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…