to the fishery, many stayed and helped to shape the community we know today.