CANADA

Despair in the deep

Cape Breton miners face a new round of layoffS

MERLE MacISAAC January 22 1996
CANADA

Despair in the deep

Cape Breton miners face a new round of layoffS

MERLE MacISAAC January 22 1996

Despair in the deep

CANADA

Cape Breton miners face a new round of layoffS

Robert Kennedy runs a flooring, paint and wallpaper store in the oncebustling mining community of Glace Bay, N.S. But it used to be much more. A peek behind a new partition reveals the remnants of a failed hardware franchise. The huge warehouse out back that once brimmed with lumber supplies now serves as storage space. And last week, as word of the massive layoffs by the region’s major employer, the Cape Breton Development Corp. (commonly known as Devco), washed over the town, Kennedy, 40, called his suppliers to cancel fresh orders for $40,000 in spring inventory. “There’s the reaction,” he said with his arms folded as he nodded towards the eerie absence of customers in his store. “They won’t buy now. P They’ll just wait.”

Waiting for word about their economic future has been a familiar pastime for the residents of Glace Bay, a community of nearly 22,000, and for others in the cluster of hardscrabble mining towns surrounding it. But in a region where official unemployment hovers around 20 per cent, the convulsions last week at Devco, a federally owned coal-mining company, provoked a new round of fears. The temporary layoff of more than half of Devco’s 2,100member labor force was just the start. Folded inside that announcement was the greater „ sting: a permanent one-third relt; duction of the workforce begin| _ ning with 400 employees in March, and another 400 over the next four years. “I’m safe for now,” said Derek Morford, 38, a father of three from nearby Donkin as he climbed into his four-wheel drive near the pithead of the Phalen Colliery in New Waterford, N.S., last week. “But I’m pretty sure I’m finished in March—for good.” The announced layoffs were all the more disheartening given what preceded them. Gone are the days when Devco’s workforce, which included more than 6,000 miners at its peak when it was purchased by the federal government in 1967, fuelled the huge coke ovens at nearby Sydney Steel Corp. A much slimmer Sydney Steel, sold by the Nova Scotia government last year to a Chinese trading company, now operates an electric arc furnace that turns scrap metal into rail. Gone, too, is the co2y relationship between Devco and its largest customer, Nova Scotia Power Inc. Recently privatized, the power

utility balked last year at a long-standing practice of paying higher-than-market prices for coal, and wrestled a better deal from Devco. Finally, this was the year that Devco’s sole shareholder, Ottawa, eliminated its nearly 30-year practice of subsidizing the corporation-handouts that have averaged nearly $60 million annually since the mid-1980s.

In announcing the layoffs, Devco president Joe Shannon—a hard-nosed, blunt-talking Cape Breton entrepreneur who took over Devco’s helm last summer in what he likened to an act of civic duty—said that he

was simply doing what was necessary to ensure the long-term viability of the Cape Breton mining industry. The company, he said, was headed for a loss of $19.4 million in the fiscal year that ends March 31, 1996 (even after the cuts, Devco expects to lose $9.4 million). Public Works Minister David Dingwall, who represents Cape Breton, concurred with the strategy. “It’s a lot better than putting a lock on the door,” he said.

Meanwhile, the tight-knit communities around the Sydney coal fields started to make some difficult adjustments last week. “Shelly got his ticket to Grand Cache last night,” miner Butch MacLean, 56, told his retired brother, Morris, as they greeted one another at the Tim Hortons in Glace Bay’s Sterling Mall. Six of seven brothers in the family have worked the mines, and Shelly, 38, will now join another brother who was recruited by a company in that Alberta coal mining town last July.

Over at Mike’s Lunch, self-employed electrician Godfrey Mauger, 51, was bracing for a competitive influx of out-of-work miners into the construction business. And for his one-time employee, Robin Whalen, the mining layoffs and the economic hardship they will bring mean that his long wait for a call from the union hiring hall probably will be extended. When Whalen got on the local union job list 24 months ago, he entered at number 139. Today, he stands at 53. The reward when he gets to the top: perhaps some steady work or at least the guarantee of enough to qualify for unemployment insurance.

“We’ve laid off a lot of people here ourselves,” says the diner’s assistant manager Rick Clarke, before summarizing the long, slow decline of the local economy. He rhymes off the closure of the federal government’s heavy water plant, the collapse of the fishery, and the closure of two major mines

in the region since the late 1980s. ‘We always had lineups here for lunch,” says Clarke. “Not any more. Sixty per cent of our business now comes from people with pensions. It only gets rosy at the end of the month when they get their cheques. People say it can’t get any worse, but then it does.”

Other residents are equally glum. “This town is dead,” says Glace Bay’s Kennedy. He gets no argument from his companion, Debbie Fahey, who was just laid off from her waitressing job. But reflecting the stubborn determination of many Cape Bretoners, the couple intends to stay put and follow through with some long-delayed plans: a wedding sometime in 1997. It gives them something to look forward to as they brace, along with their fellow islanders, for the uncertain times ahead.

MERLE MacISAAC in Glace Bay