CANADA

The fear Down East

Axworthy’s plans draw ire on the waterfront

JOHN DeMONT October 17 1994
CANADA

The fear Down East

Axworthy’s plans draw ire on the waterfront

JOHN DeMONT October 17 1994

The fear Down East

Axworthy’s plans draw ire on the waterfront

JOHN DeMONT

Word was that Demi Moore planned to play the scene in the nude. But security was so tight around the set of The Scarlet Letter, the $40-million movie being shot in Shelburne, N.S., last week, that none of the locals knew exactly what the sultry starlet wore during the big bedroom scene. The magic of Hollywood has transformed 20thcentury Nova Scotia into 17th-century New England. Away from the waterfront, though, the illusion fades and Shelburne returns to its true form: a postcard-pretty town of 2,500 people that depends on summer tourists and a seasonal fishery for its lifeblood—and where proposed changes to the Unemployment Insurance system included in Human Resources Development Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s proposed changes to social policy will have resonance long after Moore, Robert Duvall, Gary Oldman and the other stars are just a pleasant memory.

One of Nova Scotia’s oldest and most historic towns, Shelburne, 200 km southwest of Halifax, moves to a long-established rhythm that Axworthy hopes to alter irrevocably. For decades, local fishermen and plant workers have depended on UI benefits to hold them over for months at a time once the season for lobster, herring, cod and other ground fish closes. The same goes for employees in some of the town’s small but growing number of inns, bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants, who depend upon UI once the tourist season ends each fall. “Almost everyone is a seasonal worker in Shelburne,” explained Wanda Swansburg, 29, a mother of two who works as a maid, waitress and general Jill-of-alltrades at The Cooper’s Inn until it closes on Oct. 31. And that means hundreds would be affected if Axworthy’s preferred solution—a two-tiered system under which seasonal workers would receive lower UI benefits than those who find themselves unemployed only occasionally—comes to pass.

On the town wharf, where last week boatloads of herring were being unloaded onto trucks, that prospect is simply more bad news for fishermen and plant workers already devastated by severe cutbacks in fish quotas.

“Sure there are those deadbeats who work long enough to get their stamps,” said Shelburne fisherman Tom Rose, 54, referring to the 12 weeks of work necessary for fishermen to receive UI benefits. “The vast majority of them want to fish, but the quota situation means they just can’t.” The truth is that while some lobster fishermen in the area make $60,000 a year, other fishermen say that even collecting UI benefits for months at a time hardly keeps them above the poverty level. Declares Gary Newell, 39, the owner of a 37-foot long-liner who made $16,000 last year including $5,000 in UI benefits: “If Ottawa cuts back on UI, I they’re just going to put more z people on welfare.” He, like oth° ers, scoffed at talk of finding year-round jobs outside the fishery without leaving home. “What are we all going to do?” asked Keith Surette, 31, who drives a truck for a fish processing company. ‘Work at Sobeys?”

For all of that grim speculation about the future, last week Shelburne pulsed with Hollywood excitement. After all, building the set—which involved erecting and transforming more than 50 buildings along the town’s waterfront—has kept more than 100 local carpenters busy, drawn flocks of tourists and pumped millions of dollars into the local economy. “What we need are a few more movies,” said Emile Godin, 31, a fisherman from nearby Yarmouth, who normally goes on UI when the lobster season ends in May but last week was busy fixing a sprinkler system on the movie set. He figured he would get another two months of work before the production ends. After that, winter and reality—both of which could be colder than usual.