Heinz: spilling blood and ketchup

Barbara Amiel on the losses of Leamington Ont.

Dave Chidley

Some words have colours you don’t want to see. One of the first I heard was “redundancy” when my stepfather was laid off by the Steel Co. of Canada in Hamilton. His job was on the open-hearth furnaces. A lot of neighbours worked at Stelco too and quickly the streets got quiet. People sat on their doorsteps but weren’t chatting; they were reading the want ads. “Laid off” became a phrase and it was a grimy colour. When I left for school, curtains were drawn and the men with black lunch pails weren’t starting up cars or walking to bus stops. They became invisible and parents and children turned grey with worry. The radio played “I owe my soul to the company store” and the chorus “You load 16 tons, what do you get / Another day older and deeper in debt” matched our fears.

Those memories surfaced when I heard about Leamington, Ont., where the Heinz Co. of Canada announced it was closing its plant after 104 years there. There are 28,000 people in Leamington and only 740 full-time jobs at Heinz but I should think the town has been hit in the groin. Timing doesn’t make much difference but everything seems harder when it’s November and there is more darkness. Those bloody Christmas jingles on the car radio, the endless ecumenical chant of “Happy holidays” and the feeling that everyone else in the world is celebrating creeps into your bones. Maybe there will be good redundancy pay but maybe not. There are mortgages and plans for your kids’ schooling and perhaps someone is sick and treatment costs money and the family pet becomes an expense too far. You have to be a saint not to hate the world’s pleasures.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says she tried hard to save the plant. Warren Buffett bought out Heinz and appointed the former CEO of Burger King to run it and then McDonald’s cancelled its contract for ketchup with Heinz. McDonald’s may have been one of the biggest contractors Heinz had for the ketchup and I don’t expect McDonald’s thought it wanted to help anyone with the remotest connection to its competitor Burger King. Warren Buffett is very folksy and sometimes he sits around in a V-neck sweater and plaid shirt talking about the need for the rich to pay more taxes but you can’t expect to be the fourth-richest man in the world if you don’t make bloodless decisions. Anyway, a lot of widows and orphans are probably invested in Berkshire Hathaway stock so one man’s misfortune is another’s good deal.

Leamington has a tomato-shaped tourist booth. This is the southernmost point of Canada on the northern shore of Lake Erie and the town promotes its warm climate. The main street looks neat and prosperous, like the homes in its subdivisions. But what’s a Leamington-area farmer to do when his tomatoes have no ketchup contract? Wynne might have done a two-track negotiation, taking over the plant in Leamington in exchange for saving Heinz severance costs while offering any large company, such as McDonald’s, lower costs and provincial discounts if they sourced their ketchup and pastes there. McDonald’s itself has more than 1,400 outlets in Canada, a lot of those in Ontario and there’s quite a few ways to arm-twist a company if you move fast and with agility. Maybe she tried and it was no go. Towns do die or fade and you can only hope Leamington will absorb the blows and prosper so that by Christmas the tender tomato has a happy future ahead in the fields of Leamington.

Almost everything has its moment of struggle. This past September, Point Pelee National Park, in the municipality of Leamington, cancelled its annual monarch butterfly count because there simply weren’t enough butterflies. Usually, they gather in the hundreds of thousands to start the flight to Mexico, so small and delicate a creature, with so long a journey now imperilled by habitat erosion. The struggle to survive has been in my consciousness so perhaps that too is why the Leamington news had a particular impact. A close relative, a man in his fifties, taped a hose from the exhaust pipe of his car to his mouth one night a few months ago and turned on the engine. Fortunately, he’d been so broke that necessary repairs hadn’t been done and the engine made enough of a racket to alert a passerby. He suffered from acute anxiety and had been unable to leave the room he lived in except to die. That introduced me to the shortage of mental health facilities for grown-ups. There’s a fair bit of help available for young people—not enough, so keep donating—but those humans not distinguished by youth, achievement, money or connections might as well be butterflies trying to head to Mexico with one wing. They’re dead before they can get off the ground. I’ve tried to help several adults over the age of 35 and if you’re lucky you can get a one-time appointment for them to be “assessed” and then they go on long waiting lists for cognitive behavioural therapy. Severe depression blankets them with exhausting sleeplessness and a heavy pain. Lives can regain some colour but it takes government resources more likely wasted on windmills or corruption.

The 1982 closing down of the Iron Ore Co. of Canada’s mining town of Schefferville, Que., is instructive. Then company president Brian Mulroney offered redundant workers benefit packages, a $16,000 payoff, assistance to relocate, company homes for $1 and a battery of plans to redevelop the area. Not perfect but damn good. Today’s capitalists lean more and more on the government or PR to do the work for them. The country song knew it all those years ago. “Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go / I owe my soul to the company store.”

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