Meet Rob Csernyik

Rob Csernyik

Rob Csernyik, the Cape Breton-born/New Brunswick-based journalist behind the Spectator‘s casino series, is waiting (patiently) for responses from the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) so he can complete Part III of the series.

In the interim, I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce him to my readers, so I asked him a couple of questions which he very graciously answered.

In addition, I’ve taken Part I of the series out from behind the paywall, so if you know someone who should read it, feel free to share it.

 

Who is Rob Csernyik and why does he care about what’s happening in Sydney?

I grew up in Sydney River and graduated from Riverview High in 2004. My family is an interesting blend: my dad’s parents were Hungarian refugees (thus my last name) and my mom is a MacPhee with innumerable¬†cousins. A fun fact is that my grandfather Byron had some local renown¬†as a fiddle player in The TR Ranch Boys back in the day.

Aside from about 18 months between 2010 and 2011, I haven’t lived permanently in Cape Breton since high school. I went from spending my childhood in the same house on the same street to living in four provinces other than Nova Scotia. Currently, I’m based in Saint John, New Brunswick where I work as a freelance journalist and writer, mostly covering business.

Why I care about what’s happening in Sydney is a bit more nuanced. It would be more logical for me not to care, given both that I reside elsewhere and that I have a strange relationship with Cape Breton. Growing up, I found it hard to find my niche there, so I was eager to get out from a young age. But instead of divorcing myself from Sydney entirely, I like to keep tabs on what’s happening. I also have family ties still because my parents and brother live there.

Having grown up during a time when a lot happened to shape the island as we know it — the casino, the growth of tourism, the closure of traditional industries, the emergence of call centers — I find it interesting, as an adult, to see how past promises have manifested in the present. The CBRM hasn’t reached the levels of prosperity that people dreamed of during my youth, and it’s worth asking why, if for no other reason than to avoid making the same mistakes twice.

 

What have you been doing since you left the island?

After graduating high school, I completed a degree in English Literature at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec. The first few years after that I hoped to open a retail store and I did, in 2013 in Eastern Ontario. But in 2015 it closed and I had to start anew. I refashioned my career with a focus on journalism and writing, completing the one-year bachelor of journalism at the University of King’s College and internships at The Globe and Mail, the Edmonton Journal/Sun and a mining trade magazine.

Most of my adult life has been spent in Quebec, either in Sherbrooke or Montreal. But I’ve also spent about a year and a half each in Alberta and Ontario. I moved to Saint John last April to work at Brunswick News as a content manager, but left in April to pursue freelance writing full time. I’ve been lucky to place pieces in a variety of national and international publications over the last few years, covering everything from green politics to investing and neo-Nazis to minimum wage work.

 

Why were you interested in the casino story particularly?

I think this interest took root in a magazine story I read as a kid. My mom used to subscribe to Chatelaine, and a memory that stands out is seeing mention on one of the covers of a casino causing problems in a town. I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be strange if it was about Sydney?’ I opened up the magazine and lo! and behold, there was a picture of Sydney’s casino.

I read the article and though the exact details didn’t stick with me, I recall that it hinted at the casino not doing very well. (When researching the topic as an adult, I learned this was the June 1997 issue. The story “When the casino came to town” was written by Stephen Kimber.)

By the time I was first exploring a journalism career, it was the casino’s 20th anniversary. I thought it would be interesting to look at its economic and social impacts, largely because it felt like there hadn’t been much discussion of the casino in recent years. Indeed, during the first few years of Nova Scotia’s casinos, there was lots of criticism lobbed at them and predictions Sydney’s might not last. But then? Many years of silence. I didn’t know what to do with the idea at the time, so I shelved it, but it never strayed far from my mind.

Last year, I applied to The Banff Centre’s investigative journalism intensive and as part of the application you have to pitch a research topic. Because an investigation is something you spend a lot of time with, it’s imperative to pick something that interests you. I decided to take my chances and apply with the casinos as a topic, fully cognizant that it might not be as interesting to others as it was to me. To my delight, my application was accepted and I was one of 20 journalists who took part in the 2019 cohort.

One of the most surprising things I’ve learned is how little people know about the casinos. For instance, they don’t know where the profits go, or that Nova Scotia doesn’t keep good data on gambling addiction rates. They also generally don’t know how casino jobs have been hollowed out over the years and how it’s a small number of players who keep them profitable. I’m hoping to stimulate some conversation and reflection with my pieces, which you can read coming up here and in the Halifax Examiner.