It was budget day, May 23, 1985—and the federal government had a mixed message for the residents of Glace Bay, N.S. On the one hand, Ottawa planned to close the town’s heavy-water plant because of diminished demand from nuclear power plants. That put more than 300 people out of work. But on the other hand, Ottawa would set up a Crown agency, Enterprise Cape Breton, that would provide corporations with 60
cents in tax credits and 24 cents in grants and subsidies for every dollar that they invested in Cape Breton for 10 years. At the same time, Ottawa announced the creation of a private-sector advisory committee to recommend measures for promoting employment in the region. Said Finance Minister Michael Wilson: “We will not abandon the people or the region of Cape Breton.” More than three years later, Glace Bay remains an economically depressed town of about 20,000 people, perched on the Cape Breton cliffs overlooking the Atlantic.
While the nation’s major cities feed regional prosperity, dozens of once-thriving communities from British Columbia to the Atlantic provinces languish in an economic backwater. They are towns that once earned a good living from natural resource industries, primarily mining and forestry. Now Glace Bay shares an uncertain future with places such as Trail, B.C., Uranium City, Sask., Iroquois Falls, Ont., and Timiskaming,
Que. And, as much as any of those communities, Glace Bay is a symbol of the frustrations facing politicians and planners who are trying to keep them alive.
While other communities on Cape Breton island have received support from federal projects, the Conservative government’s programs and promises have produced only 115 jobs in Glace Bay, all in the small-business sector. Twelve hundred jobs were lost when
the town’s last productive coal mine, Colliery No. 26, closed after a fire in April, 1984. Then, the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. heavy-water plant closed. To add to Glace Bay’s hardships this summer, the town’s fishprocessing plant—reconstructed with the help of a $ 1.5-million federal government grant in 1985—laid off 310 employees on June 21, although the plant partially reopened on Aug. 29.
Unemployment dominated the issues locally in last week’s provincial election as Liberal John MacEachem, a high-school vice-principal and owner of Glace Bay Book Comer bookstore, defeated Mayor Bruce Clark, who ran as the Conservative candidate in the riding of Cape Breton East. Nova Scotians returned Premier John Buchanan’s Conservatives for a fourth term, but the Liberals took all but two of the 11 seats in depressed Cape Breton. Clark estimated that with about 1,600 jobs lost and only 115 gained during the past four years, the unemployment rate
in the Glace Bay area is about 16 per cent— more than double the national rate of 7.9 per cent. But local businessmen and union representatives claim that unemployment is in fact higher because official figures do not count welfàre recipients and people who are no longer registered as job-seekers. Some of them say that Glace Bay’s real unemployment rate is about 40 per cent. In all, about 10,000 members of the island’s 76,000-member workforce are unemployed. “The development that we needed has not happened,” said Clark. “We have had years of hoping— and we are close to losing our patience.”
Much of the town’s frustration appears to centre on the fish plant, which was rebuilt in 1985 after a disastrous fire. The plant owner, Clearwater Fine Foods Inc. of Halifax, blamed the current shutdown on a shortage of fish. But the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport & General Workers, which represents the employees, accused Clearwater this summer of trucking locally caught fish to processing plants elsewhere in Nova Scotia to avoid the expense of reopening the Glace Bay plant, which the union began picketing on July 19. After two days of negotiations between the company and the provincial government, Premier John Buchanan announced that the plant would reopen on Aug. 1, but it remained closed until Aug. 29.
But fish processing has only become vital to the town’s economy relatively recently.
During the first half of the century, Glace Bay was the site of 11 productive coal mines. It was a boomtown, exploiting the rich bituminous seams that stretched far out under the ocean floor. Now, more than four years after the last mine closed, the town still reflects the influence of its onetime principal employer, the Dominion Coal Co. The company built many of its homes, identical frame houses without basements, which are clustered around the abandoned pitheads. Now
many of the houses are becoming ramshackle.
Meanwhile, Enterprise Cape Breton has accomplished little to revive the town’s battered economy. Last week, Enterprise officials estimated that if businesses had fully utilized the $200 million in grants and tax credits already allotted, 2,095 jobs would have been created in Cape Breton. But Stewart Perry, a researcher at the Centre for Community Economic Development, a Sydney-based nonprofit corporation, said that about 150 jobs in all of Cape Breton have resulted from the program. The 115 jobs created by Enterprise Cape Breton in Glace Bay at about 75 firms are at the former heavy-water plant, now an industrial park. Still, Clark claimed that Glace Bay has fallen behind other Cape Breton communities. “We have watched the towns of Port Hawkesbury, North Sydney and Sydney Mines develop all kinds of new businesses and new jobs,” he said. And although the closest of those communities, North Sydney, is just 42 km from Glace Bay, there are still not enough jobs there or elsewhere for Glace
Bay residents to commute for work.
Much of the sprawling community is without sidewalks, curbs or gutters and Glace Bay’s ability to pay for those amenities is diminishing. When the coal mine and the heavy-water plant shut down, the town lost $1 million out of a total property tax base of $15.5 million annually. That in turn leaves the community less able to maintain roads, build sewers and provide recreational facilities. As well, the town has fallen behind in
payments to the local school board and will receive $1.6 million in emergency funds from the Nova Scotia government this year to make up the municipal budget shortfall.
Clark has asked for direct federal grants to build new facilities in Glace'Bay, pointing out that modernizing the town could attract businesses. But so far, Ottawa has refused on the grounds that such action would set a precedent for economically troubled towns across the country to besiege the
federal government with similar demands.
While the community struggles to survive, merchant Elliot Marshall says that the past few years have been the toughest of his working life. “There is a sense that nothing has worked,” said the owner of Marshall’s clothing store on Commercial Street. Sandra MacPherson, operator of the Glace Bay food bank, said that she has 600 active files. “People come in for food orders and to bare their souls,” she said. “It can be very depressing listening to men describe what home life is like without a regular paycheque.”
That depression has affected most of the community. Said MacEachem, the new Liberal representative: “The issue is whether the system’s pathology is irreversible, and I am afraid that it might have reached that stage.” Civic officials say that as scores of high-school graduates leave Glace Bay each year in search of work, the community is being drained of its future leaders. Since 1981, the town’s population has declined by more than 1,000. Said Patricia MacDonald, a day care worker and lifelong Glace Bay resident: “Young people go away to find work, and people only move back to retire.” Added MacEachem: “The kids who want a future have to leave Glace Bay.” Despite the politicians’ efforts and promises, that grim trend shows no signs of improving.
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