Shona McKay March 28 1983


Shona McKay March 28 1983



Shona McKay

There is no heart in the deluge of seasonally adjusted statistics. There is no evocation of hopelessness as the figures emerge with numbing regularity. The headline proclaiming 1.58 MILLION JOBLESS does not capture the despair of dreams destroyed. There is no sense of the shame, the guilt or the anger in the monthly reports that 50,000 to 60,000 new “exhaustees” in Canada have been out of work so long that their unemployment insurance payments have run out. The stark news that 300,000 Canadians joined the welfare rolls in the past year disguises the uncounted number of broken homes and dispirited people. But the waste and the human wreckage—the human cost of unemployment—is everywhere. “Typically, the unemployed person travels down a path from denial to anger to remorse to acceptance and ultimately he becomes chronically depressed,” says Ronald Burke, a York University psychology professor who has studied the effects of unemployment on laid-off plant workers in Ontario for several years. So similar were the patterns of personal collapse that Burke managed to chart six specific stages of reaction to job loss. “Lethargy and boredom will lead the person to make unhealthy lifestyle choices,” he concludes. “He may drink more, sleep more, yell at his kids more. The malaise so enervates him that soon he has trouble doing anything. The descent into despair will be halted only when that person finds a job.”

The tragedy is that in many cases now there is simply no job to be found. “No one can tell you where the new jobs are going to come from,” admits David Dodge, federal assistant deputy minister of employment and director of a task force that produced an optimistic $1.2-million report on unemployment entitled Labor Market Development in the 1980s. Released in the summer of 1981, the report predicted relief for Canada’s unemployed. The boom in the western provinces, the expected growth of the high-tech, manufacturing and construction industries and more megaprojects would—according to the wisdom of the time—soon bring about a bullish labor scene. But it has not happened, and Ottawa has since renounced prescience. Instead, the government is pouring millions of dollars into examining the very nature of Canada’s employment structure.

Clearly, a transformation has occurred. In British Columbia giant machines have eaten up forestry jobs. A depressed world ore market has shut down mines from the Yukon to the Maritimes. And passing through a

period of lean times, businesses across the country have found that one executive can be made to do the job of three. What that means for many Canadians who have lost their jobs during the present recession is that the door back to the workplace has slammed shut. It is no longer employment counsellors but social workers and psychiatrists who increasingly have to deal with the mass fallout of a collapsed economy.

Léandre Desjardins, chairman of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s recently formed committee on unemployment, for one, is deeply pessimistic about the future of the unemployed. “Most unemployed people are going through a time of crisis,” he says.“The unemployed person needs to be self-reliant and resourceful, but this is just what he hasn’t learned to be. Our system—everything from the economic structure to government to large companies—encourages dependency.” Desjardins, who is past president of the New Brunswick chapter of the CMHA, became alarmed about the psychological effects of unemployment after witnessing the situation in his home province. When the federal government announced in 1981 that it was going to close the Armed Forces base at Chatham—in an area that was already experiencing 17-per-cent unemployment—the case load at the local mental health clinic grew by 123 per cent in one year. “We had to start asking ourselves about the human and social costs,” says Desjardins.

Few of those who are thrown out of work can claim immunity. The malaise that comes with being unemployed affects the “terminated” middle-aged executive as much as the laid-off 18-year-old factory worker. The individual with the strongest job commitment and the highest personal expectations usually suffers the deepest withdrawal pains. “We have to work very hard to convince the former office manager that he still has value when the response to his 100 applications has been either ‘no’ or nonexistent,” says Neil Macdougall, president of Technical Service Council, a Toronto-based placement service that caters to professionals. “The demand for counselling has grown to such an extent that it is more than we can accommodate. It is difficult to convince a man to believe in himself when no one else will.”

Others say it may be impossible. “You can only key people up for so long,” says Harry Shardlow, director of the plant closures branch for the Ontario labor ministry. “If there is no job out there,” he adds, “they slip back, and apathy sets in.” Meanwhile, it is left to individual men and women to live with the reality of being without work. They describe their own day-to-day lives with an eloquence born of misfortune:

t was very traumatic; a complete blow to my ego. They told me on Friday afternoon at four o’clock. I just never expected that anything like that could happen to me. The first couple of weeks, I holed up in the house and didn’t want to see anyone.

For 34 years I got up and went to work, and that was my life. Now the rest of the family goes off to work and school and I am left here alone. I just pace around, drink coffee and read the newspaper. Sometimes, when the walls close in, I go for a ride in the car.

I feel somewhat embarrassed, too. There are all your friends off working, and you have been told that you are no longer needed. And all the time I know I have to work to survive. We still have nine years left on the mortgage, and the early pension they gave me is only half of what I expected to be living on when I retired. It’s hard not to feel frustrated and angry. If it weren’t for my wife, I’d be in bad shape. She tries to keep me up, but it hurts all the same. I feel like I have lost part of myself.

It all came too fast. I wasn’t prepared. I never thought about being old when I was working. But now you know that employers are looking at you and thinking about your age. Being 56 puts a lid on it immediately. I suppose I could be a floorwalker at K-Mart, but I am damned if I am going to do that—not yet anyhow. I know I still have a lot to offer. I have interviewed everyone from John Diefenbaker to Quebec coal miners. There must be a place for me somewhere.

here are days when I feel this depressing way of life might go on forever. Each day is the same. All the doors seem to close in your face. You get the first edition of the newspaper, turn to the classifieds and start phoning. You know that hundreds of others are doing the same thing and that most of the jobs will be gone by the time you call. Then in the afternoon you write to the box numbers and begin hoping for a reply.

I am getting sick of dressing up and trying so desperately hard to sell myself to every Tom, Dick and Harry who sits behind a desk. I tell them the money isn’t important anymore, but often they feel that younger, more

inexperienced girls would do better. It really gets you down after a while. You are selling yourself, and no one wants to buy.

Twice I have almost landed jobs and I’ve come home and cried. You begin to develop a negative attitude toward yourself. Normally I am an independent person. I don’t like living on unemployment cheques but I have to pay the rent.

So often it seems to be someone else’s money that puts dinner on the table. I feel like a bum, sitting around all day, waiting for the phone to ring, writing letters. I pass a lot of the time watching TV. I drink more, too. How long can this way of life go on? Four years? Five years? Recently I read that a paper plant was closing down in Winnipeg. All I could think of was, ‘Oh no, I’ll have another 130 people to compete with.’ It seems like such a trap.

get to the point where I just want to get away from everyone by sitting in the bedroom. I have been going nuts since I lost my job. It has been a really shaky time. I used to be a happy guy—on top of the world. Now I feel that my life is at a dead end.

It’s your pride. You’ve lost a big chunk out of it. It’s like you are a tree and they have cut off all your branches. You have nowhere to go. I have no more money in my savings account. The stuff that we want I can’t buy. The stuff that needs to be repaired I can’t afford to repair.

I lose my temper a lot. I get mad at my wife, Diane, and she gets mad at me, and then the kid gets involved. It’s a really bad scene. Then you go out and .look for a job, spending money on gas and photocopying résumés, and you don’t even get a decent reply. How do companies think that makes people like me feel? Sitting and waiting and hoping, and you get some dummy who shoots your application in the garbage. Ask me if I don’t feel like killing someone.

You try and you try and still you get nowhere. I know it is not my fault that I can’t get a job, but when I look at my family, 80 per cent of the time I feel that I am failing them.

myself out of work, I would ride my bike around Stanley Park, sit somewhere and just think. Here I was, I had been working for 30 years and had never been unemployed. I looked at what I had built up over a long period of time—from my first part-time job when I was 16, taking all sorts of university extension courses, moving up to a sales trainee, a sales manager, general manager and back to zero again.

I decided to go for relocation counselling. They have an industrial psychologist there, and I can call on him whenever I get a bit down. At least then I can still get up early in the morning, put on a suit and go down to an office. Otherwise, I know I’d sit at home in my bathrobe with a

cup of coffee and end up turning the TV on. You have to concentrate really hard to keep yourself psyched up.

I have sent out more than 400 letters and proposals. Sure, there are moments when I think, ‘Jesus, is this going to work?’ What if this lasts another five months? The contact with former associates gets less and less as time goes by. Sometimes I stand on a busy street corner and watch all the people hurrying by. And I think, they are employed, and I feel cast away.

The evenings are the worst. Every night at six o’clock my 16-year-old son, who lives with his mother, calls and asks, ‘Dad, have you found a job yet?’ I have to tell him, ‘No, Mikey, not yet.’ I know he worries about me. Lately I find I am having great difficulty sleeping because I feel my confidence has started to slide. But I figure that you have failed only when you quit. I’ll get work again. It may take a while and I may have to pump gas, but I’ll get back.

here are some days when it really gets to me. I get up late, wash up, make lunch for the kids and try to think of something to do for the afternoon. I am not cut out to be a househusband, and mostly I just sit around waiting for Michele to come home. One of the most difficult things is how people who were your friends when you had a job all of a sudden disappear. If you don’t have money, people don’t phone you to do things. But you think they could still come over and visit, and I could always make them a cup of coffee at least.

You blame yourself. Perhaps if we hadn’t gone after all those $1.50 raises every time we got a new contract, I wouldn’t have been laid off. Perhaps if I had got a trade, I’d have another job

by now. At first I never thought I would be out of work so long, but the longer it goes on, the more I worry about making the house payments and whether or not I will be able to put enough food on the table. When you start running short of money and you can’t afford to do much, you begin to feel boxed in. You can’t plan to go anywhere.

Holidays? Forget it. What little money we do have goes to the kids. There is an air of uncertainty about everything. Just before Christmas there was a possibility that my wife would be laid off too. We had visions of losing the house.

I just don’t know what to do. Here it is almost summer, and there is nothing on the horizon. There are no jobs at the Manpower office, and when you go out looking on your own—well, a couple of places that I have gone to, there have been 300 other people after the same job. It gets to the point where I wonder if I will ever work again. It feels so hopeless sometimes.

■ here is nothing else to do—no other industry, no other job to look for. I was born in Fermeuse and I love it here. But if they don’t reopen the fish plant, we will have no other choice but to move. I don’t know where. Just about everyone in town feels hopeless. There are few people who have any other type of training, and most of them have worked at Lake most of their lives.

I have begun to feel like a pawn. Someone else has taken control of my future. The federal government spends millions of dollars on the Macdonald inquiry but it has no money for Fermeuse. I’d like the politicians to come here and try to live like we are living. A firing squad would be too good for them. My wife and I had worked hard to make a good life. With luck we could have paid off the mortgage on our house this year. We had planned on finishing the basement and doing a bit of landscaping.

When you are wondering where the next dollar will come from, you only buy the necessities and you don’t go out much. You watch the soaps and play darts on Monday night at the bar. That’s it.

I am very bitter, waiting from one day to the next, not knowing what to plan for. One thing I do know is that, come September, when the unemployment cheques run out, I’ll be making a trip to the welfare office. I see two people left working here in Fermeuse—the welfare officer and the priest. Oh yeah, and the undertaker.

wondering if I am admitting that either I have reached my level of incompetence or that I wasn’t as capable as I should have been. I can never relax. You are afraid to because you don’t want to drop out of society. And you think about that. Maybe the next time I’ll say, ‘To heck with it; you work, lady, and I’ll wash the floors and look after the kids—forever.’

Change is the thing that human beings tend to avoid at all costs. And being unemployed forces a tremendous change. The initial shock, well, it is like you have been told that a good friend has died. You feel self-pity and anger at the people who have put you in this position.

Unemployment means that my wife went to work. It means that my sense of humor is at a thin edge. We have changed what we eat because we don’t know how long the money will last. Your income goes from about $4,000 a month to nothing in one day. You cancel piano lessons and the subscription to Sports Illustrated. There is strain on your marriage. My wife becomes impatient, and I can understand that. I have my down times when I just want to sit and rock, and she just can’t tolerate it because her security is maligned. It’s like I have been dropped into a foreign country and I don’t know the language.

The stress comes from the frustration of wondering what more you can do. I have sent out 300 letters since January and personally contacted every sizable company in Calgary. Soon I will be faced with the possibility of making a major career change—starting over again.

want to work, to have a job, but there is nothing out there. I don’t even bother to go to the Manpower office anymore. Last year it came to the point where I had the choice of sitting in a cold, dark house or going to the welfare office. I don’t have the kind of pride that would let my family starve.

For middle-class people like me, you have to live through the welfare experience to know what it is like. You live from day to day on a subsistence level. Money is figured to the penny. You buy peanut butter at the one store that has it on special the second Wednesday of the

month. Last winter, when they threatened to shut off the heat, I sent my wife and infant back to her parents’ home.

You get depressed when your 10-year-old daughter asks for a saddle horse and you can’t even afford to send her to a stable for an hour’s ride. You get depressed when you see your little guy, and he doesn’t have a single thing that didn’t belong to someone else. When you have problems in your marriage, the lack of work and money make them worse. We separated for a while last fall.

Dignity? I have had no sense of dignity for a long time. I feel as if there isn’t room for people like me in this country anymore. I don’t want much—just to work and make enough to be self-sufficient. I am good at what I do. I want a job. What has gone wrong?