Job Losses and Bean Sprouts

Kindergarten teachers have children plant beans in little cups. The exercise is simple but the lesson profound: everything is born, everything constantly changes, and everything dies. One of the smartest people I’ve known once reminded me of that lesson.

Job Losses and Bean Sprouts

(Photo: http://www.lessthanperfectparents.com)

For 42 years, my grandfather worked in a Hamilton, Ontario steel plant called Dofasco. Years after his retirement, he read of a new round of layoffs that were shrinking the place to a skeleton of what it had once been. He shared nostalgic stories of the post-war years when Dofasco thrived. He spoke of how the company president, whom he always respectfully called Mr. Sherman, would often mingle on plant floors speaking with the workers, asking opinions, slapping backs, and shaking hands.

The Dofasco golf, bowling, hockey, and baseball leagues for workers and their families contributed to the sense of community and created a feeling of family. At the huge annual Christmas party, Santa had a gift for every child. When union organizers came to Dofasco every few years they were run out of the place because the trust that existed between management and labour rendered unionization unnecessary.

My grandfather retired in 1975. The OPEC oil shock had just happened. The western world’s industrial revolution that, for a century, had built manufacturing plants like Dofasco was ending. A right wing movement that would alter government’s role in protecting workers and regulating corporations was beginning. The beanstalk in the little cup was wilting.

Dofasco’s big shrink began in the ‘80s. By the ‘90s, whole departments were shuttered, equipment was sold or scrapped, and buildings were torn down. My grandfather called one day and invited me to a Dofasco open house. It was great. There were old guys who remembered him and I was proud of the reception he received. He marvelled at the computers in a control room that had once been manually operated. He was shocked by the cleanliness of the pickle line and by how few people were making it all work.

More than the technical changes, however, on the drive home he spoke of his old buddies confirming what he had already surmised. With the new challenges and changes had come new managers and management systems. Mr. Sherman, and all he had represented, was gone. Globalization and domestic economic and political changes were not the fault of the current CEO but when old ways began to die he was none the less accused of murder and his middle managers deemed accomplices. First trust, then loyalty, and finally community disappeared. There was talk of union.

But my grandfather was smart. He said, “Johnny, nothing ever stays the same forever.” The Dofasco he had known was gone and would never be back. Its tag line remained Our Product is Steel Our Strength is People, but no one believed it any more; it had become a cynical punchline. He spoke of how young people working there now would never understand how the place used to be and even less of how it felt. A few years later there was another open house. He didn’t want to go. There was nothing for him to visit. The bean in the cup had died.

Deaths are always hard. We all know that fundamental change in any organization effects most is what can be empirically measured least. We all know that stages of grief are suffered by those asked to leave and by those left to mourn what and who were lost. We all know that decisions made at one level always have consequences on others. We also know that losing money is seldom a job dismissal’s highest price. The theft of identity, dignity, community, and faith in what was once sincerely believed are much deeper wounds that, for some, even in those left behind, never heal. That was my grandfather. Dofasco had afforded him a living and source of pride, right up until it broke his heart.

Next September, Kindergarten teachers will have children plant beans in little cups. The kids will proudly bring them home and parents will share in the watering and excitement of growth. Then, inevitably, they will dry tears when the little sprout, once so healthy and lovingly tended, dies and never comes back.

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A Woman’s Power

Movie lines sometimes contain more truth than a philosophy tome. Consider my favourite line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A mother is patiently explaining to her adult daughter that Dad is indeed the head of the family. However, she adds, “I am the neck.” I love that. I might add that women are also often the glue.

I learned this truth by unconsciously absorbing my paternal grandmother’s lessons. She was the eldest of three strong sisters, the second generation of Ukrainian immigrants escaping turn of the century pre-revolutionary violence. Her mother provided Ukrainian language lessons to other immigrant kids in Hamilton’s hardscrabble east end. One day, the skinny 15 year-old was bored and waiting for her Mom to finish when a shy pupil not much older than her approached. He whispered that she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and that someday he would like to marry her. That was my grandfather. They were married for 63 years.

Her father was one of the first men hired at Hamilton, Ontario’s brand new Dominion Foundry and Steel (Dofasco). He arranged a job for his son-in-law where he worked for 42 years. Later, the Second World War saw North American women doing what many women and most men said could not be done; they fought the war on factory floors. My grandmother worked 8-hour shifts in heavy overalls and beneath a thick kerchief. She lifted, turned, and processed steel sheets. She was, in the vernacular of the day, Rosie the Riveter.

An old Dofasco newsletter shows her and other women smiling broadly and doing their bit with a patriotic passion and rugged determination to make a deeper point. There was celebration when the guns fell silent and the afternoon shift was let out early. Amid the cheers, all the women were given small paper packets containing a tiny bonus and a pink slip. She told me how that she would have liked to have kept working and, like many others, felt used and cheated.

Women Are Glue

(The three sisters and their parents, my grandmother is standing on right)

When her mother was failing, my grandmother made a promise. She would keep the family together and carry on the tradition of the large gatherings like those at the old Port Dover farm. The basement of her modest Burlington home was refashioned into a party room. Every big occasion, and certainly every Christmas, the room sang with my large and loud extended Ukrainian family. My grandmother met everyone at the door with a smile, kiss, and hug. She was a big woman and when you got hugged, you stayed hugged.

Long tables sagged under more food than even our army of a family could consume and then everything was packed away for my cousin’s band and the dancing. The adults got to drink a little too much and the kids got to stay up past bedtime as the old stories and jokes were told through Export A smoke, smiles, and laughter.

The last time I saw her was in a hospital bed. As I was saying goodbye she put her hands on my cheeks and squeezed them together and pulled me close as if I was a six-year-old again. Perhaps, in her eyes, I was. She said, “I hope you know how much I love you.” I said, “I do. And I hope you know how much I love you.” They were our last words.

She told the doctor that she wanted to go home and he said only when she could walk the hallway and was completely off morphine. He didn’t know her very well. She did both the next day. She arrived home and within 45 minutes she was gone. This last act said everything you need to know about her strength.

That Christmas, there was no party. Everyone was too sad. She wasn’t there to push us through our grief. There was never another party. First the extended family and then some even closer drifted further. The glue was gone.

No family is perfect. Scratch the surface of any family and amongst the litter of love and happy days glowing like Facebook postings, you’ll find scars and unhealed wounds. Despite this fact, family, no matter how defined, constructed, or shifting, is sanctuary. Family is what reminds us of who we are when we sink too low or fly too high. Family is what affords us the courage to carry on when we’d rather quit and the reason and confidence to venture forth in the first place.

Every family has one person that acts as glue and holds it all together when so much seems determined to tear it asunder. Because most men, like me, are dullards about such things and too often too self-absorbed, the job usually falls to women. They are the miraculous caregivers who become the bond between people and generations. They love without judgement. Their lives and the values that guide them become their silent advice. They kiss your cheek or kick your ass or just sit and listen, and then listen some more.

They are the women who only those with enough love can see for who they truly are. Bless these women. They, like my grandmother, are the angels among us now and forever.

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Inventing Home

Where are you from? Where do you live? They are the two most popular questions to ask travellers, party guests, and game show contestants. The answer allows a stereotyped categorization. It can spur a conversation or, perhaps, the decision to not bother starting one. It’s odd though, because while often seen as the same question they are two totally different inquiries. Ask yourself the two questions. Do you get two answers?

I am from Hamilton. It is known as Canada’s steel town although with the slow death of the industrial revolution the nickname means less all the time. Home to Huron, then French, and then British settlers, it is named for Robert Hamilton, a War of 1812 veteran, who built his estate at the west end of Lake Ontario. The place grew quickly as railways passed through on their way from the American border to Toronto. The pig iron plant arrived first. Then came the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) and then, the smaller Dominion Foundry and Steel Company (Dofasco).

Dofasco Dofasco

My great grandfather was among Dofasco’s first employees. He got my grandfather into the foundry and he worked there for over 40 years. He never said a bad word about Dofasco. He always spoke of the bosses as Mr. This and Mr. That. My father worked there too. He tells stories of playing in the Dofasco baseball league and bowling league and hockey league. I recall as a child going to the Dofasco Christmas party. It was a massive affair where an entire building was emptied and then opened for the thousands of employee families. There were treats and games and Santa Claus and a wrapped present for every kid.

Stelco is gone now. Dofasco is all but gone too. Their shadows remain but they were bought and sold a couple of times and are now just cogs in transnational corporations with no ties to Canada let alone the city. Corporations may be constitutionally people but they neither have a home nor care much about those who do. With the steel plants went the others. Hamilton is not the same.

Go to any city. Go downtown near the river or the harbour at the lake. You know the places I mean in whatever city has entered your mind. The big old buildings are nearly all empty. Or they have been turned into fancy boutiques, offices, or condominiums. The places to shop and eat are elsewhere and everywhere the same as everywhere else. You can picture that street too can’t you? Walmart, Costco, McDonalds, and the Tims have taken care of it. Online shopping took care of what remained.

So that is where I am from – a ghost. I still have family there, I’m a proud McMaster University alum, and a great deal remains that I find invigorating and beautiful. But it’s a city re-inventing itself as surely as when Robert Hamilton created it in the first place. It will succeed. There are too many good people for it to fail. No one is sure how just yet, but a consensus will grow. It will enable enough people to recognize that a city, like a well-lived life, is not about money and stuff.

A community rests on shared values and the places where people from up and down and across town meet to enjoy the same things at the same time. Hamilton, and for that matter every city that is going through the same period of existential angst, will come out the other side when enough people say enough to driving out of town to have fun and to driving past boarded up shops once owned by folks they knew to stores the size of football fields to save fifty cents on toilet paper. The city will begin to move when people move by getting out of their cars and walking. When people start to walk they will need some place close to walk to and some version of Walmart won’t put a store there, or a book shop, or a pub – but a neighbour might, in an actual neighbourhood. In walking, neighbours will start talking and the rest will take care of itself. It won’t be easy, but then Robert Hamilton didn’t have it easy either.

Where I live is different. I live in a village of 2500 people called Lakefield. Lakefield was created on Ojibwa land just a few years later than Hamilton. It became known not for stinky steel but silent canoes. It was home to several canoe manufacturers including Walter Walker who made canoes and paddles for ordinary folks and royalty with the same dedication to excellence. It has always been an artistic place. Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie lived and wrote in Lakefield as did Margaret Laurence. The Leahy band lives nearby as does Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins. First-rate painters, children’s book authors and illustrators, and sculptors call Lakefield home as do highly respected architects and film makers. The Lakefield Literary Festival and world-renowned Lakefield College School are here.

A river runs through the centre of my Village and it is only right that it does. It is a metaphor that speaks of perpetual movement and things that never change. Margaret Laurence wrote The Diviners here and, if you recall, the novel begins by speaking of a river that runs both ways. It does you know. It really does.

Canoe-and-Paddle-e1413940425220

Last week a new pub opened in Lakefield called the Canoe and Paddle. It is fashioned to reflect the look and feel of a pub one might wander into on an English afternoon or Halifax night. It is owned and run by folks from the village. Last Thursday my little rock band played the pub’s first night of music. It was music for neighbours by neighbours. Last night I walked across the bridge to stand with a pint and enjoy a Celtic band play one lively reel after another. The place was packed. As I looked around the room I realized that I knew nearly every face. Everyone glowed with the happiness of a Saturday night among friends, with neighbours, and in a community that understands the meaning of the word. The pub will do well. The Canoe and Paddle has reminded us that we understand what doing well means.

Hamilton is where I am from. Lakefield is where I live. It’s good to be home.

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