SAULT STE. MARIE, Ont. — David Beauregard shrugs as he walks out of the Algoma Steel plant during an afternoon shift change.
“It’s scary,” he said, describing the mixture of resignation and worry he and his colleagues have felt since President Donald Trump began talking about restricting Canadian steel imports.
A steel tariff would have devastating consequences for Sault Ste. Marie, the heart of steel country in northern Ontario, where Algoma makes up more than 40 per cent of the city’s economic output.
So far, Canada has been exempted from the U.S. import duties — 25 per cent on steel, 10 per cent on aluminum — but Trump has suggested the reprieve may only be temporary and is part of protecting American industrial jobs.
It’s an argument that isn’t lost on Canadian steel workers.
“You definitely feel for them, too,” Beauregard said about his counterparts south of the border.
“They’re like us. They’re trying to make a living too. And their government is also trying to help them out. You’ve got to see both sides of the story. Still, it’s a hard thing to take.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Cody Alexander, president of one of the United Steelworkers union locals.
“President Trump is on the right track,” Alexander said, wearing a red ball cap with white lettering that said, “Let’s Make Algoma Tubes Great Again.”
Alexander commended Justin Trudeau for the government’s full court press in securing the tariff exemption for Canada, but urged the prime minister to do more to protect Canadian steel workers.
Trudeau was in Quebec and Hamilton this week as part of a tour to pledge his support for Canadian workers and companies. He was scheduled to visit Sault Ste. Marie on Wednesday before heading to Regina.
Steel has been part of Sault Ste. Marie since the first plant was established at the turn of the 20th century after iron ore was discovered in the region.
But the remote industrial centre has been hit hard in recent decades by a combination of a glut of steel in the global market — blamed in part on state-sponsored industries in other countries — and leaps in automation.
At its peak around 15 years ago, Algoma employed around 13,000 people. That number has since dropped to under 3,000.
Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Christian Provenzano is convinced the industry will survive and that the integration between the American and Canadian steel industries mean the tariffs won’t happen. Trade restrictions would hurt the many businesses on the opposite side of the border that either supply or buy from Canadian companies, he said.
“We’ve been here before,” Provenzano said from his office overlooking Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., on the opposite bank of the St. Marys River. A well-travelled bridge spanning the water illustrates the daily connection between the two communities that share the same name but different countries.
The steel industry also supports about 8,000 pensioners, Provenzano said.
Retiree Bob Karklins worked in the steel industry for 30 years and said doesn’t think the U.S. will follow through with the tariff.
He described the triple whammy that has hit steel workers in recent years: NAFTA renegotiation, the spectre of tariffs and Algoma coming under creditor protection.
Still, he felt optimistic about Algoma: “It’s not the company’s first rodeo on this,” he said.
Former steel worker Ken Suriano said he believes tariffs would devastate the Sault, but the city has become desensitized to the cyclical struggles faced by the region’s steel industry.
“This city is so used to the uncertainty,” said Suriano, speaking at a mall food court that serves as an informal weekday morning watering hole for retirees.
“Here we go again,” he added.
His feeling of resignation was shared by his neighbour, who described the industry as “one of the biggest roller-coaster rides you can imagine.”
Another retiree, Rimas Gasperas, who retired in 2004 after 34 years in the industry, said tariffs would be “the final nail” for the Sault.
Algoma Steel has been under creditor protection since 2015.
More bad news for the city’s main economic driver would have a significant impact not only for steel workers but also for as many as 9,000 downstream jobs that support the industry, said Rory Ring, head of the region’s chamber of commerce.
“Everywhere from Algoma to Gus’s pizza,” Ring said. “The ramifications are very, very significant for us here.”
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Geordon Omand, The Canadian Press