For decades the town of Glace Bay, on the eastern tip of Cape Breton Island, has faced economic setbacks as disheartening as the cold onshore wind that stunts local vegetation. In some neighborhoods a tall tree is one that reaches the eaves of a one-storey miner’s cottage. Built on the fortunes of the coal industry, which has long been in decline, Glace Bay currently suffers a 60-per-cent unemployment rate. Yet in the past six months, as Canadians across the country have donated $40 million for famine relief in droughtravaged Ethiopia, the 23,500 residents of Glace Bay have made their community an outstanding example of generosity.
Agencies and church groups raising aid for African famine relief have been astonished at receipts from the community of modest houses strung along the bleak Atlantic bluffs. Rev. Joseph Muise of the town’s St. Anne’s Roman Catholic parish was “flabbergasted” when his parishioners donated $6,000 over three Sundays late last fall. Halifax-based Ethiopia Airlift, a private agency, has received about $8,000 from individuals in Glace Bay. For her part, Elinor McArel of St. Mary’s Anglican Church, which donated $2,000 for famine relief, said, “You share what you have.” While the town’s total contribution to African relief is impossible to determine with precision because few relief agencies record donations by source, Airlift office manager David Wilson estimated that the townsfolk gave twice as much per person to his agency as the average Maritime donor.
Ethiopia’s agony first broke into the consciousness of Glace Bay residents last October, when Atlantic Television (ATV is the CTV Maritime regional affiliate) carried searing reports of famine victims. In one home, Chesley Snow, a school bus driver, and his wife, May, were watching TV as their son, 11-yearold Jody, put finishing touches to his tramp’s costume for Halloween. Said his mother: “We were thinking about the kids going out for treats. And there, in Ethiopia, children didn’t have any food at all. I just felt so sorry for them.” Relief organizations across the country began to respond to the crisis, and by early November the first appeal had reached Glace Bay. The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the major foreign aid program of the Catholic Church in Canada, was inviting donations through local churches and credit unions. May Snow and a doz-
en co-workers on the housekeeping staff of Seaview Manor, a Glace Bay home for special care, decided they had talked enough about conditions in Africa: rather than spend $130 exchanging Christmas presents, they gave the money to the Catholic relief agency.
In December ATV reported that John Godfrey, president of the University of King’s College in Halifax, and lawyer Peter Dalglish were launching their own agency, Ethiopia Airlift, to ship aid directly to drought victims. Soon after, cheques bearing Glace Bay postmarks began to arrive at the agency’s borrowed office quarters in King’s College. Last month another relief campaign by the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union reached the town. Teachers at Glace Bay’s 24 elementary and high schools joined instructors across Nova Scotia in-a oneday relief drive, sending marked lunch bags home with students, asking parents to return them with contributions of $1. By April 1 the agencies’ estimates of donations from Glace Bay had reached a total of more than $35,000—close to four times the average annual income of a worker in Glace Bay.
The town’s benevolence is impressive to an outsider visiting for the first time: storefronts are boarded up along impoverished Commercial Street, and in the rows of identical, narrow, semidetached cottages built at the turn of the century
it is not uncommon to find three generations sharing four tiny rooms. Last year the coal mine was closed after a flash fire broke out, killing one man. And on Jan. 26 fire reduced a waterfront fish plant to a scorched hole in the ground. That fire added 800 names to the unemployment rolls.
Among the town’s jobless is miner Ronnie Walker. He admits that mortgage payments on the modest white bungalow that he built in 1974 have been a struggle. His family often dines on bologna and macaroni. But last month, when two of Walker’s three children, Ronnie Jr., 13, and Nancy Leigh, 10, brought empty lunch bags home from school to collect donations for the Nova Scotia teachers’ relief campaign, each of them took a dollar back to their classrooms. “At least we can put food in our mouths,” Walker’s wife, Joan, explained. “The Ethiopians don’t even have that.”
Sixteen-year-old Sheri Walker’s Grade 11 class at St. Michael’s High School went further. It voted to donate $50 to the teachers’ campaign—a sum left over from a winter carnival fund — rather than use the money for an end-of-year party. “The famine victims needed it more than we did,” Sheri said. By the end of the day Glace Bay’s 4,800 schoolchildren had raised more than $5,000 for food and medical aid to be sent to Ethiopia. “We could not believe it when the amounts were phoned in,” said Cape Breton District School Board secretary Marie Halloran. “The economy in Glace Bay is so depressed.”
Meanwhile, the Glace Bay Central Credit Union Ltd. raised $6,600 on behalf of the Catholic development and peace fund. “Little children with piggy banks came in,” recalled credit union manager Camella Hood. “One gentleman, a retired pensioner on a fixed income, came in with a $1,000 check. He asked for 10 receipts for $100 each. He has nine children, and they each got a receipt for a Christmas present.”
The generosity does not surprise Brian Joseph, a native Cape Bretoner and Harvard-trained researcher in social studies who now teaches at University College of Cape Breton in Sydney. Joseph, who helped organize the development and peace campaign in Cape Breton, declared, “You are dealing with people who know what it is like to suffer, people who are used to sharing.”
Indeed, the famine relief effort is only the latest example of Glace Bay’s generosity. Last year, when a local leukemia victim, 19-year-old Carol MacDonald, needed expensive, life-saving bone-marrow surgery in Toronto, Glace Bay citizens raised $25,000 to cover her travel and accommodation costs.
Last March “The Bay” itself became the recipient of neighborly help. Cape
Breton native and Employment Minister Flora MacDonald announced a $2.95million package of development aid to build a mall housing new small businesses and a youth enterprise centre. The money was in addition to the federal government’s earlier grant of $2.7 million for local short-term j ob creation. As well, Highland Fisheries Ltd., owner of the fire-ravaged packing plant on the town’s narrow harbor, will open a new plant later this year.
Still, hard times are far from over. The new fish plant will be automated, and many of those who once worked there may not be rehired. And because Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. is considering closing the Crown-owned heavy water plant j ust south of town, 310 j obs are in danger. And most of the town’s young people face the prospect of at least a decade of unemployment or of moving away to find work in more prosperous parts of the country.
But despite its dilapidated facade and uncertain future, Glace Bay residents have forged a strong sense of compassion. Few other Canadian communities have demonstrated a willingness to dig deeply into pinched pocketbooks. As Joan MacKinnon, another housekeeper at Seaview Manor, commented: “It’s always the poor that help the poor. The rich, you don’t get nothing from them.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.