Former CBRM mayor hopes to return Glace Bay to the NDP fold

John Morgan doesn’t mince words describing the state of affairs in the Glace Bay area.

“The region is in an existential crisis,” the former three-term mayor of Cape Breton Regional Municipality told the Sidebar.

“In our district, there’s a very high rate of child poverty,” he said of Glace Bay-Dominion, the electoral district he hopes to win for the NDP Aug. 17.

A 2020 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives pegged the child poverty rate in Glace Bay at more than 38 per cent. The rate was nearly 27 per cent in Dominion, which was added to the district in 2019.

“People are (also) very deeply aware of what has happened to the health care system,” Morgan said. “They know they can’t go to the local emergency room, and many of them don’t have a family doctor.”

If residents did try to go to the emergency department at the Glace Bay Hospital, they’d find a sign telling them to go to the one in Sydney, he said.

A lawyer by profession who has taught paralegals and worked for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada since leaving the CBRM mayor’s office in 2012, Morgan is hoping to bring the Glace Bay area back into the NDP fold for the first time in more than two decades.

And he doesn’t pull any punches calling out those he feels are responsible for his community’s current predicament.

“Although it is true the Liberals will intermittently provide some largesse for individual projects that they deem worthy, in the larger picture of things they are actually starving the population and imposing a form of privation that hasn’t been seen since the 1920s,” he said. “They have imposed a form of deep, grinding poverty on the people.”

Morgan said the NDP’s vision document is being well-received, especially its commitments on long-term care and the province’s minimum wage.

“The long-term care system is in crisis locally,” he said of facilities he described as being chronically understaffed. “If you talk to people on their doorsteps, they’re actually concerned about putting their loved ones into the long-term care system.”

Voters are interested in NDP proposals to boost staffing and service standards, and ensure facilities offer residents their own rooms with private washrooms, he said.

The party’s promise to immediately raise the minimum wage, which currently sits at $12.95, is also popular, especially with call centre workers and those in the food and retail industries, Morgan said.

“Almost all of them work at or near the minimum wage level, so the NDP proposal for a $15 minimum wage would help the process of lifting many of them into a better quality of life.”

Morgan believes the 21-year Liberal stranglehold on the Glace Bay area is based on a type of electoral “bribery.”

“They have primarily represented to the population that they are able to deliver largesse to the people, that if you don’t vote Liberal you’re not going to get your project done,” he said. “The argument is that, you may not like us, you may realize that we’re supporting primarily corporate interests, but if you don’t vote for us you won’t get a piece of the pie.”

But the NDP candidate believes people are less interested in “pet projects” these days and more concerned about quality-of-life issues and the future prospects of their communities.

“They know they’re very much worse off as a result of almost a generation of Liberals and Conservatives engaging in these petty bribes to their favourites within the community while they let the rest of the community starve,” he said.

The NDP and its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, have had several periods of electoral success in Glace Bay. The CCF held it for 15 consecutive years in the 1940s and 50s, and the NDP held it from 1970-80 and for a short while in the late 1990s.

More recently, however, the party has fallen on hard times.

In the 2017 provincial election, the NDP candidate for Glace Bay received only 10 per cent of the popular vote.

“It was a very low-resource campaign,” Morgan said. “We’re running a much more robust campaign this time.”

A recent campaign stop in Glace Bay by NDP leader Gary Burrill suggests the party is indeed taking the district more seriously this election.

Name recognition, and the fact there is no incumbent candidate in the race, could help open things up for Morgan.

Left/labour tradition

The NDP’s past successes and recent struggles on Cape Breton Island are intertwined with the evolution — and eventual disintegration — of the steel and coal industries.

“Before the 1960s, private industry in Cape Breton was in control, almost entirely, of the coal mines and the steel industry,” Lachlan MacKinnon, an assistant professor of history at Cape Breton University, told the Sidebar. “So the conditions of that time, for a variety of reasons, created this kind of left/labour orientation of the political landscape.”

“As we moved ahead in the 20th century, things started to shift a little bit,” said MacKinnon, the Canada Research Chair in Post-Industrial Communities.

Legal frameworks and government programs that improved workers’ lives made the relationship between labour and capital less adversarial, he said. “The labour movement in general became much more enmeshed within the existing structures of Canadian political society.”

This trend accelerated in the 1960s and 70s when the federal and provincial governments responded to an industrial crisis by nationalizing Cape Breton’s traditional steel and coal industries.

People in places like Glace Bay started to identify more and more with the parties in power instead of the NDP.

“The calculation made by the broad swath of working-class people in places like Glace Bay, I think, was kind of firmly positioned within that Liberal party consensus,” MacKinnon said.

But state ownership of the steel mills and coal mines was relatively short-lived and most had closed, or were in the process of winding down, by the 1990s.

As neoliberalism and “market-centric” economic policy took hold among provincial and federal governments, MacKinnon said communities like Glace Bay began to suffer in the post-steel and post-coal era.

Resource-based work in Alberta provided a “pressure relief valve” of sorts for some local residents, but “nothing has really taken the place of those kind of structuring significant industries.”

Without those structures in place, the compact between Glace Bay-Dominion voters and the Liberal party may have weakened.

“I think you’re seeing people cast about for alternative solutions to the problems that they’re seeing in their everyday lives,” MacKinnon said.

“I do think that the labour left has a card to play here, because people in Glace Bay obviously recognize what’s happened in the last 30 years,” he said. “I think the solutions of the social democratic left can speak to a lot of those people in a kind of language they understand from the late 20th century as having a lot of promise.”

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