Closeup/The Provinces

Cape Breton Blues

The steel mill giveth, the steel mill taketh away

Ralph Surette May 30 1977
Closeup/The Provinces

Cape Breton Blues

The steel mill giveth, the steel mill taketh away

Ralph Surette May 30 1977

Cape Breton Blues

Closeup/The Provinces

The steel mill giveth, the steel mill taketh away

Ralph Surette

Especially do we thank thee, O Lord, for the Gut of Canso, thy known body of water that separateth us from the wickedness that lyeth on the other side thereof—Cape Breton prayer, 19th century.

It starts at the Strait of Canso: the intimate beauty of the Maritimes rises into the hills, intensifies, becomes grand, becomes something else. Becomes Cape Breton. Here the psyche changes too. It becomes fiercer, more collectivist, defiant of the outside world—a freckle of identity on the pale cultural face of English Canada. But it is ambiguous too, suffering the attraction of highland and shore and the repulsion of economic hardship, the security of home truths and the fear of outside economic forces.

Cape Breton defines itself against two points in the outside world. One is fixed. It is Halifax, the ancient, distant, bureaucratic foe, seat of despised “mainland attitudes” toward Cape Breton. The other point moves. It is a place of temporary economic refuge. For a century it was the “Boston States,” then until recently it was Ontario. Now it is Alberta.

For Billy Joe MacLean it’s Alberta with a vengeance. MacLean is mayor of Port Hawkesbury, the first town off the Canso Causeway which links Cape Breton to the mainland. His niece, Barbara MacLean, 19, was murdered in Calgary in February. “Such a pretty thing. Just five-foot-two. They smashed her face and strangled her.” He lifts a hand in a failing effort to understand this wickedness beyond the Gut. “I

can’t say I think much of Calgary,” he says. His secretary left for Fort McMurray earlier, following the exodus of young Cape Bretoners as unemployment hit an official rate of 16.9% for the island in February, and a real rate of anywhere up to 30%. Statistics Canada doesn’t count those who have given up looking for work. Some 14,445 people in a work force of 58,000 were claiming unemployment insurance in February.

There are no statistics on the migration, but everyone has stories about someone who has left. “Recently 35 young boys and girls left from Inverness,” says MacLean. “Sixteen young people left from here in one week alone.” Most of them will only be there as long as they have to. “I receive

six letters a week here from Cape Bretoners in Alberta asking for work. They’d come back right away if they could. Ninety-five percent will come back.” MacLean speaks of Alberta with sorrow, of Halifax with anger. He is describing his frustrations with Halifax bureaucrats. His fists come over his head, knuckles white, handsome face red behind a greying goatee. “You feel like grabbing the guy and shaking him and saying ‘Hey, don’t shit on us for the next 50 years.’ ”

His town is a bureaucratic and planning absurdity. It sits on a four-lane highway with schools, cultural centre, shopping centres, water and sewer systems intended to serve a population of 30,000. Instead it has 3,000 people and a $ 12-million debt. Provincial politicians used to dream of countless industries settling on the Strait of Canso industrial strip and urged the town to build for the population influx. The industries didn’t come, beyond the pulp mill, oil refinery, heavy water plant and a few more installations which already existed. Every year MacLean has to drag his cross to Halifax and beg for money to pay the town’s debt. After a struggle, Halifax inevitably coughs up—but never enough to keep Port Hawkesbury from having what MacLean says is the highest tax rate east of Montreal.

At least, he points out with ebullient irony, there is little unemployment within the town limits. “Anybody who’s unemployed moves out immediately. I’m paying $900 in tax on my house; the guy down the road pays $700. Over in the county, the

next guy pays $400. You can see the attraction of that.” The unemployment starts outside the town, in the hinterland, where it rises anywhere up to 60% in winter, when fishing and tourism close down, in villages along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, along Bras d’Or Lake and on the highland foothills. These are places where the cultural difference intensifies as the radio waves and influence of the outside world die out behind the hills. Such places as Dundee, Glencoe Mills, Loch Lomond, Ben Eoin or Iona where Gaelic is still spoken and where post offices are sometimes marked Post Office/Tigh Litrechean/Bureau de Poste.

The strait and the interior are the foot and the heart of Cape Breton, but to reach its brain one must leave all thoughts of beauty behind and become resigned to singular ugliness. This is industrial Cape Breton, dominated by the steel mill at Sydney, a mile-long, fire-belching dragon of metal and slag which seems designed by the brothers Grimm to shock the imagination. It is industrial Cape Breton’s central institution and its central problem. The mill is owned by a provincial Crown corporation—Sysco, the Sydney Steel Corporation—which is $220 million in debt and expected to lose another $40 million in the 1976-77 fiscal year. Its six open-hearth furnaces are outmoded and inefficient. Only two of them operated all winter because of depressed world markets for steel. Layoffs have left its workers at 2,183 men, down from more than 4,000 in 1974.

The provincial government had hoped that the problem would be solved with a new mill at Gabarus, 25 miles from Sydney on the Atlantic shore, which would have produced semifinished steel for European partners. Sysco would have been integrated into the new operation and the gnawing problem of Cape Breton steel would have been solved. A decision by the European consortium on whether to go ahead was to be made next fall. But a delegation led by Premier Gerald Regan spent a week in Amsterdam in March and found this to be out of the question. With some 40% of the world’s steelmaking capacity idle, the decision will be made in about three years, if ever.

That leaves Sysco in a more parlous state than ever. A half-finished renovation job which cost $ 150 million was left dangling a couple of years ago when the consuming idea of Gabarus emerged. It now would cost an estimated $ 150 million to $300 million to finish the job with new basic oxygen furnaces to replace the open hearth ones and put Sysco—perhaps—on an economic footing. Provincial and Sysco officials are now hunkering down to devise a plan by the fall that will, they hope, save steel in Sydney—probably with federal money. Tom Kent, Sysco’s new president, says the company has to find new markets for rails, the mill’s main product (it produces all of CN’S rails),and has to enlist an integrated steel company somewhere—anywhere—

willing to take on Sysco as its permanent supplier of semifinished steel products. Kent is hopeful that this is possible—since many steelmakers around the world are finding it difficult to expand in congested urban areas. “That’s the kind of thing we have to achieve,” he says. “If not, we have to contemplate the unthinkable, that there will be no steel capacity in Cape Breton with all the devastating effect that will have on the community.”

Sydney talks of Sysco closing the way the rest of us talk of nuclear war, very little. It’s simply not thinkable. Mostly, Sydney is either unconcerned about that possibility or successfully fakes it. “Ahh, I’m 70 years old and steel in Sydney was never supposed to be going anywhere but down,” says retired steelworker Murdoch MacNeil, holding forth at the Steet City Tavern. “But it’s still here.” If steel could survive Black Friday—October 13, 1967, when the Dominion Steel and Coal Corp. pulled out—it can survive anything, he figures. After a few hair-raising months, the province took over the mill in 1968.

Steelworker Wayne Atkins tries to explain Sydney’s numbness to it all. “The way people around here figure, if they close the thing down they’ll have to pay us welfare all the same. We won’t leave.” His brother’s in Alberta “but he’s coming back. If he can find a job here he’ll stay.”

Mike Christie is a 27-year-old father of two and has been laid off from the steel plant. “We’re scared stiff that it will close,” he admits in an insistent whisper. “My father’s been there 35 years and my mother’s scared stiff. We all are.” He’s going to Alberta this summer when his unemployment money runs out. But he’s not going to like it any more than he liked Ontario when he was there. “Ontario—landlocked—arrgh, worst feelin’ in the world.” Christie is a typical denizen of industrial Cape Breton taverns—a fighter and a philosopher. Everybody makes it a point to stand on their independence, their machismo, even the women. But independence has important limits. “I can fight, I’m not scared of anybody,” says Christie. “But I feel big businessmen and that are down on me and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“There’s a colonial mentality here,” says Parker Donham, an editorial writer at The Cape Breton Post. “People have been in this situation so long the only way of fighting the system is to get as much out of it as possible. It’s true that people cling together and fight back on virtually any issue, especially steel. But I find there isn’t the ability to sustain the nuts and bolts of an organization for a long-term battle.” Donham, who fled the U.S. urban rat race six years ago to come here, says “Anyone who has any skill at all can go elsewhere and make more money, so for those who stay money isn’t the main motivation. What is their main motivation is heritage, environment, the

pull of home—that web of indefinables called culture.” There’s a very old-fashioned flavor to life here that appeals to people. Donham says “I’ve never lived in a place where there’s so conscious an effort over heritage—their Gaelic heritage. Also, there’s environment. Even people who work in the mines are appreciative of the fact that they live near an unspoiled rural setting. It’s home to them—home in every sense of the word, in the full ancestral and cultural sense.” He adds that “it’s one of the last places in North America where you can raise kids without the kind of fear that exists elsewhere. Here in the biggest city in Cape Breton you can send your 17-year-

old daughter to the corner store at 10 p.m. without any uncertainty whatsoever. They’re not slackers, they just don’t consider their employment as the be-all and end-all of their existence. It’s a spirit I admire, really.”

To enter the steel mill with its flashes of light, its rivers of lava, its metal and concrete (some dating back to the last century when this was the first integrated iron and steel mill in Canada) with the overpowering presence of weight and solidity is to evoke the spirit of industrial Cape Breton the way the Black Forest evokes Gothic. The steel mill seems to say exactly what the people say in the taverns: its nonexistence is inconceivable.

Inconceivable, but there’s a kink, says Father Gregory MacLeod, a philosophy professor at the College of Cape Breton and a prominent Cape Breton nationalist. This kink is “mainland attitudes” which say that steelworkers—if not all Cape Bretoners—are union troublemakers on the dole who should not be subsidized. Every now and then a prominent mainlander— although rarely a politician—stands up and says that if steel can’t pay its way it should be shut down. The last to say this was Senator Henry Hicks, president of Dalhousie University and a former Nova Scotia premier, in a Halifax speech in January. He was hit immediately with a barrage of angry criticism from Cape Breton. “Active politicians in Nova Scotia are always afraid to speak out about Cape Breton because of the reaction,” says Hicks. “But the question is, how long can we afford to support Sysco?”

This kind of talk makes Father MacLeod see red. Halifax, with its federal and provincial bureaucracies, its universities and naval bases “is 90% on the dole. Sysco loses $20 million and it’s an awful thing. At least here we produce something.” The fact that such calls are made in the name of free enterprise also ensures that industrial Cape Breton stays socialist, he says. The three MLAS and one MP are all NDP.

Father MacLeod resents Halifax planners and academics who make economic calculations for Cape Breton “without understanding the role of culture and tradition.” His argument sounds like Quebec’s hassle with English Canada. “Of course. We’re very sympathetic to Quebec here.” His colleague, college archivist Bob Morgan, makes it even clearer. “When I go to Halifax it makes me appreciate what Quebeckers feel like in English Canada. Halifax is English and it’s Protestant. You can feel it. The way they behave, the way they talk to each other...” Cape Breton’s 175,000 people are 65% Scots Catholic, 20% Scots Presbyterian, 10% Acadian and about 4% Micmac. You can get punched in the mouth for insisting too strongly that Cape Breton is “English.”

Some are less nationalistic but admit the problem. Like Jim Ryan, president of the local of the United Steelworkers of America. The Cape Breton-versus-mainland

business “is usually brought up for political purposes,” he says. “I heard one fella say Regan could win the election on the mainland by promising to put the padlock on Sysco.” NDP MLA Paul MacEwan, himself ajealous guardian of Cape Breton’s integrity, nevertheless doesn’t subscribe to nationalist sentiment. “We’re part of Nova Scotia. You can’t play off one part of the province against the other. All parts are interdependent. We’re Nova Scotians.”

Down the harborside from Sysco’s six dominant smokestacks there’s another significant Cape Breton institution. This is Devco, the Cape Breton Development Corporation, housed in Sydney’s only highrise building—an 18-storey structure it built itself—an immediate indicator of this body’s diverse energies which encompass importing and breeding sheep and cattle;marine farming; building and operating motels, restaurants, a golf course and other tourist attractions,and a tannery and carding mill.

Most of all Devco means coal. “Six years ago,” says Tom Kent, Devco president until he jumped to Sysco in February, “Devco was in the same sort of situation as Sysco’s in now. The idea was that coal would be phased out.” Devco was set up by the federal government as a result of a 1966 report that recommended closing the mines and finding alternate employment for the miners. Devco got to work trying to attract industry in the style prevalent at the time. The result was a series of spectacular failures, Maritimes-style, as American carpetbaggers walked in and out with embarrassing effect. The philosophy was then changed to smaller scale development “with a relationship to either the local market, a local skill or a local resource,” says David Miller, vice-president of industrial development. Also, says Kent, “before the Arabs started their boycott we made the decision that the decline of coal was over.” A $35-million coal purification plant was built and coal was on its way. Two new mines have been opened and production is steadily improving. Devco employs a total

of nearly 4,000 in its mining operations. It is the largest employer in Cape Breton, with mines at Lingan, Point Aconi and Glace Bay.

But coal isn’t king yet. The mines lost $15 million last year, and could lose more this year because of technical problems. Yet, says John Dodge, head of marketing, the debt is being retired and the breakeven point is in sight. Kent says he felt coal was back on its feet and he wanted a new challenge. Steel is it. If Sysco makes it the way coal appears to have, Kent could become the first hero-bureaucrat here since Lord Sydney.

Devco is an anti-bureaucracy. It fits

Cape Breton like a glove. David Newton, head of the primary production section, runs an old jeep with three bags of feed in the back. He’s off to Point Edward, across the harbor from Sydney, where Devco’s 10-day course on sheep breeding is on. Point Edward is Cape Breton’s only industrial park, a cluster of World War Two naval buildings which housed the dozen defunct industries of Devco’s early days. A 300-foot long wooden building that until two years ago housed a Toyota assembly plant now has 1,200 imported sheep in quarantine. Newton is exuberant: Devco has flats of ground it rents out as gardens at a cheap rate—cheaper for pensioners—

and they’re all taken up; it has greenhouses on the go; it has 80 men clearing land for cattle—a gimmick to get them off the welfare rolls and have them qualify again for unemployment insurance (“we could have done it cheaper by bulldozer,” a Devco official admits); and it has plans, plans, plans. Devco actually advertises for ideas from the public—anyone with an idea on how to grow a better tomato, wring an extra buck out of a tourist, make an oyster hatch, will get a hearing.

Then there are the Americans. Up until 1974, the islands and shores of the Bras d’Or lakes were the pressure points of American land purchases, generating tremendous controversy and resentment. That wave of take-overs has ceased and now that the smoke has cleared what remains is remarkable in many ways: Americans emerging as Cape Breton patriots, out to save the lifestyle, the environment and the culture before it goes the way of Manhattan Island. There are Americans taking pictures, learning Gaelic, stimulating anything that can be stimulated. Cape Breton ’s Magazine, a publication devoted to the lore and tradition of the island, was started by an American expatriate, Ron Caplan, at Wreck Cove.

There are other positive indicators, too. The Glace Bay heavy water plant, the $ 120-million albatross that hung around Robert Stanfield’s neck when he was premier, has been rebuilt by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. for another $120 million and started functioning last summer. This is, if nothing else, a symbolic breakthrough. The first time it was built, in the 1960s, salt water was left in its innards after a test run and it corroded into uselessness. Some 500 jobs have been created there (two of Canada’s three heavy water plants are in Cape Breton, the other is at the Strait of Canso).

Yet there’s always that tinge of misfortune which haunts the body economic of Cape Breton. This past winter the pretty evergreen hills looked unnaturally translucent. The rich bouquet of spruce cones was not there. The spruce budworm is rampant. After enormous controversy this past winter, and much public pressure, the province turned down a request by the pulp mill at the Strait of Canso to spray the forest with chemicals.

There’s a minor silver lining in that. There will be jobs this summer in an intensive harvesting program the province is organizing. But Brian Nettleton, an instructor at Devco’s sheep-breeding course, has a better idea. If the budworm kills the forest, the new growth will become a sheep haven, he says, with irrepressible glee. Not only that but—and he’s almost dancing now—a coyote was trapped on the mainland this winter after ravaging sheep there. “Coyotes are taking over North America. But remember, Cape Breton’s an island. No coyotes here.”

Cape Breton may be in bad economic shape, but there are still some optimists around. $>