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Encore: Fiery Union Leader Larry Wark Recalls 30-Year Old ‘Canso Crisis’

By Andrew Macdonald

As I reported last weekend, Canso’s National Sea Fish Plant closed down 30-years ago this Christmas – 800 folk were put out of work and so began the three decade Canso Crisis – which over a year of gatherings and protests often got national ink.

One such Canso Crisis participant was former CAW-Halifax Union Boss Larry Wark – a gifted orator if any there was one among union leaders.

Here is an encore archived The Notebook story of Larry Wark recalling the Canso Crisis:

By Andrew Macdonald

The year 2019 marks the 30th year I have been a Maritime journalist.

In June, 1989, I got a job at CIGO radio in Port Hawkesbury.

That station is now owned by Bob MacEachern, and when I got hired, it was owned by John van Zutphen, a road builder, out of Mabou.

CIGO produced great radio reporters, including Peter Spurway.

It was founded by Tory Gerald Doucet, and is now The Hawk FM.

Bob MacEachern took a chance on me, and I made the handsome salary of $13,500 in 1989 – but I bought a new car, and today, I can pinch pennies, learning 30-years ago how to live on such a tiny salary.

It was baptism by fire for me. The first June 1989 weekend, I was on the job – I found myself at a police press conference.

Someone had taken a gun, and shot to death three Beech Hill residents, in Antigonish County.

At that press conference 30-years ago, was an intrepid MITV journalist: Mike Chisholm.

The year 1989 was also the beginning of the Northern Cod Collapse.

Yes, thirty years ago the roots of The Canso Crisis began to take hold.

The collapse of the Northern cod fishery began to take shape in 1989, three decades ago and saw giant processing companies like National Sea, predecessor in Lunenburg of High Liner Foods, begin shuttering seafood plants across Atlantic Canada.

For centuries, the cod fishery had been the mainstay economic engine of rural and historic Atlantic Canadian fishing harbours.

Nowadays, the slogan which governed the regional economy for hundreds of years—In Cod We Trust—is relegated to touristy t-shirts such as those put out by Gordon Stevens, the t-shirt emporium at Lost Cod, a website retailer in Halifax.

Haddock has replaced cod as the main commercial fishery, while these days cod is caught largely for recreation, off of Halifax Harbour, and in Mahone Bay, in a gully near the town of the same name’s harbour.

When a cod-fishing moratorium was rolled out by then Mulroney fisheries minister John Crosbie in 1989 — the mainstay seafood economy in rural parts virtually disappeared overnight.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the remote 450-year-old fishing village of Canso, where 800 folk were laid off as Nat Sea announced its fish plant closure.

The announcement sparked the year-long Canso Crisis, which garnered national ink in media, largely due to the tenacity of trawler fisherman union leader, the late Pat Fougere, and the then town’s mayor Ray White.

Also playing a pivotal role during the Canso Crisis was now-retired CAW Atlantic director, the gifted orator Larry Wark. The Canadian Auto Workers union-represented thousands of fish plant toilers across the region.

One of the highlights of the Canso Crisis was a rally held during a winter storm in February 1990 that attracted 6,000 folk from as far away as P.E.I and Lunenburg.

It remains the largest-ever protest rally in Atlantic Canada and it was organized by Wark and the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour, which spent $70,000 in advertising and buses to ship people across the Maritimes into Canso’s hockey arena.

I recently caught up with Wark, who is now doing union work for retired unionists.

A resident of Hammonds Plains, and married to NS Federation of Labour staffer, Joan Wark, Larry spoke to The Macdonald Notebook, on the commercial cod fishery collapse nearly 30 years ago and the ensuing havoc it played out in historic fishing villages across the Atlantic.

Wark has a fire-and-brimstone oratory gift and was able to move the masses with colourful quips tailor-made for media interviews.

I was a cub radio station reporter in the Strait region in 1989 when I first met Wark and was immediately taken by his oratorical ability—an old-fashioned union leader who frequently made fiery speeches.

Wark became the public face of the plight of fish plant workers across the Atlantic, as the cod collapse took hold, and thousands of folk were left without a paycheque.

Nearly three decades later, Wark accepts that the cod fishery had gone through a monumental collapse.

“I think everyone knew. We knew long before the advent of the collapse that things were going wrong with the fishery, the catches were way down, the problems were going south,” Wark tells The Macdonald Notebook.

“There was no great secret the stocks collapsed, but people could not believe it back then.

“When the government got involved with the fishery…before that, it had operated for 400 years…and it only got dented when it was taken over by the government of Canada.”

Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government nationalized the Atlantic fishery in the 1970s, taking equity in National Sea.

“Then (the fishery) was destroyed by government setting up quotas,” said Wark. “That’s government—they make the most profound decisions based on money.”

Wark says another problem with the depletion of cod stocks was the controversial fish company decision to dump and discard at sea fish that were deemed not sellable to consumers.

“Dumping of catches at sea created a mile of floating dead fish—they didn’t stay alive in the nets,” Wark notes.

One of the highlights in his 42-year union career, says Wark, was organizing a rally of 6,000 people in Canso, which then had a town population of 1,000.

“I don’t know of another larger rally in such a remote rural part of any of the Maritimes.”

Canso’s plight attracted national headlines, including lots of front page stories in the Globe & Mail, and on national CBC TV and radio.

“They had been a fishing community forever,” observes Wark.

French fishermen, the Basque fishermen, first began harvesting cod off Canso shores 450 years earlier, when Louisbourg’s French Fortress was being built.

“Canso was remote. There wasn’t anything like other jobs within a 30-mile radius to change your work. You are at the end of the peninsula,” says Wark. National Sea was the economic mainstay on the isolated Guysborough County community, which in recent years voted to surrender its incorporation as a town.

“With its long history as a fishing community and its rural location, it seemed like the best place to muster up a decent rally,” Wark says. “Having it closer to Halifax might have made for a larger rally, but we were looking for a remote area and trying to put a face on the collapse of cod in what was a one-horse town.

“There was a tremendous amount of media coverage, and it was mind-boggling we got 6,000 folk at that February rally, which turned out to be a miserable stormy day. It was one heck of a show.”

Back then the winding Route 16 to Canso “had grass growing right up through the centre,” recalls Wark.

“It was a tough old road, especially in bad weather. We picked the most remote fish plant we had in the province, and we were trying to get people to drive down that winding road to attend the rally. By every stretch of measurement, everyone was shocked we got 6,000 folk packed into the town’s arena.

“The rally showed the rest of the public and government that people were watching and took the collapse of the fishery seriously.”

National Sea is now High Liner, which now operates only one fish plant, at Battery Road, on a point jutting out to the sea in Lunenburg, where it still makes its famous fish sticks, with a workforce of about 400.

During the Canso Crisis, Wark was often at loggerheads with then Nat Sea CEO Henry DeMone, who last year stepped down and became chairman of High Liner.

DeMone is proud of his leadership role in ensuring High Liner remained in business, despite the cod collapse.

Ten years ago, High Liner beached its own fishing fleet and now buys fish from suppliers, including from overseas.

“They were probably as concerned as any worker and the union as to what it meant to jobs across the province. Everyone knew the cod collapse had become a giant bomb dropped on the industry, and there were no easy solutions,” recalls Wark.

“High Liner, not only got rid of its fleet, it had run Canso, Louisbourg, North Sydney, and they ran Lockeport. They had plants everywhere from the old days that now no longer function under the new regime when access to quota disappeared. They had giant fish plants but no fish for them”, recalls Wark.

“There was doom and gloom, and now the last plant they have of any significance in this province is Lunenburg”.

Wark today credits DeMone for ensuring High Liner weathered the storm almost 30 years ago.

“He did as good a job as anyone under those circumstances. There were tough decisions once this happened. He came out of the collapse and High Liner is still alive. There are a whole bunch of other companies that didn’t make it.”

Wark, now 70, grew up in Windsor, Ont., and in 1965, he went to work there at the Chrysler car assembly plant, starting off in the paint division.

That’s where his 42-year union activity began, first getting elected as a shop steward in the paint division, and then as union chairman for the whole plant, and then as a national rep with the CAW.

Then he switched to being a union leader with Air Canada, and the now-defunct Eastern Provincial Airways in Atlantic Canada.

In 1989, then national CAW leader Bob White appointed Wark as CAW Atlantic director, establishing a two-man union shop in Halifax.

“I was already living here since 1980,” says Wark, working with the then Canadian Airlines Employees Association, which in 1986 merged with the CAW. The CAW was merged into Unifor in 2013.

Wark attributes his speech making abilities to his Ontario mother, Alice, who died 10 years ago.

“If you raised six boys and a girl, somehow you became an orator. She was pretty clear to us—we learned if you have something to say, say it straight, don’t beat around the bush because you are wasting everyone’s time”.

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