Talking With ‘Closing Sysco’ Author Lachlan MacKinnon

Lauchlan MacKinnon

Lachlan MacKinnon (Source: CBU)

There’s a passage in Lachlan MacKinnon’s book, Closing Sysco: Industrial Decline in Atlantic Canada’s Steel Cityin which a former steelworker, Adrian Murphy, describes what it’s like to visit Open Hearth Park, the greenspace that’s replaced the plant in the heart of Sydney:

I was there a couple of times with my brother who worked there for thirty-plus years, too. And trying to visualize. And the only thing we can base our point of origin is the tunnel going through five-gate. There’s a tunnel that was directly across between the Open Hearth and the Blooming Mill, and I just stop right there and to the left I’d see, well the little furnace was right there, then you’d have the Old Mill, then you’d have the Open hearth, and drive down a little place and this was where they Blast Furnace and…Yeah, it’s unbelievable. Unbelievable.

I think this image — steelworkers trying to situate themselves on the site of the vanished, physical plant — is kind of representative of the wider subject of MacKinnon’s book, which is a community trying to situate itself (economically, culturally) in a post-industrial world.

The book is MacKinnon’s PhD thesis and it belongs to a growing body of literature focused on deindustrialization and its impacts — on communities, on economies, on environments, on the physical bodies of workers — but as a non-academic, I found it highly readable, in no small part because of the emphasis he places on interviews with people who worked at the plant (like Murphy), or lived near the plant or — in the case of former premier John Hamm — made decisions about the fate of the plant.

I had a great conversation with MacKinnon, an assistant professor of history and Canada Research Chair in Post-Industrial Communities at Cape Breton University (CBU), on Monday morning and I’m going to try to capture some of the flavor of it here, but if you really want to understand what we’re on about, you need to read the book.

 

I started with the usual author question — What made you choose this subject? — and MacKinnon, who grew up in the Ashby neighborhood of Sydney, said it started with a conversation with undergrad friends at university and the realization that the Cape Bretoners in the room had all lost peers to drugs and suicide:

I said, “Listen, have we, any of us in the room, have we ever played on a team in Cape Breton or been in a classroom that, by the time we were 25, hadn’t had a young person [who] died from one of those things?” And we hadn’t and I thought, well, that’s something that…the people in the room from Ontario or wherever else, they hadn’t had that same experience.

Sydney Steel Plant from Westmount Road,1945

Sydney Steel Plant from Westmount Road,1945. (Source Beaton Institute)

At that point, around 2006, the plant and the coal mines were closed, Stephen Harper had made his famous “culture of defeatism” remark about Atlantic Canada (exact quote, “There is a dependence in the region that breeds a culture of defeatism”) and MacKinnon, who was in his 20s, found himself “getting really pissed off” about the situation in his home town:

I knew, you know, somewhere in my mind [the social and economic problems] were connected to the closure of the coal mines and the steel, although I didn’t quite have a firm idea of that. What I saw a lot, in the political sphere, was, “Well, you know, people in these places, they don’t want to work,” the kind of rhetoric that you hear about places that are suffering economically…”This is a cultural problem of the Atlantic Provinces and of Cape Breton and what really is needed isn’t more funding or training or anything like that, it’s just that these people need to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and get their heads on right.” And that’s not what I saw, looking around. I thought that was just a way of avoiding the actual issues.

At that point, MacKinnon said, he tended to blame Sydney Steel’s demise on “a couple of bad actors,” the people “who made specific decisions at the very end,” but as he began his research in earnest he said he came to understand that the story was “much more structural,” that it was:

…embedded in the history of Cape Breton Island going back, I’d say since the end of or even during the Second World War, but I’m sure there could be an argument going all the way back to Confederation. It’s embedded within the way that the Canadian nation and its national economy formed, different areas served different purposes. Cape Breton has served as a labor pool for parts of the country for a long time now.

In speaking with John Hamm, the man who finally pulled the plug on Sysco, MacKinnon said he realized the former Tory premier was not the “neoliberal ideolog” he’d been expecting — that Hamm was not opposed to state intervention in the economy and viewed himself as more of a Robert Stanfield-style conservative.

That the decision he made about the plant was classically neoliberal, said MacKinnon, was down to the fact that neoliberalism was “kind of in the ether…It was kind of the water that everybody was swimming in whether they realized it or not.”

 

A Margaret Thatcher Moment

Claire Berlinksi bio of Margaret ThatcherI need to interject here (I actually did during our conversation) to note that if you came of age under Reagan, Mulroney and Thatcher, as I did, you understand what MacKinnon means about neoliberal ideas about small government and trickle-down economics and free trade and globalization being the water you swam in.

I feel like it’s only now, years later, that I’m able to break the surface and see the bigger picture — the “alternatives” that Margaret Thatcher famously said did not exist. And I am able to do so thanks to thinkers and scholars (and podcasters) of MacKinnon’s generation who are pointing out how badly this market-centric project has failed most of us.

Okay, now back to our interview, which is already in progress:

 

 

The first chapters of Closing Sysco take you through the early history of the plant, built at the turn of the 20th century as a sort of a “corollary” to the coal fields. MacKinnon’s chapter titles — “Diversify or Die: Planned Obsolescence in the Dosco Years” and  “Radical Reds and Responsible Unionism: Building a “Working-Class Town'” — give you an idea of the two, parallel stories he’s telling here.

On the one hand are the owners  — Dosco, A.V. Rowe and the Hawker Siddeley Group — who failed to modernize or diversify the Sydney plant not through “simple folly,” writes MacKinnon, but rather because:

…diversification and expansion did not fit within the framework that Dosco had chosen for itself. Rather, the firm set upon a different path — expansion and investment in Central Canada and slow extrication from the Maritimes.

SYSCO heavy rolls mills, showing billets being stockpiled by overhead crane in the small billet yard. (Source: Beaton Institute)

SYSCO heavy rolls mills, showing billets being stockpiled by overhead crane in the small billet yard. (Source: Beaton Institute)

On the other hand are the workers who, through agitation and negotiation had, by the mid-20th century, achieved wages, hours and working conditions better than they’d ever before enjoyed, MacKinnon said:

Really interesting when you look at what the company is doing, and what’s going on on the books, and then the way that the people in Sydney perceived what was happening, [it] was almost the mirror opposite….[I]t’s quite clear that, quite early on, they’re intending to centralize operations and probably Sydney Steelworks is going to be the odd one out, but yet, come 1967, everybody is completely blown away by Black Friday and I’d say, really, part of that reason, is because, for the average person on the ground, things were going better than they’d ever been. And of course, this is another issue of generational memory — by the ’50s and ’60s, the employees there, their parents would have had memories of the 1920s and the labor wars and so they would have had this idea, “Well, look at where we are now in 1958 or something versus where we were in 1925,” you know, starvation and everything else. So, just this sense that there was this big, upward trajectory and then, of course, that becomes directly under threat come 1967.

MacKinnon’s account of the threatened 1967 closure of the plant, the “March of Concern” and the province’s decision to nationalize it is really interesting. I was particularly struck by the contrast between the way men and women were interviewed in the press about the situation. Men were asked about the possibility of nationalization, their thoughts on the premier’s capabilities and the impact on local businesses while women were asked to comment on “domestic affairs.”

The story from there is public ownership and gradual decline with a couple of breathtaking boondoggles along the way (see: the decision to adopt a brand new, untested technology to increase productivity in the Open Hearth — a technology for which Sysco’s president and vice president just happened to have held the North American patent). Also interesting, especially to someone like me who remembers nothing but gloomy prognoses for the future of the steel plant, is that MacKinnon doesn’t believe its demise was “inevitable.” As he told Jacob Remes in an interview with LABORonline:

None of this was preordained, but the end of Sysco was the result of specific decisions of various provincial governments from 1967 until 2000. Indeed, public ownership at Sysco – in the sense of purposeful, long-term operation for profit by the state – was never really the intention. From the moment of nationalization, the intent was to keep the mill operating only as long as would be possible until a private buyer could be found. Various changes in provincial governments changed the terms of this calculation at different times, from modernization spending to prospective plans such as CANSTEEL, but that core value remained the same. Had governments been fully committed to Sysco at the moment of its inception – with timely investment on modernization and upgrading, there is no reason why it could not have remained profitable.

 

MacKinnon uses the phrase “structure of feeling” to describe the effects of deindustrialization on communities like Sydney. It’s a term coined by Raymond Williams, the Welsh socialist writer and critic whom I know nothing about, having just looked him up on Wikipedia, but about whom I intend to learn more. In the meantime, I cheated and simply asked MacKinnon to define “structure of feeling” and he said it is the notion that deindustrialization does not just mean the closing of a coal mine or a steel plant and the loss of workers’ paychecks (although, obviously, it means that), it also refers to the fact while steel making and coal mining were the dominant occupations in the community, other “social formations” were reliant upon them:

So, the unions played a big role in people’s lives and if there was a question about the local economy in the newspaper, you’d have a commentary from the steelworkers’ union or the miners’ union. Today, that’s almost unthinkable, not just in Cape Breton but in most places, they don’t go and ask the local laborers’ union…that’s not the way it is anymore, and there’s a lot of reasons [for that].

And that’s one part of it, is the role of unions in society. The other is just, in general, the way that people’s lives were structured around these [industries], when they’re removed, it kind of takes away more than just a paycheck. It’s kind of displacing an entire way of thinking about yourself and your family and the community and the importance of the work that you do and…I guess that’s the idea of the structure of feeling, it’s like, almost like a totalizing way of understanding what the industrial world looked like at a particular point in time and of course, to particular groups of people…because the way that white working-class people experienced that particular moment from 1945 to the 1970s, say, was very different from the way Indigenous people experienced it, or perhaps Black working-class people.

Sydney steel workers assembled at Capital Theatre

Sydney steel workers assembled at Capital Theatre, 1940 (Abbass Studios Photo via Beaton Institute)

MacKinnon said this whole “structure of feeling” began to shift — not just in Cape Breton, but across the Western world — in the ’70s and ’80s as the “blue collar, decently waged, heavily unionized opportunities for employment” disappeared and in their aftermath came “the rise of market-centered monetary policy and neoliberalism.”

I think the difference between the two periods is nicely illustrated by a conversation (recounted in the book) between MacKinnon and his fellow passenger on a flight to Sydney who turned out to be employed by Kameron Collieries, the Cline Group subsidiary in charge of the Donkin Mine. MacKinnon writes:

My aisle mate told me that Cline was flying him back and forth between Cape Breton and his home in the American Mid-West to work on the reconstitution of the mine. Apparently unaware of the island’s history, he mentioned that it was nice to work in an area with out the headache of unions or Obama’s job-killing environmental regulations.

 

MacKinnon devotes two chapters to the environmental and health impacts of the plant and, more particularly, to the ways steelworkers and members of the general public led the fight for recognition of and compensation for what the economists call “externalities.”

Chapter Five tells the story of the coke-ovens workers who — incredibly, in retrospect — had to fight to have authorities recognize that exposure to gas and coke fumes could cause lung cancer. Chapter Six focuses on the tar ponds clean up and on two women, Debbie Ouellette and Juanita McKenzie, who had to fight — incredibly, in retrospect — to have authorities recognize that living on Frederick Street in the shadow of the steel plant constituted a health hazard.

In both cases, the lived experience and knowledge of the people affected were ignored (as were the steel workers who insisted the material dredged from the tar ponds contained PCBs, which they knew, because they’d dumped transformer coolant into the tar ponds for “generations”).

Sydney Steel Plant viewed from Whitney Pier

Sydney steel plant viewed from Whitney Pier

I asked MacKinnon about these stories and, after making it clear that he was in no way discounting scientific knowledge (a weirdly necessary  qualification in 2021), he said they show that our “understanding of scientific knowledge, in a way, can be classist, in a way.”

He compared it to the collapse of the cod fishery in Newfoundland (referencing Dean Bavington’s Managed Annihilation, An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse) where the DFO continued to claim stocks were healthy even as inland fishers were warning of a problem. Because of “class perspectives and validation of certain types of knowledge over others, those voices weren’t accounted for right,” said MacKinnon.

It’s the same thing with Juanita [McKenzie] and Debbie Ouellette. Those women said there were problems and then it took finding the arsenic in the basement before they were like, “You’re right, we can’t ignore orange arsenic in the basement.” But I think before that they were not particularly taken seriously…they were working-class women living on Frederick Street…I think there’s value…in taking these accounts and saying, “Let’s deal seriously with what these people are saying” and not just assum[ing] that they don’t know what they’re talking about…

MacKinnon also suggested that these stories provide an opportunity to “reframe our understanding of environmentalism”:

[O]ftentimes, there’s this idea that jobs and the environment are fundamentally at odds, that you can’t have one without the other…but we see from the Sydney story, really, the concerns surrounding the pollution came about during the coke-ovens workers’ issue, before it ballooned out into the broader concern with the community around the plant. They were concerned with what was going on in the coke ovens in the mid-’80s. And of course, that’s not to say that people didn’t notice the smoke and things like that before that, but as an activist kind of moment, that’s where it really begins.

And I think that’s true of a lot of places. If we reframe our understanding of environmentalism to include things like shop-floor efforts at fighting for health and safety or woods workers fighting for repopulation of stocks and things like that, I think there’s opportunities to kind of draw connections between what might be the more middle-class environmental movements that emerged after the 1970s…and these kinds of earlier or coinciding working-class movements…

 

As someone endlessly fascinated by “regional economic development,” I found Chapter 7, “From Dependence to Enterprise: Economic Restructuring at the End of the Steel City” especially interesting.

In it, MacKinnon looks at attempts to build a post-industrial economy in Cape Breton and, having written recently about the latest economy-building efforts at the Verschuren Centre, I was particularly struck by what MacKinnon had to say about the role Cape Breton University has played in this process, beginning in its earliest incarnation as the Xavier Junior College (“Little X”). MacKinnon writes:

…the island’s university has been a major part of its economic fabric since its earliest iterations. Its contributions can be divided into two periods, each reflecting a particular set of institutional and political pressures. In the first, encompassing the years between 1952 and 1984, the institution existed as a complement to the “free industrial society” envisioned by its founders. After 1984, corresponding with a national turn towards neoliberalism and the designs of various federal and provincial agencies involved in Cape Breton, it became a local instrument in the rhetorical shift towards entrepreneurialism, self-reliance and the promises of the new economy.

Xavier College Class of 1964

Source: Beaton Institute

MacKinnon told me that this shift was particularly marked in the ’90s, when the president of the university, Jacquelyn Scott, was also on the board of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), a rightwing think tank that has since returned to the mother ship (by which I mean, merged officially with the Fraser Institute). Scott, MacKinnon writes, was “a staunch supporter of neoliberal restructuring in the Cape Breton economy and within the university.”

At heart, as I discussed in last week’s long, rambling introduction to this piece, the goal of all of this “restructuring” is to “fix” the people themselves, to change their “culture” and “attitudes,” and I don’t think I’ve seen this laid bare more explicitly than in an incredible piece of writing Scott did for AIMS in 2002. The problems start with the title — “Doing Business with the Devil: Land, Sovereignty, and Corporate Partnerships in Membertou Inc” — but they get much worse from there. In the book, MacKinnon quotes the paper briefly, but I’m going to quote it at somewhat greater length  because it’s really something.

After lauding Membertou for successfully “using a business approach to government, management and economic development to achieve social objectives,” Scott warns the project faces serious challenges ahead, one being:

…the need for attitudinal change. Many leaders acknowledge that old community attitudes die hard: deep suspicions remain about the corporate model, and among older Band members the notion lingers that business development is a bad thing. Some feel that change may erode culture and loosen the traditional bearings that have sustained the community through hard times. Others believe that “the government victimized us and, under the treaties, it owes us a living” or that government should provide jobs through grants and subsidies to enterprises — a sentiment that is, indeed, shared by many non-aboriginals in Cape Breton’s industrial communities.

So, this sort of thinking took root and efforts began to change the culture and attitudes of Cape Bretoners, to make us more innovative and entrepreneurial (less convinced we were owed a living) and although these efforts didn’t bear much fruit (the bottom line is that nothing has ever truly replaced steel and coal in Cape Breton), the theories behind them just won’t die.

MacKinnon told me that when he read the 2014 Ivany Report, having recently read a 1991 report by the province’s Voluntary Planning Board (“Our Province, Our Future, Our Choice”) he thought:

This is the exact same thing as, literally, 35 years ago.

 

I told MacKinnon I suffered from the journalistic malaise of wanting to end everything I write on a high note, so he tried, cautiously, to find one.

Cover of "Closing Sysco"

I will say, since moving back to Cape Breton and having children, the Cape Breton that my children are growing up in is different than the one that I grew up in. And by that I mean, there are Indian families and Chinese families and this wave of immigration from all around the world is really providing a grounding point for something that could be really vibrant and interesting and growth-oriented, if you want to use that word…

We discussed, briefly, how this was also true of Sydney at an earlier period in its development — when the steel plant attracted workers from around the world and Whitney Pier gained its reputation as the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the city, and MacKinnon said;

I think that when that happens, I think it necessarily produces opportunity. There’s more cultural vibrancy, there’s more views at the table, there’s more voices at the table. And I just think that if there was a glimpse of something, a seed for something, I think that’s what it is and I don’t know what that is going to look like but I think that’s kind of some grit for traction that we might find.

“Grit for traction” is such a good phrase, I decided to end the conversation there. But if you want more, you can listen to MacKinnon discussing his work on the Resarch Nova Scotia podcast or — you know what’s coming — you can just read the book.