By Vanessa Chiasson
For decades, the man who operated a small convenience store by a bend in the road in my Cape Breton Island home town in Nova Scotia was casually called “Jimmy the Jew.” The store he ran was a nondescript white building with unparalleled views of the grey Atlantic and maintained a stock of potato chips that was varied, plentiful, and consistent — no small consideration for a child with discretionary junk food income. It was an ordinary store run by an ordinary man — a man who wasn’t Jewish.
I doubt if Jimmy had ever met a Jewish person in his life. Cape Breton’s once-thriving Jewish community, located several hours away in the city of Sydney and its surrounding communities, peaked with 400-plus families in the 1940s but had sharply dwindled due to migration. But Jimmy was rumored to be miserly with his money — an accusation that doesn’t mesh with my recollections of a friendly shopkeeper — and the offensive nickname endured.
As an 8-year-old, I had never met a Jew either — but that didn’t stop my peers from labeling me. It wasn’t so much an honorary title as it was an accusation. For the crime of not sharing your chips, your candy, your cookies, you’d be thrown a swift “You’re such a Jew.” Stingy. Cheap. Cheater. Jew.
My pseudo-Judaism wasn’t the only reproach on the playground. My minority Protestant faith and partial Francophone heritage was too volatile a combination for easy assimilation in a fiercely Catholic, Scottish community. Classmates would scream “Crazy Protestant!” and “French Frog!” when I stood my ground during high school debates. Boys who easily cried or faltered in sports were treated to homophobic innuendos. A child with full lips was taunted with a racial slur. And the popular counting rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” adhered to the late 1800s version, substituting the word “tiger” for a racial epithet.
This isn’t the Cape Breton Island that Americans know — or that Canadians like to talk about. Often described as one of the most beautiful, friendliest islands in the world, Cape Breton is a jewel in Canadian tourism campaigns. As a place of spectacular natural wonders and legendary musical talent, many visitors who come for a weekend never want to leave. It’s no surprise, then, that a cheeky website, “Cape Breton if Donald Trump wins,” generated so much buzz in the early days of the American election campaign.
I immediately recognized the regional wit behind local radio host DJ Rob Calabrese’s site, which jovially encouraged Americans fearful of a Donald Trump election victory to jump ship and head for Cape Breton:
“Start now, that way, on election day, you just hop on a bus to start your new life in Cape Breton, where women can get abortions, Muslim people can roam freely, and the only ‘walls’ are holding up the roofs of our extremely affordable houses.”
Islanders and mainland Canadians alike were all too eager to embrace the ideology espoused by this site promising a liberal utopia. Open, tolerant, beautiful, diverse — that sounded like us! Basking in the glow of our new feminist Prime Minister and ethnically diverse government cabinet, Canadians passed the time during the tumultuous American election campaign by welcoming refugees, celebrating multiculturalism, and entrenching transgender rights. We looked to our Southern neighbors with a kind of uncharacteristically smug national pride. Glad that’s not our country, we’d say. Glad they’re not our problems.
“Cape Breton if Donald Trump wins” was a cute way to put Cape Breton in the spotlight — until Americans began to take it seriously, making hundreds of inquiries to move there. The website was built in good fun, but the interest in Canadian immigration was turning serious . . . and not just on the island. Online searches for immigration information spiked after each debate, and the Ottawa government immigration website crashed as election results rolled in. (In true Canadian fashion, both the English and the French versions went down.) In the aftermath of the election, there have even been calls for the West Coast to secede from the U.S. to join Canada.
Emigrating post-election is a point of contention for both countries. Is it the embodiment of privilege or fortuitous foresight? Is a sovereign nation being treated like a personal fox hole, offering those in need a safe place to call their own? And what happens when the troubles you hope to leave behind are awaiting your arrival?
Because here’s the thing: While Canadians may secretly fear that Americans are bringing intolerant values across the border, there is plenty of homegrown ignorance waiting to be discovered here.
Canadian society is less inclusive than many Americans — and Canadians — assume. A startling example came in January 2015 when Canada’s national newsmagazine, MacLean’s, ran the shocking headline “Canada’s race problem? It’s even worse than America’s.” By their own words, “Canada’s Aboriginal population suffers a worse fate and more hardship than the African American population of the U.S.” on factors including homicide rates, incarceration, and life expectancy. The painful, inflammatory comments accompanying the article further proved the article’s thesis, and will challenge any Canadian who assumes “Not in my country.”
The author points to the isolated nature of rural communities, which many have cited as playing a key role in Trump’s U.S. ascent, as one reason for Canadian insensitivity. And indeed, as in the U.S., racism is very much alive in Canada’s rural areas.
A landmark study on racial profiling conducted by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission surveyed people in three relatively isolated areas, including Cape Breton’s own Sydney, about their consumer experience in retail establishments. Approximately 29% of Caucasian participants reported a negative consumer experience in the previous year — such as being searched without cause, being sworn at, being followed, and having their ability to pay questioned — compared to a staggering 72% of their African Canadian counterparts and nearly 83% of Aboriginal Nova Scotians.
But it’d be far too easy to dismiss the country’s racism as limited to certain regions. Across Canada, hate crimes targeting Muslims have doubled over a three-year period. A mosque in Peterborough suffered massive arson damage in November 2015, days after the region elected Afghan-Canadian Maryam Monsef to Parliament. Less than a month later, a young woman wearing a hijab on a crowded Toronto bus was berated, verbally harassed, and told she should be raped. Meanwhile, also in Toronto, black males are three times more likely to be stopped and asked for identification.
As in America, Canada has also become increasingly inhospitable to immigrants. Last year, polling in the country indicated “an erosion of Canadians’ openness to diversity and immigration.”
It’s hard to see these numbers and still think of Canada as an anti-Donald Trump paradise. And indeed, this kind of thinking is dangerous, as it offers a false sense of complacency that impedes progress. One could argue that America’s willful ignorance of its enduring racism helped allow for the rise of Trump; fleeing to another country to ignore racism once more, rather than confront its difficult truths, is probably not the most productive course of action.
As for Jimmy, his store is now long closed. In its place, a small restaurant thrives. It sporadically hosts fundraising dinners for the village’s refugee sponsorship program, a decades-long community tradition. To get there, you’ll have to venture down some of Cape Breton’s most famous scenic coastal highways, passing church-sponsored pro-life billboards and enormous, glow-in-the-dark crosses adorning private lawns. This is the real Cape Breton and it has a lot in common with the real Canada, the real America. It’s a blend of salty and sweet, hospitality, hope, and harshness.
And when it comes to racial progress, it still has a long way to go.
Lead image: flickr/Nicolas Raymond