‘All this against an evening sky that seems to mock us with its beauty’: Finding hope in Cape Breton

A blog post from ReLit’s International Ambassador, Dr Julie Sutherland, on her outreach work in Cape Breton, Canada. 


When I first arrived in Cape Breton five years ago, I quickly observed how a paucity of resources had stymied its potential. Poverty and depression have created generations of often dispirited individuals, some of whom nevertheless fight to revivify an island of exceptional natural beauty. Their resilience in the face of frequently extreme conditions is remarkable. However, when Cape Bretoners aim to ‘make things happen’, they are often deterred not only by lack of funds but also by risk averse politicians whose spiritless demands for status quo threaten to stifle them. Regardless, a number of indefatigable residents have begun an emotional – and economic – renaissance to ensure that Cape Breton Island doesn’t need to dig itself a grave.

Indeed, undaunted by horrifying economic shortages and a general social malaise, a number of groups have embarked on an extraordinary journey of hope. Ignoring political naysaying and cutting through red tape, several inspirational individuals and collectives have launched a variety of recent successful events and organisations in Cape Breton, such as: an annual Women’s March; a Cape Breton Youth Project (providing support and services to youth on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity); and a small, independent business networking group who meets under the banner of ‘We Are Not the Have-Nots’. Theirs is an appropriate rallying cry for the island as a whole.

The ReLit Bibliotherapy Foundation has joined hands with other committed and creative individuals and groups. Together, we are dedicated to supporting and improving the region’s mental health. Below is a brief summary of what ReLit has achieved thus far.

Figgy Pudding Fundraiser: A Midwinter Literary Event

12 Figgy Pudding Fundraiser (6)

On a crisp evening in December 2017, guests arrived at Doktor Luke’s Coffee House in Sydney, Nova Scotia to enjoy hot drinks, homemade figgy pudding and a lively talk about resilience amongst the working and oppressed classes. Though the island’s residents are generally poor – indeed, one in three children in Cape Breton live in poverty – the evening’s patrons exhibited their natural generosity. Collectively, we raised nearly £1,000. With these funds, ReLit has provided over 100 poetry anthologies – Stressed/Unstressed: Classic Poems to Ease the Mind – to be distributed to mental health and wellness organizations in Cape Breton. The donations have also facilitated talks and workshops, each aiming to assist efforts to restore hope to the island.

It was the first evening of its kind in Cape Breton. As such, the event generated awareness about the power of great literature to positively affect the human spirit. Moreover, a number of the patrons found, for the first time, a name to put to something they had naturally practised: bibliotherapy. They also discovered a group of like-minded individuals who were united in their desire to pursue the many ways in which literature can restore the human spirit.

Bibliotherapy Talks and Workshops: “Healthy Individuals for Healthy Communities: Restoring and Reinvigorating the Mind Through Bibliotherapy”

12 Figgy Pudding Fundraiser (17)I developed my meditation at the Figgy Pudding Fundraiser into a fuller talk for the Compassionate Communities series at Cape Breton University. To a full house of interested laypeople, academic specialists and medical doctors, I argued that mentally well individuals can better ensure the sustainability of the communities in which they find themselves. Collectively, we affirmed literature’s capacity to revivify the spirit.

Since different people respond to diverse literary works according to their own temperaments, we can’t thrust the same poem, play or novel at every anxious individual and insist it will affect them. As such, I have tailored individual bibliotherapy workshops to meet a variety of needs. Grounded in specific themes, each workshop takes diverse routes to explore the healing power of language. At a workshop on ‘resilience’ in January 2018, hosted by the Cape Breton University Student Psychology Society and the CBU Students’ Union, we dedicated a fair bit of time to responding to poetry, first through discussion and then through our own writing. Conversely, at a January 2018 workshop on ‘awareness, movement and surrender’, hosted by a local Ashtanga yoga group (Paradise Yoga on Milton), we spent only a little time writing, instead focusing on the meditative reading of a handful of relevant poems. Sometimes we were in chorus, while occasionally individual voices presented a fragment or a whole of a poem.

More workshops are forthcoming, in both English and French.



Bibliotherapy is sufficiently new and unfamiliar to Canadians to gain both skeptics and disciples. And where there is innovation and apprehension, so there is media. CBC Information Morning produced a story about ReLit’s role in Cape Breton, and another feature is in production for 89.7 FM The Coast. A number of local print news sources have also run stories, including the island’s Cape Breton Post.

Collaborative Work: The Need and the Response

Cape Breton Island has an area of 4,000 square miles and a population of 132,000. (To help with scale, the United Kingdom is about 23 times the size of Cape Breton.) It’s not a big island, but it nevertheless feels the ache of too few resources for those with mental health conditions: one part-time child psychiatrist and six adult psychiatrists serve the entire island. The wait time for Mental Health Adult Community-Based Services in Cape Breton is 363 days – the longest in Nova Scotia, the province of which it is a part. For children and adolescents, the wait time is 157 days. Discussions are in place about policies that, if implemented, would require youth needing emergency and in-patient mental health care to go to the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, 250 miles away. As of last month (January 2018), Cape Breton emergency room doctors who have children and teens under 19 in their care and who require an emergency psychiatric assessment must phone a child psychiatrist at the IWK. This alarming process is an improvement on the previous one, in which adult psychiatrists on-call in Cape Breton have generally assessed those patients.

Copies of Stressed Unstressed arrive in Cape Breton

For a number of obvious reasons, bibliotherapy cannot confront mental health issues on its own – nor would it need to on an island where so many groups are working tirelessly to offset the lack of psychiatric and psychological care. Bibliotherapy is complementary work, and as such it thrives in collaboration. The generosity and open-mindedness of many of the locals have permitted me to develop professional relationships with staff at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital Foundation and the Atlantic Coastal Action Program (ACAP) Cape Breton, as well as with librarians and published poets. Together, and alongside other charities and not-for-profit organisations, we are striving to combat mental health in a region whose psychiatric resources are disturbingly low.


In a play by Aldyth Morris entitled Damien, a priest who works amongst the lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai watches a sick boy being severed from his family. The youth is added to a queue of lepers awaiting passage to the island that will become their grave. Father Damien remarks, ‘All this against an evening sky that seems to mock us with its beauty’. Cape Breton is no leper colony. Indeed, save for their shared geographical magnificence, there are few similarities between Molokai and the island that is my home. But to say our frequent sense of despair feels leprous is not inaccurate. And yet: The beauty that surrounds us does not always mock us. I have experienced how our feelings of beleaguerment can be tempered by the generosity of others’ spirits – and by a belief in the strength of our own. What these months of practising bibliotherapy in Cape Breton have shown me is that the fires of optimism have not gone out entirely. Sometimes the embers pulse with light. When we feel and see the faint glow of hope, we know the darkness cannot overcome us.

CB Island
By chensiyuan via Wikimedia Commons


King, Nancy. ‘Child mental health services in Nova Scotia won’t change before Jan. 1’. Cape Breton Post. Nov. 30, 2017. http://www.capebretonpost.com/news/local/child-mental-health-services-in-nova-scotia-wont-change-before-jan-1-166500/

Martin, Wendy. ‘Telephone assessments coming for young Cape Breton psychiatric patients’. Dec. 20, 2017. CBC News: Nova Scotia. CBC/Radio Canada, 2018. Accessed 21.2.2018. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/iwk-psychiatric-child-adolescent-1.4458430

Morris, Aldyth. ‘Damien’. A Hawai’i Anthology: A Collection of Works by Recipients of the Hawai’i Award for Literature, 1974-1996. Edited by Joseph Stanton. Honolulu: State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, 1997.

Nova Scotia Healthcare Wait Times. Crown Copyright 2018. Province of Nova Scotia. Accessed 21.2.2018. https://waittimes.novascotia.ca/procedures/mental-health-services

‘One third of Cape Breton Children Living in Poverty: Report’. Cape Breton Post. Updated Oct. 2, 2017. Accessed 21.2.2018. http://www.capebretonpost.com/news/local/one-third-of-cape-breton-children-living-in-poverty-report-7561/

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