The Separatist Movement in Cape Breton

July 8, 2009

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1763 – 1784 Cape Breton was part of Nova Scotia.

1784 – 1820 Cape Breton was a separate colony.

1784 Nova Scotia was divided up into New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island & Cape Breton.
A colony was set up in Cape Breton by the Colonial Office in Britain.
At that time they were given:
A Lieutenant Governor ( somewhat equivalent to our present Prime Minister
but with much more power then)
Executive Cabinet. (Similar to today’s Cabinet – However, it was made up of a group of wealthy men elected to advise the Lieutenant Governor.)
House of Assembly ( Similar to our MLA’s – people elected to represent different
areas of the Island.)
Legally it was important the colony be given a House of Assembly.
However, although several Lieutenant Governors asked for the house of Assembly
it was in fact never called. The representatives were never elected.
The Colonial Office felt there wasn’t enough money and the people could not
support passing laws to build roads and bridges.

The most probable reason why Britain didn’t want the House in Cape Breton to sit was
I think tied to the coal supply. Britain did not want competition from New England. If the coal mines in Cape Breton grew the coal supply would no doubt find it’s way into New England

If we look at the reasons why Halifax officials did not want the House to be called
perhaps we can understand the situation a little better.
(a) Halifax officials did not want Cape Breton to be a separate colony.
(b) Officials in Halifax were concerned about their own local area.
(c) Halifax officials wanted Cape Breton annexed to them
(d) Halifax officials were interested in the Cape Breton coal mines
(e) There were those who felt Halifax was jealous of Cape Breton

There was no leadership or support from the Home Office.
There was infighting in the Executive Council.
The Governor dismissed them and was consequently ordered by Home Office to reinstate them.
No House of Representation
No taxation without representation.
No government assistance.
Low supplies
No money given for the development of the coal industry.
The Governor of the Colony changed many times.
There isn’t anyone watching over the Executive Council

1785 and 1820
Sydney was the capital of Cape Breton island. Many of those living in the Sydney area were from England and Loyalists from the United States.
At the same time many Scots, who were unaware of the problems, were settling on the Island. They were unaware because they were Gaelic speakers who didn’t speak English.

1785 to 1788

1787 Mr. Samuel Holland prepared a complete survey of Cape Breton Island.

1787 – 1795 Debarres begins the settlement of the colony and opens the coal mines.

1787 – 1795 The colony is in a state of decline – Loyalists are moving away

From 1788 to 1817
Land grants were not permitted. In its place leases or licenses for occupation were given.
It is thought that the reason land grants were no longer given was tied in with the coal industry.

1789 French Revolution – France is fighting with Britain

1799 – 1800
Lieutenant Governor Murray
Murray cleans up the Executive. He throws troublemakers out of the colony
Has land grants regularized
Builds roads
Murray replaces the man in charge of the coal mines with a more competent man
Unfortunately his enemies have Murray removed.

1800 – 1805
Napoleonic Wars – France is fighting with Napoleon
USA unhappy with Britain. Britain won’t allow the USA to remain neutral.
Americans were cut off from British West Indies trade.
Maritime were the winners. American ships filled up in Halifax Harbor.
The smuggled goods were brought back to the New England States.
This eventually ends up in the war of 1812. In which the Canadian ship “The Shannon” destroyed the American ship “The Chesapeake” in one of the greatest sea battles in our Canadian history.

Despart is appointed as Governor. 1802 – 1807
Despart reclaims land previously given out but where no improvements had been made on this land. And land given but not claimed.
Despart advertises land is available.
Despart began collecting illegal taxes on rum. (Taxation without representation)
He requests permission from Home Office to give him power to pass a bill allowing him and the Executive Council to collect taxes on liquor.
He received an unsigned letter advising him he could collect taxes on liquor for the morals of the people.
The Peace of Amiens is signed between France and Britain.
Scottish immigration into the colony begins in late August.
Scots immediately build boats and start fishing.
Despart buys supplies for them with tax money and settles them around Bras d’Ore
and Sydney
Immigrants from Scotland do not want to go to PEI because there they will find absentee landlords. Nor do they wish to go to Nova Scotia because all the good land is gone.
They have heard about the helpful Governor in Cape Breton and the good land still available there. They have also been told it looks just like Scotland.

Even after Despart leaves Cape Breton continues to prosper. Taxes are still collected on liquor and later a tax is placed on gypsum. Taxes on liquor amounted to somewhere around 1200 pounds a year. Roads are being built, better houses, a better jail, a mail service is started, a market is built, a dog catcher hired, teachers and ministers are paid better.

A young lawyer Richard Gibson’s Jr., son of a previous Chief Justice begins his fight for representative democracy. He asked for the House of Assembly to be called because taxes are illegally being collected.
Members of the old Executive Council say there shouldn’t be a House of Assembly
They can’t afford it. They are doing well without it.
Thus two parties are formed. One to the left and the other to the right.
The fight for control between these two groups continued until 1820

The War of 1812 was instrumental in building the economy of Halifax through the smuggling trade as well as the coal industry. US ships loaded up in Halifax harbor with smuggled goods and return to New England.
Service personnel were stationed in Halifax and St. John The barracks had to be heated so the coal industry prospered.
As trade and commerce increased so did the need for coal.
Murray takes over the industry from the private sector.
He builds a new wharf for shipping coal on the north side of Sydney Mines

1816 – 1820
Richard Gibbons Jr., convinces the Deputy Collector of Customs, Ranna Cossit, Jr., not to collect the tax on rum.
Ranna Cossit, Jr. after a period of time and under pressure from the Governor resumes tax collection.
Governor Ainslie insists that Cossit collect back taxes.
Coal mine operators owed heavy back taxes and they refused to pay.
Governor Ainslie takes it to court.
Mine operators hire lawyer Richard Gibbons, Jr.
Gibbons makes his case on the grounds that the tax was illegal because there is not house of Assembly. (taxation without representation)
Chief justice A. C. Dodd agrees. The tax is illegal because there is no House of Assembly.
Without tax money the colony was bankrupt.
Gibbons plan was to force the Home Office to call the House of Assembly.
The Home Office located at such a distance from the colony were at a disadvantage.
They were therefore influenced by Governor Ainslie who hated the people in the colony.
He called “them” the “refuse of the three kingdoms,” England, Ireland, and Scotland.
The Home Office decided the people in Cape Breton needed representation.
But instead of calling the House of Assembly they decided to annex Cape Breton to
Nova Scotia by proclamation
This was illegal because when Cape Breton was conquered by Britain the King made
Cape Breton a colony and gave it a House of Assembly(a constitution). Once that was done the only only one that could change it was the elected representatives of the people in England, the House of Parliament.
The annexation was by proclamation it never went to the House of Parliament therefore
it was illegal.
There was a fight for reinstatement of their separate status until the 1840’s

Lieutenant Governor Ainslie of Cape Breton wrote to the Colonial Office in Britain saying if they did not resume giving land grants he himself would give them out. They informed him, all other colonies had, several years prior, been given permission to resumed giving land grants but they had forgotten to advise Cape Breton of the fact.

The Imperial Government of England suggested sending unwanted paupers to Cape Breton Island. The Surveyor General of Cape Breton rejected the scheme.

On May 19, 1886, a meeting was held in Sydney. It was attended by a large, enthusiastic and representative crowd in favor of separation.
One of the principal supporters of the movement was former Dominion Parliament representative Newton L. McKay. On his way home that night after the meeting he suffered a fatal heart attack. The community was in a state of shock.
The separatist movement in Cape Breton was put on hold awaiting the results of an
“Appeal Agitation” with reference to the fact that in 1886 Nova Scotia had voted to leave Canada. In the end Nova Scotia did not leave Confederation.
Cape Bretoners, however still felt they should have control of
their money and how their Island was run.

Information collected from a talk given by Dr. Robert Morgan, Archivist, Beaton Institute,
College of Cape Breton
This information is not complete as yet

February 2004
In some respects, it is unfortunate that Cape Breton Island hadn’t remained a separate colony up to
Confederation, at which time it would have had at least as good a claim to be a separate province as PEI did in 1873. (Or does now, for that matter.) Had it been a separate province, the Crown royalty money and the taxes from the mines would have stayed put on the island and invested for the future. When coal was king, the royalties and taxes were considerable.
On the other hand, Cape Breton, like other parts of the Maritimes, must ask why it is that entrepreneurs don’t return home after they have gained skills and experience elsewhere. They don’t all service heavy industry. Many run businesses that in theory could be run just as easily here as in Ontario, Alberta, or the U.S.
Comments written by: Timothy Jacques,, Dalhousie, N.B.


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