By Jordan Press

THE CANADIAN PRESS

HAWKESBURY, Ont. _ Sitting around a table with fellow Steelworkers, Steve Berniquez starts listing companies that once stood in and around Hawkesbury, a small Ontario town an hour’s drive east of Ottawa.

When he mentions Canadian International Pulp and Paper, everybody nods. Its mill closed in 1982 and that was a bad one, more than 400 jobs gone at once.

“We had how many mills around here where everybody could work? Now we don’t have anything else,” Berniquez says, leaning back in his chair.  “They’re not coming back to us.”

If federal calculations are accurate, automation and technological advances could make the local situation worse in the coming years, with Hawkesbury, a town of about 10,000, hit harder than any other city in Ontario.

An internal government presentation from last August listed Hawkesbury as having the largest share of workers at high risk of being affected by automation. The chart in the lengthy presentation to a group of deputy ministers went province by province with the municipalities that were facing the same fate: Bay Roberts, N.L.; Summerside, P.E.I.; New Glasgow, N.S.; Winkler, Man.; Estevan, Sask.; Quesnel, B.C.; and Brooks, Alta.

Also on the list was Lachute, Que., across the Ottawa River from Hawkesbury.

Federal officials expect that rural areas and small towns will feel the biggest negative effects of automation, as well as regions  “dependent on high-risk sectors like manufacturing or mining,” while gains from technological advances accrue to large urban centres.

“Less-educated local workforces mean that rural areas and small towns are less likely to seize the economic opportunities presented by new technologies,” reads the August presentation, a copy of which The Canadian Press obtained under the access-to-information law. “Less-diversified local economies mean that rural areas and small towns are less likely to adapt if incumbent sectors and businesses are disrupted.”

The steelworkers who considered the past, present and future of Hawkesbury on a snowy spring day estimated about one-third of manufacturing jobs that disappeared in the town over the past 30 years could be attributed to technological changes.

Among the recent examples was an automated packing machine that replaced two workers in one plant, and a “magic eye” that does quality control instead of a handful of workers. Three years ago, 100 workers lost their jobs when a local warehouse decided to automate work.

Berniquez has seen it. He works in the next-door village of L’Orignal, in the melt shop at Ivaco Rolling Mills, which makes wire rod and steel billets semi-finished products that go on for further processing elsewhere. Earlier this month, the company announced it will lay off 50 people of the 538 who work there, most directly because of the tariffs the United States has put on Canadian steel imports.

Automation, punishing tariffs and now additional costs from the federal carbon tax in Ontario have left steel and aluminum companies in the town in a bind, the workers say.

But Berniquez isn’t ready to throw in the towel, nor would he considering moving to another town for work. He said it’s not how he was raised. “We need to protect what we’ve got,” he said.

As manufacturing declined, the town has found new sources of employment. More health-care jobs have flowed into town thanks to the local hospital, the steelworkers say, and, according to the latest census figures, the local service sector employs the largest share of workers in the town.

“These folks are making the (local) economy work,” said Richard Leblanc, the area co-ordinator for the United Steelworkers union. “We focus a lot on these big manufacturers that have gone, but some of that has been replaced.”

How quickly towns like Hawkesbury have to adapt is unclear. The government presentation notes that Canadian firms traditionally have low takeup rates of new technology. There is also uncertainty around how quickly new technology will come available and the breadth of its impact on any number of professions, including doctors and accountants.

A report this month from the Brookfield Institute suggested there are few easy answers for workers who want to know what training courses they should take to prepare. The report, produced to help a federal organization studying future skills needs, said a key problem is that the country lacks a “holistic, detailed, and actionable forecast of in-demand skills.”

“A complex array of changes could impact employment over the next 10 to 15 years. Some, such as population aging, are well understood, while others, such as technological change, present a high degree of uncertainty,” the report said. “When these changes interact, uncertainty expands, making it challenging to predict the future of Canada’s labour market, and more specifically, what skills will be most in-demand.”

The federal Liberals’ latest budget promised $1.7 billion in spending to provide a training tax credit and employment insurance benefits to cover wages during time away from work. The steelworkers questioned how low-income workers will be able to afford the upfront costs of programs and worried about time off from companies where training time is at a minimum because staff are stretched thin.

The spending in the 2019 budget comes after billions more, over three previous federal budgets, aimed at helping workers prepare for the tectonic digital shifts in the labour market, and help those in the workforce stay there later into life.

Hawkesbury’s future is more clouded because so many younger workers have gone off to college and university and moved away. In fact, nearby Ottawa and Gatineau, Que., have the lowest shares of at-risk workers in their respective provinces, based on the Finance Department calculations.

David Bruneault stayed in Hawkesbury as friends got higher educations, eventually landing jobs as teachers or physiotherapists down the highway in the capital. The 34-year-old went into manufacturing, but says he’s willing to take a retraining course to learn to do something else.

“You don’t want to be left with nothing,” Bruneault said. “I’m thinking about it a lot more now, too, because everything is uncertain.”

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