By Sydney S. Slaven
Looking back today from the year 2003, from a personal
viewpoint, the events of November 19th, 1967 almost take on a surreal
atmosphere. It had rained all morning, but just before the parade
started at 1 pm, the skies cleared leaving a sunny, crisp, autumn
day. 20,000 marchers gathered near the plant gate and the Sydney
Shopping Centre to start the one-mile march up Prince Street to
the Sydney Sports Centre. Thousands more lined the route.
This was the largest crowd ever assembled in Cape Breton and they
staged a starkly dramatic and inspiring parade that struck all the
chords of a community’s comradeship, hope and resolution.
Cape Bretoners from all walks of life joined in the march. Students,
steelworker’s families, coal miners, fishermen, doctors, clergymen,
lawyers, the business community, teachers, nurses, all jointed the
Perhaps the most inspiring marchers were our future, the babes in
arms, along with people in wheelchairs and, the most inspiring to
me, the steelworker with an artificial leg who, when offered a drive
said: “I’ll die before I quit marching.” And,
he successfully completed the whole route.
It took an hour for the marchers to file into the muddy field and
racetrack of the Sydney Sports Centre. The main speakers were to
be provincial and federal politicians but, before this, an inspiring
event took place. A local balladeer and steelworker, Charlie MacKinnon,
had written a song for the occasion, “Let’s Save Our
Industry.” There was not a dry eye in the crowd by the time
this pleading song from a proud and strong people was finished.
Both speakers had been noticeable affected by the emotion of the
march and the song. Premier G.I. Smith and Federal Minister Allen
MacEachen both spoke with quivers in their voices along with long
pauses to get their emotions in check before continuing on. The
message they both delivered was that both levels of government were
committed to keeping the plant operating beyond the April 30th closing
date until a solution could be found.
Tough bargaining continued on November 20th between Hawker-Siddeley
and the Provincial Government. Hawker-Siddeley was driving an extremely
hard bargain for a higher price for the assets then province was
then willing to pay. Finally, in a key move, Provincial Government
auditors revealed that the plant’s monthly losses were only
a small fraction of the $1,000,000 per month they claimed. Hawker-Siddeley
was then told to become more cooperative or face provincial expropriation
proceedings. On November 21st, 1968, Hawker-Siddeley returned to
negotiations with a changed attitude of full cooperation.
Premier G.I. Smith announced on November 22nd, 1967, that as of
January 1st, 1968, the Sydney steel plant would become a full crown
corporation under the ownership of the Nova Scotia Government and
henceforth would be known as the Sydney Steel Corporation, (SYSCO).
The price of the takeover would be determined by an independent
group of steel experts. Premier Smith also stated that the plant
would be fully modernized as soon as possible.
Thus ended the crisis of October the 13th of 1967, the day that
became known as “Black Friday.” The Nova Scotia Government
went on to operate the Sydney Steel Corporation for 32 years until
its closure in the year 2002.
What was the decisive factor in saving the Sydney plant in 1967?
No doubt it was the Parade of Concern and the effect it had on the
government officials. Along with the community, they were caught
up in the emotional experience of a hardworking, proud, and strong
people’s desire to save the Cape Breton industrial community.
Author’s note: Many of the chronological
events were drawn from a five-week period of the Cape Breton Post.
Both the editor, Ian MacNeil, and the publisher, Roy Duchemin, demonstrated
remarkable skills in the field of responsible journalism. Also,
a large part of the events come from my own personal memories and
those of my fellow steelworkers.