The Demise of Devco
by Fred McMahon


The Moncton Times and Transcript, The Halifax Daily News

The demise of Devco is the best news to hit Nova Scotia and Cape Breton for years. And, if Ottawa lives up to its implicit commitment to Devco workers, it’s great news for coal miners too.

The mines have damaged economic prospects throughout Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. Their closure will open new opportunities.

The mines pushed Nova Scotia’s electricity prices to unnecessarily high levels. That’s because Nova Scotia Power is forced to buy coal Cape Breton coal at ridiculously high prices – by some calculations at twice the world price. The situation got so bad that at one point the presidents of Nova Scotia Power and Devco, like two feuding boys, won’t even talk to each other.

Energy costs are one of the most important factors companies look at when deciding where to invest. Nova Scotia’s energy costs discourage development and job creation.

Meanwhile the old, polluting, industrial structure in Cape Breton has depressed job growth there. Like energy costs, quality of life is a key factor when businesses decide where to invest. The high – often dangerous – levels of local pollution keeps new investment off the island.

Above all these factors, however, is quality of labour. The us-versus-them, labour-versus-the-bosses, attitude engendered by old-time industrial unions frightens any employer thinking of creating jobs in Cape Breton.

In today’s world, businesses and workers need to understand they are in the same fight. What helps the business benefits the employees and vice versa. Many businesses in Cape Breton have floundered because of a militant work force, that’s happy to hold any employer, particularly a national or international company, up for ransom.

That attitude was evident in the mine closure announcement. Federal officials were so worried about physical attacks, they tried to keep the location of the Devco press conference secret. More than one Nova Scotian political leader has been pushed around and kicked while trying to talk to the Cape Breton workforce. Any potential investor will look at that and shudder.

The miners’ union has attacked any type of privatization of the Cape Breton coal mines and called on the province to deny mineral rights to anyone buying the Prince mine, which, unlike Phalen, might be economically viable. What private company would want to walk into that labour trap? Unfortunately, this attitude too often characterizes Cape Breton labour relations.

Training and education, along with a flexible and co-operative workforce, are key factors in economic development. The death of old industries should focus the minds of Cape Bretoners, particularly young Cape Bretoners, on the need to improve their education and skills.

That’s happening now. Cape Breton’s high tech sector is already growing. We live in a dynamic economy, and people can do wonders when they realize they must take their fate into their own hands. The dependence and entitlement trap in Cape Breton has done immense damage to the island’s economy. New attitudes are already beginning to create a new economy.

It’s happened elsewhere. When CN closed down its railyards in Moncton and Eaton’s shut down its catalogue centre at the same time, predictions of doom abounded. The city is now thriving. Proportionately, Halifax took the largest hit of any area in Canada during recent government cutbacks. Today, our city is the brightest spot of the regional economy.

Ottawa does have a heavy responsibility to Devco employees. They believed they were promised lifetime, government-protected employment. Severance packages should be generous. Those young enough to retrain should be offered a full range of options.

So, the closure of the mines creates new opportunities for Nova Scotians and particularly Cape Bretoners, if people don’t fall prey to self-pity. Someday miners will not have to go underground again. If Ottawa meets its commitments, those too old will be able to retire with dignity. Younger workers should have doors opened for them. That’s good news all around.