by Don Nerbas
Sean Cadigan recently delivered the seventeenth annual J.B. McLachlan Memorial Lecture at Cape Breton University. The event is scheduled to coincide with announcement of the recipient of the J.B. McLachlan Scholarship. Funded by the McLachlan family and administered by the J.B. McLachlan Commemorative Society, the scholarship is awarded annually and offers funding of up to $10,000 for two years of undergraduate studies. This year’s recipient is Marianne Toomey of Glace Bay.
Cadigan’s lecture demonstrated that Newfoundland’s recent oil boom has done little to alter the structural disadvantages that have historically faced workers in the Atlantic region. Beginning in the late 1990s, the expansion of offshore oil production translated into large corporate profits but relatively little direct employment. Most of the employment generated from the boom came indirectly through the expansion of the service sector. Oil revenues facilitated public sector expansion. But much of the expansion was in the private sector, in non-unionized, low-wage service jobs. Women have been disproportionately employed in these jobs yet underrepresented in the better paying jobs in goods production, which reveals a highly gendered distribution of economic rewards. The impact of the boom was also limited to a small section of Newfoundland and Labrador: the northeast Avalon Peninsula. It did not reach elsewhere. The recent decline in oil prices has halted this shallow and iniquitous episode of growth. “The boom’s a bust,” declared Cadigan.
The man whom the lecture and scholarship commemorate is, of course, J.B. McLachlan, the legendary Cape Breton labour leader. McLachlan was witness to a fossil fuel driven boom a century earlier in the Sydney coalfield. The financial returns associated with that boom too were exported from the region by outside corporations. And though coal mining in the early twentieth century was a labour-intensive industry that generated considerable direct employment, the Nova Scotia government believed the best way to develop the industry was to help the coal companies keep wages low. The strategy of corporate accommodation observed by Cadigan in Newfoundland and Labrador, then, is not new to the region, and the economic rewards produced from it continue to largely evade ordinary people.
The Cape Breton coal miners advanced public ownership of the mines as a solution to the economic turmoil of their industry. Public ownership of the mines was achieved in the 1960s, though under far from ideal circumstances and in a form that was more managerial and technocratic than the miners would have liked. The miners lived through and learned from the inequities of an earlier capitalist boom, and mobilized to redress the situation by advocating for structural change. What will we learn from more recent booms gone bust? Cadigan follows McLachlan in believing that much depends upon education and, in particular, historical knowledge. We are not condemned to repeat the past. But, first, we must know and honestly confront it when decisions about the present and future are being made.
 See also Cadigan’s recent essays: “Want amidst Plenty: The Oil Boom and the Working Class in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1992-2000,” in Workers in Hard Times: A Long View of Economic Crises, eds. Leon Fink, Joseph A. McCartin and Joan Sangster (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 187-212; “Boom, Bust and Bluster: Newfoundland and Labrador’s ‘Oil Boom’ and Its Impacts on Labour,” in Boom, Bust and Crisis: Labour, Corporate Power and Politics in Canada, ed. John Peters (Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood, 2012), 68-83; and “Organizing Offshore: Labour Relations, Industrial Pluralism, and Order in the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil Industry, 1997-2006,” in “Work on Trial”: Canadian Labour Law Struggles, eds. Judy Fudge and Eric Tucker (Toronto: Irwin, 2010), 143-71.
Don Nerbas is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Cape Breton University.