From the UK to North Sydney – The Hancocks

Jan, Rhiannon, Imogen and Morwenna Hancock

Morwenna Hancock and her family moved to Cape Breton from England, intending to stay only a short while on their way British Columbia, but liked it so much they are now putting down roots here. A mutual friend referred Morwenna to me, knowing that I’d be interested in her insight on life in Cape Breton. I went to her home in North Sydney on February 3 to meet her and find out more about her family’s reasons for staying in Cape Breton.

The Hancocks live in a medium-sized home in a quiet neighbourhood near a local school. Morwenna, a pretty young woman with pixie-cut brown hair and friendly eyes, welcomed me in and made me a cup of tea, while her elder daughter Rhiannon, five years old, played a Curious George program on the laptop on the floor nearby. Imogen, 2 and ½ years old, was down for her afternoon nap and husband Jan was at work. The fireplace crackled cozily and the two cats came in and out of the room to check me out while we sipped our tea and talked.

Before Morwenna and Jan had even met, at home in England, he had spent time here in Canada and liked it so much that he hoped one day to live here, in BC specifically. Then he met Morwenna and she wasn’t so sure about leaving England, but when they spent their honeymoon in BC, she was convinced. “I went – ‘yeah, I could see myself living here’.”

A year later, in 2006, they went back to BC and bought a house in Nelson. But they still had to obtain Permanent Residency visas in order to move there. Back in England, they found out that if one of them got a job offer in Canada, and worked in the country on a work visa, that this would help to fast-track their Permanent Residency applications. At an emigration fair, they found an Canadian company which could help them do the paperwork and help to find job postings. The Hancocks asked for jobs postings from BC since they already owned a house there, but were open to considering other locales, especially those on the East Coast, which, compared to BC, didn’t have as much competition in the job market.

Morwenna explains how they initially heard of North Sydney: “So one day I got a call and the company said ‘we found two possibilities, one is in this town called Fort McMurray, and one is in this town called North Sydney’. So… I googled Fort McMurray, and I googled North Sydney, and I decided it would be… North Sydney!”

She interviewed and got the job, and then she, Jan and Rhiannon moved across the pond. Morwenna went to work as an executive assistant for a local businessman, and Jan stayed home as a housedad with Rhiannon. Within six months they got their Permanent Residency visas. Now they could go out west as planned, to the home they still owned in Nelson and were renting to tenants in their own absence. But then Jan, who has a PhD in Political Science, was offered work at Cape Breton University, and their second child was born. The home in BC needed much work done to it, whereas the home they owned in North Sydney was in good shape. So in 2010 they sold the home in BC, and decided to stay in Cape Breton.

I asked Morwenna, “What sorts of things contributed to your decision to stay here?”

Morwenna: “The way of life here. We weren’t looking for a big city. We wanted to get back in touch with a more traditional way of life, and a deeper sense of community. That was one of the biggest things. We had lived in a couple of different places in England and never felt part of … the community. All our neighbours here are so sweet. They’ve helped us out when we’ve had problems, they keep an eye out on the girls when they’re playing outside, in between all the gardens. People in England used to be like that, but it’s changed so much. It’s so much more introverted now.”

She continues, “And we’d made a good bunch of friends, and started to feel settled. And honestly, the job market here is better! This is at least a university town, whereas in Nelson there was no big university. So there was nothing for my husband out there. And I had no reason to see why I would do any better in my line of work there than here.”

So they stayed. And they feel part of a vibrant community. On the subject of whether or not she feels her family is welcomed here, or if they’re seen as “come from away’s”, Morwenna says of a group of mothers who get together to have a weekly playdate, that “it’s a real melting pot. There are a couple of people in the group whose family has been here for generations going back, you know, they’re born and raised here, they’re “thoroughbred” locals. And a couple of my friends lived here til they were 18, moved away, then moved back when they had children. And then there’s a few of us who have never lived here. And it all kind of gets forgotten, it all comes out in the wash. We’re all the same underneath.”

“However, in my professional life, it’s noticed that I’m ‘from away’. It’s not always a bad thing, you know, but it comes out… like when I try to do things and people will say sort of ‘well… don’t you know how things are done here?’ and I’m like ‘no, no I don’t know!’” (Laughs.) “ I don’t know the local businesses, or I don’t know all the ins and outs and the personalities, and that you can’t get this company to work with that company. The things that only locals know.”

A local might also have an advantage when it comes to childcare. Where a local mother would know “the 16-year-old down the street,” Morwenna doesn’t. But she and a friend who is also “from away” have teamed up to trade baby-sitting services. “Most locals have all this family here, so they don’t need to worry as much about finding a babysitter,” she says.

We get to talking about some of the challenges of living here. While she loves her adopted home, Morwenna says, “In the winter, it’s difficult to find new things to do. I mean, we don’t let winter stop us. There’s huge amounts of hiking trails, there’s Ski Ben Eoin, there’s parks and things galore. But if you want a family day out with a little café, an indoor sort of thing, a package… it doesn’t exist. Even just the summer after Imogen was born, my family came over from England. We set out in the morning to go to the Highland Village, but we didn’t get there until around noon, so we went looking for somewhere to eat. And… the Highland Village doesn’t have anything. We knew we could eat at the hotel next door but that day it had a wedding, and it was shut. So we said ‘well, where can we eat?’ and [the Highland Village staff] said “well, there’s Beaver Cove – half hour, forty five minute drive away – or Baddeck. [Another 45 min drive in another direction.] And we were like, ‘that’s it?’”And this was in August. We’re not talking middle of winter. I mean, I know there’s a small population there, but it just seemed… crazy.”

Morwenna sees other opportunities, too. She mentioned an idea she’d heard about of building an aquarium in downtown Sydney, near the Cruise Ship Pavilion, something that could be open year-round and that would attract locals as well as tourists. She also mentioned that she’d love to see a children’s playplace open during the day, for a change of scene for her girls. (There is one close by but it is only open for birthday parties.)

She admits, though, that bringing business ideas like these to life is “hard work. And there’s this contradiction that I find here. The people themselves, individually, are incredibly hard-working. But at the same time there’s almost this whole collective attitude of “well… but no-one’s given us anything here!” And, you know what, no! And, they’re not gonna! We need to think ourselves out of this problem. We need to decide what the community needs. We need to ask questions – like Steve Sutherland and his Leaders series, we need to ask – what are we gonna do? What are we doing, going forward? And if you multiply that [kind of resourcefulness and questioning] out, you probably can get somewhere. But you need that collective psyche to stop going – ‘the mines are shut, the steel plant’s shut, well… what are we gonna do [besides take handouts]?’ Cause it’s almost this… state of shock, that the culture is in.”

Morwenna saw this happen in the village n England where she is from, Huntley, which used to be an industrial area. And the people of Nelson, BC, told her the same thing happened with the demise of their forestry industry. In both cases she says the communities had to go through a phase of shock before they could collectively help decide the future of the area, and move forward. She thinks Cape Breton is experiencing this state of shock, but hopes things are moving forward. She sees the money that Cape Bretoners earn out West as a possible catalyst for change.

“I wonder if there will be a tipping point, where people are bringing in enough money from out West, to kind of kickstart things here? Bring in money earned out west but stop it going back out west. I don’t know how much we’re seeing the real benefit of that money here yet! We should be trying to plow that money back in to … local business. You know, use your money here. Go out West and make a pot, and then kickstart something here.

“But I think that [what keeps people from doing that is] then you have to give up your life out West to be here and just do that hard slog [of building a business]. But – there’s a bigger payoff down the road, for society here.”

***

If you’d like to be featured on the Dream Big blog, or if you know someone who I should speak to, get in touch!

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Beer, boards and babies – Jeremy and Melanie White

Jeremy, Melanie and Everett White

I met Melanie and Jeremy White at a yoga class last year, and soon began seeing them at the Baddeck Community Farmer’s Market, too. They were enthusiastic when I approached them for an interview, and even traveled to my home with their five month old baby, Everett, because their own home was under renovation. We sat down at my kitchen table two weeks ago, with a pot of tea and a tray of date squares from a local bakery.

Originally from Vancouver and Montreal, and Toronto, respectively, Melanie and Jeremy met in Costa Rica when he was working there and she was learning Spanish. Soon they were traveling and living all over Latin America due to Jeremy’s work in sales and business development for Bywater International. But, after several years there, Melanie says, “We moved back to Canada. We wanted to re-establish roots in our home country after so many years away, and despite not having any family or connection to Cape Breton, we felt enormously welcomed here.”

Jeremy sits with Everett on his lap while my brother Mathieu entertains the baby.

In contrast to the gated communities so prevalent in Latin America, Melanie and Jeremy find Cape Breton “almost like Little House on the Prairie.” A neighbor, with whom they’ve become almost like family, came by their property one day when they happened to be in Sydney for the afternoon, and blocked up the eight cords of wood Jeremy had piled there. “It was like little elves had come by,” says Melanie. “I couldn’t believe it.” The same neighbor also helped in milling up spruce trees that had been hit by the bark beetle epidemic. In return, Jeremy was able to give the neighbor lumber that he could then use in a building project.

“We managed to mill about six and a half thousand board feet of lumber from what we pulled out of the woods this spring. More than enough for, you know, a number of outbuildings! Our neighbor got a hundred percent of the wood he needed – everything except for the rafters for the roof on his new 30′ by 15′ woodshed.”

“I love that sort of relationship with neighbours. You don’t ever have to worry about paying somebody for something because you know you’re going to get him back, and then some, with something you’ll do for him down the road.”

Their land, an old farm, looks out over Nyanza Bay on the Bras d’Or Lake. They were in Nicaragua when they began looking for property and ended up buying the property sight unseen from Latin America because a competing offer had gone in that very day. But they don’t regret it.

“It was described as nearly a tear-down. But it was beautiful, it has the original floors. The view is really majestic, a sweeping view of the whole inlet up to the Baddeck River. And we loved the potential the land had for some of things we want to do. It was such a magic discovery.”

And now they’re on their way to launching an organic microbrewery. They’ve been pre-certified organic for their hopyard and apple trees through ACO. That means they submitted a farm plan and will be monitored through this year’s growing season. They’ve got ambitious plans for this year, too.

Jeremy: “We’re hoping to build the outbuilding that will house the brewery. We’re in the process of garnering finance for that and going through the initial planning process for how big, exactly where to build it, etc. We were going to do something smaller in an existing shop, but all my research into brewery startups is showing me that the biggest mistake startups make is going too small, believe it or not. It takes you just as long to brew 5 gallons as it does to brew 1000 gallons. So if business takes off, you don’t have the product, you can’t make enough. And even if you’re making as much as you possibly can with the smaller capacity system, you might be making – after costs and everything else – 20 grand a year, but you just can’t live on that. So you have to make the brewery big enough to meet the demand, and make enough money to make the process worthwhile. It’s a time consuming process. You can always start with a bigger setup and only brew, you know, once a week, and allow it to gear up. But you need to go in with that capability, because reinvesting in a new brewery house system after one year is the kiss of death in the brewing industry.”

“We’re probably going to be 7 barrels, which is a US measurement, and that’s about – 800 liters. 16 kegs at a time.”

Baby Everett is growing nearly as fast as the hops will!

While they work on building the microbrewery and establishing the farm, and Melanie is full-time caregiver for baby Everett, Jeremy earns a living as a headhunter, or recruiter, for various New York firms that specialize in recruiting for capital markets employees. He’s able to do this completely from the farmhouse, via high speed Internet and the telephone. He speaks to traders in New York who are in environments too hectic to do anything other than shout their private phone line to him over the phone before hanging up, while he’s looking out at eagles flying over snow-covered Nyanza Bay. Little do the traders know that even though they’re making a million dollars a year, they’re speaking to someone who’s already living his dream life.

***

This spring and summer I’ll visit Melanie and Jeremy’s farm to see what the hop production looks like, and take some photos. If you have anything you’d like to ask the Whites, leave a comment and it will get to them, or just wander around the Baddeck Community Market and look for the really tall guy holding a baby.

Edit, April 2013: Big Spruce Brewing is now in operation. Click here to go to their Facebook page.

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“It’s amazing what art can do”

Wagmatcook Cultural Centre, Wagmatcook

Last week I was reading the local paper for Victoria County, the Victoria Standard. There was a piece about the First Nations community Wagmatcook, which is the closest First Nations community to Baddeck, where I live. The piece mentioned a lecture series being held there this winter, and that the next one was that very week, featuring artist Alan Syliboy. Well! I thought – I’m unemployed and have free time. And, although I’d never heard of Alan Syliboy, I love art of any kind, so a talk by an artist about their life’s work would be worth checking out.

A stained glass window at the Wagmatcook Cultural Centre.

I went out to the Wagmatcook Cultural Centre (located at 10765 Hwy 105) on a snowy Thursday morning, January 26th. And I joined a group of students from nearby Waycobah First Nation school, as well as a few local Native and non-Native community members, and listened to a laidback, but captivating talk by Syliboy. He described his life’s key events, talking about growing up near Truro, being bored and uninvolved in school, but unsure what else to do. Then he got involved in art as a teenager when Maliseet artist Shirley Bear took him under her wing and brought him to Maine to meet other Native artists.

Alan Syliboy speaks about his life.

On his website, Alan writes, “As a youth, I was unsure of my talents, I found painting painful and difficult because I was unsure of my identity. But my confidence grew when I studied privately with Maliseet artist Shirley Bear and then attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where 25 years later, in 1997, I was invited to sit on the Board of Governors.”

You can check out Alan’s website here to view his bright, colorful, vibrant work. You can also view the National Film Board short film that he created with renowned photographer Nance Ackerman, and which he showed us, Little Thunder, which is part of the Stone Canoe project– a book of two previously-unpublished Mi’kmaq stories that were collected in the mid-nineteenth century and thought to be lost.

Alan Syliboy holding one of his Syliboy Series works.

“It’s amazing what art can do,” Syliboy said when describing how the art show he curated in 2009, Ekpahak, brought together Native artists in New Brunswick for the first show of its kind, and influenced locals to rename an island in the St John River from “Savage Island” to “Ekpahak”.

“It can change things, enlighten people.”

A mural at the Wagmatcook Cultural Centre

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Sorrows and joys and the project so far

Washabuck and a lone cloud

Washabuck peninsula from Baddeck Bay Road.

“We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” – Joseph Campbell

The Internet is pretty amazing, hey? I try to think of it not as something alien that’s taking over my life, which is how it can feel, but as humans’ ability to make connections and share, only sped up and electrified. It can make me a bit crazy, for sure. But it can also do amazing things, like how it is helping me make connections and network for this project. (Facebook group, etc.)

Anyway, the point is, I was on Pinterest just now looking through pretty pictures (OK, I was procrastinating, but whatever) and saw that quote above, done as hand script. (Original source on Ali Edwards’ blog.) And it felt like something good to share here.

So I think that every now and then I’ll be sharing quotes that I find inspiring. Because that’s a part of the puzzle of creating change in difficult situations, is maintaining inspiration. Not the cheesy inspiration posters that were on the Grade 8 classroom walls (well-intentioned, but still cheesy), but real sayings that speak to us and inspire us to keep working for our dreams.

***

So it’s Monday. Coming up this week here on Dream Big Cape Breton – keep your eye out for a post about Mi’kmaq artist Alan Syliboy (I went to a lecture he did at Wagmatcook Culture Center, this Thursday past), as well as a post about a young couple from Ontario and Vancouver who bought a farm property near Baddeck, sight unseen, and are making a wonderful life there. (And are hoping to start a microbrewery!) I interviewed them today and we had a wonderful chat that’s really got me thinking. I can’t wait to share it with you all.

I’m also working on a piece about pride of place, which will also be a bit of a history lesson (the first of many, I’m sure!). I’m learning so much from reading history.

So I’m working on those three pieces and hope to have them up on the blog throughout the week. As well I’ve got coffees and meetings lined up with four people for this week (this week!) to talk to for this project, and the month to come is starting to fill up with appointments too! It’s awesome. The energy is just fantastic. Everyone I talk to about it says “This is a cool project and I’ve often thought of doing something similar!” So I think I’m on the right track. I’m so excited about all of it.

So for now – leave comments with any and all thoughts you have on the subject as well as any questions. And I’m looking for other writers to contribute, as well, so please read this short bit of info if writing or taking pictures interests you at all!

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Here we go.

Cape Breton Island map

Welcome to Dream Big Cape Breton.

So what the heck is it? At the moment, it is me – Leah Noble – a twenty-something writer, going on a journalistic personal journey over and around the island, to seek out stories.

But I’ve got big dreams for this blog too, so I hope over the next year as you read and take part in the conversation, you’ll also see this blog grow, and change.

For now, let me tell you what I’m trying to do here.

First, I’m hopelessly in love with Cape Breton. I think it’s the best place in the world. It’s so beautiful, it’s a really special place to experience the wild world, as well as being a place with an amazing history and many different cultures that have combined and sometimes clashed here. If you’ve ever visited or lived here, you know what I’m talking about. There is just something about the place.

But, sometimes it feels like an abusive relationship, this love of mine. I also see the incredible challenges for those who choose to live here – issues like lack of public transportation, lack of childcare, and poverty. Those three are just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re like me, and you love living in Cape Breton, likely you’ve had many conversations with your friends about these difficulties. Those conversations usually end with “Well, what can ya do?” and a shrug that the problems are a lot bigger than we are.

But I see some really great things happening here, too. Farmer’s markets are springing up in some communities, to help local food producers sell their food to local people. These markets are usually run by volunteer boards, made up of local people who want to create change. So, it’s possible to do these things, to come together to do something positive that benefits the community both short-term and long-term.

So, come with me as I journey around the island with my camera and notebook, asking questions, visiting people and places and organizations, seeking out our stories. This generation. The “young people”. Those of us who love this place, and who want to stay. Those of us who have left, for whatever reason. All the stories are interesting, and have something to teach us.

I want to find out – what are our dreams for Cape Breton? What’s possible?

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