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Don’t Call it a Technical Recession, I’ve Been There for Years

If you are in your 20s or from a manufacturing city, it's been a recession all your life.

Algoma Steel mill in Sault Ste. Marie. Photos via Flickr user Adam Kahtava

Prepare yourselves for hearing and seeing the word recession about a trillion times until Election Day. The NDP and the Liberals are frothing at the mouth to be able to hang the faltering economy on the head of Stephen Harper. The PM and the Conservative party, conversely, are going to use every semantic trick in their Necronomicon of political skullduggery to maintain their reputation as steady economic stewards.


But if you're like me and grew up in the '90s in one of Ontario's many struggling manufacturing centers, the whole debate seems disingenuous. As I remember them, the '90s were filled with abrupt layoffs, mass migration, and downtowns that resembled the toothless smile of a lifelong drunk. For many Canadians, a recessionary economy is all they've ever known. A recovery, whatever that even means, never showed up. The debate over "Is it a recession? Who caused it?" obscures the true picture of an economy that over the past 25 years has mercilessly and unceremoniously made millions of Canadians unnecessary. Youth unemployment rates in Ontario are almost 17 percent. In London, Oshawa, and Windsor it's 20 percent. Twenty percent! Those are terrifying, Southeastern Europe numbers, the kinds of numbers that make fascism happen.

During the Great Recession of 2008, when the news talking heads were at the peak of their "Is Christmas even going to happen?" levels of hysteria, I remember thinking: Is this it? Is this what everyone was freaking out over? Mass layoffs. Foreclosed homes? Uh, listen: I'm from Sault Ste. Marie. We just call that Monday.

Sault Ste. Marie is a one-industry town of 75,000. (A slippery number; it would be more honest if the sign on the way into town said: "Population … It's Complicated") It is a rugged, sometimes violent place, blue collar in its culture, surrounded by beauty and filled with complicated, stubborn-to-a-fault people. It's like Season 2 of The Wire mixed with all the seasons of Trailer Park Boys.


Sault Ste. Marie is nestled in between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. It's 700 kilometres away from Toronto, but that distance would be more accurately measured in decades. When you get there it feels less like you travelled through Ontario and more like you travelled back through time to a distinctly unglamorous part of 1997. When the local Blockbusters (RIP) folded, a local man purchased the business and maintained them as video rental stores, which are thriving to this day. I repeat: Sault Ste. Marie still has profitable video rental stores. The Sault feels like an outpost, a distant colony on the edge of an empire, a place where the niceties of life have been sheared off.

The main employer is the steel mill, which used to be known as Algoma Steel but is now known as Essar Algoma Steel. In the 1980s, the plant, a squat slab of industrial grey that stretches for kilometres throughout the city's west end with a bleak and brutal appearance that betrays the still in use post-war technology, had 12,000 employees. During this time, the town boomed. My aunts and uncles describe a downtown where souped-up hot-rod cars drag raced down the main strip as moneyed young high school dropout men chased pretty girls like it was the nostalgic parts of a Springsteen song.

By 1993, globalization's downward pressures had reduced a workforce of 12,000 at the plant to 3,000. Rapidly lowering steel costs throughout the world necessitated brutal, austere cuts. Unemployment reached 20 percent as hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands disappeared from the local economy.


Downtown Sault Ste. Marie

Growing up, and to this day, my downtown Sault Ste. Marie was less the start of "Jungleland" and much more "Atlantic City." Shuttered storefronts clump throughout the former amateur speedway. If you didn't know better, you'd assume newsprint's main purpose was covering up the windows of recently failed businesses. New businesses struggle like crops planted in sand. The busiest the downtown gets is the lineup at the Pita Pit after last call.

I remember one time my father and I were driving past Algoma. As we passed the plant, he pointed to a bright flame steadfastly burning at the peak of the plant. He said, "See that flame there, that flame is burning off all the poisons from the plant. If you ever see see that flame has gone out, you better get the hell out of town." My father often confused sporadic, troubling statements with good parenting. Nonetheless, his warning illustrated the life and death relationship Sault Ste. Marie has with it's steel mill. If that flame goes out my hometown perishes.

This is not an uncommon story in Canada and certainly not in Ontario. In the past decade, 500,000 manufacturing jobs were lost—300,000 in Ontario alone—and 20,000 factories closed. These are massive numbers, especially when you consider the ripple effects. According to Dimitri Anastakis, a professor of history at Trent University and writer of Autonomous State: The Struggle for a Canadian Auto Industry from OPEC to Free Trade, every job on an assembly line is responsible for four more jobs in the local economy. Throughout Ontario, from Oshawa to London, you can see the traumatic effects of these layoffs. Once proud towns with a stable middle class are now broken, streets are barren as the hollow-eyed unemployed wander outside of boarded up windows.


The scariest part is these jobs are not being replaced. Not truly. When I interviewed him, Anastakis emphasized how special these jobs truly were, "People think these are dumb jobs but they aren't. Car factories are the highest of hi-tech, requiring a highly trained workforce." These are complex jobs that pump millions of dollars into a community all the while providing a strong identity and pride for citizens. There are not enough Walmart greeting jobs in the world to begin to recoup the loss a place like St. Thomas is going through. In Sault Ste. Marie a jobless rate that reached 20 percent was halved but with call-centre jobs whose wages are a quarter of what the steel plant offered. Replacing steel plant jobs with a call center jobs is like getting losing your dog and replacing it by just taking your hamster for more walks.

The solution was supposed to be a new knowledge economy. Manufacturing jobs may be gone but we'll replace them with ideas and education and knowledge. We won't need factories because Canada will be an idea factory. Millennials were the first generation sold on this new plan, going through a university focused education system, one that taught us that going to university was the key to everything.

The result? Hundreds of thousands of young Canadians saddled with huge debts and useless degrees. Thirty-somethings who previously would be settling down, maybe even owning a house, are living with roommates and haggling with student loan offices. And the knowledge economy? Never showed up. It turns out there is no replacing a manufacturing base. That a highly educated workforce doesn't just magically create new industries or economies. And while wealth continued to exist and grow in Ontario, it goes to more and more of a privileged elite while the rest of us fight over jobs serving those who go to work with a starched collar. A knowledge economy just mean you can start a conversation with the average dishwasher about art history.

That's why the squawking over whether or not we are in a recession is repulsive to me. Sault Ste. Marie fell apart in the '90s, which was supposed to be a boom time in Canada. When you come from a manufacturing centre the disparity between our leaders' abstract musing and the truth on the ground is stark. We know that terms like "recession" and "growth" just hide the fact that we rely on a market that will callously leave anybody behind. No matter how faithful a community is to a factory, how many tax breaks they offer, it doesn't stop a companies from finding a sexy thing down south and ripping a town's heart out. (Though, has anybody from Oshawa tried standing outside GM's headquarters with "In Your Eyes" blaring from a boombox?)

Capitalism, at least the cruel, freewheeling style all Canadian parties swear fealty to, isn't in crisis. It, as anybody who has been abruptly laid off can tell you, is the crisis.

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