When John Fenik was a teenager, during the 1970s, he worked nights at The London Free Press, stacking freshly printed newspapers for distribution across the region at 5 a.m. It was a job he recalls with whimsical, almost mystic, fondness, because, for a couple of hours between his leaving work at sunrise on Saturday mornings and the point at which carriers plopped the newspapers on subscribers’ doorsteps, he alone in London knew what was happening in the community and in the world. “I loved it,” he said recently. “For a little period every morning, I felt I had this special knowledge and power.”
Nearly 50 years later, as he ate lunch on June 18, 2018, Fenik, who is now the mayor of Perth, Ontario, got a phone call that induced that same quixotic feeling, a private foretaste of what was about to transpire out there in the wide world or, more accurately, in the microcosmic world that is the town of Perth (population 6,000), approximately 80 kilometres southwest of Ottawa.
Whereas his boyhood clairvoyance had felt good, the current version was shocking and demoralizing. “When I hung up the phone, I was frustrated; was angry. Immediately, I was thinking of things I should have asked or said.”
Fenik’s unexpected call that day came from a man he identifies only as “a senior executive” at Magna International, the hugely profitable Canadian-based auto-parts maker – a company that operates some 439 facilities in 28 countries on five continents, the lot of them producing $53 billion in annual sales and nearly $3 billion in profits.
“They have all this wealth, all this success, all these reasons to be magnanimous about their place in the world,” says Fenik. And yet the message he got that day represented for Fenik what he later described as “this huge social and economic impropriety – to me a kind of major ethical crime.”
To understand that alleged crime, one must first know that Perth’s biggest private employer in recent years has been an old-style aluminum auto-parts foundry called Grenville Castings—“a real descent-into-hell sort of place,” as one employee puts it—located in a nondescript industrial park on the south side of town. Many of the plant’s 380 full-time non-unionized employees have survived for years there, under working conditions that include 12-hour shifts, unbearable noise, objectionable fumes, and interior temperatures that in summer can soar to 60°C and in winter drop to the freezing point, because the plant’s industrial doors have been opened to dispel the heat from contraptions that include vast masonry-lined “melters” in which aluminum ingots the size of La-Z-Boys are liquefied at more than 700°C.
From a metaphorical point of view, it may also help to know that the plant is one of the ugliest structures not just in the industrial park or in the town but, quite possibly, in Creation—a great barn of a place, clad in phlegm-coloured metal, topped by a forest of belching ventilation stacks, and barnacled by rusted appurtenances and a sheet-plastic lean-to for resident smokers. The lot of it is surrounded by makeshift parking spaces, Atco trailers, bunkers of scrap metal and rumbling 18-wheelers whose engines run constantly, adding to the low-level toxicity that seems to surround the building. The place has no grounds and has an all-but-morbid shortage of windows, which perhaps more than any other factor suggests a neglect of what it means to bring human beings together under livable circumstances.
The plant manufactures, among other things, framing components and differential housings for the likes of General Motors and Tesla. The work has been described as “a sort of a black magic.” But the phrase does not fully honour the resident magicians, because low-pressure aluminum casting—a process few understand and even fewer can perform—combines old-world alchemy, metallurgical voodoo, near-masochistic self-punishment and hints of fine art on a level that sculptor Henry Moore would almost certainly have appreciated. Besides which, it is perilously dangerous. A few drops of water in the melting furnace can, in an instant, create a kind of hydrogen bomb with the power to blow the roof off a place like Grenville Castings. When a Bic lighter recently ended up in a melting furnace, it created an explosion that, had things gone max-badly, could have maimed half a dozen workers. Machinists and operators are frequently required to service moulds operating at 800°C without even shutting them down, and employees say they have often ended up in the local emergency ward suffering various traumas and contusions.
For anyone who has not guessed, Grenville Castings is owned by a division of Magna International. And it is not the physical ugliness of the plant that has been an issue in Perth in recent months (although it might have been, given that Perth is considered one of the prettiest towns in Canada and is not partial to squalor). The issue, rather, is the socio-economic ugliness that, on the day Fenik got his phone call, lurched out of the factory and up Gore Street into town.
“What the Magna guy told me,” says Fenik, “was that company officials were on their way to Perth, and that at 4:30 they would be addressing Grenville’s workforce to let them know Magna was shutting the plant down for good.” And the company would be skedaddling from a town that had treated it with more dignity and generosity than Magna was now treating the town.
Fenik immediately summoned his executive team to the War Room—otherwise known as the Sunshine Room—of Perth’s historic town hall on Gore Street; it is a room whose eccentric presences include not only the ghosts of the Scottish colonialists who built the town and of town councils past but also of Perth’s annual Santa Claus parade, in the form of half a dozen large papier mâché heads that sit at the edge of a loft, peeking over the work area like escapees from a Lewis Carroll nightmare.
“I called Magna back,” says Fenik, “racking my brains over whether or not there was something we, as an administration, could do in the way of water costs or tax incentives, whatever, in order to save the jobs.” The mayor acknowledges he was furious that he and his council had not been included in the conversation to shutter the place. “I mean, we put a tremendous amount of effort and expense into underwriting these companies, in terms of making a life, a culture, recreational opportunities for the workers and management, and their families.”
But Magna wasn’t budging, and Fenik says that as the afternoon wore on, “the inevitability of it all became increasingly oppressive.”
Question: What does a town of 6,000 do to give itself a fighting chance on a globalized map in restless economic times, on a puny budget, almost all of which is swallowed by mundanities such as policing, garbage pickup, and water and sewage treatment? How does it survive trade wars and climate change and once-faithful industries that have decided to trash their citizenship—and with it, just about everything else they apparently once honoured in a community?
On a day this past January, Fenik was in his office in Perth’s town hall, contemplating that very riddle, discussing his town’s assets, hopes and challenges—which, these days, point about equally to the future and the past. He is amused to hear that an online forum has been debating whether residents of Perth should be called “Perthites,” “Perthlings” or “Pertherts.”
Under any name, such residents are likely to agree with the mayor that, despite a persistent deterioration of the manufacturing base, their town remains a resilient, even extraordinary, place to live. In its attempt to transcend economic vulnerability, in recent years Perth has also transformed itself into one of Canada’s most popular and accommodating places to die. Statistics show that 40 per cent of the citizenry are superannuated seniors whose presence has fuelled Perth’s carefully orchestrated emergence as a “full-service” retirement community: health services, funeral services, cemeteries.
Ironically, the town’s unofficial motto, “Aged to Perfection,” applies less to its human population than to the disproportionate amount of 19th-century cut limestone in its architecture and the fact that virtually every downtown intersection doubles as a living diorama of Perth’s 200-year-old roots.
“We’re very definitely about history,” says Fenik. Which, in the wake of closures at factories such as Grenville Castings—and at Yarntex and International Scissors and Heritage Silversmiths and Brown Shoes—has become a kind of survival strategy unto itself. History as tourism. History as commodity. History as psycho-cultural elevator music for the long, slow descent of the retirees. The joke goes that while nearby Smiths Falls is selling “stoned” (its magnificent new cannabis company, Canopy Growth, occupies the abandoned Hershey chocolate factory), Perth is still selling stone.
But it is selling that stone with the same sort of passion that it once made and sold scissors and yarn and shoes. The words “heritage” and “legacy” bloom like petunias in the town bumph. Even the local plaza, a model of up-to-the-minute mediocrity, has been revivified as the horsey-sounding “Perth Mews.” Ye olde municipality hosts a music festival, a maple festival and a college program in heritage carpentry. The Perth Citizens’ Band, the oldest of its kind in Canada, has been around since the mid-1800s, shortly after Scottish masons arrived with their chisels and hammers to reinvent the dwellings their forebears had abandoned during the Highland Clearances.
However, in a small-town economy, nothing can quite replace the security that comes with factories cranking out goods around the clock, generating wages and taxes and support jobs. And community life. And the idea of a future (even an unsustainable tomorrow is a tomorrow). Such was the bonhomie around Grenville Castings when its Toronto owner, Tritec Corp., expanded it from Merrickville to Smiths Falls in 1992, and on to Perth in 1994. “I remember my first day on the job that year,” says a senior employee at the Perth plant. “I came home from work that afternoon and announced to my wife that this was the best job I could ever hope to have. Friendly owners. Great management. If you produced your quota of parts by Friday noon, they brought in lunch for everybody and sent you home for the rest of the day.”
It was in 2000, during a major retooling to produce parts for a U.S. powertrain maker named American Axle, that the wheels began to wobble. Lack of capital to purchase state-of-the-art equipment for the new initiative necessitated the sale of the company to what the employee calls a “bigger corporation,” which in turn sold to a consortium, which sold to another corporation. “There were so many owners in that era, you couldn’t name them all. Then came the crash in 2008, and the plant’s American owner entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy. And the company was bought out again.”
A mould operator recalls that by the time Magna International came on the scene in 2011, “things had reached a point where some of us had the feeling they weren’t going to make it,” the employee says. “The plant got congested to the point of chaos—one machine on top of another, I guess to increase production. The real problem, though, was that headquarters never properly worked with our people. They just told us what we had to do. We’d do it, and it would mess up. And we’d get behind. And the pressure to produce would build. Oh, it was fierce. GM’s not going to sit around waiting for parts from Perth.”
These days, thousands of finished parts are spread like Tinkertoys in giant bins or on skids across every available square metre of the company’s outdoor space as they await shipping. The undercurrent of turmoil in the plant is perhaps best captured in the fact that Grenville has had eight general managers in the eight years since Magna bought it—and at some points has experienced as much as 70 per cent turnover in personnel.
Perhaps predictably, the meeting between Magna and the plant workers on that fateful day in June 2018 rapidly disintegrated into anger and recrimination. A normally soft-spoken senior employee is said to have screamed from the floor, “I’ve given my life to this goddamn operation...and here I am being told that I’m not needed anymore, that I’m disposable.” Others accused Magna of ruining Grenville with its ineptitude and greed. “We’ve worked our asses off every day, in this heat, in this terrible f—ing environment,” hollered one employee, “and this is our thanks.”
Within minutes, the meeting was shut down for fear it would disintegrate into violence, and the employees went home to ponder the stunning new narrative of their lives. In effect, it was a tale told by an idiot. Magna, which claimed it “cared deeply” for its employees, promised to help them find jobs, plan for their futures and write resumés—this backed by an economy in which companies such as Magna are busily killing precisely the jobs they are encouraging their castoffs to find.
The plan was that Magna would keep the plant open for a year—not for the employees but for the company, which had contracts to fill. Meanwhile, Magna offered modest severance pay: one week’s wages for each year of service, plus what Magna calls a “seniority-driven” bonus. “But we have to work to the bitter end to get that. We can’t leave a day early, even for another job. And we have to shut up. No yapping to the media. Which means you,” said one worker to an inquisitive magazine writer.
A Magna representative confirmed in April that the company’s policy on severance eligibility is that workers “must remain in good standing.” As for the additional seniority payment, Magna said there is a “general confidentiality obligation” imposed upon eligible workers, but said there is “no specific reference regarding speaking to the media.”
During the weeks that followed the announcement, a hundred or so workers, mostly those without much seniority and therefore expecting little in the way of severance, quit and took jobs elsewhere. The departees were replaced by temporary workers bussed in from Toronto and Ottawa—some of them conspicuously unhip to Grenville’s life-or-death safety standards. “The rules were explained to them meticulously in English,” says one worker. “But some of them didn’t speak English. I saw one guy come into the plant with a can of pop and set it down near one of the big aluminum melters. In the old days, he would have been fired immediately. It’s the equivalent of setting a box of TNT on top of a wood stove. But nobody on the floor said a thing.” Magna declined to comment on the incident.
As for the company-imposed silence, most of the employees obediently lost their tongues. Those inclined to talk have sounded off anonymously about deteriorating plant conditions and eviscerated company-employee relations. One worker speculated that when Magna bought the foundry, the company’s idea was to have its own technologists and engineers learn and perfect the plant’s “magic” and transport it to somewhere it could be done more cheaply. “We had people from Poland in here studying what we were doing. Then there were people from China,” says a veteran machinist. “But it’s not something you can pass on in a matter of weeks or even months. In fact, in all these years, the people who’ve been observing and working with us have really never figured it out! And Magna still doesn’t get it.” The machinist explained that he and the operators used to design their own casting moulds—fiddle with them until they were perfect. “We knew what we were doing. Then Magna took that away from us, implying we were incompetent. Now we get these moulds from all over Ontario and the U.S., supposedly professionally designed, and they’re not right! They don’t work.”
As a result, the employee says, the quality control has been “awful” for the past few years. “Five years ago, it would have taken us a week or more to fill the 53-foot scrap Dumpster at the plant’s south door,” says the worker. “Now we fill it eight times a week!”
Historically, Magna’s inclination has been to say nothing to the public about plant closures. But when informed of the reported chaos at Grenville, company representatives agreed to speak to Report on Business in the hopes of lending perspective to the reports from employees. But they would do so for reference only, not for attribution. In that mode, they explained that the creation of excess scrap—which, incidentally, is shredded and recycled through the melters—is an inevitable result of the introduction of new machines and processes, and increased production. (“Yeah, and bad tools and faulty moulds,” counters one casting technician.) They declined to comment specifically on the eightfold increase in scrap.
In the same vein, Magna said it had no intention of moving the plant when it bought it. There was even hope for an expansion, when Magna bought an adjacent soccer field owned by the town. But to this day, it is used for soccer.
Otherwise, Magna’s communications since the announcement have been a kind of drift, an Orwellian seepage, that might be read, indirectly, as a condemnation of the very kind of capitalism the company has practised on Grenville Castings. It might be read less generously as a menu of brazen corporate euphemisms for the New Age. The company claims, for example, to harbour “a great empathy and concern” for its workers. “I guess there’s some respect there,” says an employee. “Unfortunately, they don’t respect us nearly as much as they respect their investors and their need to make money no matter what the human cost.”
As for the reason for the closure, Magna insists “commoditization” is the major culprit, which in market-speak means auto parts such as those made in Perth are interchangeable with similar parts made using similar processes by any number of companies—and must thereby be sold competitively. “No value can be added,” says a Magna rep. “Anyone can make them.”
Which is why, of course, the company must decamp for lower-cost jurisdictions. In other words, says Mayor Fenik, “to places where shipping is cheap, property is all but worthless, taxes are not an issue, environmental standards barely exist, and you can’t live on the wages. Places like Mexico. Like China. Like parts of the United States of America.” While Magna refuses to say where it will be making its castings from here on, it has been operating in all of those countries for years.
When the company declared it would be “rolling out” its severance package, one employee complained, “You’d think by the way they talk we were gonna have some major avalanche of money coming at us when, in fact, if you’re like me and have only been there nine or 10 years, it’ll be, like, $8,000 or something—hardly enough to prolong the agony.”
Magna is adamant the closure of Grenville is not related to aluminum tariffs imposed by the U.S. But they are quick to acknowledge it is “tough times all over” in the auto industry. GM, for example, is in the process of cutting 2,300 jobs from its Oshawa, Ontario, operation. “Mind you, it’s exciting times too,” said a Magna rep, whose company has invested heavily in producing a kit that will convert conventional cars to self-driving models. But as The Guardian columnist John Harris asked: How long will cars as we know them even exist? The supposition is that the future of transportation lies less in privately driven autos (on which some cities have already imposed selective bans) and more in high-speed mass transit, like light rail, which is in fact a projected centrepiece of Fenik’s vision for the future of Perth.
Amid this free-for-all of non-attributed commentary, one Grenville employee, a 52-year-old machinist named Les Peters, spoke fearlessly, openly and on the record about the effects of the plant closure on him and his family. Peters lives with his wife, Tracy, and their 24-year-old son on a wooded acreage in the verdant Brooke Valley, 20 kilometres west of Perth, where his ancestors put down roots in 1813. Les is a soft-spoken, self-described obsessive-compulsive, who began work at the plant in 1994, and for much of the past 25 years he has used his skills as a tool and die maker to construct parts for the plant’s machinery and otherwise keep the machines running. He has applied his wages, which today sit at just over $30 an hour—roughly $63,000 a year—to buying the land where the family lives, to paying the mortgage on their unassuming house, raising two children, taking modest vacations and keeping a succession of what Les calls “decent used vehicles.” He and Tracy have no savings to speak of, and Les’s severance pay is likely to max out somewhere just above $30,000, minus deductions.
This has him worried—partly for his own sake, but more so for the sake of those around him. For one thing, he says, he will be unable to help his 21-year-old daughter repay the $60,000 she owes in student loans. His son works at a machine shop called Bell’s Machining, Welding & Hydraulics, which does occasional contracts for Grenville and could be vulnerable to the shifting industrial climate. “We wouldn’t be able to help him either, if he should lose his job,” Les shrugs. Tracy, a medical secretary, has contributed heartily to the family finances, but she is now disabled by illness and has been in and out of the hospital in Ottawa for the past two years. Her current regimen of 12 medications is covered largely by Les’s company drug plan—which is, of course, about to lapse. “I look at my pills,” she says, “and I think, Okay, maybe I can do without one or two of them. I could take the chance.”
Tracy says what bugs her as much as “the big things” is the way the impending shortfall grinds away at the sort of grace notes that give margins and plausibility to a life. “I get asked if I can contribute a toonie to a local charity, and I say, ‘Well, no, I’m sorry, no, I can’t. Not today.’ Do you know how utterly shitty and deprived that makes you feel?”
For years, Les has saved money by joining with neighbours to cut firewood, for example, or to raise buildings or shovel snow—basically to get the benefit of shared or exchanged labour. He is, among other things, a talented (if uncertified) automobile mechanic and has dreamed for a decade of running a modest repair and machining facility out of the barn-sized shop he built in the trees, on the high ground, behind the family home. He does occasional repairs on neighbours’ vehicles and farm machinery. “But I’m not quite at the point where I can go it alone,” he says. “It’d be a pretty limited income at this stage. I feel I should probably hold a job for a few more years.” The problem is to find a job—one that suits his skills and temperament. “It’s not easy at my age. Plus, I’m not keen to leave the valley. I just feel I’m a little too old to abandon everything we’ve built here.”
Les’s situation at work these days is even less sanguine than it is at home. As a devoted and highly skilled machinist and an intuitive mechanic, he is constantly called upon to fix machines, make parts, solve problems—this, in an environment that is increasingly hectic as the plant stumbles toward the finish line. “Even before I’m through the door,” he says, “I have people asking me to help them do this or that—in addition to the long list of other jobs I can’t ignore.”
The subject infuriates Tracy. “I keep telling him he mustn’t do it; he has to guard his health, to tell these people that he’ll put them on a list and help them if he has time. He’s been loyal and committed to this company for decades, and he’ll be loyal to the last minute. And why?”
Tracy leans toward her interviewer and says quietly: “Les has worked sooo hard.” Her words fall somewhere between endearment and condemnation. “The guy is exhausted with the stress.”
“I can’t say no,” responds Les, whose old-world allegiance is to co-operation and community—perhaps too often at the expense of self.
For Les and Tracy Peters, and for many Grenville employees, the months since last June have been rendered all the more galling by the fact that Magna’s founder, Frank Stronach, and his daughter, Belinda, engaged in a business spat so boisterously public, and involving so many billions of dollars, as to make the TV serial Schitt’s Creek (a satire on small-town facsimiles of the Stronachs) look like an enactment of the most boring statutes of the Old Testament. “Their fight isn’t even about Magna,” says Les. “It’s about their other company, the Stronach Group.” But it is nonetheless a reminder to Grenville employees that as they fight to save their $900-a-month mortgages and find minimum-wage jobs, their struggles have made a few people (to use the words of a dissident Grenville administrator) “insanely, even brainlessly, rich.”
Some employees were irked in a different way when, in mid-February 2019, the British rock star Sting, who was performing his musical The Last Ship in Toronto, volunteered to perform it in Oshawa, in support of the unionized employees being put out of work at the GM plant. The production chronicles the closing of the shipyard in Sting’s home of Wallsend, England, during the 1980s and the catastrophic consequences for the city’s residents. “I love Sting, and we don’t begrudge them the support,” says one veteran Grenville worker, “but in a way, hearing about such things just makes you feel smaller and more helpless, because of course Sting’s not going to perform in support of a crappy little non-union plant like ours. Why should some guy we don’t even know recognize us when we’re not even recognized by our own company?”
Meanwhile, of course, hundreds of local residents have made it their business, their concern, their survival, to recognize the importance of Grenville and its employees—to understand the blow that will be dealt to the community when the castings plant is gone. “They say six jobs are affected for every primary job that gets smoked,” says Keith Saikaly, who, with his dad, owns Mr. Victor’s Diner, within a hundred metres of Grenville Castings. “And, of course, the city loses taxes, and the landlords lose tenants and the stores lose customers.” Mr. Victor’s will itself lose some 25% of its clientele. “There are mornings when I deliver as many as 50 takeout breakfasts to the plant,” says Saikaly, who anticipates rough days ahead, but feels he and his dad will weather them somehow, with adjustments.
Janet Girdwood works the counter at Perth Chocolate Works on Wilson Street. But she was once employed at the Rideau Regional Centre, a mega-institution for people with developmental challenges, in Smiths Falls. When the centre closed about a dozen years ago, more than 800 regional residents were put out of work. “This was around when the Hershey plant closed,” she says. “A lot of Perth people worked at each place. Oh, it was a disaster. These sorts of things affect schools, community programs, real estate. Members of my family had a health-food store in Smiths Falls. It was over very quickly for them. And, of course, new businesses won’t come. The money is leaving.”
Girdwood’s 22-year-old daughter, Cal, recently opened Koolz Vapes in Perth, many of whose customers work at Grenville. “These people are working stressed,” says Janet. “And when that happens, they have more accidents; their sense of community deteriorates; there’s a more destructive energy around them. Grenville is a very tough place to work at the best of times.”
All of which circles back to the question of how a town survives, both socially and economically—to issues such as the promotion of Perth as a retirement haven and the repackaging of the town’s history as a consumer item. The problem with the former, as Saikaly points out, “is that the selling of retirement is as economically unstable as the manufacturing of car parts.” For one thing, the cohort of baby boomers on which retirement communities feast will not be around forever. And old folks on fixed incomes are unable to create growth. Plus, young people, unless they are in health services, are inclined to move away from a town devoted to long, comfortable dying.
It is for all of these reasons that Mayor Fenik, while deeply appreciative of the town’s past, would be happy to make a little more of selling the future—particularly to the town’s youth. In that regard, he and his council have been integral in bringing state-of-the-art fibre optics and communications technology to Perth, and have facilitated the renewal of Algonquin College’s 350-student campus on the edge of town. Fenik is also an avid proponent of the handful of small factories—an electrical components plant, a wire factory, an adhesives manufacturer owned by 3M—that are holding their ground in Perth. His dream, he says, is a high-speed light-rail system that would deliver commuters from Perth to Ottawa in 40 minutes and to Toronto in two hours.
For Perthlings such as Les Peters, the future these days has more to do with quietly contemplating the survival of his family and of toughing out his final days at the plant.
“I’ll keep givin’ ’er to the end,” he says. “I’m not angry, just very frustrated and exhausted over the way things have gone. And I guess, in a sense, I’m relieved that it’s over. To tell the truth, I was relieved the day Magna announced the plant was finished. With all that was happening, I just couldn’t see how it could go on—couldn’t see how I, myself, could go on in that environment.”
Tracy Peters is not so forgiving. “If you happen to mention me in the story,” she says as she listens to her husband, “would you kindly refer to me as ‘Les’s embittered wife, Tracy?’”
On a morning in early spring, a Grenville floor manager who identifies himself only as “George” sits in Mr. Victor’s Diner after leading a company workshop in the X-raying of castings, a process whereby flaws can be detected in the metal. It is part of Magna’s attempt to prepare Grenville’s employees, or at least a few of them, for opportunities of the sort Magna is about to snuff out forever in Perth. “Most of us will turn up somewhere,” says George. “I may look like a foundry worker, but my main love is astrophysics. Who knows? Maybe Magna will head off into space, and I’ll apply for a job out there.”
The more likely scenario is that Magna will continue its migration to countries such as Mexico, China and India. “Contrary to what you might think,” says one Magna administrator, “I’m sorry we’re leaving Perth.”
A year ago, most of the local workers felt much the same way. These days, as one employee puts it, “We’re just bloody glad to see them off.”
Editor’s note: In the hours before this story went to press, Les Peters revealed that he had left Grenville Castings and taken a job alongside his son, Riley, at Bell’s Machining, which makes firewood processing equipment just a few hundred metres from Grenville Castings. He will receive his severance pay from Magna and hold on to his benefits until the plant closes in June.