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The city that made everything

Date published : October 29, 2009 - Hamilton, Ontario

Rev John Smith recalls a time when Hamilton was a prosperous working town with a diversified manufacturing sector.
 
Hamilton, hurt but resilient

For many Canadians the very mention of Hamilton has come to signify decline - evoking the image of a down-on-its-luck old industrial town.

Located at the western tip of Lake Ontario, the town that once produced everything from knitwear to farm machinery now suffers from record unemployment and chronic economic woes. Reverend John Smith remembers a time when Maclean’s Magazine called Hamilton “the busiest city in Canada” – but now,  revisiting the neighbourhoods of his youth, he is confronted with poverty and a sense of abandonment.

The current crisis lands yet another blow to a local economy that’s been suffering for decades. The steel industry that once defined Hamilton is now a shadow of its former self, employing only a fraction of its peak labour force – and a manufacturing sector that once included such big names as Firestone, Levi Strauss and Westinghouse has also been eroded by foreign competition.

While Canada’s national jobless figures fell slightly in the third quarter of 2009 – fuelling hopeful talk of a recovery – in Hamilton, they continued to mount. Over the past year the city’s unemployment rate has risen by a painful 67 percent.

But the clichéd notion of Hamilton as the town that prosperity forgot is only part of the story – and a growing number of young Hamiltonians are committed to the future prosperity of their hometown. Hamilton may be down, they say – but it’s not out.

Some economists even suggest that Canada’s old manufacturing sector might be due for renewal. Jeff Rubin, former economist with CIBC, makes this point in Why Your World is about to Get a Whole Lot Smaller. As we run out of cheap oil, he argues, globalization as we know it no longer makes economic sense. As prohibitive transport costs gradually apply the brakes to globalized trade, Hamilton and other old manufacturing centres may rise anew.

Stay tuned to GDP for an upcoming photo-essay on a young businessman who’s helping to forge
a new identity - and more diverse economy - for Canada’s Steel-town.

Some facts

•    Population: about 505,000

•    Number of union members: about 40,000

•    At its peak in the early 1980s, the steel industry employed over 30,000 in the city of Hamilton alone. By 2009 that figure had dropped to under 12,000.

•    In September 2008 there were 21,700 unemployed people in Hamilton. By September 2009 the jobless figure had jumped to 36,300 – an increase of 67%. Most job losses were in manufacturing and construction.

•    With its relatively affordable real estate, Hamilton has attracted home buyers from throughout the region. About 1,000 new housing units have been built in downtown Hamilton in the last six years.

•    When producers of the 2007 feature film Talk to Me (Kasi Lemmons, 2007) were seeking locations in which to recreate a 1968 riot in a derelict area of Washington, DC, they chose a section of downtown Hamilton.

•    57,365 Hamilton residents commute daily to Toronto for work.

Sources:
Report on Business, Aug 26, 2009
Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey
Don Fraser, Hamilton District Labour Council
 
Photographs & interview
Dominic Morissette

Editor
Miguel Raymond

Director-coordinator
Hélène Choquette


© 2009 NFB – All rights reserved
 
 

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POVERTY IN BC - John Millar

 

By Goh Iromoto - Date published: December 11, 2009 - Vancouver, British Columbia

An interview with John Millar, a public health physician, about the social and health costs of poverty.

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