'Standing the gaff': immiseration and its consequences in the de-industrialised mining communities of Cape Breton Island.

Author:Wray, David

'People suggest that regions collapse, but they don't. It's a long drawn out process that is inevitably downward.' (Senior administrator, CBRM)


In his reaffirmation of Marx's concept of immiseration, Trotsky offered a sociological caveat to its predicted outcomes: that the sharpening of the contradictions between the classes would not be sufficient in themselves to produce revolutionary social change. The responses of the degraded class would be contingent upon the social, political and historical conditions shaping the working class's experience and understanding of immiseration--what he defined as 'the concrete historical conditions' (1938: 54). The availability of social and political leadership offering feasible alternative forms of social organisation would also be central to this revolutionary process.

Since the re-emergence of neoliberal governments in the 1980s, we have seen major declines in primary industries, increased levels of long-term unemployment, a reduction in the social protections available to workers (Espring-Anderson, 2004), and an increasingly embattled and declining trade union movement (Kelly, 1998). Despite critical voices (Strachey, 1956; Galbraith, 1998; Fukuyama, 2006), we believe that the economic and social realities of de-industrialisation are such that that the concept of immiseration remains a useful theoretical framework. This has been recognised elsewhere: in his forward to Braverman's (1974) seminal work, Sweezy talks of immiseration thus: 'far from being the egregious fallacy which bourgeois social science has long held it to be, [it] has in fact turned out to be one of the best founded of all Marx's insights into the capitalist system' (1974: xii).

It is our belief that Marx's concept of immiseration continues to have relevance to the understanding of the consequences of de-industrialisation, particularly in geographically isolated, single occupational communities created to serve the needs of extractive industries. The now redundant mining communities of New Waterford, Sydney Mines and Glace Bay, all located within the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM) on the Atlantic seaboard of Canada, will be the case-study focus of this claim. The economic, social and political conditions of de-industrialisation have clearly imposed an identifiable process of immiseration on these populations. However, in contrast to Marx's prediction of a radical response, we identify historical, social, political and economic conditions which, intensified by spatial isolation, have proved to be significant barriers to a collective class based response.


This research project, covering the years 2005 to 2009, was designed to identify the enduring consequences of de-industrialisation in the isolated mining communities of Cape Breton Island. Taking a longitudinal view, we sought to identify how the closure of the mines impacted over time, allowing us to present an in-depth evaluation from the perspective of a range of individuals living and, in some cases, working in the case-study communities. The three communities in the case study were chosen because they were domicile to the largest number of miners in the declining years of the coal industry in Cape Breton. This longitudinal case study approach allows the researcher to examine how significant events, and their consequences, develop over time (Kitay and Callus, 1998).

Throughout the research, qualitative data was collected through interviews with a broad section of individuals living or working in the case-study communities. In order to gain a wide range of views, we approached individuals offering opinions from different perspectives. The members of the first group were chosen for their positions within the administration of the CBRM: they were councillors (3); the mayor of the CBRM; the MP representing the case-study communities in the regional government of Nova Scotia; and senior administrators in the CBRM bureaucracy (2). The second group was composed of individuals of importance in their communities: teachers (2), community workers (2), trade union officials from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) (2), and clergy (1). In this group we also interviewed people who held no official position, but nevertheless possessed standing and influence in their communities (6). Mayo, in his work in communities in the UK, describes such individuals as 'community godmothers and godfathers' (1997: 4)--people with no formal position, but who are active in community affairs. The third group was made up of former miners and their families (8). Access to these individuals was gained through the services of three initial 'gatekeepers' who we recruited during our first visit to the CBRM: the MP from the regional government of Nova Scotia; the head of the UMWA in Canada, who is located in the CBRM and is himself a former miner from New Waterford; and a community activist introduced to us by an academic from St Mary's University, Halifax, who we met at a conference at that university in 2003. All respondents were interviewed during each period of the fieldwork, which consisted of annual visits to the CBRM, timed to coincide with the Miners' Memorial Day celebrations (see below) attended annually by the respondents. This continuity with respondents allowed us to build up trust relationships with those involved and, as a consequence, provided us with richer data than would have been available through one-off interviews. Indeed, some respondents were proactive in that they collected useful data in the form of CBRM internal publications, newspaper cuttings, and taped TV documentaries that kept us abreast of the events and issues in Cape Breton. As part of these initiatives, some arranged interviews with individuals outside of the original cohort, who provided contemporary insights into issues of concern to themselves and their communities.

Ali interviews were semi-structured in nature, allowing the respondents the opportunity to provide reflective insights into the issues that were most relevant to their own experience. Initial interviews were informed by the wide literature on the experiences of de-industrialised mining communities in the UK, with all subsequent interviews informed by our growing understanding of the situation in Cape Breton. Interviews were primarily face-to-face, although clarification was sought, when required, through telephone interviews.

Quantitative data was sourced from Community Counts (www.gov.ns.ca), the website of the Canadian quintenial census, with the data on projected population numbers coining from a report undertaken for the CBRM by a private company (Terrain Group Incorporated: 2004)

Coal mining in Cape Breton

In 1999, the Legislature of the Canadian Province of Nova Scotia declared 11 June Miners' Memorial Day, formally recognising an annual event long celebrated across the mining communities in the province, organised by the UMWA. On that day in 1925, in New Waterford, during a strike against a 10 per cent wage reduction, union activist William Davis was shot and killed by the security force of the British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO). At the outbreak of the dispute, the general manager of BESCO replied, when asked about the likely outcome of the strike, 'Let them stay out for six months, it matters not. Eventually they will come crawling back to us. They cannot stand the gaff.' When asked what he meant by 'the gaff', he replied 'the privation and attendant hunger' (William Davis Memorial Park, New Waterford.)

In 1893, the Dominion Coal Company was formed and following several transformations caused by market depression, merger and worker unrest (including a period as BESCO, from 1921-1928), the organisation finally became the Dominion Steel and Coal Corporation (DOSCO) in 1930 (Schwartzman, 1955).

Despite the abundance of coal reserves, DOSCO continued to struggle to the extent that by 1960, the mining industry in Cape Breton was on the verge of collapse (Frank, 1999). In response, the federal government set up a commission to seek a way forward not just for the industry, but for the region as a whole. The resultant Donald Report recommended the creation of the Cape Breton Development Corporation (DEVCO) to take the remnants of the mining industry into public ownership (Donald, 1966). Established in 1967, DEVCO was tasked with the orderly and gradual closure of the four remaining mines; the introduction of an early retirement plan for miners; the diversification of the local economy; the development of alternative employment for the soon-to-be-redundant miners; and, finally, the establishment of education and training programmes to develop local human resources (Kent, 2001).

However, DEVCO's mission was overtaken by the oil crisis of the early 1970s, when it was given the responsibility of meeting an expanding demand for coal, opening three new mines in the process. This industrial expansion was soon overtaken by the recession in the 1980s, and in 1987, the federal government divested DEVCO of responsibility for the economic regeneration of the CBRM, establishing the Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation (ECBC) to undertake that role instead. This was a tacit acknowledgement of the inevitable end to the coal industry in the CBRM, with DEVCO again left with overseeing the closure of the industry (Bickerton, 1990). The closure of the Prince mine in 2001 brought an end to an industry that had lasted for more than 200 years. As victims of the economic and social devastation caused by the closure programme, the now de-industrialised mining communities of Cape Breton were once more forced to 'stand the gaff'.

The statistics of immiseration

The social consequences of de-industrialisation became apparent long before the closure of the Prince mine, and can clearly be seen in the population figures for the CBRM. In 1996, the total population of the CBRM stood at 117,840--a level lower than it had been in 1951....

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