Review of MacKinnon, Closing Sysco

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Lachlan MacKinnon, Closing Sysco: Industrial Decline in Atlantic Canada’s Steel City. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020. 290 pgs. ISBN: 9781487524029.

Reviewed by Ken Cruikshank.

Cover of Closing Sysco by Lachlan Mackinnon

A reviewer could engage in many different ways with Lachlan MacKinnon’s sensitive account of the unraveling of the steel industry in Sydney, Nova Scotia in the second half of the twentieth century. A political economist might consider the ways in which Closing Sysco accounts for the repeated failure of both private and public corporations to invest in and modernize the industry. A labour scholar could reflect on MacKinnon’s discussion of the challenges that industrial decline posed to the union and to the workers that it sought to represent and protect. An environmental historian might think about how this work draws upon the literature on working-class environmentalism and environmental justice to illuminate the meaning and legacy of deindustrialization. Those reviewers would all find interesting arguments with which to reckon, and all would be impressed by the imaginative ways in which MacKinnon advances those arguments, integrating oral interviews with more traditional written sources.

Environmental historians will likely focus on two key chapters in the book. Chapter Five explores the issues surrounding workers health and safety, while Chapter Six offers a perspective on the remediation of what became known as Canada’s most toxic waste site, the Sydney Tar Ponds. The focus of these chapters is on the steel industry’s impact on the human as opposed to the other than human world. MacKinnon traces the increasing awareness of the bodily harm inflicted on steel workers and the surrounding community in the decades after Black Friday. After a private corporation announced on Friday 13 October 1967 that it intended to close its steel works in Sydney, the provincial government of Nova Scotia stepped in to manage the plant, sustaining at least some steel-making activity for another 33 years. Increasing concern about the environmental consequences of steel making for humans, therefore, took place at the same time as the provincial government was responsible for trying to manage the precarious industry. Indeed, those concerns appeared to grow each time workers and community members believed that the government intended to wind the industry down.

Dumping molten slag, with mill furnaces in background
Dumping molten slag, with mill furnaces in background. Guy Blouin/National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/PA-175734.

MacKinnon makes an impassioned case for considering shop-floor activism in the literature on environmental justice. He emphasizes in particular the significant role played by the Coke Oven Workers United for Justice in the late 1980s in drawing attention to human health concerns inside and outside the steel plant. The members of this “’vigilante committee’” operated outside the formal union structure because they felt that the union leadership in Sydney was slow to follow the rest of the steelworkers union in seeking compensation for those whose work had affected their health. MacKinnon thoughtfully observes that it was deindustrialization – the threatened closure of the coke ovens – that mobilized these workers to take action before it was too late, allowing them to step outside the “high threshold culture” that otherwise normalized workplace health risks. They successfully convinced their union to take up their cause, and together, they convinced a reluctant provincial government and recalcitrant administrative tribunal to compensate workers suffering from diseases that could be attributed to employment in the coke ovens, including lung cancer, industrial bronchitis and chronic respiratory ailments. MacKinnon gets a little sidetracked in the middle of this chapter by an account of one workers’ experience of a horrific industrial accident; although he does try to connect it, the story is so powerful that it somewhat overshadows the terrible slow violence inflicted on many coke oven workers that is otherwise the main focus of Chapter Five.

Sydney Steel Company slag pot as industrial heritage installation, Sydney, NS. Courtesy of Sean Marshall.

MacKinnon further argues that the workers and their union drew attention to health and environmental issues that would resonate in the wider community in the 1990s and beyond as residents of Sydney grappled with industrial pollution and the toxic waste site known as the tar ponds. In Chapter Six, he expands on that argument, highlighting the tensions that developed between workers and some environmentalists. Workers became frustrated when their local knowledge was ignored; they rightly predicted the problems that would haunt some of the initial proposals to remediate toxic waste in and around the Sydney plant. They became equally concerned that some environmentalists – among them the Sierra Club’s Elisabeth May – only saw Sysco as part of a “dirty” industrial past that was better left behind.

MacKinnon shows much more sympathy for the working-class community members whose experience more closely paralleled that of the steelworkers – those who lost their homes and possibly family members because of pollution from the plant. He focuses on two of the six women who led the fight to have the government acknowledge that toxins were seeping into their homes on Frederick Street. They offer distinctive voices in Closing Sysco, because neither of these women had any direct or even familial connection to Sydney’s steel plant. MacKinnon uses interviews with the women to tell the story of their environmental battle, to analyze the role of gender in community environmental activism, and to reflect on the continuing impact of Sydney’s industrial past on the present.

Sydney tar pond in 2005. Courtesy of David Smith.

Closing Sysco, therefore, offers a corrective to much of the Canadian literature on environmental justice activism, which tends to focus only on local community organizing. MacKinnon argues that even analyses of the Sydney Tar Ponds have overlooked the critical role played by steelworkers and their unions. These chapters add to our understanding of working-class environmentalism, complementing and extending the work of Robert Storey, Laurel Sefton MacDowell, Jessica Van Horssen, and Katrin MacPhee.1 The analysis also nicely bridges the work of Mark Leeming and Ingrid R.G. Waldron, and, while it does not replace the detailed account of the remediation of the Sydney Tar Ponds provided by Maude Barlow and Elisabeth May in Frederick Street, it does offer an update and critique of the overall tone of that work.2 Situating MacKinnon’s work in this Nova Scotia literature is not intended to limit its significance; rather it is to suggest that he joins some of the most interesting work in the history of environmentalism and environmental justice in Canada, which has focused on that province.

Closing Sysco provides something more for those interested in our present environmental moment. Its analysis of deindustrialization raises important questions about what we mean when we talk about a “just transition” away from our current dependence on fossil fuels.3 It invites us to listen carefully to the voices of fossil fuel workers and communities in that discussion, to ensure that the shape of this industrial transition is less devastating and more just and equitable than what unfolded on Cape Breton in the second half of the twentieth century.

[1] For example, Robert Storey, “From the Environment to the Workplace …and Back Again? Occupational Health and Safety Activism, 1970s–2000+”, Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 41, no. 4 (2004): 419–447; Laurel Sefton MacDowell, “The Elliot Lake Uranium Miners’ Battle to Gain Occupational Health and Safety Improvements, 1950–1980”, Labour/Le Travail 69 (2012): 91–118; Jessica van Horssen, “‘À faire un peu de poussière:’ Environmental Health and the Asbestos Strike of 1949,” Labour/Le Travail 70 (2012): 101–132; Katrin MacPhee, “Canadian Working-Class Environmentalism, 1965–1985,” Labour/Le Travail 74 (2014): 123–149.

[2] Mark Leeming, “Local Economic Independence as Environmentalism: Nova Scotia in the 1970s,” in Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper, eds., Environmental Activism on the Ground: Small Green and Indigenous Organizing (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2019), 207-230; Mark R. Leeming, In Defence of Home Place: Environmental Activism in Nova Scotia (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2017); Ingrid R. G. Waldron, There’s Something In The Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous & Black Communities (Halifax: Fernwood, 2018); Maude Barlow and Elizabeth May, Frederick Street: Life and Death on Canada’s Love Canal (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2000).

[3] One place to start is Iron + Earth, The Prosperous Transition Plan, 4 August 2021, [accessed 15 September 2021].

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Ken Cruikshank

Ken Cruikshank is Professor of History at McMaster University (Hamilton Ontario), with research and teaching interests in environmental, urban, business and policy history. He most recently co-authored _The People and the Bay: A Social and Environmental History of Hamilton Harbour_, and is currently working on a political and environmental history of the Niagara Escarpment as an example of the post-1960s revolution in land use regulation in North America.

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