Post-Industrial Communities: Researching Our Past to Better Our Future

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Cape Breton Island, now recognized for its natural landscapes and golf resorts, was once the industrial Heartland of Atlantic Canada. By 2000, its coal and steel industries shut down resulting in a host of social and economic difficulties for the region. Learn why preserving the history of Cape Breton’s economic decline could help create a better future for postindustrial communities in Nova Scotia, Canada and beyond.

Mission: Improved Quality of Life for Nova Scotians

Rhys Waters 0:00

Welcome to Beyond Research. A podcast brought to you by Research Nova Scotia.

Stephanie Reid 0:07

Cape Breton Island, now recognized for its natural landscapes and golf resorts was once the industrial heartland of Atlantic Canada. By 2000, most of its industry shutdown, resulting in a host of social and economic difficulties for the region.

Lachlan MacKinnon 0:23

Although those industries collapse 20 years ago, Cape Breton still fluctuates between, you know, 14 and 20% unemployment depending on when you look, child poverty is still incredibly high, you know, a third of the children here in poverty. All of these issues remain right and they’re rooted in the economic problems caused by the loss of that industrial base.

Stephanie Reid 0:42

This is Dr. Lauchlan MacKinnon, an assistant professor of history in tier two Canada Research Chair and post industrial communities at Cape Breton University. Today, you will learn how he plans to preserve the history of Cape Breton’s economic decline in order to create a better future for post industrial communities in Nova Scotia, Canada and beyond. Thank you for joining us today, Dr. MacKinnon. I’m wondering if we could start by you just telling us a little bit about your passion for history. And what attracted you specifically to this line of research?

Lachlan MacKinnon 1:20

Well, when I was growing up, I grew up here in Sydney, where I’m now working at Cape Breton University. And I went through high school in the early 2000s. And during that time, Cape Breton Island was facing a lot of problems. There was significant kind of issues relating to the opioid crisis, the economy was in shambles. Unemployment was super high. At the same time, I was looking around and seeing, you know, friends who had parents or grandparents were getting cancer and things like that, when I was growing up kind of watching that happen. And so I kind of wondered, you know, what happened here? Right. And so I think that kind of probably started the ball rolling on studying deindustrialization. Right, because of course, all of those things were connected to the fact that the coal mines, and the steel plant, which had sustained the economy of the island for 100 years, both ended in the year 2000. Right. So immediately, at that same time that I was watching kind of that fabric come apart, those industries had kind of collapsed in on themselves. And so what I was actually witnessing was the aftermath of that kind of collapse, although I didn’t necessarily know that at the time.

Stephanie Reid 2:27

And for our listeners at home, and he kind of touched on it in your answer there. But your research specifically looks at the history of Cape Breton Island. And even more specifically, the post industrial communities within Can you explain just break it down what that really means for those who may not understand it?

Lachlan MacKinnon 2:47

What I’m really researching is deindustrialization, in general, right. So for thinking about, you know, society in North America, or Western Europe, since the 1970s, there has been a crisis in industries that had sustained hundreds of communities and all these different countries. So you had the collapse of the coal industry, the collapse of steel industries, or at least the collapse of employment in those industries, which, you know, up until that point was often heavily unionized, high paying, could provide kind of a higher standard of life. And then at that time, during the 1970s, the 1980s, for a variety of reasons, the economic kind of underpinnings to those industrial producers, and employment within those industries kind of got pulled out from underneath, everybody involved, right. And so those industries started to collapse, one after the other after the other, all the way across kind of North America and Western Europe. So yeah, so that’s the broad picture of what I’m kind of looking at, of course, my own specific focus, you know, up until this point has been industrial, Cape Breton, which is where I’m located. So looking at the coal and steel industries here, the effects relating to their decline and eventual end. And then, of course, what comes in the aftermath. Although those industries collapse, 20 years ago, Cape Breton still fluctuates between, you know, 14 and 20%. Unemployment, depending on when you look, child poverty is still incredibly high, you know, a third of the children here are in poverty, all of these issues remain, right. And they’re rooted in the economic problems caused by the loss of that industrial base. And so part of my research is looking at, well, what does that transition mean? How do people deal with it? And of course, then what happens to these economies and these communities in the kind of years after that transition?

Stephanie Reid 4:34

Right. And in relation to this current work? What are the outcomes or goals of their research? And how do you feel like that could impact k brighteners for years to come?

Lachlan MacKinnon 4:45

Well, I think there’s probably a few goals. So So one is to kind of get an idea of comparative policy frameworks in kind of an international perspective to have an idea of how different governments have treated industrial decline. Right. So what kind of practices were put into place in different areas to try and wrestle with rising unemployment, and all of the social ills that come along with the decline of those kind of foundational industries? And then how did they work? Like in the United States, you saw a much more or less a fair kind of approach where well, industrial producers are simply allowed to kind of decline on their own collapse. And then, you know, new industries would kind of rise organically, right, without much participation by governments. So one idea is to look at kind of different approaches in different countries and see which ones had kind of success, right, and which ones perhaps had less success, not just Canada, United States, but looking at the history of industry, and the industrialization in the UK or France or Germany. All of these places have similar stories in terms of the way that communities have experienced deindustrialization. But of course, in each of these places, very different policy frameworks came into being in response, then of course, in doing that, then you’re able to perhaps make prescriptive recommendations that could be implemented at either the municipal or provincial or federal level, to try and offset some of the kind of malaise or economic problems that are continuing in places like Cape Breton, right. And I think that’s one of the main contributions of this research will have for Nova Scotia, and indeed for the rest of Canada, because this isn’t simply a question of industrial Cape Breton. It’s a question that, you know, Northern Ontario, or BC forestry or oil, and Alberta, even you know, all of these sorts of resources, extractive industries, industrial production, all of these communities will have to deal with these questions at one time or another,

Stephanie Reid 6:38

are you able to share any early outputs today. So, in my research,

Lachlan MacKinnon 6:43

I’m looking right now at emerging industrial development frameworks that took place here in Atlantic Canada, as well as the Scottish Highlands, right. And I’m looking at the way that governments implemented those policies between the 1960s, the 1980s, to kind of think about how to foster a transition away from those industries. Of course, here in Nova Scotia, the government was aware quite early, that coal wasn’t going to last forever. And so through a series of interventions, the Donald’s report, the creation of Dev, CO, all these other sorts of things were done, to try and slow that role, right to try and make it so that in the aftermath of the end of that industry, there were other things that could kind of rise to take its place, tourism being one that worked quite well, others that perhaps didn’t work as well. So that’s one of these kind of early results, right, is that it does seem as though state responses that do try to take an active role in number one, mediating the decline of those industries. And number two, kind of fostering a transition to small business growth to, you know, the knowledge and service economies, which I keep mentioning, have seemed to have fared better than places where the the idea was simply to well allow the collapse to happen, and then see what builds back in its place. And that’s a very preliminary kind of finding. But those are the sorts of things that we’re kind of trying to get a handle of, as we work through the project.

Stephanie Reid 8:05

Yeah. And in your opinion, why is it so critical that history become digitized for public consumption?

Lachlan MacKinnon 8:12

Firstly, it creates kind of a huge repository of information and sources for researchers. And then second, I think it does democratize kind of knowledge in a way, right, that might be a more high minded, you know, goal. But I do think that it allows people in their own communities to kind of have more access to their own histories. So I use oral history a lot in my research that involves talking to people about their own experiences, both their work lives, their lives at home, what their communities were like when people were working in the coal industry, the steel industry or what have you, and then how that’s changed in the aftermath of the decline of those industries.

Stephanie Reid 8:50

Yeah. And why is that oral history, as you call it so important to your work? And in your current study,

Lachlan MacKinnon 8:57

I think really introducing that human element to it also provides another layer of kind of qualitative research. Rural history is really important when you’re looking at issues of industrial decline and closure because it allows human stories to kind of come to the forefront, right. Oftentimes, in the media or when we’re thinking about things like closure, you’ll get the story come across the newspaper, you know, Oshawa GM in Oshawa, closes down this many people are out of work, or Sydney steel closes down this many people are out of work. And then that’s the last you hear about, you know, you say, Oh, well, that’s too bad. And you continue on. But when you’re foregrounding people’s stories of how they experienced that moment, what you see is that that moment of closure actually extends for years after the event itself, right. The impact of that continues on in people’s lives in a variety of ways. And not only that, but I think it affects communities in a variety of ways. even decades later, right. You can look at Cape Breton and obviously the scars of industrial production and the loss of that production are still here. I

Stephanie Reid 9:56

would imagine that in certain places in Canada The oral history is probably much stronger than others, there’s probably places where the old population has probably moved on to the point where the people living in those high rises have no idea about what used to be there is that pretty accurate in terms of your experiences?

Lachlan MacKinnon 10:19

That’s definitely accurate. Here in Cape Breton, there’s a kind of a sense of located pneus, and connection to history

Stephanie Reid 10:25

And in pride of place, really.

Lachlan MacKinnon 10:26

And pride of place that comes out in the oral histories. But it also, that point I think, raises other questions too, right? Because in my own research, of course, I’m talking to people who are here, you know, but again, my generation most people didn’t wind up back in Sydney, most people of my generation went out west to work in the oil fields as soon as we graduated or did something else. So their understanding of what deindustrialization is is not one that’s rooted in place or landscape at all. It’s one that’s rooted in dislocation and moving away from somewhere, right? Even within Canada, it’s interesting to think about deindustrialization in different contexts. So if you look at cities, right, Montreal or Toronto, you don’t often think of them as the industrialized although of course, they are right. If you look at Montreal, the area alongside the Aleutian canal, for example, was once kind of the beating heart of the economy of that city with you know, Redpath, sugar, Robinhood, flour, all of these sorts of factories along the canal. And then of course, at the same time, the 1960s 1970s, for a variety of reasons, they all started to close and the economic transition didn’t miss, you know, Montreal, that city has also transitioned significantly. The difference is that in a city like Montreal, it’s not as visible, right, if you come to Sydney, you notice that there’s no longer a booming steel plant here, because nothing has taken its place. Whereas in Montreal, if you go down to the lishan Canal, you see all kinds of condos, there’s artists, little bakeries, there’s all sorts of other types of businesses and employers that have kind of filled that space in a way. But that’s not to say that it’s not the industrialized right, of course, there were communities that surrounded those factories, there was people that worked and lived in them and around them. And they formed communities based on that experience, just as they did here in Sydney. But of course, in the aftermath, they’re treated very differently in the ways that people think about them. So one is that, you know, one kind of comparative aspect is that urban deindustrialization, I think is is rendered invisible in a way that rural the industrialization kind of isn’t right? You go to somewhere where nothing has really come in to take the place of those industries. And you say, Oh, well, this is kind of a post industrial place. But really, we’re living in kind of a post industrial moment, right? At least we are in North American and European. It’s not as though nobody’s making steel anymore. It’s just not being made here. Right. So it’s not that there’s not production happening. It’s the kind of geography and the spatial reality of how that happens, has been decentralized, in a way.

Stephanie Reid 12:49

Very important and very interesting. A part of your work also includes examining post industrial landscapes. Can you explain what you mean by this and why it’s important to your research?

Unknown Speaker 13:01

Yeah, post industrial landscapes, I think are really fascinating sites. Right. So if you take, for example, Open Hearth Park in Cape Breton, that’s the site of the former Sydney steel plant. And prior to that, he was a site where, you know, settlers were and prior to that it was an indigenous site, right. So if you’re looking at this small parcel of land, you have all sorts of different identities that are connected to it, right. And I think that each of those moments in that site history comes with a whole host of kind of associated identity markers. Right. And so thinking about how a site like that transitions, I think gives you insight into the sense of loss that permeates the industrialization in general.

Stephanie Reid 13:47

How will your research prioritize diverse experiences of post industrial Cape Breton, specifically, those including the Mi’kmaw and indigenous experiences?

Unknown Speaker 14:00

Oh, there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done in terms of recognizing deindustrialization as something that doesn’t simply affect, you know, white blue collar men who lost work in these areas, right, it as a social process. Deindustrialization affected everybody in these communities, right. So there are gendered aspects. There are certainly racialized aspects. And of course, the indigenous piece of that puzzle is something that hasn’t been looked at a whole lot. Right. So and I often say, you know, it’s interesting that it’s only in the aftermath of Cape Breton’s industry, for example, then member two has so obviously grown right, you know, member two is, in a way, the economic driver of Cape Breton Island at this very moment. And I don’t know that that’s a coincidence, right, that that didn’t happen in the industrial moment. Because I think that there were particular mechanisms in place that kind of kept certain groups within the community pushed to the outside of things that were happening. And I think that that’s perhaps we’re in a different moment now. And of course, I think that that’s an important piece of that story. We’re not telling a simple story of, Oh, you know, these industries rose and then fell and you know, all these, you know, it’s a complete tragedy. Of course, there’s mediating circumstances within. And the environmental piece of the puzzle is similar in a way, right, of course, industrial production. You know, one of my interviewees said, the steel plant, you know, it gave a lot to my family and allowed my kids to go to university, we had a car, we had a, you know, a house, but it took a lot from me to because this person I was speaking to, you know, develop cancer at an early age, a lot of the co workers had already passed away, you know, there’s all sorts of issues relating to industrial production. So it gives it a takes away, right. And I think that that’s kind of part of that puzzle, is getting out the diversity of that experience, and kind of a way where you can include that in your analysis,

Stephanie Reid 15:46

right. And it must be so interesting in your work to talk to these families, and hear these stories and know that there are all of these untold stories that you’re helping to bring to the forefront and make part of that overarching narrative moving forward. There must be some pride in that.

Lachlan MacKinnon 16:05

Yeah, it’s it’s very interesting, right? You get to talk to all sorts of people. Sometimes it’s very sad, you know, sometimes, you know, the stories that you hear. And I guess this gets back to this idea of how, yeah, I’m a historian, right? I write history about things that happened many years ago, sometimes going back more than a half century ago, and bringing it up to today. But when you talk to people, obviously, these histories still impact their lives in such real ways, right? Like you’re, if you’re talking to somebody who’s, you know, children passed away as a result of different cancers from living alongside the coke ovens. This woman might be in her 50s, or 60s and their children would be my age. Obviously, those sorts of stories are very powerful, right. And so including those stories in a holistic discussion of what it means to lose industry, I think that’s very powerful, too, right? Because of course, you can say, well, coal and steel are gone. And a lot of communities, it left a gaping hole that a lot of ways right to left an economic hole, it left the kind of center that people built their identities around. There’s a lot of problems associated with the loss of those industries. But the other part of it is that there are a lot of problems with those industries as well, right? people’s bodies were destroyed, you know, working in those industries, people’s health was destroyed, living alongside those industries. And so I think it’s kind of trying to find a way to tell those stories and include people’s personal narratives about that experience that I think really drives, you know, a lot of my research, right, it’s that tension that I find really, really interesting to get into.

Stephanie Reid 17:36

Very, very well set. Very well said. Well, thank you so much, Dr. McKinnon for joining us today. It’s been lovely chatting with you about your research.

Lachlan MacKinnon 17:47

Yeah, thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

Rhys Waters 17:50

To find out more about this podcast and the research featured in this episode, visit My name is Rhys Waters, and we will see you next time.

Dr. Lachlan MacKinnon is an Assistant Professor of History and Tier II Canada Research Chair in Post-Industrial Communities at Cape Breton University.