The Two Solitudes of Collingwood
This post, more than any other, is about living in Collingwood. It’s about the politics and the great divide that is only spoken of in hushed whispers or with eyes rolling toward the heavens.
When you Google the term “ Collingwood Shipyards”, chances are the first page will be filled with references to the waterside condominium project in downtown Collingwood. Scroll further down and you’ll come upon some references to the original shipbuilding history of Collingwood. Which one would you chose to click on?
Are you a “local” or a “newcomer” in the community? The line seems to be drawn on whether or not a street in town carries your family name or, if your family had members who worked at the Collingwood Shipyards. If not, some will think of you as a newcomer even if you were born and raised here in the last 30 years or so. This is important to understand.
For 103 years, the Shipyards operated at the end of Hurontario St. From 1882 to 1986, over 200 ships were built including passenger ships, freighters and warships including Corvettes built for the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II. The sounds of the machine cogs, hot steel clanging and the hammering of rivets were ever present. Everyone knew the sound of the whistle that marked the end of the workday and the rhythm of daily life was intricately tied to it.
At points, over 1,000 people were employed at the Shipyards representing 20% of the population.
Almost every family in town had a father, brother, mother or sibling that worked there. They certainly had friends and neighbours who did. Others owned or operated businesses from furniture shops to downtown hotels and pubs that catered to the Shipyard workers. During the two World Wars when the men went off to fight great battles, their wives stepped in and became trained as welders and machinists. Over the life of the Shipyard, many lives were lost and many others were cut short through injuries obtained in the hard labour of shipbuilding.
The whole town shared a single common thread called, The Shipyards. There were shared values and shared experiences. Everyone knew everyone. They went to school together, played sports together, went to weddings and funerals together. They are still together as extended families, friends and business associates.
I remember the day the Shipyards closed in 1986. It was the very day we moved to the area. The last whistle blew and people were openly crying on the side of Huron Street as they said their last good-byes. Our initial thoughts were that it was a strange town indeed. Little did we understand what had happened that day.
Jobs that paid a living wage were lost. A depression was setting in. Fear took hold. The future was unknown.
Fast forward to 2014. When you walked down the promenade beside the new condominiums at the end of Hurontario Street, what do you see? Ducks and swans, ships in the harbour and a beautiful waterfront vista. What do you hear? Water lapping the sides of the former launch basin.
If you were a local, you’d see and hear these too. But you’d also see a lot more in your mind’s eye of memories. Hence, the two solitudes.
It’s no secret that Collingwood has had its share of battles in the political arena. Cries of nepotism, cronyism and block voting among what many call the “old guard.” Decisions that leave “newcomers” scratching their heads. Decisions that leave locals staunchly supportive at all costs. Is it the single thread of oftentimes, linear thinking and long-standing friendships that guide “locals” or is it an attempt to hang on to what was?
I don’t have the answers but I do know that there are two solitudes. This will eventually come to a natural end as time and people pass. Already the number of “newcomers” exceeds the number of “locals.” While I hope that someday soon the great divide disappears, it also makes me a bit sad to think how hard the transition of the last 28 years has been for many. The locals who are part of the history of the town deserve respect and understanding of newcomers like me for the price of change. They also deserve for us to remember the roots of what made this town great.
I hope that the next time you think about the Collingwood Shipyards, you might think about the legacy of this iconic industry which still reverberates today.