CANADA

ATLANTIC CHILL

DECLINING FISH STOCKS COMBINE WITH BUDGET CUTS TO BATTER THE COUNTRY’S POOREST REGION

GLEN ALLEN May 29 1989
CANADA

ATLANTIC CHILL

DECLINING FISH STOCKS COMBINE WITH BUDGET CUTS TO BATTER THE COUNTRY’S POOREST REGION

GLEN ALLEN May 29 1989

The picture-pretty town of Lockeport in western Nova Scotia’s Shelburne County is an unlikely monument to the economic shocks striking Atlantic Canada. A broad strand of glittering white sand borders the community, and flowering trees and daffodils bloom in the tidy yards of neat, if weathered, homes. And last week, after nearly a month of unremitting fog and drizzle, the skies were piercingly blue. But the 220 workers chatting over coffee during a work break at Lockeport’s six-year-old fish-processing plant were glum. One week earlier, Halifax-based National Sea Products Ltd., citing a shortage of fish, had announced that the plant will close in October, the fourth plant to be shut in the area this year. With the latest closing, said fish packer Cindy Cotter, the 21-year-old president of Local 105 of the Canadian Seafood and Allied Workers, “life is going to be pretty slim. There are people with families and mortgages who have been in plants here for 40 years. They don’t know anything but fish-plant life.”

But the impending closure of the Lockeport plant was only one of the many economic setbacks being suffered across a region that until recently had been showing hopeful signs of renewed prosperity. For the troubled fishery, last week brought more grim evidence that the North Atlantic fish stocks, the region’s most valuable resource, are disappearing at an alarming rate (page 16). At the same time, eastern Canadians are still counting the cost of Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s April 26 federal budget. Indeed, Halifax Liberal MP Mary Clancy charged that the federal government’s program of restraint amounted to “the rape of Atlantic Canada.” Even reports that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, at the urging of several Atlantic Canada MPs, had decided to set up a cabinet committee to look into ways of softening the economic blows to the region failed to lift the overall gloom.

Among Wilson’s targets were regional aid programs worth nearly $700 million, six military bases, transfer payments and Via Rail. The train service is particularly important in an area where roads are notoriously bad and air fares often beyond most family incomes. Last week, Public Works Minister Elmer MacKay announced that the federal Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) will have to make its $ 1.05-billion fund for economic development projects stretch over seven years rather than five. As a result, the agency will dispense $80 million less than planned each year. Said Rudolph French, head of the department of economics at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.: “There is no question that the federal government is placing a lower priority on regional development. We have some significant adjustments ahead of us.”

Those adjustments will be forced first on the rural hamlets and picturesque fishing ports prized by tourists and celebrated in a rich tradition of song and story. Said Morris Mandale, senior research economist with the nonprofit Atlantic Provinces Economic Council of Halifax: “It is the small towns that are being hit. You cannot overemphasize how serious the consequences will be.”

It is not a new message for the people of tiny Shelburne County. With only 32,000 of the Atlantic region’s 2.2 million people, it faces both fishery woes and budget austerity. At the other end of the county, 75 km from Lockeport, is one of six military bases in the region to be closed or scaled down in the wake of Wilson’s budget. CFS Barrington, a radar station at Baccaro Point, employs 172 military and civilian personnel and pumps $7 million into the county economy each year. It is being cut back to a staff of 17. Said Sam Bower, chairman of a county economic development committee: “We’re getting dumped on from both sides.” With gallows humor, he added, “Maybe we should just keep our income taxes and secede from the whole country.”

Shelburne County, however, is not alone. In Cape Breton, at Nova Scotia’s northeastern tip, the Cape Breton Development Corp. announced that 150 jobs will disappear as part of a belt-tightening exercise prompted by a 71-percent cut in Ottawa’s subsidy to the federally owned coal-mining conglomerate over two years. As well, the closure of a military radar base at Sydney will cost the area’s economy $5 million a year.

In neighboring Prince Edward Island, where Premier Joe Ghiz’s Liberals appeared to be headed for victory in a May 29 provincial election, the closure of an airbase in Summerside will mean a loss of $35 million annually. Despite a protest march last week by more than 10,000 Islanders (2,000 more people than live in Summerside), Ottawa’s plans to close the base stayed in place. According to William Campbell, a Charlottetown Employment Canada counsellor involved in several charities, the closing will increase the number of economic casualties in a province with 13.1-per-cent unemployment, where hunger is already “a serious problem.” Said Campbell: “I don’t know how we will cope as things get worse.” And Dr. Pamela Forsythe, Prince Edward Island’s director of mental health, predicted that stress caused by the faltering economy will bring “a deluge of mental health problems.”

In New Brunswick, where last week crab fishermen complained that their lucrative catch was dwindling after only half the normal 10-week season, military bases in Chatham and Moncton will also be scaled down. As many as 380 of the Chatham base’s 1,200 civilian and military jobs are likely to disappear. The base, noted Chatham Mayor Rupert Bernard, “puts $45 million into the economy annually. It is the meat and potatoes of the whole Miramichi [region].”

And in Newfoundland, Premier Clyde Wells said that the string of setbacks in recent weeks had left him reeling. “Since we formed the government,” said Wells, whose Liberals won the April 20 provincial election, “it has been one massive piece of bad news after another.” Last week’s biggest blow came from Wells’s own backyard: Leslie Harris, president of Memorial University in St. John’s, confirmed earlier studies that showed that stocks of cod—the mainstay of Newfoundland’s principal industry—were far lower than previously estimated. According to Harris, unregulated foreign fishing, compounded by the appetite of growing seal herds—which have expanded in recent years largely because of the ban on the commercial killing of seal pups—has badly depleted the important cod stock.

That disheartening conclusion came on the heels of National Sea’s decision to interrupt its processing operations at Burgeo on Newfoundland’s southwest coast. And in Harbour Grace, across Conception Bay from St. John’s, an entire community was in shock from the federal budget’s announcement that construction of a $30-million federal prison will be delayed for three years. As for the often-promised Hibernia offshore oil megaproject, St. John’s businessman Miller Ayre, vice-chairman of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, predicted that the federal government will “review” its $2.6-billion commitment in the $8.5-billion project because of concern about the level of federal spending.

Beyond their individual woes, all four Atlantic provinces also face another problem in common. In April, Employment and Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall changed the unemployment insurance system, extending the number of weeks of work needed to qualify for benefits and shortening the duration of benefits in most parts of Atlantic Canada beginning next January. In a region with the country's highest unemployment rates, only fishermen were left untouched. In St. John’s, where only 10 weeks of work are needed to qualify for benefits now, workers will require 14 weeks. In Charlottetown, where the figure went from 10 weeks to 12, Judy Gallant, who works in a soup kitchen called The Upper Room, predicted “bleak times” for the jobless. Said Gallant: “Even the ones with skills and education aren't able to find work now. And this is the busiest time on the Island.”

As well, Atlantic Canadians are awaiting the renegotiation of a series of federal-provincial shared-cost agreements that expired at the end of March. Known as Economic and Regional Development Agreements, they were worth more than $1.9 billion in Atlantic Canada at the end of 1988, with 63 per cent of that borne by Ottawa. Since 1984, ERDAs have pumped millions of dollars into the region’s resource industries as well as into individual projects such as the badly needed cleanup of Halifax harbor. Ottawa has indicated that it will renew the agreements but, predicted Mandale, “From 60 to 70 cents on the dollar, the federal share will drop to 40 or 50 cents,” with the provinces being left to pay the rest. At that rate, said New Brunswick Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs Aldéa Landry, “we can’t afford it.”

To many Atlantic Canadians, the developments seemed to spare no one. Reflecting on the reports of failing fish stocks, Lockeport union leader Cotter observed: “This is not just our town or our county we’re talking about. It’s the whole province. The fishery is what the province has.” For her part, Lockeport Mayor Mary Rose said she fears that the current hardships are more than simply another downturn in the region’s long-standing cycle of booms followed by busts. “Take the fish,” said Rose. “Before, you didn’t get the price for them, but at least they were there. Now, fish just aren’t there anymore.” Her voice growing sombre, she added, “And every day now, you turn on the news and it’s something new—the crabs in New Brunswick, the ACOA business, the layoffs in Cape Breton. It’s all hitting here and it’s all hitting now.” And despite the turn in the weather, for Lockeport and for many parts of Atlantic Canada, the outlook remains grim in the spring of 1989.