The Last Days of Coal

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The ironic impact of seniority lists meant that the men who emerged from Prince Colliery, Nova Scotia on the last production shift Friday were those most disadvantaged by the shutdown of Cape Breton's last coal mine.

The twenty three and twenty four years they toiled underground gave them enough seniority to be the very last to be laid off, but too little — in some cases, just weeks too little — to qualify for bridge benefits until modest pensions and old age benefits kick in at age sixty five.

Instead, they will collect up to $80,000 CDN in severance pay, much of which will be chewed up in taxes. They will be unable to collect unemployment benefits until the severance ends.

The fear these pit-worn veterans feel for their future and their families showed in their bitter comments to waiting reporters.

“We just can't understand it,” underground mechanic Jim Cantwell told The Canadian Press “We thought for sure we'd be retiring from here. Now we're going to be looking for employment in a place where there is none.”

“We were just disgusted,” Mike White told the Chronicle-Herald. “We were treated like dogs... but no one really cares.”

There is further irony in the cynical reaction of many mainlanders, and some Cape Bretoners, who bristle at the entitlement mentality such comments betray.

Critics can't fathom how workers who benefited from the $1.6 billion dollars Ottawa showered on Cape Breton's coal industry could believe they had been “treated like dogs.”

There is an element of truth to this reaction, but there is much that it ignores.

Ottawa established the Cape Breton Development Corporation (DEVCO) in 1967 with a mandate to phase out Cape Breton's money-losing coal industry.

The 1973 Arab oil embargo, and the energy crisis it caused, triggered a desperate quest for domestic energy supplies and turned that mandate around.

Suddenly, Cape Breton coal had value again. With Nova Scotia Premier John Buchanan's election in 1978, it became the centerpiece of his strategy to save the province from skyrocketing electricity rates — and end the furor over rates that brought down Premier Gerald Regan's government.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, DEVCO began opening new mines.

The men who shut down the Prince Mine this week were hired in that period, between 1977 and 1981. Most were in their twenties, and signed on for what DEVCO assured them was a career, in an industry with a bright future.

They worked just shy of twenty five years.

Now, in their late 40s or early 50s, they find themselves out of work with little reason for confidence in their ability to find new employment.

Miners are not unskilled — far from it. Many excel as carpenters, electricians, mechanics, pipe fitters, and stationery engineers.

But Cape Breton already suffers from a surplus of older construction workers. They are ill suited to the hundreds of new jobs that have arisen in Cape Breton — jobs more likely to go to their daughters than to themselves.

Why not move, say the social planners of the new right. Lots of people have to move to find work.

A 50-year-old laid off New Waterford miner has many good reasons not to move.

If he could sell his house at all, it would not produce enough cash to make a down payment on a dwelling in any job-rich part of Canada.

He likely has a network of family and social support that makes it cheaper and easier to survive in Cape Breton on little, or no money than anywhere else in Canada.

For the comfortably employed to dismiss the bitterness such circumstances engender as the whining of an entitlement mentality, is too easy.

Closing the coalmines, like closing the steel plant, was the right thing to do.

Taxpayers cannot continue to pour huge quantities of money into industries that show no sign of regaining the capacity to support themselves.

Politicians mustn't keep doing it on the taxpayers' behalf.

In an important sense, the end of coal and steel is a liberating event for Cape Breton.

The island's best and brightest can now put their talent and energy into enterprises with a future, instead of the dead and dying industries of the past.

That's a critical and a long overdue change.

But just because a decision is the right one, does not lessen the hardship it occasions.

The conviction that this is the right course must not blind us to the need for compassion toward those the economy has left behind.

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