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Cape Breton Black Settlement

Cape Breton Black Settlement

In the early 1900’s many immigrants came to Cape Breton as laborers to work for the Dominion Iron and Steel Company. They settled in the city of Sydney and in the Cape Breton mining towns of Glace Bay and New Waterford. Among the immigrants to settle in Cape Breton were West Indian Blacks from Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent, Guyana, and other Caribbean locations. Other Black settlers came from smaller Nova Scotia centers such as Guysborough and Tracadie. The plant hired individuals accustomed to tropical climates on the premise that they would be able to withstand the hot conditions associated with the steel making. One group of immigrants originally from the West Indies came over from Alabama because they were offered double the wages they were making. These individuals did not stay long as the harsh bitter winters were to difficult for them.

The West Indian immigrants continued to immigrate to Cape Breton for the first few decades of the 1900’s. Following the first group of wage laborers, there arrived a group of West Indians who established small businesses in Whitney Pier. They were proud owners of grocery, book, and jewelry stores, and provided other services such as shoemaking, tailoring, carpentry, and plastering. The immigration also brought professionals from West Indies to Canada. One of the more socially prominent immigrants was Doctor Alvinus Calder, a native of Grenada, and a graduate of McGill University who set up a practice in Whitney Pier. A lawyer named F.A. Hamilton, from Barbados, practiced law in Sydney and published a province wide weekly newspaper about Blacks called The Gleaner.


The West Indians formed different social organizations and worshipped in the churches of their choice. The early West Indians worshipped at St. Cyprian’s, St. Albans, Trinity United, the United Mission, and St. Philip’s African Orthodox Church. St. Philip’s became the focal point of the Black West Indian community. It is also the only African Orthodox parish in Canada.

St.Philip’s was established in 1921 as a result of a racial incident that occurred when the Black people of Whitney Pier were met with opposition to their attending a local church. Some blacks continued to attend services at the religious institutions. However, others did not feel comfortable attending and sought a church of their own. Thus came the need within the Black community of Whitney Pier for a church catering to their distinctive needs. Soon after the incident, members of the Black community applied to the African Orthodox Church in New York seeking permission to establish their own congregation in Sydney. Permission was granted and St. Philip’s African Orthodox Church was formed. St. Philips is proud of it’s African and West Indian background but welcome all races to the church. Often you will hear Archbishop Vincent Waterman state, “There is only one race – the human race.”


Education was a motivating force in the lifestyle of most of the families from the West Indies. Education meant opportunity. The children of the West Indian families knew early in life they needed to have an education. Both the quality and quantity of education would determine their future and their pursuit of happiness. The West Indians came as people who were already well educated and taught their children the value of education.

Overcoming Obstacles

The West Indians who served in the First World War fought as well as any other Canadians and received a measure of recognition. However, these same men and women often had to win respect all over again in the streets of Cape Breton.

Fewer job opportunities were available to Blacks than to other workers in the steel and coal industries. Jobs offered to black laborers were usually known as “dirty jobs” such as laborer in the coke ovens department of the steel plant. (This would be the area, which lead to one of the worst toxic sites in Canada). Blacks from the West Indies were among many cultural groups recruited to work in the coke ovens. Advancement in the steel plant and coalmines was highly unlikely for Black people.

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