Register Saturday | September 30 | 2023

Wake Up and Smell the Harbour

Life down East after the pogey dries up

We step through a windowless steel back door into a warehouse lit like an operating room. There are dozens of us, preparing to work in shifts around the clock. We’re shown the documents we’re to assemble: a glossy tourist pamphlet and a postage-paid order card for Doers and Dreamers, a four-hundred-page guide to Nova Scotia chockablock with inspiring panoramas and aphoristic pearls of wisdom. “Spend time in Nova Scotia,” it says, “and your soul will thank you.”

This is not my real job. I don’t have a “real” job. I am employed seasonally by Via Rail, then I collect employment insurance—or “pogey” as we call it here—the rest of the year. In the summer of 2004, I racked up seven hundred hours at a good union wage, but it was only enough to get me five months of unemployment benefits. So when my EI dried up two months shy of being recalled to Via, I sought work from a temp agency. They offered me a five-day assignment “collating documents” in a warehouse in Lower Sackville, a Halifax suburb. The pay was only $6.50 per hour but the work sounded innocuous enough. God knows, I’ve done worse for less.

The postage-paid card is to be placed in the centre of the open pamphlet, the bottom folded over the card, the top over the bottom, the right over the top and the left over the right, forming a neat, slim rectangular package. It is then added to the stack in a shallow plastic mail bin. The company expects us to perform this feat of tourist origami four hundred times an hour until quitting time.

Tourism is one of the main industries here in Nova Scotia—one of the only industries, really. Alberta has oil and gas; the Maritimes have tourism. Most of the jobs I’ve had in the East have depended on tourist dollars. Even the government department to which writers and artists apply for grants is called Tourism, Culture and Heritage. To be fair, the mix of history, landscape and culture is pretty quaint. But then, so is Halifax’s practice of pumping raw sewage into the harbour.

Our folding production target is 1.4 million pamphlets—about one and a half times the population of Nova Scotia. To put this in perspective, if the job were left to a single person, it would take 3,500 hours—40 percent of a calendar year—to complete the task. That translates to 87.5 workweeks (not counting a half-hour lunch break). And this is for the folding alone, never mind the printing, cutting, stacking, wrapping, tabbing, addressing and mailing.

Some folders are employees of the printing company, distinguished from the temps by their higher wage (i.e. not being skimmed by the temp agency) and their greater commitment to the task at hand. On my lunch break, I overhear conversation between some of the full-timers and am stunned by how much they really seem to care about the production schedule, which, as is becoming clear to me, cannot be realistically met.

We stand and fold under the high-wattage sodium glare. A fellow temp asks a supervisor if we can sit. She says we can’t: “They think it makes you less productive.” Somehow, I suspect that “they” have the statistics to back this up. The supervisor comes over. She’s impressed by the speed at which I work. I thank her and when she moves on to another table, I slow my pace. I have no Stakhanovite ambitions and I get no more pay for doing the job better than someone else.

I’ve worked my share of physically demanding jobs, but there’s always been a physical reward: the improvement of muscle and lung, the fine-tuning of metabolic rhythms, a sharpening of the mind. But after hours standing with only a thin rubber carpet between my workboot-shod feet and the concrete warehouse floor, performing the same monotonous task again and again, I am no more fit, my brain is numb and I ache from toe to shoulder.

Halifax has, improbably, a lower unemployment rate than many other major Canadian cities—lower than Ottawa, lower than Toronto and lower than Montreal. Yet this statistic belies a clutch of contrary facts. Much of the work that is available, such as my glorious folding job, is paid at a rate lower than maximum EI benefits ($413 per week), comes with few or zero benefits and is available only on a temporary basis.

But Halifax is a university town, and students often take crappy temp jobs to supplement their loans. The temp agencies also tend to draw heavily from the city’s lower income neighbourhoods, such as, the north ends of Halifax and Dartmouth (referred to by Haligonians across the harbour as “The Dark Side”) and Spryfield, a traditionally working-class area just off the peninsula. These areas are standing reserves of poor, undereducated, unskilled labour as well as poor, striving-to-be-educated students. And people somewhere in between, like me: an erstwhile student with a useless degree stuck in an unpaid gap between seasonal employments.

Flip-flip, flip-flip, thock. Flip-flip, flip-flip, thock. My pile grows with the steady rhythmic thump of lines of verse. But the beat my fellow-folders and I produce bears a stronger resemblance to the lockstep, hypnotic metre of doggerel and martial songs than to the richly unpredictable cadences of poetry. At the end of the day, I’m bone-weary, too stupid to read or write a word, and not even $50 richer for my trouble.

By the third day, I am becoming, as newspaper headlines put it, disgruntled. I don’t pack heat to work and mow down co-workers in a fit of blind rage, but at one point, the edge of a pamphlet’s thick glossy stock cuts across a hangnail on my left ring finger. Without thinking about it, I start to dab the welling blood on the photographs of blissed-out tourists and sunstruck vistas, which I quickly fold out of sight. After a dozen-odd pamphlets have fallen victim to my smear campaign, the flow is staunched and I carry on folding.

At home, I try to work on a book review, but my brain won’t engage. I’m out of sorts and yell at my wife; if I had a dog, he’d no doubt be cringing in the corner. An editor emails me asking if we can talk the next day about changes to an essay. I tell him I can’t. Sunk in a funk, I know what I have to do. I pick up the phone and dial the temp agency’s number.

Upon my return to Via Rail, they make me part of an elite crew being groomed to sell Maritime culture and heritage to the tourists. The aim is to upgrade the “product” the railway offers, specifically, to provide a richer “learning experience” to travellers from outside the region. The marketing guy from Montreal says he wants to help visitors “feel what it’s like to be a Maritimer.” One quick wit quips, “What? Chronic depression?”

Only half of us laugh.