The Antigonish Movement and the Sydney Steel Crisis of 1967

by Andrew Parnaby

On October 13th, 1967, the owners of the Dominion Steel and Coal Company (DOSCO) announced the imminent closure of the company’s Sydney steel works, which had operated in Cape Breton Island’s largest city since 1901 and by then employed about 3,500 people. This was “Black Friday.”

Yet within six months, after some intense political manoeuvering in Halifax, Montreal, and Ottawa and a massive community protest dubbed the “Parade of Concern,” the steel plant had been converted into a provincial crown corporation.  It had been saved.

Parts of this narrative are no doubt familiar to readers of the Acadiensis blog.

parnaby

Bombshell Hits City

Less appreciated, perhaps, is just how unique this outcome really was: in no other jurisdiction in North America did government – at the state, provincial, or federal level – respond to the de-industrialization crisis of the late 1960s and 70s by nationalizing heavy industry in the way that it did on the island.

Explaining how and why this distinctive result came about is an important dimension of my current research on the city’s steel crisis and the making of collective identity.[1] Although this project is still young, I am starting to see some of the pieces of a possible answer: community resistance was critical and the Antigonish movement played an influential role in pulling it all together.

I had a chance to discuss this research at the recent Atlantic Canada Studies Conference at Mount Allison University, a gathering that continues to play an important role in my apprenticeship as a historian in, and of, the region.

A pioneer of the co-operative movement and adult education in eastern Nova Scotia in the 1920s and 30s, the Antigonish movement has been well studied. Talented scholars have examined its activist-Catholic origins, long-term evolution, and many contributions.[2] Less appreciated, though, is the post-World War II era, when the movement (according to one recent study) faded into irrelevance.[3]

On a conference panel dedicated to “imagining other worlds,” I argued that the Antigonish movement played a significant role in the community-wide resistance to the closure of the Sydney steel works. From “Black Friday” forward, its activists helped to create the political consensus and organizational momentum necessary to rescue Sydney steel.

Not only were its local supporters skilled and well-regarded organizers – activist priest-professors among them — but they consistently tapped the rhetorical power of island identity and merged it with a moral critique of corporate behaviour.

Regionalism, not co-operativism or Canadian nationalism, was on full display.  And people were receptive: my sense is that there was a strong expectation locally that the movement — and not the steelworkers’ union — was the logical leader of the community’s response.

The difference between the Antigonish movement of the 1920s and the 1960s is stark. No one during the steel crisis advocated for grassroots enterprise or the creation of an alternative, morally superior economy, as their forebears had done in their own time. But instead they called for greater co-operation between labour, capital, and especially government.

This transformation can be historicized, of course. The Antigonish movement’s long antipathy to radicalism and the expansion of government after the war – which undercut appeals to self-reliance – are part of this shift.

The key idea here is that the movement remained a political force into the 50s and 60s, albeit one dedicated to significantly different political outcomes: Keynes, not Coady, now lit the way forward.  And in the particular context of the Sydney steel crisis, that leadership – however different from the movement’s founding generation — proved consequential. Steel making continued in the steel city, for better or for worse. [4]

A re-examination of the Antigonish movement in urban Cape Breton after World War II has the added benefit of opening up the wider question of collective identity and resistance in the context of post-war deindustrialization in North America.

I hope to examine that new theme at the next meeting of this welcoming and intellectually-generous group of scholars.


Andrew Parnaby is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Cape Breton University.


Notes

[1] For a quick orientation to the rich international literature on de-industrialization see Andrew Parnaby, “Life Among the Ruins: Deindustrialization in Historical Perspective,” Labour/Le Travail 72 (Fall 2013), 279-93.

[2] The scholarship on the Antigonish movement is large.  Two recent publications include Santo Dodaro and Leonard Pluta, The Big Picture: The Antigonish Movement in Eastern Nova Scotia (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012) and Peter Ludlow, The Canny Scot: Archbishop James Morrison of Antigonish (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015).

[3] One exception is Martha Walls’s intriguing “Mi’kmaw Women and St. Francis Xavier University’s Micmac Community Development Program, 1958-70,” Acadiensis, XLIV, no. 2 (Summer/Autumn 2015), 51-74.

[4] Compare the perspectives of Maude Barlow and Elizabeth May, Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada’s Love Canal (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2000) and (when it is published), Lachlan MacKinnon, “Environmental Justice and Workers’ Health: Fighting for Compensation at the Sydney Coke Ovens, 1986-1990,” in High, MacKinnon, and Perchard, eds., Deindustrialization and Its Aftermath (Vancouver: UBC Press, forthcoming, 2016).

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About Corey Slumkoski

Corey Slumkoski is an associate professor of history at Mount Saint Vincent University and the Digital Communications Editor for Acadiensis.
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One Response to The Antigonish Movement and the Sydney Steel Crisis of 1967

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of October 9, 2016 | Unwritten Histories

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