Before 1890, the population of Cape Breton Island was almost exclusively native Mi’kmaq and those whose origins were British, French or Scots. The rapid development of coal mining in the 1880s, followed in 1889 by construction of Canada’s first and largest integrated Steel Plant in Sydney, led to a huge influx of immigrants.
Workers were badly needed to fill thousands of new jobs, a need that coincided with the great migrations from central and eastern Europe then in full swing. Many emigrants were on their way to the western Prairies, but a large number, especially from industrial centres, preferred to work and live in urban manufacturing areas. The newly-dubbed ‘Industrial Cape Breton’ offered an alternative.
Sydney, and to a lesser extent nearby towns such as Glace Bay, New Waterford, Dominion and Sydney Mines, grew rapidly -- from less than 10,000 to over 75,000 by 1920. Over 3,000 came from Newfoundland. Hundreds arrived from Italy, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Austria-Hungary and Lebanon, and were joined by Lithuanians, Jews, Ukrainians and Poles. Elsewhere, many Belgians, Jews and Italians went to work in the Inverness mines on the west side of the Island.
In Sydney, most immigrants settled within walking distance of the Steel Plant, especially in Whitney Pier which grew up to accommodate them. Ukrainians and Poles, for example, settled there in distinct neighbourhoods and became their own active communities.
Polish immigration began with the arrival of four families – Tynski, Paruch, Nowak and Siwak, who lived on Ferris Street in the Kolonia district of Whitney Pier. They built their own church and prepared their own special foods like pierogi (dumplings of unleavened dough with various fillings), which are still popular fare in Sydney. They soon set up a mutual benefit society to help newly-arriving countrymen, especially those in distress due to dangerous and often deadly conditions at the Steel Plant.
Similarly, Ukrainian immigrants raised enough money to erect a magnificent golden onion-domed church and hall, now a landmark in Sydney as the only such church east of Montreal. They and the Poles have also bequeathed an active dancing tradition to the community.
While southern Italians tended to work at the Steel Plant, northern Italians preferred coal-mining and settled mainly in Dominion and New Waterford. They soon made their presence known with picnics held in their churchyard – Saint Nicholas in Whitney Pier – that lasted days, with ethnic songs, baccia (lawn bowling) and special foods. Despite prejudice and unfair internment during both wars, the Italian community continues to have a strong local identity.
Most Lebanese and Jews did not come to Cape Breton to work in industry; their interest lay instead in private enterprise such as selling dry goods and jewellery, or peddling their wares, often on foot in remote areas of the Island. The Lebanese settled around Townsend Street in Sydney, erecting boarding houses which still survive. They too had their own Maronite Rite church and Cedar’s Hall, which continues today.
Jewish immigrants generally hailed from Poland, Russia and Germany. Some, like many Italians, landed first in the United States and then went to Cape Breton on the advice of relatives or after hearing sales pitches from agents recruiting for the Steel Plant. Synagogues were established in Whitney Pier, Glace Bay and New Waterford. The Jewish population tended to spread out in small groups, setting up stores wherever there were commercial opportunities.
Newfoundland immigrants were particularly disadvantaged, since Newfoundland was not part of Canada until 1949, and many entered Cape Breton illegally by jumping ship. Fearing deportation, they accepted the most menial and dangerous jobs in the mines and Steel Plant.
The same treatment applied to Black workers drafted from the West Indies, particularly Barbados, or from industrial centres in the United States such as Birmingham, Pittsburgh and New York. African Americans worked mainly in the Steel Plant and were recruited because of their prior knowledge of the industry, in hopes that they would pass on their skills. The appalling living conditions they encountered in the area commonly known as ‘Coke Town’, because of its proximity to the coke ovens, led most of them to return to the States.
The Barbadians, however, remained and formed permanent communities. Many were skilled workmen, but racial prejudice consigned them to the role of labourers in the blast furnaces or coke ovens. Some drifted into local businesses, becoming tailors, carpenters or grocers. They were not limited to Whitney Pier, but instead built halls in New Waterford and Glace Bay, as well as the Menelik Hall in Sydney. They too had their own clubs and associations and Canada’s only African Orthodox Church.
In the 30 years between 1890 and 1920, Industrial Cape Breton became the most cosmopolitan area of Maritime Canada. Large enough numbers came, and settled closely enough together, that their distinct languages and cultures persist to this day.
This is particularly true of the Polish, Ukrainian, Italian and Caribbean Blacks, whose churches and halls continue to keep their cultures alive. Lebanese, Ukrainian and Polish foods were popular in eastern Cape Breton long before the current appetite for ‘ethnic food’ was born, and the Lebanese card game of Tarabish is still one of Cape Breton Island’s favourite pastimes.