COVER

DEATH OF A TRADITION

‘IT WAS LIKE LOSING A FAMILY MEMBER’

GREG W. TAYLOR June 24 1991
COVER

DEATH OF A TRADITION

‘IT WAS LIKE LOSING A FAMILY MEMBER’

GREG W. TAYLOR June 24 1991

DEATH OF A TRADITION

COVER

‘IT WAS LIKE LOSING A FAMILY MEMBER’

Many of her reminiscences are pleasant. From her first day as a junior clerk at Coy Bros. Ltd. in October, 1978, Ellen Soyka says that she loved her job. The 141-year-old department store, a family-owned institution in downtown St. Catharines, Ont., had “charm,” the 36-year-old Soyka recalled. “I liked the atmosphere, the customers. You wanted to work hard—you gave it 110 per cent.” Over the next 12V2 years, Soyka did work hard, first at the downtown outlet and later as store manager of Coy Bros.’ newly opened branch in the suburban Pen Centre mall. “I loved my life,” she said simply. But since February, other memories have haunted Soyka. On an overcast morning in that month, store owner Frank Coy assembled some of his staff and announced that he was going out of business— putting Soyka and Coy Bros.’ 22 other employees out of work. “He had watery eyes and he just said, ‘There’s no other way,’ ” Soyka recalled, choking back tears at the recollection. “Everybody was silent and then started to cry. It was devastating. It was like losing a close family member.”

It also marked an end to a chapter of Soyka’s life. A native of Buffalo, N.Y., she moved to Canada in 1977 to live with her husband-to-be, Thomas, a Canadian citizen and licensed mechanic. The couple was married in September, 1978. One month later, Soyka, then 23 and a landed immigrant, started at Coy Bros. It was the only employment she has had during her 14 years in Canada—and its end has left emotional scars. “For the first time in my adult life, I didn’t get to make any choice,” Soyka said. “I didn’t get to say, ‘I quit,’ and they didn’t say, ‘You’re fired because you didn’t do a good job.’ I just got told, ‘This is how it is.’ That was the hardest part to deal with.”

Troubling: But Soyka acknowledges that Frank Coy had little choice. In her $23,000-ayear job as manager of the Pen Centre outlet, she observed firsthand the family business’s decline. Throughout the 1980s, sales at the downtown location decreased as shoppers streamed to outlying malls—a phenomenon repeated across Canada. The Pen Centre outlet, opened in 1985 to redress that imbalance, initially did well. Then the recession hit— coupled with a new and troubling trend.

Increasingly, Canadian consumers turned their backs on local retailers and did their shopping in the United States. In St. Catharines, only 20 km from the Niagara River boundary, cross-border shopping exacted a heavy toll. In her store, Soyka said, people

would come in, openly compare prices to those in the United States—and leave without making any purchases. The end of Coy Bros., when it came, was no surprise. Said Soyka: “It was like a long, drawn-out funeral—until we finally buried it.”

Only weeks after Coy Bros, closed its doors, she almost accepted employment at a housewares outlet in Niagara-on-the-Lake, 25 km

northeast of St. Catharines. But for Soyka, the mother of a nine-year-old son, Matthew, and daughter, Sarah, 7, the conditions seemed too onerous: some evenings and weekends on top of regular five-day weeks. She declined because of concerns that the hours would be too hard on members of her family. “I was so scared,” she said. “Coy had just closed and I thought I should take this job because maybe there’s not going to be anything else out there.” That assessment proved to be close to the mark. Since Coy Bros, closed its doors, she says, she has unsuccessfully applied for at least 18 jobs. As well, she and Frank Coy’s wife, Gail, tried to open a housewares store of their own in St. Catharines. But the financing fell through and they abandoned the plan. Still, Soyka says that she remains hopeful. “I’m trying to be optimistic,” she said. “I’m a good worker and I have a lot to offer.”

So far, the family’s financial situation has not been drastically damaged. Soyka’s husband, Thomas, continues to work at his father’s gas station in nearby Thorold. Soyka receives $490 in unemployment insurance every two weeks. But without that money, Soyka says, “our lifestyle would be curbed drastically.” Essential payments, including the mortgage on the family’s home, would not present a serious problem, she added—but spending on things that the family once took for granted, such as vacations and clothing, have been curtailed or cut outright. “Without that unemployment cheque,” she said, “everything would be a no.”

Dislocation: But the unemployment benefits will run out next May. As well, Soyka says that the cross-border shopping phenomenon is having an impact on her father-in-law’s gas station as well. That has only increased her sense of dislocation. “We’ve gone through hard times before and I thought, ‘I’m all right, I’ve got a job and my husband’s got a good business,’ ” she said. “We never expected that the gas was going to be so cheap over the river and that people were going to start taking their cars there for repairs. All of a sudden, the things that I believed in just change.”

Those changes, she said, have made her angry—even towards friends who have taken their business across the border. Her anger is tinged with bitterness. “My husband and I had a very strong belief if you made your money here, you were able to have a job and a home here, you had to spend your money at home,” Soyka said. “I stuck to my principles, which I still believe to this day are right—and it didn’t do me any good, did it?”

Ironically, she said that the family has discussed the possibility of pulling up roots and moving to the United States. Although she is a landed immigrant, Soyka has not applied to become a Canadian citizen. Instead, she has retained her U.S. citizenship—a status that has allowed her children to enjoy dual citizenship. It would also, she noted, enable her husband to easily secure a U.S. work permit if the couple decided to move. Soyka noted that a trip to Florida last January convinced her and her husband that the state had a shortage of qualified mechanics. “Down there, Thomas could start a business,” Soyka said. “If worse comes to worse, we’re young, we’ve got nothing to lose, we’ll sell everything and go down.” It would be a drastic move—but one that Canada’s economic uncertainty may make more and more attractive.

GREG W. TAYLOR in St. Catharines