The island is divided into four of Nova Scotia's eighteen counties: Cape Breton, Inverness, Richmond, and Victoria. Their total population as of the 2001 census numbered 147,454 "Cape Bretoners"; this is approximately 16% of the provincial population. Cape Breton Island has experienced a decline in population of approximately 6.8% since the previous census in 1996. Approximately 72% of the island's population is located in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) which includes all of Cape Breton County and is often referred to as Industrial Cape Breton, given the history of coal mining and steel manufacturing in this area.
Cape Breton Island's first residents were likely Maritime Archaic Indians, ancestors of the Mi'kmaq Nation, the latter of whom inhabited the island at the time of European discovery. Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) reportedly visited the island in 1497 to become the firstRenaissance European explorer to visit present-day Canada. However, historians are unclear as to whether Cabot first visited Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island. This discovery is commemorated by Cape Breton's Cabot Trail, and by Cabot's Landing Historic Site & Provincial Park, located near the village of Dingwall.
A fishing colony was established on the island about 1521–22 by the Portuguese under João Alvares Fagundes. As many as 200 settlers lived in the nameless village in what is now present day Ingonish (location according to some historians) on the island's northwestern peninsula. The fate of the colony is unknown, but it is mentioned as late as 1570.
Known as "Île Royale" to the French, the island also saw active settlement by France as part of the colony of Acadia. After the French ceded its colonies on Newfoundland and the Acadian mainland to the British by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the French relocated the population of Plaisance, Newfoundland to Île Royale and the French garrison was established in the central eastern part at Ste-Anne. As the harbour at Ste.-Anne experienced icing problems, it was decided to construct a much larger fortification at Louisbourg to improve defences at the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and defend France's fishing fleet on the Grand Banks. The French also built the Louisbourg Lighthouse in 1734, the first lighthouse in Canada and one of the first in North America. In addition to Cape Breton Island, the French colony of Île Royale also included Île St.-Jean (today called Prince Edward Island). Louisbourg itself was one of the most important commercial and military centres in New France. Although Louisbourg was captured by New Englanders with British naval assistance in 1745 and by the British again in 1758, Île Royale remained formally part of colonial France until it was ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Paris in 1763. Britain merged the island with its adjacent colony of Nova Scotia (present day peninsular Nova Scotia and New Brunswick).
Some of the first British-sanctioned settlers to the island following the Seven Years' War were Irish, although upon settlement, they merged with local French communities to form a culture rich in both music and tradition. From 1763 to 1784 the island was administratively part of the colony of Nova Scotia and governed from Halifax.
The first permanently settled Scottish community on Cape Breton Island was Judique, settled in 1775 by Michael Mor MacDonald. He spent his first winter using his upside-down boat for shelter, which is reflected in the architecture of the village's Community Centre. He composed a song about the area called "O's alainn an t-aite", or "Fair is the Place."
In 1784, Britain split the colony of Nova Scotia into three separate colonies: New Brunswick, Cape Breton Island, and present-day peninsular Nova Scotia, in addition to the adjacent colonies of St. John's Island (renamed Prince Edward Island in 1798) and Newfoundland. The colony of Cape Breton Island had its capital at Sydney on its namesake harbour fronting on Spanish Bay and the Cabot Strait. Its first Lieutenant-Governor was Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres (1784–1787) and his successor was William Macarmick (1787). From 1799 to 1807 the military commandant was John Despard, brother of Edward.
An order forbidding the granting of land in Cape Breton, issued in 1763, was removed in 1784. The mineral rights to the island were given over to the Crown by an order-in-council. The British government had intended that the Crown take over the operation of the mines when Cape Breton was made a colony, but this was never done, probably because of the rehabilitation cost of the mines. The mines were in a neglected state, caused by careless operations dating back at least to the time of the final fall of Louisbourg.
In 1820, the colony of Cape Breton Island was merged for the second time with Nova Scotia. This development is one of the factors which led to large-scale industrial development in the Sydney Coal Field of eastern Cape Breton County (see Industrial Cape Breton). By the late 19th century, as a result of the faster shipping, expanding fishery and industrialization of the island, exchanges of people between the island of Newfoundland and Cape Breton increased beginning a cultural exchange that continues to this day.
During the first half of the 19th century, Cape Breton Island experienced an influx of Highland Scots numbering approximately 50,000 as a result of the Highland Clearances. Today, the descendants of the Highland Scots dominate Cape Breton Island's culture, particularly in rural communities. To this day Gaelic is still the first language of a number of elderly Cape Bretoners. A campaign of violence and intimidation by the provincial school board led to the near extermination of Gaelic culture. The growing influence of English-dominated media from outside the Scottish communities saw the use of this language erode quickly during the 20th century. Many of the Scots who immigrated there were either Roman Catholics or Presbyterians, which can be seen in a number of island landmarks and place names.
The 1920s were some of the most violent times in Cape Breton. They were marked by several severe labour disputes. The famous murder of William Davis by strike breakers, and the seizing of the New Waterford power plant by striking miners led to a major union sentiment that persists to this day in some circles. Davis Day is celebrated in coal mining towns to commemorate the deaths of miners at the hands of the coal companies.
Promotions for tourism beginning in the 1950s recognized the importance of the Scottish culture to the province, and the provincial government started encouraging the use of Gaelic once again. The establishment of funding for the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts and formal Gaelic language instruction in public schools are intended to address the near-loss of this culture to English assimilation.
The turn of the 20th century saw Cape Breton Island at the forefront of scientific achievement with the now-famous activities launched by inventors Alexander Graham Bell and Guglielmo Marconi.
Following his successful invention of the telephone and being relatively wealthy, Bell acquired land near Baddeck in 1885, largely due to surroundings reminiscent of his early years in Scotland. He established a summer estate complete with research laboratories, working with deaf people - including Helen Keller - and continued to invent. Baddeck would be the site of his experiments with hydrofoil technologies as well as the Aerial Experiment Association, financed by his wife, which saw the first powered flight in the British Empire when the AEA Silver Dart took off from the ice-covered waters of Bras d'Or Lake. Bell also built the forerunner to the iron lung and he experimented with breeding sheep.
Marconi's contributions to Cape Breton Island were somewhat less than Bell's as he merely used the island's geography to his advantage in transmitting the first North American trans-Atlanticradio message from a station constructed at Table Head in Glace Bay to a receiving station at Poldhu in Cornwall, England.
Later migrations of Black Loyalists, Italians, and Eastern Europeans mostly settled in the eastern part of the island around the Industrial Cape Breton region. The population of Cape Breton Island has been in decline for almost two decades with an increasing population exodus in recent years due to economic conditions.
According to the Census of Canada, the population of Cape Breton Island in 2001 was 147,454, a 6.8% decline from 158,260 in 1996.
Statistics Canada in 2001 reported a "religion" total of 107,880 for Cape Breton, including 3,915 with "no religious affiliation." Major categories included:
Roman Catholic: 69,820
Protestant: 32,575 (including 13,790 United Church and 10,170 Anglican)
Synagogues in Sydney and Glace Bay serve a small historic Jewish community (which was once one of the larger ones in eastern Canada) while more recent Muslim immigrants hold Friday prayers at Cape Breton University. Buddhists are a tiny minority (70 in 2001, according to Statistics Canada), although Gampo Abbey in Pleasant Bay has been operational since 1984.
Cape Breton Island has two major coal deposits: the Sydney Coal Field in the southeastern part of the island along the Atlantic Ocean drove the Industrial Cape Breton economy throughout the 19th and 20th centuries - until after World War II its industries were the largest private employers in Canada; the Inverness Coal Field in the western part of the island along the Gulf of St. Lawrence is significantly smaller but hosted several mines.
Point Edward on the west side of Sydney Harbour is the location of Sydport, a former navy base (Template:HMCS) now converted to commercial use. The Canadian Coast Guard College is located nearby at Westmount. Petroleum, bulk coal, and cruise ship facilities are also located in Sydney Harbour.
Glace Bay is the second largest urban community in population and was the island's main coal mining centre until its last mine ceased operation in the 1980s. Glace Bay served as the hub of the Sydney & Louisburg Railway and also as a major fishing port. At one time, Glace Bay was known as the largest town in Nova Scotia, based on population.
Port Hawkesbury has risen to prominence since the completion of the Canso Causeway and Canso Canal created an artificial deep-water port, allowing extensive petrochemical, pulp and paper, and gypsum handling facilities to be established. The Strait of Canso is completely navigable to seaway-max vessels, and Port Hawkesbury is open to the deepest-draught vessels on the world's oceans. Large marine vessels may also enter Bras d'Or Lake through the Great Bras d'Or channel whereas small craft have the additional use of the Little Bras d'Or channel or St. Peters Canal. The St. Peters Canal is no longer used by commercial shipping on Cape Breton Island but is an important waterway for recreational vessels.
The industrial Cape Breton area faced several challenges with the closure of the Cape Breton Development Corporation's (DEVCO) coal mines and the Sydney Steel Corporation's (SYSCO) steel mill. In recent years the Island's residents have been attempting to diversify the area economy by investing in tourism developments, call centres, and small businesses, as well as manufacturing ventures in such fields as auto parts, pharmaceuticals, and window glazings.
While the Cape Breton Regional Municipality is in transition from an industrial to a service-based economy, the rest of Cape Breton Island outside of the industrial area surrounding Sydney-Glace Bay has been more stable, with a mixture of fishing, forestry, small-scale agriculture, and tourism.
Tourism in particular has grown throughout the post-Second World War era, especially the growth in vehicle-based touring, which was furthered by the creation of the Cabot Trail scenic drive. The scenery of the island is rivalled in northeastern North America only by Newfoundland and Cape Breton Island tourism marketing places a heavy emphasis on its ScottishGaelic heritage through events such as the Celtic Colours Festival, held each October, as well as promotions through the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts.
A popular attraction for tourists isn't on the land, but in the water - whales. Whale-watching cruises are operated by numerous vendors from Baddeck to Cheticamp. The most popular species of whale found in Cape Breton's waters is the Pilot whale.
The Cabot Trail is a scenic road circuit around and over the Cape Breton Highlands with spectacular coastal vistas; over 400,000 visitors drive the Cabot Trail each summer and fall. Coupled with Fortress Louisbourg, it has driven the growth of the tourism industry on the island in recent decades. The Condé Nast travel guide has rated Cape Breton Island as one of the best island destinations in the world.