JOHN DEMONT,DEIRDRE McMURDY,PATRICIA CHISHOLM,1 more...January211991
Learning to climb back
The recession inflicts pain on many Canadians
As the recession deepens, an increasing number of Canadians are feeling the wrenching effects of unemployment. Last week, Statistics Canada reported that 1,281,000people were out of work in December, an increase of 35,000 from the previous month. To find out how jobless Canadians are dealing with the problem, Maclean’s correspondents spoke to unemployed people across the country. Their reports-.
Senior executives who are about to lose their jobs often receive the notice during private meetings with their bosses. But that is not what happened to Charles Heinrich, former president and chief executive officer of Sherritt Gordon, a Toronto-based nickel-refining and fertilizer company. Instead of a closeddoor session, Heinrich, 49, was forced to watch while the company’s shareholders, who were upset about Sherritt Gordon’s falling profits, voted him out of his job during a special shareholders meeting on Sept. 19 in Toronto. “If you’re a CEO, you should always be prepared for various eventualities,” Heinrich says now. “I wouldn’t say the outcome was a disastrous shock, but you never prepare yourself completely for any kind of change.”
Four months later, Heinrich is clearly defensive about his expulsion from the executive suite of Canada’s third-largest nickel-refining company. He points out that he had joined Sherritt Gordon only six months earlier, adding that he needed more time to improve its performance. But Heinrich said that the experience of losing his job has also given him time to reassess his personal life and his goals. Last fall, he returned to Vancouver, where he had previously been head of Far East operations for Alcan Aluminium Ltd. He now lives in the affluent Vancouver neighborhood of Shaughnessy with his wife, Louise.
Heinrich declined to say how much he earned at Sherritt Gordon or how much he received as severance. He now spends most days looking for another full-time position, either in Canada or abroad, and fulfilling a parttime commitment as executive-in-residence for the faculty of commerce and business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
The change of routine and the struggle to reestablish himself, Heinrich says, have also had a positive side. He added: “In some ways, I feel better than I did before. You seldom have an opportunity to have a hard look at yourself and change. This forces you to do that. You look at what you’ve done, what your strengths are, where you want to go. That can be a very affirmative process.”
Her neighbors in Lockeport, a fishing community of 1,500 people on Nova Scotia’s south shore, call her “the fairy godmother.” But Patricia Ferguson, director of the Lockeport Support Centre, insists that she is “just a former fish-plant worker who wanted to do her part.” In June, 1989, Ferguson and about 250 other people in the area lost their jobs when National Sea Products Ltd. of Halifax announced that it was closing its Lockeport plant—the town’s largest employer. Ferguson, who had earned $19,000 a year as a fish
trimmer, says that as a result, she quickly sank into depression. But she later resolved to help her former co-workers by organizing a food and clothing bank for other laid-off employees. Even now, more than 50 families depend on the facility, which also offers government-funded retraining and counselling services. Ferguson, who works 16-hour days, says that she could never have kept the centre going without donations from local residents. “Bad as it was,” she added, “the plant closure has really brought the community together.”
The 250 employees who were laid off received a maximum of 10 weeks’ severance pay, but that money quickly ran out. Now, most of them subsist on a combination of unemployment insurance benefits, short-term government make-work projects and any occasional employment that they can find in the area.
They face other problems, as well. Drug and alcohol abuse have climbed sharply in the
Lockeport area since the shutdown, Ferguson says. Ferguson, whose 12-year marriage ended last year, says that the strains of unemployment have led to an increase in the rates of divorce and domestic violence.
Still, many former employees are reluctant to relocate. Michael Beazley, 34, spent 15 years working for National Sea and earned about $25,000 a year salting fish before the plant closed. Since then, the separated father of two boys, aged 11 and 14, has taken a succession of odd jobs, including cleaning chimneys, cutting grass, shovelling snow, sawing wood, painting houses and clearing beaches.
Even so, Beazley says that his income has dropped by 75 per cent. As a result, he says that he has fallen six months behind in his $219 monthly mortgage payments. Like many of his neighbors, Beazley often visits the support centre for food and a friendly ear to listen to his problems.
“I am a proud man,” he says.
“It was very hard.”
Milton Sherritt had a disappointing year in 1990, but his outlook for 1991 appears even worse. A non-unionized assistant foreman at the Stelco Inc. steel factory in Hamilton, Ont., Sherritt was laid off from his $44,000-ayear job on Aug. 1, when a three-month strike by 6,400 members of the United Steelworkers of America shut down the plant. After the strike ended, Sherritt’s supervisor summoned him to a meeting and handed him a tersely written letter of termination. He later received a $63,900 severance payment—the equivalent of about 18 months’ pay. Recalled Sherritt, 46, who had worked for Stelco for more than 26 years: “I was nauseated and couldn’t eat or sleep for three or four days. I’m still getting up in the middle of the night, trying to figure out what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” Sherritt’s concern is shared by many of his former co-workers. Faced with a decline in demand for steel, Stelco has laid off about 500 non-unionized employees in the past six months. Some unionized employees have also been laid off but, unlike salaried workers, they will be called back if the company increases its workforce. Like Sherritt, many of the nonunionized employees had worked for Stelco for most of their adult lives and are uncertain of their prospects. “I’m 42, not 22,” said Brenda Ross, a clerk at Stelco’s Nanticoke, Ont., plant who also lost her job last month. “Where
the hell am I going to find another job?” Arthur Frewin, a former foreman at Stelco’s Hamilton plant, has become the unofficial spokesman for a loose coalition of laid-off workers who have banded together to discuss their problems. Frewin, 49, was laid off on Dec. 17, after 31 years with the company. Some of his former colleagues have consulted lawyers about the possibility of taking the company to court to obtain improved pensions and sever-
anee packages. But others, Frewin says, simply need to be reassured that they are not alone and that there is no shame in losing a job during a recession. He added: “I’m mad. I think something should be done to help these people get retraining and other assistance.”
Barbara Cooper often tells visitors that she and her husband, Ernie, sell the best coffee and sandwiches in northern British Columbia. Until recently, the long lineups of sawmill workers at the Coopers’ Lakeland convenience store in Fort St. James, a town of 1,900 people about 1,000 km north of Vancouver, backed up her claim. But last week, business at the store was slow. A few former sawmill workers dropped by for coffee, but they did not buy sandwiches and tarts as they had until Dec. 20, the day the Stuart Lake
Lumber Co. Ltd, six kilometres up the road from the store, laid off all 110 workers. Two weeks later, the mill announced that the shutdown would continue indefinitely. Says Barbara Cooper: “Usually, we’d make four or five long loaves of sandwiches—about 60 in all— and another three dozen submarines each day. Now, we make two loaves of sandwiches. Some of the workers drop by for a coffee and a chat. Some are optimistic, some are depressed.” The slowdown in Fort St. James is mirrored in other small logging communities across the province. According to the International Woodworkers Association, more than 6,300 forestry workers—about one out of every six of the union’s B.C. members—had been laid off by the end of December. Stuart Lake mill co-owner and manager Robert Goodwin says that he was forced to close the mill because of a combination of high provincial stumpage fees, the current decline in housing construction across North America and the high value of the Canadian dollar against its U.S. counterpart. “We just can’t see our way clear to run right now,” says Goodwin, 65, whose father started the company in 1944. “It was quite a thing to have to do. We have people who have been with us for a long time.” Few of Goodwin’s former employees seem to have been surprised by the closure, g “They weren’t making any § money on their lumber,” says I Arthur Honeywell, 57, who s worked at the mill for a total S of 22 years. “I don’t know 1 how they could afford to keep ~ anybody around there.” Honeywell says that he plans to collect unemployment insurance benefits and that he hopes the mill will eventually reopen. He added: “It’s hard at my age. There’s no place to go to look for work around here.”
Meanwhile, traffic remains light on the road past the Lakeland convenience store. “It’s not just the mill workers who are affected,” says Barbara Cooper. “It’s the loggers, and the drivers who hauled wood into the mill.” Like hundreds of other small and large communities across the country, the residents of Fort St. James are discovering that the painful consequences of recession extend far beyond the ranks of the unemployed.
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