From the North Pole, travel south for 4900km along the sixtieth meridian, through the western edge of Greenland, the Davis Straight, and Labrador. Or, alternatively, travel north from the equator for 5100km, through Venezuela and the Caribbean, along the Eastern Seaboard.
You will arrive on a small island connected to the Atlantic coast of North America by a man-made causeway. This unassuming island is one of the most strategically significant pieces of land on the globe. For four hundred years this small island was fundamental in the settling of the New World by Europeans. It was crucial to the construction of one of the world’s longest rail lines, stretching across the entire North American continent. The steel forged on this island was instrumental to the success of the Allied forces in WWI and WWII. This little island’s role in the colonization and modernization of the North American continent is often under-appreciated.
Now, in the first quarter of the 21st century, this island is approaching abandonment. The population is shrinking and its economy is collapsing. This decline, however, makes little sense. The island is rich is natural resources like coal, timber, fresh water, fertile farmland, and plentiful fishing grounds. Its infrastructure includes hydro, wind, and tidal power, an airport capable of handling some of the largest commercial airliners, and a harbour, deep and wide enough to handle Post-Panamax container ships. Highways and railways connect the island to all points from the Great Lakes and southward to New England and Florida. Housing, healthcare, and amenities already exist for hundreds of thousands of skilled and educated workers; alumni of the island’s university and colleges. This island also happens to be a popular international tourist destination, with beaches, mountains, scenery, and a culture found nowhere else on Earth.
With all of these attributes, you may ask, why is the island’s population disappearing? How is it possible that the economy of such a place could be languishing? Simple. The island was addicted to coal and steel. For generations, the working class of this island was kept impoverished and practically enslaved by the coal and steel companies of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Gradually, thanks in part to unionization and legislation, working conditions and quality of life improved and the island became a thriving blue collar community of roughly 300,000. Eventually, however, many factors, including mismanagement, increased competition, and decreased demand on the world market, lead to the failure of the island’s key export industries, culminating in a protracted economic recession.
Today, in the midst of decline, this island holds a rare opportunity for industrial investment on a grand scale. Shipping lanes and railways, highways and airports, ample energy and human resources, midway between the oilfields of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks and the US Eastern Seaboard; waiting patiently at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, this island is truly the logistical key to the North Atlantic. This island is Cape Breton.