I just moved to Cape Breton from British Columbia one month ago. I am a designer and textile artist. I moved to Cape Breton because I was accepted to an artist’s residency with Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design at their new Customs House Artisan Incubator in Port Hawkesbury.
Before moving here, I had just received my BDes majoring in apparel design from Kwantlen University, but it was a long road to get there.
I think my upbringing had always led me to become a maker. I spent my childhood in McBride, a small town in Northern British Columbia. I feel very lucky to have had the childhood that I did. My childhood involved being outside and using your imagination to create things. The type of childhood that involved organic, uninhibited, unsupervised fun. The purest and most important aspects of childhood that are becoming too removed from us.
Growing up in a small town also exposes you to the humble aspects of culture and art. Too often we hold art on a pedestal as something that needs to be a statement. Something that needs to luxurious: big and loud and grandiose to be valid. I reflect and realise that so many people I knew were artists in their own rights. They may not have had a formal education or a title, but they had the will to create. They expressed identity and love through the things they created, and that is what art is.
My grandfather created hunting knives, my father created fishing flies, my grandmother knitted and sewed, my mother grew a garden and would can and pickle all sorts of things, my stepmother always had a home décor project on the go, or an old piece of furniture to recreate in to something new. Everyone I knew was creative! Though they would never say so, and I have them to thank for my creative values.
In high school, I never knew how visualize my life after I graduated. I just knew I liked to make things. I was never that keen on conventional art things like painting or drawing. I did those things just enough to visualise what I wanted to build. I came alive in home economics class, or woodshop class, where I could put my hands to something. The thought of university made me uneasy. I was never a bad student, but I wasn’t really a bookish person either. I didn’t know what to expect of it, because at that point in my life, I didn’t know many people who had a degree. I decided on pursuing a degree in design because it seemed to be a happy medium to appeal to my creative desires and the working-class values I had grown up with. So, designit was!
I saved my earnings through high school, and worked full time for another year afterwards, saving the majority of my wages. I knew I would need to because furthering my education would involve moving to Vancouver, 800 km away from my home town. Pursuing that my education became the focal point of my life from then on.
Because I grew up in the working class, there was never a success story in my life of anyone who had a creative career. I always had this fear that an artistic career wasn’t viable for me. I feel that my mentality really started to change last year when I got a scholarship to take an arts field school in Paris, France. Suddenly I was around all these artistic people who exposed me to a world I never even knew existed. I met people who were practicing artists and got to see that it wasn’t such an impossible thing to do if you could find a way to get in contact with the right people and the right resources.
That field school gave me the confidence to own my creative ideas and not shy away from having my own aesthetic and vision. It was hugely important for me in creating my thesis project for my final year of university.
Flash forward to April of this year at my graduation show. It was happy times, but it was also bittersweet. I was so proud of all of my classmates, to see all of their beautiful work displayed. All of the countless dollars, hard work, sleepless nights, and tears we had put in. All of the sacrifices we had made to create something beautiful of our own creation and vision. I looked around at all of my classmates and couldn’t help but feel sad. We had shared an adventure together, we were all on the same team, we helped each other grow and excel at our craft. But I realized that we were all about to find our own paths. I realized to that I had been so fixated on attending university for most of my life, I didn’t know what was next for me.
This summer after I graduated, I was working part time in a restaurant while making and selling my art on the side, and trying very hard to find professional work in design. I applied to over 40 jobs and interviewed for 7 of them, but I always faced the conundrum of having the qualifications, but not enough experience to be deemed hireable.
I saw an advertisement for Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design on Facebook one night, I bookmarked it at first. I looked at it twice before I opened the application form. Some part of me didn’t really trust it, didn’t really want to believe it. I don’t think I had ever given anything from an online ad a chance.
One day, when I was feeling particularly let down after yet another rejection for a job I had really wanted, I opened the application, thinking, “what have I really got to lose?” I read the application, and I was shocked by its remarkably positive and approachable tone. It seemed to directly speak to people like me! People who use unconventional mediums, people who may be self-taught, or people who come from non-fine arts backgrounds. Most of all, what stood out is that Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design wanted to help artists who want to exist in business and not just in academia.
You must understand, I had applied to other residencies, and many of them seemed to be looking for artists that are established professionals and very traditional in their mediums, and I never felt that I fit that mould.
I sat at my computer and stared at the application, just thinking “How can this even be real!” I suddenly realized I wanted this so bad that I was afraid to start, because I was afraid to fail. So I just started drawing. I started churning out ideas of what to create. I completed the application little by little, to remain clear headed about it.
I went on to do a Skype interview with Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design. It was the day before my formal convocation ceremony. It was so much all at once! I was grateful to have my family there to support me and help me prepare.
I found out about a week later that I had been accepted, I have never been so elated in my life! Truth be told, I was in a rough place. I’d had too much failure and not enough success, and I was just running out of stamina to bounce back from it anymore. I felt disheartened that I had worked so hard to get though university on my own, and it didn’t seem to mean anything to anyone else. I was ready to give up. Vancouver is also an expensive city to live in. I had tried so hard, but I was broke. I was running out of savings, and my restaurant job couldn’t pay the bills on its own. I had told myself that if I didn’t find something better by the end of June, I would have to go back to my hometown. Cape Breton gave me a chance when I needed it most!
Cape Breton has been my light at the end of the tunnel, to prove to me that this has all happened for a reason. That even if my journey has had some stumbles, even if the path has been a zig-zag rather than a straight line, it doesn’t mean that all is lost. And it has shown me that there are others out there who want to see me succeed.
So when I got the acceptance email, I phoned into my job at the restaurant and gave my notice. I called my landlord and gave them notice too. I called my mom and planned a date to move. I went down the street to the convenience store to ask for some boxes, and I got packing that same day. I messaged my friends and told them we needed to plan a celebration. It happened lightning fast, but I never felt a moment of doubt about the decision.
My parents were wonderful and supportive of the move. They drove nine hours and back in the span of three days to help me go through everything I owned. It was still hard for them, I can tell they were sad, especially with me moving so far away, but they were excited for me too.
My family has never been to the east coast, but now everyone is happy to have a reason to visit! My sisters ask me about the landscapes, and they ask for pictures of the sunsets. My parents are envious of the music that surrounds me, and I make sure to tell them all about the concerts I have been seeing. Everyone wants photos of Fred Penner next week, so I’m on a mission now.
I have been so overwhelmed by the kindness of everyone I have met in Port Hawkesbury so far. People have welcomed me into their homes and talked to me as if I am a familiar friend. In the Customs House, I have met people that are more than willing to share resources with me and help find ways to get my work out there. It is refreshing to see people invested in their community. I feel so happy to be here and optimistic about what I can bring to this community in return for all they have done for me.
Meet Bridget Benz.
Bridget Benz and her husband (Joe MacHoll) were on the hunt for a property in northern Germany for a couple of years back in 2005 with no success. During their internet search, a property grabbed their attention on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. At the time they had no clue where it was. They came for a visit in 2005 with the purpose of discovering what this place is all about. During that visit, they loved the island and bought the property.
Six years later in February of 2011, they moved permanently to Cape Breton Island and established two new businesses. One is a Bed & Breakfast run by herself called Fiddlers Lake, and the other is an IT Services Company run by her Husband called MacHoll.
When it was time for Bridget and her Husband to attain Canadian citizenship, they gave up their German passports/citizenship and became Canadians in 2015. When asked why did they stay in Cape Breton? Bridget’s response was “Cape Breton Island is one of the most beautiful places on earth :-)”
So we followed up with another question, what do you love about Cape Breton? Bridget’s response was “See my story ‘Caprena”. Caprena refers to Cape Breton and it is a story that was written as an assignment during her English class at YMCA’s YReach Settlement Program, and it is followed by a reference to a song written by Robert Felix Quinn called, ‘My love, Cape Breton (Caprena) and Me.’
“This homework was not an easy to do. I started to think what it is really important in life. What changed my life, which persons effected my life and my thinking?
Besides my dad, the first thought which popped in mind was a very nice lady. Let’s call her Caprena. Caprena is not young anymore, but still alive. She is not that big. She is proud, full of inspiration and more than beautiful for her age.
I was first introduced to her in 2005. Back then I was not sure if I liked her. She was so different then the rest I knew. At that point I decided to wait what would happen to me when I was with her.
During the next years she showed me what life is all about. It’s not about the material things. It’s not important to have a lot of cars, big houses, a good job or some designer clothes to be happy. The easy things in life is what truly matters. Community, friends, satisfaction, nature, respect and acceptance. It was not new for me, I was raised that way, but it was buried somewhere, somehow in the passed.
Caprena opened me the way back into church once a week as a reminder not forget to be good in my little world. Therefore I met a lot of people and dipped deeper into the community. I learned that a lot of people here help each other, working as volunteers to bring in their knowledge and time or donate money to different organizations or people, no questions asked.
Furthermore Caprena wanted me to adopt her special lifestyle which was and still is a challenge for me. Be relaxed, stay calm, be patient. Do not rush, don’t be too picky and very important to know: use the word disappointment only if something is really, really, truly bad. I should never use this world slightly.
To sum up I fell in love with Caprena and still love her and guess what:
Robert Felix Quinn wrote a song about her:
My love, Cape Breton (Caprena) and Me…
Sing me a song of your hills
Of mountains and waters so still
A song that will speak of the magic of three
My love, Cape Breton and me
Teach me the ways of your land
Where power and peace go hand in hand
It’s all that I want in this life and it’s free
My love, Cape Breton and me
Always your rivers are calling to me
I hear the sound of sweet melody
When we’re apart and I feel so alone
Carry me home, carry me home
If my time could end perfectly
I know where I’d sant it to be
God’s gift of heaven would be made up of three
My love, Cape Breton and me
It’s all that I want in this life and it’s free
My love, Cape Breton and me
My name is Aby Maqui and here is my story…
I immigrated to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in July of 2014. Nena Venus is my partner and we have been together since June, 2002. It’s been almost 16 years we’ve shared our happy lives together. We met in Abu Dhabi in 2002. We fell in love and decided to live together. I was working in an Oil and Gas Company
as a Senior Document Controller and my partner, Nena, was working as a general aesthetician at the Sheraton Hotel Abu Dhabi, a five-star salon and spa.
As you can imagine, the United Arab Emirates is a strict country, their laws and culture are not as open as compared to other countries like Canada, and as a lesbian couple we experienced difficulties, our relationship was discreet out of fear of being discriminated against.
We had to present ourselves as “cousins” every time we had events and work gatherings to attend to, and not as a real couple.
Nena and I had always been dreaming of immigrating to Canada because of its open culture, equality and freedom of expression. We wanted to bring our relationship to the next level and we knew that our dreams could only materialize if we would immigrate to Canada. We were wishing that someday we could legally get married and be accepted by society, the law, and that someday we could be free to express ourselves and live our lives without hesitating and pretending.
In 2012, an opportunity of a lifetime presented itself when my partner Nena, received a job offer from a spa owner in Port Hawkesbury, Nova Scotia. One of Nena’s regular clients at the spa was a Canadian English teacher from Cape Breton who worked in one of the schools in Abu Dhabi. Thanks to her, Nena was referred to work as aesthetician at Secrets Spa.
This was an amazing opportunity, but at the same time we had mixed emotions. I knew that I was going to be left behind because it was only Nena that received a job offer. We knew it would be difficult to live without each other, but we had a dream to fulfill so we took the risk of being miles apart. Nena landed in Canada on February of 2013 as a Temporary Foreign Worker. Living in a separate world and far from your loved one was really turmoil. It took almost a year and a half before I was able to follow her to Canada in July, 2014. Thanks to the same Canadian employer who hired Nena, the owner of the spa hired me to work as an Office Administrator.
After four months of my arrival, Nena and I decided to get married, and so we did on November, 2014. A simple wedding held at a friend’s house with close friends, colleagues and a commissioner of oath.
told myself “At last! My partner and I can now live freely, no more inhibitions and no more pretending”. We can now present ourselves as a real couple, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health…till death do us part. This was our dream that we were waiting for and only in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia it materialized. People in Port Hawkesbury are welcoming, friendly and we love the simplicity of life here and that’s why we bought our own house here. We also we love fishing and the causeway is right next-door. Buying a house was another dream come true for us. There’s no reason for us to be anywhere else.
The next item on our family wish list is uniting Nena with her 25-year-old daughter.
Meet Perla MacLeod, an immigrant born in Mexico City who came to Canada in 2004 to learn English in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Perla’s original plan was to return back to Mexico utilizing a stronger proficiency of the English language as an asset to finding more highly qualified work. However, fate switched things around when she met her soon-to-be husband Craig in the same city she was studying. After dating for almost a year, the couple decided to get married and moved to his hometown – “Big Baddeck”. Now, nearly 14 years later, they are still living and raising their three children happily on Cape Breton Island where Perla says it’s safe and full of opportunities to explore the great outdoors.
When Perla’s youngest child started school, she decided to run in the 2016 election to be the councillor in her district. Winning the election, Perla broke a deadlock to become the first female councilor in Victoria County in 26 years. She has been working as a Barista in a local café called Bean There Café for 10 years. With her close connection to her community, Perla’s position at the Cafe has made for a great way to stay close to the constituents.
Perla says what draws her to the island is her love for nature and the abundance of opportunities to explore. Her most valuable memories come from spending the summer with her kids and going to explore all of the different parts of the island, swimming in various lakes and beaches. She enjoys the change of colours in the fall, along with hiking and simple things like just being in her backyard surrounded by open spaces and blooming trees.
Perla MacLeod – a mother, a Barista in Bean There Café for almost 10 years and the district #2 councillor for Victoria County. As a newcomer, she is thankful for the community that took her in with open arms.
“It is great to live here in Cape Breton. It’s like my husband always said: ‘Only in Cape Breton’,” says Perla.
When is a newcomer no longer new? Is there a time limit? Maybe there’s a milestone they reach? And what does a newcomer become when this happens? Omar Tag El-Din did not have the answers to these questions in 2012.
Omar landed in Montreal as an immigrant from Egypt with his dog, Gonzales, in June of 2012. When Omar arrived he had the ultimate goal of finishing his BBA at Cape Breton University where he completed his studies two years later. He wanted to make his Human Resources experience from Egypt more relevant in Canada, so he pursued an Advanced Diploma in HR Management from NSCC Marconi Campus and knocked it out of the park with Honours in 2015.
Although Omar initially intended to leave after receiving his education and pursue a career in a larger city, something happened to change that course. After years living in Cape Breton, he had adjusted to the lifestyle in his new home and realized nowhere else felt right.
Imagine moving from the immensely populated city of Cairo with a population of approximately 30 to 40 million residents, to the Sydney community of 30 thousand people, where you rarely get into a traffic jam. This is quite a transition if you have ever been on a road in a Middle Eastern country.
Soon after completing his Advanced Diploma, an HR opportunity in Halifax presented itself. Omar took that leap, and in the same year attained Canadian Citizenship. But he always wondered, at this time in his life, if he’d finally reached something more than “newcomer” status, or if this was just the real beginning to it. He still had no answer to those questions. After successfully completing his contract in 2016 and getting promoted to a Special Projects Coordinator position, Omar found himself with a new employer.
The following year was another defining moment, when Omar became the successful candidate for the Cape Breton Partnership to lead the Atlantic Immigration Pilot (AIP) Program in Cape Breton. His background in recruitment, development, and projects management in addition to being an immigrant himself are considered to be tools that would allow him to be an ideal recruit for his role at the Partnership.
Ironically, or maybe due to accidental kismet, Omar celebrated one year since attaining his citizenship while he was overseeing a presentation on the AIP’s international graduate stream to Cape Breton University’s international students centre. Omar now champions immigration, diversity, and inclusion while supporting employers facing labour shortages through the AIP and promoting the economical benefits of Immigration. Both he and Gonzales await a deeply missed Cape Breton summer, something they are looking forward to since they came back.
From an Immigrant, to a Canadian, to an Immigration Champion right here in Cape Breton. It’s not clear when exactly it happened, maybe slowly over time or maybe at a specific moment, but at some point during his journey to this moment Omar has done it: He’s gone from “newcomer” to “seasoned Cape Bretoner”.