From The Notebook Archives – a 30-year look back: ‘In Cod We Once Trusted’: Thirty Years This Christmas, Ray White & Pat Fougere Starred In ‘The Canso Crisis’
By Andrew Macdonald
This month of December marks the 30th anniversary of the closure of the one industry seafood plant in Canso.
This month in 1989, then National Sea issued a news release that 800 folk toiling in the fish plant would be laid off – Nat Sea’s PR person at the time, Murray Coolican announced the Canso fish plant was closing.
And, so began the 30-year start to the Canso Crisis.
In 1989 the Northern Cod Fishery began to collapse across the Atlantic, as thousands and thousands of fish plant workers lost their jobs.
This month, 30-years ago, fish processing giant National Sea Products lowered the boom on its fish plant in remote Canso.
Eight-hundred folk would soon be left jobless, as the depleting cod fishery played havoc in fishing villages right across the Atlantic.
The plant was the town’s economic mainstay – a one industry community in isolated eastern Nova Scotia.
A way of life, which proudly dated back to the Basque fishermen of the 1600s, and celebrated in music by giant folk legend Stan Rogers, was being wiped out by a single corporate press release, as the one horse town faced its darkest days over the impending closure.
And so was born the Canso Crisis in 1989.
Over the year the townspeople rallied for help – a war cry that generated tons of national headlines, including ink frequently in the Globe & Mail, lots of airtime on the CBC National and many a show dedicated to Canso on CBC radio program, Cross Country Checkup.
During the height of the crisis, 5,000 folk from across Atlantic Canada descended upon one rally – swelling the town’s 1,000 resident base.
They came by school bus. They came by the car load over a winding and rickety Route 16.
Unionists mainly from all walks of life, cramming into the town’s arena to offer moral support.
Then mayor Ray White, at the rally, offered a play on the town’s name: “We Can-So survive” – but the closure loomed large on the fate for the proud fishing village.
Looking back, the only real tangible benefits of the Canso Crisis measureable 30-years later is that the year-long crisis launched an industry of many a provincial political career for its Canso leaders.
Ray White, Jimmy Boudreau and more recently Lloyd Hines all went to the provincial legislature – at one time or other.
National politicians like Sheila Copps dropped into the seaside town during the crisis.
She declared that then PM Brian Mulroney “was destroying small town Canada” because of John Crosbie’s cod moratorium.
In 1989, Crosbie had a famous quip: “Don’t blame me, I didn’t fish the god damn cod to extinction”.
Then CAW leader Bob White attended the town, saying at one gathering “the folks of Canso should not have to move to Ontario to fight for jobs at McDonald’s with laid off auto workers”.
The unsung hero of the Canso Crisis would have to be a hardnosed, crusty, school drop out, Pat Fougere, the head of the town’s unionized trawlermen association.
Fougere proved a colourful, often quoted character during the year long battle.
Journalists of the day compared him to the celebrated “Fighting Fisherman” a reference to Yvonne Durrill, the Acadian New Brunswicker who valiantly rallied fishery workers in the 1970s to form unions in the Atlantic.
A gifted and colourful speaker, Fougere bellowed out often quoted media clips.
At one rally, the chain-smoking Fougere appeared with a pair of fish-styled oven mitts.
“This is all that is left of Canso’s quota”, he said to hoots of pained laughter.
At another gathering, which attracted folk from the NS Southshore fishing village of Lunenburg, Fougere urged the audience “to build a Lunenburg dorey and dump the Tories”.
Fougere took his trawlermen on a journey to Ottawa – by chartered bus through four provinces.
He told Parliamentarians: “I am a proud man. I am on welfare. And I want to get off of it”.
The trip to Ottawa had his band of fishermen marching through the pristine streets of Ottawa, starting at the venerated Chateau Laurier.
His trip to Ottawa got eclipsed from the blockbuster move by politico Lucien Bouchard, who quit the Mulroney government that day, 30-years ago.
Fougere had a knack off bringing publicity to the plight of Cansonians.
One time, he stormed the DFO office in Canso, with other fishermen in tow. The mission that day was to hold the office hostage until he got a returned phone call from then area Buchanan MLA Chuck MacNeil.
The RCMP arrived at the DFO office to evict Fougere and his fishing buddies from the office encampment.
Threatened with arrest, Fougere dead-panned to the cop: “Jump in Jim, the boys are placing Tarbot, have a round, too” (tarbot is a card game).
Murray Coolican, who later became a NS deputy minister – now retired – had the awkward position of defending the Nat Sea closure – the company is now called High Liner Foods – during the crisis.
At one packed rally, Fougere drew laughter when he poked fun of Coolican’s main corporate message that the cod were all but gone.
Fougere called the corporate spokesman “Mr. Hoolican”.
The provincial Fisheries minister was Donnie MacInnis – a dairy farmer by trade. “That’s what’s wrong with the fishery” quipped Jimmy Boudreau, at another rally. Then a county councillor, Boudreau would later go on to become a NDP MLA from 2009-2013.
MLA and then Buchanan cabinet minister Chuck MacNeil played a significant part in the crisis, desperate to find a solution for his people.
At one point MacNeil even braved a 5,000 person rally – where he faced serious heckling and booing – the crowd was angry and frustrated and they were looking for government hope, solutions, and salvation.
That prompted then Bishop Colin Campbell who offered a prayer at the rally to say he was “glad he wasn’t in MacNeil’s shoes”.
Eventually, a short-term solution was meted out with bizman Paul Blades but it was really a band-aid solution.
Still the townspeople – who put off Christmas celebrations in 1989 – turned out in July in 1990 for a belated Christmas party that summer – with Fougere dressed up as Santa.
Thirty-years later, the Canso Crisis is a distant memory, other small towns have lost one industry employers, Canso even lost its town charter, a fish plant is non existent, and the colourful peoples’ hero Fougere is dead – felled by a heart attack at age 51 in 2005.
Today the cod fishery is mostly a recreational fishery in these parts.
The motto “In Cod We Trust”, which governed the economic life of so many a small fishing village for ages, centuries, now only has a life on touristy t-shirts.
The glorious and grand past of the cod fishery – once Nova Scotia’s dominant economic driving force for centuries – is now only relegated to the regional history books.
Note: The Canso Crisis was among my first news assignments as a fresh faced 21-year-old cub radio reporter at CIGO radio in Port Hawkesbury.
A highlight was taking the chartered bus with Pat Fougere and Canso trawlermen to Ottawa.
My lord, there was a lot of smoking and drinking among the fishermen on that bus – and I remember finding my way into the Parliament Press Gallery, where then journalist, Mike Duffy was kind enough to show me the ropes of the inner workings of the nation’s press gallery.