Poor Not Migrating to Cities : Nova Scotians Survive on Pride--and Aid to Jobless

Times Staff Writer

Old Jim, as he asks to be called, goes to his "office" every day not far from this small Nova Scotia city, but not to work. In fact, Old Jim, 37, does not have a job and neither do a great many of his fellow residents of Canada's Cape Breton Island.

What he does every day, and what he has always done as an adult, is drive to a local general store and then to a pub--his "office"--in the nearby city of Sydney to swap stories with his buddies, drink beer and pass the time. And Old Jim has had a lot of time to pass: He has never had a permanent job.

Old Jim has his pride, however, and does not want his real name used.

"I'm not ashamed, but I don't like having people think I'm just lazin' around," he said. "I want to work, but there just ain't much to do around here."

Not for him and not for many others. The official unemployment rate for Sydney Mines, a former steel and coal mine center of nearly 9,000 people, is 26%, but Mayor Hector Di Persio says "the rate really is closer to 40%, maybe even higher."

Either way, it is the highest in Canada, and it typifies much of what is both good and bad about the way that Canada operates its extensive social welfare program.

Cape Breton Island juts out into the Atlantic Ocean a mile and a half across the Strait of Canso from the Nova Scotia mainland. Its 90,000 residents are largely of Scottish-Irish extraction who still speak with the Celtic lilt of their ancestors. They mix a sweetness of personality with a wariness of strangers often found in remote and impoverished areas.

For almost three centuries after its first sighting by explorer John Cabot in 1497, Cape Breton remained largely undeveloped. But with the exodus to Canada by British loyalists fleeing the United States after the Revolutionary War, Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island filled up. By the early 19th Century, it was one of North America's major industrial, mining and shipping centers.

Prosperity and economic importance continued into the 20th Century, but a depletion of coal and other natural resources, along with a shift of political and economic power to Central Canada, combined to create an ever-tightening cycle of joblessness, poverty and electoral impotence. Consequently, Cape Breton has had bad times for at least a generation.

"I've been here 16 years," Joan Bishop, a Sydney social worker, said in an interview, "and unemployment has been going up one percent every year. If you count as working only those people with permanent jobs, unemployment in Cape Breton is probably 35 to 40%.

"I know people in their 30s who have never had a long-term job."

No Look of Despair

Despite such persistent poverty, Cape Breton does not have the physical look of despair, the kind of ambiance, for example, that was common in West Virginia in the 1960s.

There are no slums; houses are generally neat and well maintained, and the people are dressed adequately, if not stylishly.

"People have a sense of pride," Mayor Di Persio replied when asked about Sydney Mines' pleasant appearance. The slag heaps were cleaned up after the mines were closed, and these and other external reminders of an aged and failing coal town are not in evidence here.

"We maintain our own homes by doing the work ourselves," he said.

But something more than the pride and hard work of its inhabitants accounts for Cape Breton's presentable appearance: That something is officially known as unemployment insurance, or pogey in the local slang.

Under Canada's extensive and relatively generous jobless program, unemployed persons can receive more than 60% of their weekly income while out of work. And to take care of people living in such chronically depressed areas as Cape Breton, workers need only be employed for 10 weeks a year to receive pogey the remaining 42 weeks. The 10 weeks' of work do not have to be consecutive.

Self-Employed Excluded

Furthermore, while unemployment insurance usually excludes self-employed workers, a special provision covers such seasonally self-employed people as fishermen, an important element in an area where fishing is a major part of the economy, even if it provides jobs for only 10 to 16 weeks a year.

The philosophy behind the National Unemployment Insurance program, beyond providing jobless workers with subsistence, embraces a uniquely Canadian concept that people have a right to continue living where they wish, that they do not have to pick up and move to areas where work is available.

As humane as this concept may sound, some expert observers take a more critical view. James Laxer, a political scientist at Toronto's York University, recently wrote in a study of U.S.-Canadian economic relations that Canada has avoided the crowding, dirt and violence of some American cities by paying to keep undereducated and poor people from migrating to the affluent big cities.

Or, as he put it in an interview not long ago, "We don't want those people hanging out on Bloor and Bay"--an upscale and trendy intersection in central Toronto.

Whatever the justification, unemployment insurance payments allow the people of Cape Breton and other afflicted regions to stay at home and survive. But there are costs as well as growing questions about the advisability of the program.

Call for Junking Program

A recently completed investigation by a government-appointed commission recommended junking the present program for various reasons, ranging from unfairness to inefficiency to cost.

Because of its controversial recommendations, which included a form of a guaranteed annual income in place of insurance payments, plus Canadians' near-religious belief that the government is obligated to support them if there are no jobs, it is unlikely that the commission's findings will become law.

Among its findings, the panel, headed by former Quebec Social Affairs Minister Claude Forget, said that by basing some of its benefits on where recipients live the system penalizes others. Furthermore, Forget said, only 11% of present payments go to families with incomes under $7,500 a year, while 20% is paid to families making over $30,000 annually.

The total cost of the program is nearly $9 billion, more than 11% of Canada's annual budget of $81 billion and a significant burden for a nation with a deficit that, in per capita terms, is about 2 1/2 times that of the United States.

But to social worker Bishop, problems with the unemployment insurance program go beyond those of money and even those of income distribution.

'Psychology of Dependency'

"There is no question Cape Breton has developed a psychology of dependency," she said during an interview in her Spartan office in downtown Sydney. "There is a lot of despair here, tremendous despair."

The system also fosters fear, she continued, an unwillingness to criticize the program or the way it is run. Available jobs, "even the temporary ones that qualify you for pogey, are almost all patronage and in the hands of a few politicians," Bishop said.

"If they weren't so dependent on the welfare system, people wouldn't put up with it. People are very afraid; they can't afford to make waves."

An example of the desperation in Sydney occurred last year when the local university advertised an opening in its mail room. More than 500 people applied, and "most had college degrees," Bishop said, adding that the fast-food chain Wendy's "could demand a BA."

As an example of the attitude of dependency, Bishop, whose husband is a professor at the university, said her high-school-age son became excited last summer when he had a chance at a job in a nearby national park.

" 'It'll really be good for pogey,' he told me."

No Jobs Generated

Even if welfare payments appear to be generous, critics of the system say, they are not enough to keep the community at a stable level because they do nothing to generate new jobs or economic growth.

Mayor Di Persio outlined this problem as it applies to Sydney Mines. In the last 10 years, 1,340 jobs were lost when the coal mines were closed, he said; 950 more full- and part-time workers were fired from the ferry service linking the town to Newfoundland.

And even counting welfare payments they may receive, the mayor said, the income of 30% of Sydney Mines' residents amounts to less than $1,500 a year apiece.

"This means a tax base eroded by both a loss of industry and (loss of income) from the residents," Di Persio said. "Even the emergency payments (from the provincial government) are falling off. We were getting $263,000, but last year we got $57,000."

In the face of such bleakness and the failure of past efforts to change the situation, everyone has answers to the economic catastrophe. Generally, they break down into two approaches.

Beauty of Cape Breton

Di Persio's approach is a traditional program of building industrial parks in conjunction with nearby communities to attract new businesses and a tourism development plan to take advantage of the beauty of Cape Breton.

Noting that 300,000 people passed through Sydney Mines last year to board ferries for Newfoundland, the mayor said, "We have a $1.1 million tourism development project . . . that would make us the center of tourism for Cape Breton."

And, he went on, the industrial park attracted an auto parts manufacturer that hired 150 people and built a $4.1 million plant.

But there is nothing more definite for the future, and Di Persio says that both the federal and provincial governments, particularly the latter, exhibit either indifference or opposition.

"The trouble is," he said, "Halifax (the provincial capital) won't move anything outside" its area. "We don't have any quality jobs from Halifax. They don't have the political will to go beyond self-interest."

Sister Cities

Halifax and its sister city Dartmouth contain well over half of Nova Scotia's 900,000 population, and their unemployment rate of just under 12%, although high, is far better than the province-wide figure of over 19%.

An approach entirely different from that of Di Persio is urged by Bishop and by the Nova Scotian leader of the socialist New Democratic Party as the only way the province, and especially Cape Breton, can develop adequately.

Alexa McDonough, the New Democratic leader and a member of the provincial legislature, is gathering support in the polls by arguing that calls for developing high technology centers and other industrial projects "are nothing but razzle-dazzle" that failed in the past and have no future.

Instead, she calls for greater government intervention, with an emphasis on promoting locally based enterprises "keyed to local resources and labor."

Bishop put it in plainer words.

"We need to organize and develop what we do best: fishing, agriculture and timber. We could develop a cooperative agricultural system integrating farming and lumber. At least, we could pay and feed ourselves."

But for Old Jim and thousands like him in Cape Breton, the foreseeable future means daily trips to nonexistent offices to talk about nonexistent jobs.

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