Q+A with David Greenwell

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A family portrait of the Greenwells in front of their beloved ‘money pit’ in Hillsborough, with son, 21 yr old Mackenzie on the left and our daughter, 18 yr old Michelle on the right.

Let’s start off with your background – why did you move to Mabou? What instigated that move?

Short answer to both questions: 1) the music 2) Mary Janet MacDonald.

Long answer:

(First, some relevant background) : I was born in Baddeck, but moved west (Ontario, then Alberta) when I was very young. Been in Alberta since I was 6 yrs old. My wife, Michelle is a born and bred Calgarian. Neither of us have any family or roots in the Maritimes. Michelle owned a dance studio near Calgary for 20+ years and taught (among other things) highland dancing. That was the eventual connection to CB…

From attending highland games and dance competitions, our family were already fans of Celtic music and culture. When the ‘Celtic wave’ of the 1990’s hit its stride, we were straight on board! Saw every concert that came to town – Rankin Family, Barra MacNeils, Ashley, Natalie, etc. We couldn’t get enough of it, especially the stepdancing. In 1995, Michelle was given a stepdancing video by one of her students and was asked to learn how to teach this. She tried, but couldn’t figure out the steps. So, she looked up the lady in the video (Mary Janet MacDonald of Port Hood), and hired her to come west for a weekend and teach a Cape Breton stepdancing workshop. This was the fall of 1996.

Mary Janet is a truly beautiful person, wonderful dancer and a true Cape Breton ambassador. If you haven’t already met her, put her on your ‘to do’ list.

She taught us the steps, but also told us all about Cape Breton summers and the dances and festivals of Inverness County. We were HOOKED! The next summer (1997) about 10 families from the dance school spent three glorious weeks touring around Cape Breton taking in the sights, going to dances, festivals, highland games and meeting most of Cape Breton’s musical community. It was the first summer vacation we absolutely did NOT want to go home from. We were all literally in tears when the Calgary-bound jet took off from Halifax. I had never experienced anything like it in my life. Michelle and I knew at that point that we would someday return permanently to Cape Breton.

This is getting longer than I thought…

Anyhow, us four Greenwells (we have two kids) took all of our summer vacations from 1997 onwards on Cape Breton, usually not far from Mabou. When Celtic Colours got going, my wife and I came out for almost all of them as well. We travelled the Island extensively, but kept gravitating back to Mabou, growing many close friendships with folks in the area.

In time, we eventually bought a small summer cabin near Brook Village which served us well from 2001-2008. In 2008, an old, historic house in Hillsborough (near Mabou) fell into our laps even though we weren’t in the market for a house. We couldn’t say no to the opportunity. We planned to somehow suffer through three mortgages and restore the old house to become an eventual retirement home. But the economy had other plans…

The global recession affected both our businesses in Alberta, and with things slowing down, something had to give. Three mortgages was two to many. We sold the cabin, and since there was NO WAY we were selling the old house on Cape Breton, we took the leap and decided to pull up stakes and move east. We have been permanent residents of Mabou since June 2010.

As long-winded as that was, there’s still many details glossed over, but you get the idea!

Wow! What a story!!

So what were the businesses that you owned in Alberta? And how do you support yourselves now, that you live here?

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Michelle Greenwell.

My wife is a dance teacher and owned her own dance school near Calgary for more than 20 years. I am an architectural technologist and ran my own consulting practice from home since 2003.

After taking a year off after our arrival here, Michelle began teaching various classes for the Inverness County recreation department. She teaches many forms of dance to all ages. She also leads tai chi classes along route 19 from Port Hawkesbury to Belle Cote. Michelle is a practitioner of a holistic healing modality called Touch For Health, and is slowly growing a clientele locally. She occasionally is hired to teach out of province as well. Here’s a link to her website: http://www.dancedebut.com

I kept my architectural practice going through the move, with most of my clients still in the west – mostly Calgary & area. I’ve landed a few small jobs in the area here, and continue to pursue work locally, but 90% of my income comes from jobs in the west. Although, my architectural consulting is starting to grow a local client base, I’m very happy to say. While it’s not especially lucrative, it is very rewarding to have a hand in the built environment around us. Interestingly, I credit the Cabot Links golf course for the influx of local projects. It’s encouraging and exciting, even though I’m not a golfer in any way, shape or form! It’s really the best of both worlds for me and I count my lucky stars every day…

Also, I’ve become more actively involved in community volunteering. I now sit on the Board of the Mabou and District Community Development Association, and I’m a member of the Route 19 Communities Economic Strategies Committee.

Although our household income has dropped compared with life in the west, we’re managing to keep the bills paid and enjoy ourselves and certainly have NO regrets about the move. Some things are more expensive here than the west, some much less so…it’s more or less is a wash in the end.

An important thing to say about both of our work experiences here is that NONE of this would be possible if we didn’t have access to high speed internet. Our area didn’t come online until 2009 – we would’ve likely moved sooner if high speed was available sooner…

If there’s a message we want to get out there is that anyone with a career or business that can be done via remote telecommuting, there’s no reason Cape Breton can’t be your home base!


Michelle stepdancing at 2012’s Chestico Days in Port Hood (Kinnon Beaton on the fiddle).

Wow, I’d imagine you’re both very motivated people. What kinds of things do you do in your “off” time? (Like, not working?)

I’d never thought of myself as especially motivated, but I guess you kind of need to be to make a living here…

Our off time is spent enjoying where we live.

Summers are spent going to the local dances, festivals and pub sessions at the Red Shoe. Getting as much time as possible on the beach is important, too. Cycling and photography are also favourite activities.

Our old home requires much TLC and that gives is plenty to do year round.

Winter sees us hosting or going to house parties in the area, trying to maintain a regular music ‘fix’. We attend as many local arts events as possible year-round, particularly at Strathspey Place and the Inverness Arts Centre.

Michelle also uses her spare time honing her tai chi skills and advancing her knowledge of healing techniques.

And, when all other options are used up, there’s TV…

Dave Greenwell Headshot

Dave Greenwell

So did you find it fairly easy to make friends? Were there any barriers? And, would you say your social circle is made up of mostly people like yourself (who moved here from away) or folks who are more “local”, or a mSdid you find it fairly easy to make friends? Were there any barriers? And, would you say your social circle is made up of mostly people like yourself (who moved here from away) or folks who are more “local”, or a mix?

Very easy to make friends for the most part. As tourists/summer residents, we were always welcomed with open arms by long-timers and other seasonals, because we were all here for the same reason, and had much in common.

Some ‘locals’ were tougher nuts to crack – we don’t attend church (which is a huge part of the Mabou fabric), so that keeps some walls up a little. But as we spent more and more time here, and eventually became permanent, familiar faces, most folks took a keen interest in our ‘story’ and expressed genuine appreciation (and some amazement) that we would choose to live here instead of rich Alberta.

Our friends represent a broad mix and continues to evolve. I would say it’s probably an even mix of “Come From Always” or “Transplants” and locals. We have a large contingent of regular seasonal friends we constantly badger to follow our lead and make the move.

A very telling observation is our neighbours – although a diverse mix of characters, we not only know all of them, we also count them as our friends. This is something we could not claim of our street in Alberta, where we lived for 20 years and hardly knew a single soul around us!

So now it’s time to “dream big” about the future of Cape Breton. What are your hopes and dreams for your new home, for yourselves and for your community? What does “abundance” mean to you? What can help keep young people here, and attract more folks to move here? (This could be businesses or industries, or it could be more subtle – attitudes, for example.) Interpret how you like.

From David’s wife Michelle: We hope that we are able to make a difference in this community by adding our spirit of adventure, some of our ideas from away, and our love for community. We enjoy being a part of people’s lives in everyday ways that mean something. We look forward to finishing the renovations on our home so that we can host gatherings of all kinds: music, dance, food, song, games, bonfires and more.

For ourselves, we try to embrace each day’s adventure in weather – get to the beach and enjoy the shoreline so close to us, watching the cloud formations, enjoying the humidity, cycling, walking, gardening, and the warmth! In the winter we enjoy all the aspects of a long fall season, snow and winter fun in the community (our driveway luge run), and the long spring! We enjoy more time together every day, being a part of each other’s daily activities, and being close with our daughter. We enjoy being able to drop everything at a moment’s notice to see a favorite performer at the Shoe, or to stay up late for a really great dance, or the farmers market on Sunday mornings (that is a real highlight). We enjoy the Strathspey Place theatre with all kinds of performances (and we love to volunteer), and the Inverness Arts Center Art Shows. We enjoy the group of Tai Chi’ers who are so dedicated each week, and our friends at the Glencoe Dances and West Mabou dances.

Abundance means living life with joy! We have achieved that. We continue to work at it, but joy, love, friendship and gratitude are a part of what makes us feel we have achieved abundance.

We have risen to the challenge of making a living on this island, and we are enjoying the opportunities of high speed internet, and of working with all the different communities up and down Route 19. There are a lot of opportunities for work with the internet, and skills that can be utilized through design, graphics, writing and more from a distance. Thinking outside of the box and bringing ideas into Cape Breton make it possible for more people. The Cabot Links golf course and Halifax Biomedical in Mabou are examples of taking it to the next level and building dreams. They have increased the number of jobs and technical workers required for some of the positions. They have also brought people here to share their ideas with the area and this helps to make things grow even more as well. There are more opportunities like this coming our way and we need to embrace them.

We need to let go of the idea that we are seasonal and that we need to be a part of waiting for the next season. We should be grasping opportunities for different professions for different times of the year. Small business is possible, and there are many skilled people with great passion living and succeeding in Cape Breton. We also have to think about our community. If we only choose to go away for the money, there will not be a community to come back home to. With the mass exodus of 30-40 year olds and their families, we are missing a whole generation of passionate Cape Bretoners. We do not have up-and-coming volunteers for all of the yearly and summer activities that people come home for. We do not have children growing up in Rural Cape Breton learning the ways of the generations. They are growing up in the cities and in the areas of high tech with higher monetary goals. These children will not see the benefit of returning to live or raise their own families because they will be disconnected from the experience. We need to bring these families home and help them find ways to stay, be successful, and build a community for this generation to succeed with.

Those graduates that we send off to college need to be thinking about professions that they can have on the island. We do not need more teachers – there is not enough employment for them here, and they will never be able to return. We need more people who can work with an aging population and help provide services and opportunities for our seniors. We also need to let go of models of functioning that are not working. The communities need to come together and support each other’s programs and families. When classes are being held in a nearby community, it might be imperative that you travel to support the class rather than not going because it isn’t in your community. On another occasion it might be in your own back yard. And, we need to provide more opportunities for recreation and activity. We have a good start with some programming, but we need to support wider shoulders on the roads, cycling programs that can utilize the roads, classes in dance and drama and music that supports a full band experience. We need more programming for our kids and particularly our teens. With declining numbers this becomes a real challenge as the number of students gets less and less. We need the support of families staying home so that such programming can happen.

That’s my two cents!


David and Michelle at Gaspereau Vineyards on the mainland – their favourite!

This Q+A with Dave and Michelle is part of an ongoing series of interviews with people associated with Cape Breton in some way – mostly young people, but not necessarily. The complete list of interviews is here.

This entry was posted in Newcomers, Out West, Outdoors, Q+A and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Q+A with David Greenwell

  1. Steph says:

    Fabulous Q&A! Thanks Greenwells! This is the type of people our Island needs. Intelligent, passionate, positive people.

  2. Marie says:

    Thanks Greenwells! Great people..the special people our Island needs!

  3. Barb Cameron says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed the Q and A format. I know you love it here. That was evident from the first time I met you in West Mabou. and it still rings true loud and clear in the interview !!! we are glad you found us and even “gladder” you stayed. See you around. Barb Cameron

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