December 1984: Now We’re Arguing About the Canada Games

Editor’s Note: This is Part IV of a series that will continue until I find some answers or give up, whichever comes first. You’ll find Part I here and Part II here and Part III here.


I spent my Sunday afternoon looking at microfilm at the CBU library. I needed to view the month of December 1984 and, as luck would have it, it was on the reel backwards, so I had to begin on the 31st and work my way to the Ist. (It wasn’t a case of someone having forgotten to rewind, it was the way the issues had been photographed, as I discovered when I consulted the—very helpful—librarian).

This meant I wasted hours of my time because the only references to the Charlotte Street redevelopment project at the heart of this interminable series were in the December 3 and 4 issues.

So I’m going to summarize what I found in those issues and then tell you a bit about the controversy that had bumped downtown development from the headlines that month, but first, I’d like to share a photo I took Monday on Charlotte Street because it will serve as a reminder as to why I started this series. Remember, this all began with me wondering about the current Charlotte Street redevelopment project that had initially included buried power lines, which became power lines strung down one side of the street on Fiberglas poles, and which now seems to have devolved into wooden poles on both sides of the street. The power crews in this photo actually seemed to be adding more lines:

Power trucks on Charlotte Street in Sydney, NS, November 2022

Here’s a better picture of the artist’s rendering of the project (visible in the lower left hand corner of the photo above) taken on a sunnier day. Although it depicts a different section of the street, you can see there are not supposed to be wires on both sides:

Rendering of Charlotte Street redevelopment project, Sydney, NS, November 2022

And now that we’re all up to date on what’s happening in present-day downtown Sydney, let’s go back to December 1984.


On December 3, the Post reported that the waterfront development component of “Sydney’s stalled—and perhaps scuttled—downtown renewal project had an estimated cost of $4.9 million in addition to land acquisition costs.”

The figure had been plucked from a copy of the federal-provincial sub-agreement for the project produced by Cape Breton the Sydneys MP Russell MacLellan at the end of last week’s installment. The waterfront development project described in the agreement—from the foot of Townsend Street to the government wharf—is the project that was eventually completed, although work wouldn’t begin until 1991 and would proceed in phases (Phase 2 was announced in 1997, at which point Manning MacDonald was the provincial minister of economic development and tourism in Premier Russell MacLellan’s government; Phase 8, which saw the construction of the playground at the south end of the boardwalk near the fire station, neither of which is there anymore, was announced in 1999.)

Post photo of construction materials for Charlotte St makeover, 1984

Source: Cape Breton Post, microfilm, CBU

MacLellan told the Post he’d gone ahead and announced the project although the province had yet to sign on “because he felt that otherwise there would be no record of the project following a then widely expected Tory election victory.”

But the MP said he “didn’t know who had given the final go ahead” for Zutphen Brothers contractors of Port Hood to move materials and equipment for the project (that was to include buried power lines) to the corner of Pitt and Esplanade.

The very next day, the Post got an answer to that question from John VanZutphen of Zutphen Brothers Construction himself.

The contractor said there was “no secret” about who authorized his firm to move the materials and equipment to Sydney—the written authorization came from the Sydney Downtown Parking and Development Corporation (DPDC), “We have the letter,” he said. (The DPDC, as you’ll know if you’ve read the previous parts of this series, was an arm’s-length body set up—at the behest of the provincial government—to oversee projects under the province’s Mainstreet program. It included municipal officials and admin staff and local business owners.)

VanZutphen said the material and equipment had been moved from the corner of Pitt and Esplanade the previous week “to make way for construction of a new Bank of Nova Scotia building” (the very one you see in the photo I took on Monday) and his company had not decided “how it would go about collecting for losses incurred in the aborted project if current proposals [didn’t] bring results,” nor did he elaborate on what his firm was proposing by way of settlement or “which level of government would be asked to pay.” The contractor denied the rumor (published in the Post‘s Between the Lines column) that his firm was considering legal action:

“We’re just considering what to do,” he told the Post. “We’re just contractors, not lawyers. We put in our proposal and we’re waiting. You can’t rush the politicians. They move when they’re ready.”

Photo of Jim MacCormackThe story also says that while Premier John Buchanan was on record saying the feds should make the VanZutphens whole, the provincial government had asked Acres Consulting Services in late August 1984 to “estimate what the costs would be if the project were killed.”

At that point, Zutphen Brothers Construction estimated their loss at $230,000, including a $130,000 loss on mobilizing equipment, keeping it on standby in Sydney, then demobilizing it. The other $100,000 was the firm’s estimated loss on the $200,000 value of the materials on site.

Those materials were in storage, but VanZutphen told the Post he had “no reason to believe” the project would ever be revived, offering the opinion that people in Sydney had “waited too long” before pushing for a startup of the stalled project, perhaps due to “misplaced confidence that the way would be cleared for construction after the elections.”

The Post noted that this question of who authorized the construction firm to move the materials onto the worksite was one Sydney Mayor Manning MacDonald was proposing “to pursue by way of a public inquiry.”

As covered in Part III of this series, the mayor had tasked Jim MacCormack, the city’s director of community services, with “gathering preliminary information on the project.” The decision as to whether to proceed with a full inquiry would then be made by council, but as of the end of 1984, no decision had been made.

There were two final mentions of the project that month, the first was a December 12 letter to the editor evaluating the work of the various municipal governments during 1984. Of Sydney, the writer said:

The City of Sydney could well be beyond redemption. Sydney city council seems to be from another world. The mayor must have gotten to City Hall with a seeing eye dog, not to have seen the construction preparations on Charlotte Street.

The solution?

A wide broom and a clean sweep.

The final reference to the project was an editorial in the December 31 edition of the paper, which listed “acrimonious disputes about downtown development Sydney” as one of the things that made 1984 a “tough year” in Cape Breton, along with the fire that closed the No. 26 Colliery in Glace Bay, instability in the fishing industry, general problems at Devco, endless electioneering, federal government cutbacks and doubts about the future of the Jeux Canada Games.

About that last item…


Cape Breton County was to host the 1987 Jeux Canada Games (now referred to, more grammatically, as the Jeux du Canada Games but they will forever be the Jeux Canada Games to me), and political bickering over the location of the Games arena replaced political bickering over downtown development in Sydney during the last month of 1984.

This time, the main combatants seemed to be Sydney Mayor MacDonald and the unforgettably named Warden Joe Wadden of the County.

The Mayor, eyes firmly on the Centre 200 prize, said he’d been given “assurances” by Cape Breton East Richmond MP Dave Dingwall and Dr Carl “Bucky” Buchanan, president of the 1987 Jeux Canada Games, that if Centre 200 was ready by 1987, it would be “an integral part” of the games. MacDonald was both refusing to commit Sydney to funding the Games and declaring  himself “ready to talk about using [Centre 200] as the Games arena if there’s no funding for one at the college.”

Patch with Jeux Canada Games '87 logo

Source: eBay

Asked if this was confirmation of the rumor Sydney was “out to grab the arena from UCCB,” the mayor said he had “no objection” to an arena on campus but suggested there was “considerable community questioning about how the college would keep the arena up after the games.” This would not be the case for Sydney, he said, which would have “no trouble maintaining Centre 200 because it will be a multi-purpose center dealing with the many non-sports events as well as providing a replacement for the Forum and a spur to development in downtown Sydney.”

(Odd to read that in light of last night’s council discussion about selling Centre 200.)

Warden Wadden, for his part, was threatening to pull out of the Games if Sydney got the arena and the province, which had yet to agree to provide its share of the funding for the Games, was being accused (yet again) of being “petty” by Liberal Cape Breton South MLA Vince MacLean.

MacLean told the Post that Premier John Buchanan, Culture and Fitness Minister Billy Joe MacLean and Tourism Minister Fisher Hudson were nursing “wounded pride” over having been excluded from the original announcement of the Games, two years previously, and were playing “power politics,” questioning the ability of the locals to “carry their share of the Games.”

Centre 200 under construction, Sydney, NS.

Centre 200 under construction. (Cape Breton Post “submitted” photo.)

When the Post suggested that the province, as a “full partner” in the Games had every right to be at the announcement, MacLean countered that the province had only agreed to participate because Dingwall had “convinced them.”

Otto Jelenik, the federal minister of fitness and amateur sport, told the paper (through his assistant deputy minister) that he wanted the funding for the Games “hammered out” by mid-January 1985, noting that “it should have been down six to nine months ago.”

And Mike Laffin, the Tory MLA for Cape Breton Centre and provincial minister of housing, told the Post, “If the games don’t go, I’d be more than disappointed, I’d be very vociferous.”

Whether the minister was forced to become “vociferous” was not revealed; 1984 drew to a close without any conclusion to the Jeux Canada Games debate but be warned: I am not going to investigate how they eventually decided to put an arena at the college and build Centre 200, which would serve as the primary sporting venue for the Games, because I DON’T CARE.

One political football seems to be my limit, and I’ve chosen, for my sins, downtown Sydney redevelopment, so I will get back to that. But probably not next week–I think we all need a little break, don’t you?