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A Slug of Bannock – Community in Cape Breton NS

“I bet you’re hungry.  Inside they have tea and coffee and cake and pie and bannock …”

“What’s bannock?” I asked.
She said just go in and order like a local.  “Ask for a slug of bannock with butter and lassis.”
We are standing outside the Saturday farmer’s market in Dingwall, a tiny town on the North Cape of Cape Breton.  I have just biked over a mountain and she is right … I am hungry.  The locals tolerate the cyclists with bemused disbelief … it’s clear they think we are crazy for biking these steep mountains.  

The farmer’s market is housed in the fire department community hall.  It’s slow right now – the weather has been cold and windy and many tourists are staying away.  There is a steady stream of locals, though, and music from the accordion and guitarist is welcoming.

I walk inside with this vibrant little red haired woman who’s outside smoking a cigarette.  The farmers’ market consists of tables that ring the large room.  Two older men play local folk music mixed in with Johnny Cash and the Beatles on a small stage.  Locals are selling crafts from knitted goods to photographs made into refrigerator magnets to canned pickles to one table of fresh vegetables.

I walk to the back and order my slug of bannock.   I get a surprised look, and then a plate of sliced bread appears with instructions that the butter and molasses are on the table.  Yep … tasty.

My red-headed friend is a crab fisherman and caught her limit of crabs this year in three weeks over the summer.  She is an amateur photographer in her off-time and is selling cards and refrigerator magnets with her images.  “You need a job when you aren’t fishing,”  she tells me.  

She says this farmers’ market is a regular gathering place for the locals who drop in for tea and food and to visit.  We talk about how people here look after each other.  But if someone in the community steps out of line and hurts another, they are shunned … by the entire community.  They handle their problems themselves, she says, rather than bring in the government or police.  And being shunned here is a powerful punishment punishment punishment a place where the culture of looking out for one another is the most important thing.

They make sure everybody eats … and even have a centuries-old tradition from lent where masked celebrants hold their own version of Mardi Gras by going house to house and traditionally taking food from one house that had extra to another that needs food.  This area has many co-ops for food stores and businesses … working together is a way of life.

And we have been treated extraordinarily well.  People are genuinely interested in you, and offer to do the most generous things to help and to make sure you have what you need.  Andre from the bike shop sagged Julie to Dingwall today, waited for me to get off the bike, then drove us up to the tip of the peninsula so we could see it.  While we paid him to drive Julie and my gear, he chose to spend the day with us because he wanted to and show us around to be a good host.  

The ladies at the farmers’ market gave me extra bannock to take back with me “including the crust – that’s the best”.  The woman from the bed and breakfast let us keep our room when we weren’t sure if the weather would be safe to ride, and perhaps lost a room rental that night because of it.  The owner of the restaurant drove us back to the hotel so we didn’t have to walk home in the dark and freeze in the cold wind.

This is very different than many places I’ve traveled – or lived – where the many of people you meet are more interested in your money or business what you can do for them than they are in you.   

Instead, here the spirit of looking out for each other and working together as a community is palpable, and the generosity feels second nature. People aren’t afraid to talk to each other.  They make eye contact.  They stop and speak to strangers.  They presume kindness given will yield kindness received.  It’s hospitality, but also community and as a visitor you are integrated into the community for a short while.

It makes me very aware of how fearfully we live at home.  We presume strangers can be dangerous, or want something from us.  We reluctantly talk to people we don’t know – they could be dangerous.  We often don’t make eye contact or smile and encourage an interaction walking by.   A stranger in our neighborhood is eyed suspiciously … are they casing houses or cars?  

I think the folks here on Cape Breton have the right idea.

Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate lives in Seattle, WA. She is a two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate, a communications specialist and writer, a nature lover and fan of beaches, mountains and big trees in the Pacific Northwest.