I’d like to take you on a tour through Bathurst. It’s not exactly a popular tourist spot. I think it’s important, though.
So drive up that way. Slip off the highway onto St. Peter’s Avenue. You’ll see the busiest spots in town: McDonald’s and Superstore. Ignore those. Loblaw’s? You want to see the sites. What does Bathurst have to offer?
Drive on to the St. Peter’s bridge into Central-Bathurst. Glide over the basin. It connects to the Chaleur Bay. In that moment, you might see Bathurst as it was. A little town whose life depended on that body of water – ruled by shipping.
Right off the bridge is the waterfront. A boardwalk where you can sit in reverence. A quiet spot where the city sits in repose after a life of hard work. You can see hands calloused by lumber and metal gripping hands grown rough from long, cold winters.
There was a hotel there once. It was shut down after striking workers brought the business down. Now it’s a retirement paradise — a modern castle.
Wealth in Bathurst is old. Savings from when things were good. It’s held by the families that support the infrastructure. It’s benefactors. Bathurst is geared towards this crowd. Youth don’t generally stay if they can help it. A city that complains when young folk leave but give them no reason to stay.
But you’re on a trip. Drive along the King Street Bridge. On your right, you’ll see a bong shop and a pawnshop. The management of the latter store had another before. It was the place you’d go if you had something stolen from you. Before that, they ran the pawn pawnshop you’d visit to buy stolen goods.
The right side looks sketchy. Take a left.
You’re on Riverside now. Nice houses — old but cared for. Not the richest part of town but nice to see. There’s a golf course my Dad works at. Twenty years ago he was at the bottom. Now he’s the general manager.
It was rough when I was younger. Seasonal work. In the fall we’d cut down the wood for our furnace. We’d pile it in and wait out the winter with Dad’s EI. Not enough for a family of five. He had to make some extra cash, but we had to keep it a secret. I didn’t know why for a long time.
Dad would wait out snowstorms. Then he’d drive the half-hour, longer after a storm, into town. He’d plough driveways for the people in the subdivision next to the course.
I was angry. Not so much about Dad’s hard lot. I got mad at the people he worked for. They’d call and chew him out. They’d be angry that he hadn’t gotten their driveway cleared before 6 a.m. after a storm that lasted until 5 a.m.
Loop back around towards Central-Bathurst. It’s out-of-the-way, but you should head towards Salmon Beach. That’s where I grew up.
Gateway to Salmon Beach is East-Bathurst. You can’t get there before you pass through the carcass of the Smurfit-Stone mill. Its 2005 closure left more than 100 people out of a job. The money was gone, so the company pulled out. After that there were just the mines. Until they closed in 2010. Going up North or out West was the best option for a lot of people after that.
A company purchased the mill property. They named themselves Bathurst Redevelopment Inc. Their plans weren’t common knowledge, and it didn’t matter. They claimed they’d clean the site up. Bathurst couldn’t do that job on their own. Besides, it was Smurfit-Stone’s mess.
The mill never got cleaned up. Bathurst Redevelopment rode the wave of public opinion right into the property. They stripped it of all saleable materials and sailed off the way they came.
I imagine doe-eyed patience giving way to hurt and shame as the city realized Christmas wasn’t coming that year. A foreign company came in and did whatever they wanted, all with the goal of profit. A boring United Fruit Company. It’s easy to point out the mistake now.
Even if the company had done something with the property, the citizens would have only profited within the reverberations. All the major money would have flooded down the basin and away from the city. The city as a whole would profit, though — and thus, so would the people. Trickle-down economics. The average person would only see a minor effect in his own life, but public funds are nothing to write off.
Don’t let it bother you. Drive on. The mass of busted concrete does give the impression of a wasteland — only fair, since it is one. The property is sheer grey, the sort that would cloud the sky for years if it crumbled to dust — which it looks like it’s liable to do. There are nice aspects, though. Don’t let it keep you from beautiful Salmon Beach. For example, on the remnant of one building there’s a spray-painted heart that asks, “Will you go to Prom with me?” I like to think they said yes.
Drive on. Leave that dreary sight behind you and cross yet another bridge. If you need gas, you can stop at Maurice’s. It’s got its own bar. When I lived in town, I’d sneak out at night and go there, since the overnight guy never ID’d anyone.
You won’t want to linger here. The destitute garage next to Maurice’s will tip you off. It isn’t a big deal. Businesses open. Businesses close. The homes in the vicinity are falling apart. They glare at you with the grimace of poverty and all it might represent to you: drugs, crime, violence.
Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to drive that way. You can pass by and head to the pleasant beach. No one is going to stop you.
Not that many people live there, really. A lot of them worked at the mill or the mines. Now they work out-of-province. Young people are there, doing what they can. Minimum wage or better, or slinging dope by the high school.
Some of them work out West or up North and send money to their families. But I know some that have a home base there. People who go on work-tours and come home with more money than they know what to do with. They realize Bathurst has nothing for them but the chill off the water. They try to bring some warmth to their neighbourhoods with liquor and blow. When the money runs out, they leave again.
Let’s say we try to fix things. Let’s say we frack. A foreign company rolls in, calls themselves “NB Salvation Inc” and starts an operation. What do they care about employing New Brunswickers? All they care about is gas — the profit. Some people have mining experience. Some people get jobs.
So a surge of money comes in—a jolt from the capitalist defibrillator. Not everyone gets a piece. Alward’s Conservatives used the rhetoric of magic when describing fracking. Citizens who buy in do so believing it will help their community. That it will help their families, the people they care about and the people they support. And themselves.
But the money will go where it always goes. Central-Bathurst will get a nice walkway and another retirement mansion. You don’t notice death there like you do in East, because of the new coats of paint the public coffers cough up. You’ll never see that in East. It will remain as is despite a surge, because damn that Central-Bathurst looks shiny.
Fracking gives us money. Great. But it won’t bring life back to limbs already decayed. A boom economy won’t change things, because it won’t change the system that screwed us in the first place. It won’t change the nature of the people in New Brunswick. It won’t change you or me or anyone. It’ll just make us forget the details as we construct a narrative of prosperity.
And you will never drive through East. You’ll never want to see that slow death. If you do, it’ll never leave your mind. You’ll just keep driving and go off to see how nice the beach looks this time of year.
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