restricted access “To Those Who Lost Their Lives”: Reading a Labour Landmark in Sydney, Nova Scotia
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“To Those Who Lost Their Lives”:
Reading a Labour Landmark in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Harbourside commercial park, created on an extensive, empty patch of land between the neighbourhoods of Ashby and Whitney Pier in the City of Sydney, today includes only a few sparsely positioned buildings, a soccer field, and a water tower. This is part of the site of what was once Sydney’s largest employer, the Sydney steel plant, which closed in 2001. Just below the water tower, near an old apple tree left over from the days when the steel plant was working, rests the Steelworkers’ Memorial Monument. It was unveiled here on June 21, 2007, after being moved from its original location at the intersection of Prince and Disco Streets outside the union hall belonging to the United Steelworkers of America (uswa), Local 1064.1 The monument was first erected on October 31, 1986, during the United Steelworkers of America Atlantic Conference in Sydney.2 It stood to one side of the entrance to the union hall, next to a busy intersection. Harbourside Commercial Park provides a much more contemplative atmosphere; there are a number of benches surrounding the monument, which now stands in the middle of a small green space.

The monument is a large, grey, granite slab. The uswa symbol is featured prominently at the centre, along with an inscription that reads: “Dedicated to the Memory of Those Who Lost Their Lives at the Sydney Steel Plant, Erected by Local 1064.” The left, right, and rear sections of the monument are engraved with the names of 308 steelworkers who lost their lives on the job. Standing before the monument, one is struck by the sheer number of names. The names [End Page 101] of the dead are even more staggering when one realizes that the total number of workers who have lost their lives at the Sydney steel plant is likely much higher. Charles MacDonald, a uswa member, was responsible for the selection of names on the steelworkers’ monument; these names were compiled using fatality lists from the steel plant and local union records. MacDonald asserts that in the early years of the plant, the only deaths that were recorded were those that occurred on steel plant property, even if a victim was injured on the job and died later at hospital.3

In Sydney, a city that continues to deal with the social and economic effects of deindustrialization, the Steelworkers’ Memorial Monument embodies both the “social memory” of the workplace among former steelworkers, and the “individual memory” of those who personally knew the men commemorated on the memorial. Social memory, according to Edward Casey, is held within a network of kinship, community, or common engagement (which can include a common workplace), while individual memory is uniquely personal. When these types of memory are expressed in public space, whether through commemoration, performance, or re-enactment, they become manifestations of “public memory.” Sites or performances of public memory influence how the public conceptualizes particular past events. These “multiple remembrances” of a particular event or theme, which can exist among people who may or may not be known to one another, have been termed “collective memory”; there is no need for overlapping experience, Casey writes, “all that matters [for collective memory] is commonality of content.”4

Public memory acts to legitimize and support particular historical narratives of the past.5 Ian McKay and Robin Bates argue that a utopian and premodern version of Nova Scotia has become enshrined in tourism literature and provincial marketing campaigns. In “the Province of History,” they write, quaint fisherfolk and agrarian farmers converge in the creation of “Canada’s Ocean Playground.”6 The top-down implementation of public memory reinforces existing political, social, and economic hegemony. Contrarily, physical manifestations of public memory that commemorate working-class experiences are able to counter preexisting hegemonic narratives, present the past [End Page 102] as it existed for workers and their families, and create public spaces of power in which dominant hierarchies are subverted. In Sydney, the Steelworkers’ Memorial Monument exists as a foil to the top-down structure of “official” historical memory. Historian and folklorist Archie Green has coined the term...