All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: Deindustrialization and Structural Deficiency in Sydney, Nova Scotia

By Lachlan MacKinnon

Two weeks ago, David Zylberberg wrote on ActiveHistory of the political responses to deindustrialization in Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom. In expressing the relatively divergent implementation of industrial policy in these areas, he concludes that these examples “should serve as a warning against [policies of austerity] in Europe and beyond.” Today, with a new Liberal government in Nova Scotia under Stephen McNeil, I’m prompted to write about the experiences of deindustrialization, the impact of federal and provincial policies, and some concerns for the future in my own hometown of Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Sydney industrialized at the turn of the 20th century. Wealthy Boston industrialist H.M. Whitney launched the Dominion Iron and Steel Company (Disco) in 1899 and began construction of a steel mill at Sydney. The city grew alongside the plant; between 1901 and 1941 the population grew from 2,427 to 28,305 people. The plant changed hands several times before 1950, and by the mid-century it was falling behind Canadian and international competitors. The reasons for these developments are complex; historian David Frank argues that the early 20th century history of industry in Sydney is indicative of broader themes of regional underdevelopment in the Maritimes. Namely, Frank describes the national economic policies after Confederation, central Canadian political hegemony, and the neglect of secondary manufacturing in the Maritimes as primary factors of regional underdevelopment. [1]

Sydney Coke Ovens, 1900

Coke Ovens, Sydney, Nova Scotia. 1900. Wikimedia Commons.

Hawker-Siddeley purchased the Sydney plant in 1957. Ten years later, on 13 October 1967, the company announced that the steel mill would close the following April. In response, more than 20,000 citizens took to the streets in a “Parade of Concern” to protest the closure; the province nationalized the plant and “Sysco,” a provincial crown corporation, was created to run the mill. The government takeover of the Sydney plant corresponded with rising national concern over the processes of “deindustrialization,” which was then understood as the offshoring of Canadian jobs to areas of lower wages and lower costs. Joan Bishop argues that the provincial government had two options following the purchase of Sydney Steel: they could either make the necessary investments to make the steel plant a viable publicly-owned enterprise or phase out the plant while seeking other solutions for the area’s economic problems. Unwilling to choose the first option, the successive governments of Progressive Conservative G.I Smith and Liberal Gerald Regan ensured an unplanned and inefficient phasing out of operations at Sydney Steel throughout the 1970s. [2] Nonetheless, Sydney’s steelworkers entered the 1980s – the decade known for industrial crisis, union busting, and the culmination of neoliberalism – with a an apparent political victory over the processes of deindustrialization through public ownership.

Sydney Wire Mill, 1913

Wire Mill, Sydney, Nova Scotia. 1913. Wikimedia Commons

In 1982, Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison published The Deindustrialization of America. The book, responding to the exodus of work in American industrial communities, highlighted the same types of local resistance as had occurred more than a decade previously in Sydney. [3] This reflected a broader consideration of the global economic changes that were occurring during the decade – and Sydney was not insulated through the province’s involvement. By the end of the decade, the Progressive Conservatives under John Buchanan decided to enact a modernization plan at the mill; the coke ovens and blast furnaces were closed, and the workforce at Sydney Steel was cut from more than 1,300 to about 750 employees. At the same time, study after study began showing what community members had long feared – that the toxic waste site at the centre of the city, the Sydney Tar Ponds, was causing high rates of cancer, birth defects, and other illnesses among those who lived in the neighbourhoods surrounding the plant. John Savage and Russell MacLellan, both Liberal premiers between 1993 and 1999, sought private buyers for the plant. Although several deals were considered, none came to fruition. After the election of Progressive Conservative premier John Hamm in 1999, the final decision to shutter Sydney Steel and liquidate all assets was announced. The last rail was rolled at the plant in May 2000, nearly a century after the plant first opened.

Steel Plant site, 2005

Coke Ovens, Sydney, Nova Scotia. 1900. Wikimedia Commons.

So what does all this mean now, more than ten years later? The landscape of work has been “remediated,” the steel plant buildings torn down, and soccer pitches and green fields have been erected on the site. Many of the problems outlined by Zylberberg, high unemployment and declining population among them, remain relevant to Sydney. [4] In their aptly titled 2003 work Beyond the Ruins, Jefferson Cowie and Joseph Heathcott argue that we as historians must move away from simple “body counts” of lost manufacturing jobs or “smokestack nostalgia” and instead focus our attention on deindustrialization as an implicit and ongoing process of global capitalism, “the political and social burdens placed on former industrial communities, the environmental legacy, and changes in social identity.” [5] As we’ve seen from the plant’s history in the early 20th century, many of these developments are not entirely new; Atlantic Canada has, in many ways, suffered with issues of unemployment and population exodus throughout the century. In order to deal with these issues, however, we must turn our attention towards the present.

Sunset Over Sydney Harbour

Mark Seymour, Sunset Over Sydney Harbour, 2011. Creative Commons.

In Sydney, despite the loss of the steel industry and the associated problems, the city continues to function. Certainly, the availability of work in other parts of Canada – primarily in the energy sector – has provided a safety valve to prevent the same levels of disparity that we have seen in places like Detroit or Flint, Michigan. In March, the CBC even reported that a Russian iron ore company was possibly interested in constructing a manufacturing facility in Sydney. Nonetheless, as Zylberberg has shown, federal and regional governments can play a role in mitigating the effects of industrial loss. Unfortunately, it appears that all three major parties in Nova Scotia have embraced the language and spirit of neoliberal austerity. The NDP government of Darrell Dexter, which was repudiated by voters in the recent election, enacted significant cuts to healthcare, education, and post-secondary institutions. The platforms of the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties also highlighted tax cuts, regulatory review, and fiscal “efficiency.” To alleviate the damage caused by structural deficiencies in places like Sydney, we must call on governments – of whichever political stripe – to reject ideological decision-making and enact policy based upon the needs of their constituents, not the hegemonic “common-sense” of austerity and neoliberal ethos.

Lachlan MacKinnon is currently a Ph.D. student at Concordia University focusing on workers’ experiences of deindustrialization in Atlantic Canada.


[1] David Frank, “The Rise and Fall of the British Empire Steel Corporation,” Acadiensis 7, 1 (Autumn 1977), pp. 3-34.

[2] Joan Bishop, “Class Conflict and the Establishment of the Sydney Steel Industry, 1899-1904,” in Kenneth Donovan ed. The Island: New Perspectives on Cape Breton history, 1713-1990 (Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 1990), 115-186.

[3] Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison, The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry (New York: Basic Books, 1982)

[4] In August, the unemployment rate of Cape Breton Island rested at 15.2 per cent.

[5] Jefferson Cowie and Joseph Heathcott, “The Meanings of Deindustrialization,” in J. Cowie and J. Heathcott, eds. Beyond the Ruins: The Meaning of Deindustrialization (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 14.

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