Canappalachia

I‘ve been learning about Appalachia (beginning with how to pronounce it) through a variety of means lately and what keeps jumping out at me are the similarities between that region and our own (by which I mean, variously, Cape Breton, the Maritimes and the Atlantic Provinces).

These similarities include the mountain range that gives Appalachia its name, as Nick Brumfield points out in “The Case for Appalachian Canada”:

Looking at a map of eastern North America, the Appalachian Mountains do not stop at the US-Canadian border. Starting in the southern foothills around Birmingham, Alabama, they stretch northward some 1,500 miles, breezing past the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania and New York, then into the color-coded mountains of New England, before fanning out in the Canadian provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, meeting their chilly end on the island of Newfoundland.

Appalachian Mountains Map

Appalachia, with 25 million people, accounts for roughly 7.5% of the US population and covers 205,000 square miles (530,000 square km) while the Atlantic Provinces account for about 6.0% of the Canadian population and cover about 193,000 square miles (500,000 square km).

But where there are four Atlantic Provinces, Appalachia includes parts of 13 states stretching from southern New York to Northern Mississippi and covering over 400 counties. Population density — as you’ve probably guessed — is much higher in Appalachia, 115.4/square mile, on average, compared to 12/square mile in the Atlantic Provinces.

Brumfield (who is the co-founder of the Appalachian journalism project Expatalachians) points to the greater linguistic diversity of Atlantic Canada as perhaps the most “notable” difference between the regions to an American observer:

Originally colonized by the French, about one-third of New Brunswick’s population is Francophone, and it is the only officially bilingual province in all of Canada. This is in stark contrast to the U.S., where several Appalachian states have explicitly declared English to be their official language, and West Virginia consistently ranks last among states by population that speak a language other than English at home.

But he also notes the larger Indigenous population in Atlantic Canada:

Undoubtedly, the Canadian government has subjected Canada’s Indigenous peoples to many of the same genocidal policies enacted by the U.S. government against Native Americans. However, it did not pursue a policy of Indian removal similar to that pursued by the U.S. in Appalachia, wherein over 100,000 Cherokee, Creek, and other Native Americans were ethnically cleansed from the mountains to make way for white settlers.

Multi-lingual Cape Breton road signs.

This lack of linguistic and ethnic diversity in Appalachia was the subject of a 2018 editorial in The Roanoke Times, “What Appalachia could learn from Atlantic Canada.” What it could learn, apparently, is to welcome more immigrants:

It’s clear that the Atlantic provinces have become economically disconnected from the rest of Canada, and they’re trying to do something about that. Last year, the four Atlantic premiers — the Canadian equivalent of a governor — met and announced the Atlantic Growth Strategy aimed at promoting economic growth. That strategy consists of five initiatives. The first one listed in the official announcement is immigration.

(The editorial is enthusiastic about Canada’s focus on “skilled” immigrants, a policy I’ve got my problems with, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.)

 

Coal and steel are two obvious similarities and in terms of coal, we shared a recent connection in the person of the late Chris Cline, the West Virginian coal billionaire who died in a helicopter crash in 2019 (along with his daughter, Kameron, for whom I’ve just realized Kameron Collieries, the operator of the Donkin mine, must have been named). Cline started out mining in Appalachia until “[f]aced with rising mining costs and depleted coal reserves in the Appalachian region, the Cline Group shifted its focus to the plentiful coal reserves in the Illinois Basin.”

Where our coal industry (Donkin notwithstanding) has mostly been phased out , coal mining in parts of Appalachia (like Kentucky and West Virginia) hangs in there, having moved 40 years ago into the mountaintop-removal, strip-mining and automation phase. (Think: fewer jobs, more environmental destruction. Sean O’Leary, a researcher with the Ohio River Valley Institute, says these factors allowed West Virginia coal companies to shed 90% of their workers — 15,000 people — before registering a decline in production.)

The Appalachian steel industry, on the other hand, followed a pattern similar to our own — arising as a kind of by-product of coal mining and flourishing for over a century before declining sharply in the 1980s. Pittsburg and environs was once the heart of the US industry, as illustrated by this photo of Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Steel Works, on the Monongahela River at Homestead, Pennsylvania (11km from Pittsburg):

Carnegie Steel Homestead Works, 1910

Carnegie Steel Homestead Works, 1910. (Source: The Brookline Connection)

Coal and steel have left Appalachia with the same legacies of environmental degradation and health problems it’s bequeathed us here in Cape Breton and, as Brumfield points out, we’ve both been “stereotyped as poor and culturally backward.”

Not to mention lazy and dependent on government handouts see: J.D. Vance (of Hillybilly Elegy fame) blaming Appalachian poverty on the lack of a work ethic or former Prime Minister Stephen Harper bemoaning Atlantic Canada’s “culture of defeat.”

And finally, since the decline in our respective extractive industries, we’ve both been subjected to seemingly endless schemes for “regional economic development.”

Just as deindustrialization has followed a roughly similar timeline in both Atlantic Canada and Appalachia, so have government attempts to foster post-industrial economic development.

In 1965, when the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation announced it was closing its Cape Breton mines, Lester B. Pearson launched a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Cape Breton’s coal industry which resulted, in 1967, in the establishment of the Cape Breton Development Corporation or Devco, a federal crown corporation intended to wean the region off coal.

In 1963, south of the border, the Conference of Appalachian Governors asked President John F. Kennedy to create a presidential commission to “coordinate federal, state, and local action in addressing the region’s needs.” Kennedy convened the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission (PARC) to address “persistent economic disparities” in the region and draft “a comprehensive program for the economic development of the Appalachian Region.” This would lead to the passage, in 1965, of the Appalachian Regional Development Act (ARDA) and the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

Since 1965, ARC has invested $4.5 billion in approximately 28,000 economic development projects across Appalachia, attracting over $10 billion in matching project funds.

And yet, as the ARC website admits:

While significant improvements have been made in key economic factors such as poverty, per capita income, and high school graduation rates, Appalachia still lags behind the rest of the nation on average. In order for the Region to recover from economic disruptions, address the substance abuse crisis, and attract additional investment, more work is needed.

JFK meets Appalachian Governors, 1961

Meeting with Appalachian Governors. L-R: Governor of North Carolina, Terry Sanford; Governor of Virginia, J. Lindsay Almond, Jr.; Governor of Tennessee, Buford Ellington; Governor of Kentucky, Bert T. Combs; President John F. Kennedy; Governor of Pennsylvania, David L. Lawrence; Governor of Maryland, J. Millard Tawes; Governor of Alabama, John Patterson; Governor of West Virginia, William W. Barron. Cabinet Room, White House, Washington, D.C. (Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston )

One of ARC’s investment priorities is “Developing a ready workforce.” That put me in mind of something Constance deRoche, then a professor of Anthropology at UCCB, wrote in 2002 about an “experiment” called the Cape Breton Community and Employment Project (CBCEIP). DeRoche said the project, which aimed to get people off EI and social assistance and into the workforce, shared:

…a fundamental assumption with workfare programs, which have already been tried: namely that what needs fixing is workers, not the lack of work…

DeRoche suggested that while the program was likely to deliver “little, if any, long-term value to the jobless or to the regional economy” it could be seen “as bolstering a neo-liberal point of view on the needful that has come into political vogue in recent years.” She noted that the benefits the program was expected to produce included “new work habits…and attitudes.”

This description sounds much like a veiled indictment of the jobless; it implies that character flaws underlie their plight. In a recently deindustrialized economy that cannot provide paid work for thousands of job seekers and where hoards turn out whenever a firm (such as a new call centre ) announces plans to hire, this implication seems indefensible.

In general, then, the CBCEIP, no less than other welfare-to-work projects, represents a victim-blaming approach. It assumes that the unemployed are to blame for their inability to find work. The cause of the their situation is not the lack of jobs but their lack of skills, poor work habits and poor attitudes. Such an approach to unemployment is misinformed at the best of times, but it is especially distressing to find such an approach being applied to “industrial” Cape Breton in the midst of a labour market collapse, which has entailed the loss of some 2,300 reasonably well-paid industrial jobs since 2000.

And as historian Elizabeth Catte, author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, told NPR in 2018:

It’s a conventional, long-standing narrative…[that] locates impediments to progress in the actions and behaviors of individuals rather than systemic failures. If you’re a coal baron in the 1920s, for example, you’re delighted when reformers and intellectuals examine the causes of poverty and start putting bullet points beside the supposed moral failures of your workers rather than your exploitation of their labor and environment.

It’s also a very hard narrative to debunk.

 

Fast forward to 2017 in Appalachia when, as the New York Times reported, a a non-profit called Mined Mines came to West Virginia promising to “teach West Virginians how to write computer code and then get them well-paying jobs.”

Many West Virginians…signed up for Mined Minds, quitting their jobs or dropping out of school for the prized prospect of a stable and lucrative career. But the revival never came.

The Times underlined that Mined Minds was “operating with a limited amount of personal cash and public funding, and was mostly staffed by people who had spent little time in tech,” but when it asked founder Amanda Laucher what had gone wrong, she didn’t hesitate:

“Progress is difficult,” she said in an email, “with the current atmosphere in Appalachia which is deeply interested in maintaining a ‘culture.’”

She blamed the opioid epidemic and “the poverty culture” of the region, mentioning “Hillbilly Elegy,” the best-selling memoir by J.D. Vance, who, like Ms. Laucher, went from working-class Rust Belt roots to success in the tech sector.

She added: “There are generations of hard work ahead. We’ll be only a tiny force working toward change in the area I grew up.”

It’s not the lack of jobs — it’s the “lack of skills, poor work habits and poor attitudes.”

Amanda Laucher and Jonathan Graham started Mined Minds in July 2015.

Amanda Laucher and Jonathan Graham started Mined Minds in July 2015. (Source: CNN)

I think this is as good a time as any to admit that what I’m doing this week is kind of a long, rambling introduction to what I hope to do next week, which is talk about CBU Prof Lauchlan MacKinnon’s book, Closing Sysco: Industrial Decline in Atlantic Canada’s Steel City. MacKinnon touches on this idea that our inability to get with the entrepreneurial, 21st century program is our own fault in a chapter called, “From Dependence to Enterprise,” in which he quotes an early Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation (ECBC) planning document that:

…describes Cape Breton as a region where “public demonstrations [are seen] as an acceptable response to change”; where “an assumption exists that outsiders will solve the island’s problems”; and that “lacks an entrepreneurial culture.”

MacKinnon continues:

Such ideas continue to be widely expressed, and they draw upon deeply rooted stereotypes of Cape Bretoners. The Cape Breton “folk” in these readings, are simply not suited to the globalized, entrepreneurial economy — but they must be disciplined into accepting its new realities.

And then MacKinnon cites a recent example of precisely this kind of sentiment, found in the almighty Ivany Report of 2014:

It seems apparent that if Nova Scotia is to find ways to meet its current challenges, there will need to be change on the cultural level as much as in economic structures or government policies and programs.

Ivany went on to recommend a “bold strategy” MacKinnon says “does not differ in intent from those employed twenty-five years ago.”

And if a strategy has failed to produce results in 25 years, surely it’s time to question the strategy?

 

I was trying to segue cleverly into this last part but I think I’m just going to surrender and say that when I said this piece was “long and rambling” I wasn’t kidding, although I’m not going that far afield from what we’ve been discussing.

I just want to mention (again referencing Appalachia) the flip side of this notion that Cape Breton needs to come into the 21st century economically by noting that the same people saying this can still be seduced by an industry from a past century.

I’ve already mentioned the Donkin Mine, but another example is the Goldboro LNG scheme which, if realized, would cause this province to blow its greenhouse gas reduction targets to smithereens. In fact, it’s the Goldboro project that got me thinking about Appalachia in the first place, thanks to an episode of a podcast called Drilled, in which host Amy Westervelt interviewed Sean O’Leary, the researcher I mentioned above.

The episode — titled “Frackalachia and the Great Fracking Jobs Myth” — caught my eye because I’d just discovered, thanks to Tim Bousquet at the Halifax Examiner, that the company behind the Goldboro LNG scheme plans to pipe in fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania.

Pieridae Energy (named, as LNG companies are, for a large family of butterflies) hasn’t been particularly forthcoming about the Pennsylvania gas — if you look at its website it’s all about sourcing gas from Alberta, promoting Reconciliation and creating jobs:

Our project supports Indigenous Peoples reconciliation through our partnership with the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq to build a $720 million workforce lodge to house the 5,000 workers who will build the LNG Facility.

The company is also tight-lipped about jobs post-construction, which came to mind as I listened to the Drilled podcast, because O’Leary was discussing his research into the economic benefits of the fracking boom in the area he’s dubbed “Frackalachia,” parts of the Ohio River Valley in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

As Westervelt explains in her introduction, any concerns about the environmental effects of fracking were always countered with, “but the jobs” — the American Chamber of Commerce claimed banning fracking would lead to the loss of 19 million jobs; the Ohio Shale Commission claimed the industry would bring “tens of thousands of jobs” paying an average salary of $50,000.

But O’Leary’s study, which analyzed economic data from “before, during and after” the fracking boom in the Ohio River Valley found that while GDP had tripled as a result of the fracking boom:

Measures of local economic prosperity starting with jobs, also personal income and finally population were underwhelming to the point of being non-existent.

I won’t recap the entire episode, I really recommend you listen yourself, but what’s interesting is O’Leary’s explanation of why an industry that produced and sold tens of billions of dollars’ worth of natural gas had so little effect on the local economy. Why towns like Stuebenville, Ohio; Waynesburg, Pennsylvania; and Wheeling West Virginia, remained “hollowed out shells” of their former selves.

O’Leary said it came down to what happened on the front-end — at the investment stage — and the back-end — when gas was pumped and sold.

On the front-end, O’Leary said much of the initial investment, as wells were sunk and processing plants built, went to suppliers, service providers and workers outside the region — from Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, states with an existing “eco-system” of drilling support services. O’Leary said this even applied to professional services like finance, real estate and insurance.

But there was also a big problem on the back-end — because the price of gas was never expected to fall below $4.50 per million BTUS; in fact, it was expected to drop no lower than $4.50 before  returning to settle between $6 to $7.50.

Instead, the price of gas dropped, at times, below $2 and never recovered consistently to more than $3, so revenue assumptions were double actual revenues.

But the bottom line, according to O’Leary, is that even had revenues been healthier, extractive industries are “the worst industries on which to build a job-rich economy.” In the mining sector, he explained, 22 cents of every dollar of GDP goes to wages and salaries whereas in most sectors the figure is in the 40s — and in the construction sector, it’s 75 cents. Which is why, he said, any plan to retrofit houses for greater energy efficiency (or, I would suggest, build affordable housing) is a better way to stimulate the local economy than welcoming an extractive industry.

 

So…

What is the point of comparing Atlantic Canada to Appalachia? Well, according to Brumfield:

…expanding our ideas about what Appalachia is can help us better understand the region and its issues. In its similarities, “Canappalachia” can help Appalachian Americans better understand how regional issues are part of much larger global problems—an understanding that can help build solidarity with other regions like the Maritimes. Conversely, in its differences, Appalachian Canada teaches us the specificities of the issues we face and highlights aspects of ourselves we’d forgotten.

I think this is true. Reading about Appalachia (or listening to a podcast like The Trillbilly Worker’s Party which, I have to admit, is my favorite source of Appalachian information) I get a kind of jolt of recognition — our problems are so similar. But at the same time, I realize how stark some of our differences are — our universal healthcare system being perhaps the most obvious.

The beauty of long, rambling introductions is that you can pick pretty much any point at which to declare them over. So I’m declaring this one over — but come back next week for the actual piece on Closing Sysco because I think you’ll find it as interesting as I did.