Cape Breton hubs springboards for success for entire communities

The cultural opportunities available in a rural community can have a life-changing impact.

Just ask Elyse Delaney, director of Le Conseil des Arts de Chéticamp.

“The Conseil des Arts gave me so many opportunities as a young musician growing up here,” she says. “Being in a position to offer today’s young artists the support that I had, that’s what enticed me to move back from Halifax to take up this post.”

Indeed, Delaney spent many years working as a performing musician on the scene in Halifax. She’s known for her beautiful, clear soprano voice, and her wide-ranging musical tastes that go from renaissance polyphony to musical theatre.

In 2022, when the opportunity arose for her to come back to her hometown of Chéticamp, Inverness County, on the western shores of Cape Breton, she didn’t hesitate. She knew it was time to return to the Island and step into a leadership role in the organization that gave her her start as a performer.

The involvement of local people, often as volunteers, keeps the county’s heritage and culture sector vibrant. “Knowing where we come from, and keeping that relevance, it lets us feel proud of who we are and where we are headed,” Delaney notes.

Le Conseil des Arts de Chéticamp exists to promote Acadian culture in Nova Scotia through activities like artistic workshops, cultural events and quality artistic training. With Elyse at the helm, and with the support of many dedicated volunteers, the organization creates an environment of exchange and sharing for cultural actors in the region. Notably, the state-of-the- art theatre/auditorium regularly hosts professional plays and concerts, which helps to showcase Acadian music and stagecraft to local residents and thousands of visiting tourists from around the world every year.

On the other side of Inverness County, on the beautiful shores of the Bras d’Or Lakes, it’s the Whycocomagh Waterfront Centre that’s been an invaluable hub for community activities for over a decade.

Terry Gillis is among those who have led the initiative, but she emphasizes that its success is due to so many volunteers’ dedication. “Ownership” is a word that’s never far from Terry’s lips when she talks about all the different ways people get involved to help out.

“It’s really by the community, for the community,” she explains, “with all sorts of people pitching in and there’s space for everyone who’d like to get involved.”

Attracted by big-name events like Celtic Colours concerts, people do come from far and wide. But it’s the year-round range of regular programming, from dances and Thursday evening jam sessions to yoga, pickleball, indoor curling and more, that ensures that the local community in Whycocomagh is so well-served.

“It’s essential in rural areas like ours, where people can be isolated,” Gillis says. “We’re making sure there’s somewhere welcoming where everyone can come to socialize.”

One regular volunteer is Michelle MacLean, a recent graduate of St. F.X. University in Antigonish.

“When I helped coordinate the Whycocomagh Summer Festival, that experience planted a seed in me,” MacLean says. “I wanted to step up and bring our generation together, to inspire others who also see the potential in our community.”

“There’s so much dedication that goes into organizing opportunities to socialize, and that’s been even more important over the last few years. Being a volunteer lets me be a part of that. I love the fact that I’m helping bring community members together and creating and strengthening relationships in the process.”

Both these community power-houses have plenty more up their sleeve. On top of the cultural programming at Le Conseil des Arts, Delaney is looking forward to a major upgrade to the facilities. A building extension is planned this year, with the addition of reception and banquet rooms, as well as office and meeting spaces available to rent by the day. It will no doubt become a valuable resource to boost the diversifying local economy. Stay up-to-date at: conseildesarts-

As for the Waterfront Centre, the community can look forward to upgrades both inside and out. True to the centre’s motto, “Where people and nature connect,” the new features will include an outdoor performance space with the stunning backdrop of Whycocomagh’s water and hills. There’s even talk of a new library branch being hosted here.

Warden Bonny MacIsaac, who heads the municipal council, says the rich cultural life in Inverness County shows there’s room for all sorts of skills, including what younger people and newcomers can bring to the table. “If you’ve got an idea for an activity, and a will to put in some energy to make it happen, find out about your local community groups,” she says. “There’ll be a supportive group of people and maybe resources like space or publicity tools to help you.”

A version of this article was published in the Participaper, a municipal periodical focused on Cape Breton.

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