This Canada

They pretend nothing has grieved them

Sue Calhoun November 17 1980
This Canada

They pretend nothing has grieved them

Sue Calhoun November 17 1980

They pretend nothing has grieved them

This Canada

Sue Calhoun

They used to call it Locke’s Island, this ragged bit of land about a kilometre wide that juts breezily into the Atlantic Ocean on Nova Scotia’s south shore. Back in the days when the umbilical cord that tied it to the mainland was routinely covered by the tide, Johnathan Locke brought his family here from Chilmark, Mass. Josiah Churchill had arrived five years earlier, in 1755, and by the mid-1800s, descendants of the two families had a brisk business running salt fish to the Caribbean and returning with cargoes of rum, molasses and sugar. While Lunenburg, 134 km up the coast towards Halifax, became famous for its Grand Banks schooner fleet, Locke’s Island grew as the home of the shore fishermen. By the late 1800s, it was one of the wealthiest towns in the province, the fourth largest exporter of fish. “When the fishing is good,” one of the Lockes recorded in 1911, “the town prospers. When it is not, the people do without.”

Today, Lockeport (pop. 1,030) is still almost surrounded by water, though the

wind and the waves have built up a stable strip of land which joins it to the mainland. The fishing is still good but, once again, the people are learning to do without. For a town used to describing itself in superlatives, Lockeport has

been having extremely bad luck. Three fish plants have been lost in the past decade through fires or bankruptcies. Within hours, the fire which started in the early morning of July 23 had whipped through the turn-of-the-century wooden structure owned by National Sea Products Ltd., while townspeople and many from the surrounding area watched and wept in vain. Some 300 people were out of work.

Now the charred ruins mar the waterfront, a rubble of wharf piles standing as mute reminder of the town’s prosperous past. National Sea Products—the town’s only large employer— hasn’t decided whether the plant will be rebuilt. The estimated cost is between $15 million and $18 million, and the company wants federal government help. A decision is expected later this month, and plant manager Arch Peterson says the plant could be back in operation within 12 months if the department of regional economic expansion (DREE) money is forthcoming. Meanwhile, plant workers live on unemployment insurance benefits and use phrases like “ghost town” to describe what Lockeport will be if DREE doesn’t help. “If the boats don’t come ’round that buoy,” says Shelburne County Councillor Errol Williams, raising a gnarled finger toward the red buoy bobbing in the distance in Lockeport Harbour, “then this town is gone.”

From the dining room of the White Gull Restaurant, you can watch the boats guided by long-liners weave in and out of the harbor, though on this brilliant fall morning there’s little traffic. Williams, an old-time fish cutter and ex-fisherman turned councillor, has dropped in for coffee and a visit. Coffee is the backbone of this establishment, which hangs over the water next door to where the National plant stood, and which serves as the yardstick by which proprietor Farley Swim measures the town’s well-being. “Before the fire, people would come in and have two, three cups of coffee,” he says. “Now they come in and toy with one.” A plaid-jacketed fish plant worker sitting nearby nods. “Everybody’s gettin’ a little poorer,” he comments tersely.

“My dear, when that plant was going, money was no object,” says Daisy Buchanan. “You were gettin’ darn good pay every two weeks, and never dreamin’ the plant would burn.” A 24-year employee of both Swim Brothers and National, Buchanan worked a fish wrapping machine for $5.46 an hour. In a good month, she would gross $1,000. These days she supports herself and her disabled husband on $129 a week from UIC benefits, supplemented by a parttime job packing fish in Shelburne, 30

km away. She’s one of the few who have found a job elsewhere. The pay isn’t as good though and the work is sporadicthree hours one day, five the next. “That’s all we know, is the fish plants,” she says.

Fishing or fish plant work is all that most people here have ever done. The loss of the plant, with its $2.5-million payroll, reverberates across Shelburne County. Daisy Buchanan lives in East Green Harbour, where most of the people who had worked at the plant survived as she did, from pay day to pay

Buchanan; Williams (below): now charred ruins and rubble mar the waterfront

day. But the fish plant workers are only the first rank of the troubled. Twentyodd small fish plants in the county depended on National Sea to buy their fish. Fifteen independent Lockeport boats (each with an average crew of four) and another 18 from Jordan Bay a few kilometres away sold regularly to the plant. Twenty-two million pounds of fish were processed last year, threequarters of it supplied by inshore fishermen. National Sea paid 30 per cent of Lockeport’s taxes.

No small operation, National Sea Products was the biggest fishing company in Atlantic Canada when its controlling shares were bought by H.B. Nickerson & Sons Ltd. in 1977. Together, they now own roughly 50 fish plants in the four provinces, as well as investments in plants in Uruguay, Australia and the U.K. The two companies have maintained their separate corporate structures. Nickerson’s is a private company, National a public one with net sales in 1979 of $268 million.

The company is taking a hard line on rebuilding—no DREE money, no plant.

“I don’t think the company could build a large plant today, with interest rates being what they are, and make enough to pay off the interest and principal,” says plant manager Arch Peterson. The whisper around town is that the company received only $3 million in insurance money.

Lockeport has had its share of adversities before this, though, and has always bounced back. But then in the 1970s, the fires started. In 1974, Pierce Fisheries Ltd., one of the town’s three fish plants, burned to the ground. One

hundred people were put out of work. In ’75, a second fire swept through the downtown area, destroying several businesses. In ’76, Swim Brothers, one of the town’s oldest fish plants (founded by Farley Swim’s father and uncle in

1903), went bankrupt, leaving 150 jobless. The catchy “If it’s Swim’s, it wins,” now sounded hollow.

From three fish plants in the early 1970s the town is now down to one. Pierce Fisheries has started up again in the old Swim building, 100 metres down the waterfront from the White Gull Restaurant, though the plant is operating at only 30-per-cent capacity.

After the most recent fire, most fishermen shifted down to Pierce’s wharf. Longline fishermen need a place to bait their trawl and keep it cold until they go back to sea. The tedious task—it involves hooking frozen mackerel or squid onto lines of longline trawl—often falls to schoolboys or pensioners looking to pick up a few extra dollars. But these days, there’s a lineup for the work. “Those fellas get first chance,” says Bill Anderson, motioning towards two elderly men across the room silently baiting trawl. “And if there’s any surplus, I get it.”

The baiting shed is busy this morning because two long-liners have just come in, but even if it weren’t, Anderson would still be around. The 33-year-old unemployed fish plant worker comes down every morning at eight o’clock, more for something to do, a need to feel useful, than financial gain. “There’s not too much to take up your time now,” says Anderson, “so I come down here. If there’s no work, we just sit around and talk.”

The talk is about what will happen if the plant isn’t rebuilt, about what will happen as winter comes in and unemployment insurance benefits begin to run out. “If the government can give $50 million to Michelin,” says one man, “then I don’t know why it can’t give money to National.” A young fisherman, unhappy about fish prices, is less sympathetic: “If two or three little fellas could get in here while these guys are on their ass, then more power to ’em.” Adds another: “One thing’s for sure—if they don’t rebuild, then Lockeport’s finished. They might as well put the fence on ’er.”

Bill Anderson is more fatalistic. He was working at Swim’s when it went under. Only a short while before the National Sea fire, he had given up a maintenance job because he didn’t like shift work. He went to work as a fish cutter—and if he hadn’t, he’d be working now. Instead, he’s collecting $150 a week UIC, supporting a wife and two kids, and worrying about the winter days when he’ll have to start burning wood in his Franklin stove. “At one time there were a lot of jobs in Lockeport,” he says. “Today there’s not too many. But there’s nothing you can do about it, so you just go on as if the fire didn’t happen. Something will come up.”