COVER/ELECTION FOCUS

COMING UP FOR AIR

Battling odds, St. Thomas struggles to rebuild

September 20 1993
COVER/ELECTION FOCUS

COMING UP FOR AIR

Battling odds, St. Thomas struggles to rebuild

September 20 1993

COMING UP FOR AIR

Battling odds, St. Thomas struggles to rebuild

Between now and Oct. 25, Canadians will be bombarded with messages from, and reports about, the national party leaders. But elections are not only about leaders, speeches and photo opportunities—they resonate through thousands of communities, small and large, across the country. Throughout the campaign, Maclean’s will look in on one such community—the southwestern Ontario town of St. Thomas. Senior Writer D’Arcy Jenish reports:

The Sheridan Room at the Elgin Labour Centre in St. Thomas, Ont., is quiet and deserted, except for a long table in front of the bar. Jim Vint and a half dozen friends have dropped in for a late afternoon beer on their way home for supper. The conversation is lighthearted and sprinkled with laughter until it turns to politics—and years of pent-up anger, anxiety and skepticism spring to the surface. Vint has been worried about his future since last spring, when the factory where he had worked for 21 years closed its doors. At 53, with a Grade 10 education, he knows that he has little hope of finding an equivalent job. His companions, all employed, have their own list of complaints: high taxes, politicians’ perks and the inability of political leaders to solve the country’s economic problems. “People are not very pleased with any of the parties,” Vint said. “No matter who gets in, it doesn’t make any difference.”

Frustration and a sense of futility are widespread among the voters of St. Thomas, a city of 30,000 in southwestern Ontario that has been hammered by the recession. Robert Hammersley, president and chief executive officer of the St. Thomas and District Chamber of Commerce, says that nearly 4,900 of 14,000 permanent jobs within the city disappeared between late 1989 and the middle of this year. Caused largely by the closure of several U.S.owned branch plants, the loss of jobs reverberated through the local economy. Retail stores closed, small businesses went under and scores of individuals were forced to declare bankruptcy. The city has begun to rebound recently, and has even attracted several new automotive-parts manufacturers. But unemployment still hovers around 12 per cent. Said Hammersley: “We got the hell kicked out of us, plain and simple.”

But some city residents with long memories cautioned that the economic turbulence of the

early 1990s may not be enough to disrupt voting patterns that have held for almost half a century. St. Thomas is the largest community in Elgin/Norfolk, a long, narrow federal riding that stretches for almost 130 km along the north shore of Lake Erie. The east end of the riding is primarily a tobacco-growing region, while other rural areas are dominated by cattle and cash crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans. Voters in the riding have been sending Tories to Ottawa since 1945, with the exception of a seven-year spell beginning in 1965 when St. Thomas lawyer Harold Stafford, a Liberal, represented the area. “Elgin’s a funny place,” Stafford said last week amid the clutter of his downtown office. “If you look at the population, I don’t think it’s changed much in 50 years.” Even so, some local Conservatives acknowledge that the past may prove to be an unreliable guide to the results on Oct. 25. The riding is held by Progressive Conservative Ken Monteith, a 55-year-old cattle and grain farmer who ran federally in 1988 for the first time and prevailed over his nearest opponent, a Liberal, by a mere 1,741 votes. In this election, the Reform party candidate, economist and farmer John van der Veen, and the Christian Heritage Party’s Robert DeKraker are both in the race to siphon votes from Monteith. At the same time, the collapse of the New Democrats nationally could hurt the local NDP candidate, autoworker Robert Habkirk. The principal beneficiary, according to some Tories, would be Liberal candidate Gar Knutson, a 37-year-old loans officer and consultant to small business. “Even though we’re known as a Tory riding, we can’t take this election as a sure thing,” said James Williams, a St. Thomas lawyer and loyal Conservative. “We’re really looking to have a fight on our hands.”

The discontent that could send Tory voters scurrying towards other candidates is readily evident among the merchants on Talbot Street in downtown St. Thomas. Businesses of almost every sort—car dealerships and stores selling furniture, stereos, jewelry, eyeglasses, antiques and sporting goods—have closed since the last election. Many of the survivors have a grim view of the future. “There is no magic wand for politicians to wave,” said John LeBlanc, who owns a one-hour photo shop. “Our industrial base is gone and our governments can’t bring it back.” Said restaurateur Wayne McKinnon: ‘We’re going to have a major depression before we get back on our feet. The average guy isn’t going to fall for political promises because our economic problems are too big and too ugly.”

The impact of those economic problems is felt by workers young and old. Gayle Cudney worked for several years at a small St. Thomas plant that manufactured horticultural products such as potting soil. But the plant closed in July, 1992—throwing 20 people, including Cudney, out of work. Cudney now manages a Talbot Street sports card store that is jointly owned by her husband and a partner. But she works for minimum wage, considerably less than she earned at her previous job. “Politicians should not say we’re going to be out of the recession in a year if it’s going to be three years,” said Cudney, who has become accustomed to uncertainty. “Be honest with us if it’s going to be three years.”

Many blue-collar workers and small businessmen in the once-prosperous, once-predictable community also complain that they are working too hard for too little money. David Chesterfield, owner of a combined gas bar and car wash on one of St. Thomas’s main thoroughfares, said that he usually works a 12or 14-hour day. On a busy day last week he sold 10,000 litres of gasoline—but cleared a mere $40 because competition is fierce and profit margins are razor-thin. And back at the Sheridan Room, Jim Vint’s companions were complaining about taxes. “It seems like we give everything to the government, and they give you a little bit back to spend each week,” said one man who had just finished his shift at an auto-parts plant. “It’s a crock.” With voters in St. Thomas angry at politicians, leery of promises and nervous about their futures, the federal candidates may find themselves treading a very narrow path.