CAPE BRETON ISLAND, Nova Scotia — Disgusted by Donald Trump? Repulsed by Hillary Clinton? For those dreading the outcome of the November presidential election, Canada wants you.
Denizens of Cape Breton Island, a visually stunning but population-starved Nova Scotia coastal retreat, are busily recruiting disaffected U.S. voters, urging them to consider a move north of the border in the event that their candidate loses.
Launched by local radio talk-show host Rob Calabrese, the campaign began in February as an appeal to anti-Trump voters. He was stunned by the response: More than one million inquiries poured in after he launched his website, “Cape Breton if Donald Trump Wins.”
With the Republican losing ground in recent weeks to the Democrat Clinton, however, Mr. Calabrese wants Trump supporters to know that the island’s call for expatriates is bipartisan.
“Hundreds of people have written in saying that exact same thing. They want to come if Hillary wins,” said Mr. Calabrese, a Cape Breton native whose show airs on 101.9 FM The Giant. “And we welcome all. Even Trump supporters.”
Vowing to leave the country is a hardy Democratic presidential-year tradition, as the politically savvy islanders know, although such voters don’t always make good on their threats. Celebrities Robert Altman and Eddie Vedder stayed put despite promises to depart if George W. Bush were elected in 2000.
On the other hand, former Kennedy White House press secretary Pierre Salinger moved to Paris after promising to do so in 2000, and died there in 2004.
“I follow American politics quite closely, and every time there’s an election in your country, you do get a group of people, usually Democrats, who threaten to move to Canada if the Republican wins,” Mr. Calabrese said. “I just thought that that was going to happen a lot more this time, and we already have a serious population problem, and it just seemed like a good fit.”
This year, Hollywood stars such as Lena Dunham, Chelsea Handler, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie O’Donnell, Amy Schumer, Barbara Streisand, and Raven-Symone have continued the tradition, warning that they will ditch the United States if Mr. Trump is elected, with some specifically mentioning Canada as their destination of choice.
In an August interview in Australia, Ms. Streisand vowed, “I’m either coming to your country or Canada,” while Ms. Dunham said that month at the Matrix Awards that, “I know a lot of people who have been threatening to do this, but I really will.”
“I know a lovely place in Vancouver, and I can get my work done from there,” Ms. Dunham said.
Republicans, meanwhile, have preferred to fight rather than switch: After President Obama was reelected in 2012, petitions from nearly every state were posted on the White House “We the People” website seeking permission to secede. The Obama administration rejected the requests.
“I don’t think it’s just Democrats. I think it’s everybody,” said Cape Breton RE/MAX broker Valarie Sampson. “And this is just my opinion, but I think people see uncertainty, and they don’t like it.”
With a population of 35 million, Canada has seen annual growth recently of about 1.2 percent, but the influx has bypassed Cape Breton Island. At twice the size of Delaware, Cape Breton has just 140,000 residents and loses about 1,000 per year.
The locals have even raised money to bring in refugees from the Middle East. “We’re screaming for more people. We have groups that are working very hard to get Syrian refugees to move here,” Mr. Calabrese said.
The island has no shortage of gorgeous scenery — lush fir, spruce and maple trees line the Cabot Trail along the rugged Atlantic coast — but the collapse of the local coal and steel industries has left the region without enough jobs to keep its young people from leaving home.
“The saying is that, ‘It’s beautiful, but I can’t eat the air and I can’t drink the sea.’ Our economy has been struggling for about 25 years,” said Mr. Calabrese. “The whole island was basically dependent on coal, steel and fishing, and only fishing remains.”
The coal is plentiful but it’s high in sulfur, making it less attractive than the cleaner-burning coal mined in inner-mountain Western states such as Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.
“We have enough coals to have 100 mines on this island going for the next 10,000 years. This island is made of coal,” Mr. Calabrese said. “However, it’s a very high in sulfur—our own standards for burning coal for our power plants will not allow us to use our own coal. So we have coal-fired plants, we’re on an island made of coal, but our coal comes from Virginia.”
Even before the November election results are in, the campaign to take advantage of U.S. distaste with the presidential race has already reaped dividends. Visits to the island were up 14 percent this year, compared with about 3 percent in the rest of Nova Scotia, Mr. Calabrese said.
Mr. Obama gave an enormous boost to the effort in March when he toasted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by thanking him for offering a landing spot for irate U.S. voters.
“We appreciate that. We can be unruly, I know,” Mr. Obama quipped at the White House dinner.
On the economic front, residents have attempted to compensate for the job losses by turning to tourism and the high-tech sector, as well as the island’s appeal as a destination for U.S. retirees and those working from home who seek a more affordable alternative to coastal locales in the lower 48.
Ms. Sampson said the average single-family homes sell for $145,000 to $165,000, and while houses with an ocean view are more expensive, they’re a bargain when compared to alternatives along the Eastern seaboard.
“I have one listed at $369,000 with approximately 200 feet of waterfront on the Bras d’Or Lake, which is salt water, and it has its own wharf. It’s approximately 1800 to 2400 square feet and just the most stunning views ever,” Ms. Sampson said. “And it’s on for $369,000. This would be a million-dollar location anywhere else, in Ontario, Quebec, anywhere on the water.”
Since the Cape Breton if Trump Wins website appeared, she said she’s received a rash of inquiries about real estate. Last year, her office sold no homes on the island to Americans, while this year a half-dozen have already bought property.
“We try to promote our island the best we can, but this little website that was accidentally created to throw a bone at the American people—hey, if you’re not happy, come here—has become quite a phenomenon for us,” said Ms. Sampson. “That is marketing that we could never afford to pay for and has just exhilarated us to a heightened level. It’s wonderful, absolutely wonderful for our island.”
She compared the recent spike in U.S. interest to the situation after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, after which Americans also began snatching up Canadian property.
“It’s like back when 9/11 occurred. The impact of American people off to Canada to buy places was overwhelming for me,” Ms. Sampson said. “They didn’t necessarily move, but they were definitely ready if they had to. Some of them just wrote a check and said, ‘I want this property.’ They were trying to buy businesses and get their children out of there, because they were afraid of war. Everybody was unnerved by that.”
For those Americans concerned about the cold weather, Mr. Calabrese says not to worry. Contrary to the view that Canada is comprised of a vast frozen tundra, the weather on Cape Breton is similar to that of New England, and maybe better.
“It’s not as cold in the winter here as in Chicago. It’s not as hot in the summer as it is in Boston. We’re an island, right? So the ocean has a big impact on the weather,” Mr. Calabrese said. “There are a lot of places in Canada with worse weather.”
Even if no American voters decided to relocate as a direct result of the election results, he says the campaign will have done its job.
“I’m not expecting this to be the answer to our problems. What I want is for Cape Breton to get some attention because there’s a lot of people no matter who gets elected who could see themselves living here,” Mr. Calabrese said. “And people didn’t know we existed before. The goal is to get Cape Breton in front of as many eyes as possible as a potential place to start a new life.”