Views from the Steel Plant: Voices and Photographs from 100 Years of Making Steel in Cape Breton Island
Graeme S. Mount is a professor of history at Laurentian University. He
is the author of Canada’s Enemies: Spies and Spying in the Peaceable
Kingdom, Chile and the Nazis, and The Diplomacy of War: The Case of
Cape Breton Island has a sad image: a place for impoverished Highland
Scots who endured poverty, exploitation, terrible working conditions,
and unemployment on this side of the Atlantic. This book reinforces most
of the stereotypes.
There are 11 chapters about people who worked at Sydney Steel before it
closed in 1989. Frank Murphy laments that although steelworkers fought
for Canada in World War II, purchasers subsequently turned to the
defeated enemies—Germany and Japan—and allowed Sydney Steel to
perish. The workers regarded each other as family members, he says. The
second chapter begins with a 1901 quotation from the Sydney Daily Record
that illustrates Cape Bretoners’ dashed hopes: “By and by, when
Pittsburgh is a village and New York has got to be whistled for to stop
a steamboat, Sydney will have the seaport of a continent.”
Not all Cape Bretoners were of Scottish descent. After World War II,
Mike Oleschuk, an ethnic Ukrainian who was a Polish citizen, bought a
farm. Steelworker William Ruck was black. Clem Anson, Australian by
birth, discusses his life as a steelworker. There are stories about
unions and strikes, about pressures from clergy and management not to
organize, about intimidation and struggle. Seven women (one named
Dobranski and another Henrich) discuss the role of women in the steel
plant during World War II. Rose Grant Young, a crane operator, has a
chapter to herself. Chapter 8 deals with the passionate poetry of J.
“Slim” MacInnis; his most heart-rending poem, 12 verses in length,
is titled “From Breadlines to Battlefield.” Why, he asks, should
Cape Breton steelworkers risk their lives overseas when “here at home
they have only known the fate of the dispossessed?” Chapter 10 deals
with the reaction once workers learned that their jobs, such as they
were, were about to disappear.
This book adds human faces to the horrors of Cape Breton Island.
Hopefully it will stimulate outsiders to visit the island, meet the
people, and pump some money into the economy.