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Lost jobs call to mind a 'simpler time'

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Canada's workplace has changed, and continues to change, rapidly.

The topic readily lends itself to ponderous socio-economic analysis, but Halifax author journalist John DeMont prefers a more personal take on meaningful work, so he has given us a portrait of 10 fast-fading jobs, each deftly rendered through the prism of an individual life.

In his engaging prologue, he describes how many of the jobs he did as a kid and adolescent growing up in Halifax in the early 1960s -- paper boy, gas jockey, labourer for a ship's chandlery operation -- have disappeared or all but disappeared.

DeMont takes pains to declare he's not a slave to the sanctity of the good old days of early to mid-20th century.

Rather, he characterizes his portraits as "wistful dispatches from a distant era and a simpler time."

"The world has changed shape since then, and Canada with it," he writes. "But the men and women in this book, in the way they make their daily bread, have stood still."

Sometimes he sounds like a fusty old bugger, though, in fairness, at other times his critique of the contemporary rings true.

The occupations and individuals he profiles -- milkman, locomotive engineer, travelling salesman, large-animal veterinarian, blacksmith, cattle rancher, community-newspaper publisher, used-record store owner, drive-in movie operator -- have but one common denominator: they're vanishing or are already throwbacks to an earlier time.

He's right when he declares "there's no turning back in the midst of a transformation of the global economy every bit as significant as the Industrial Revolution."

This is why there's implicit urgency underlining his project, which must be done now, "while there's still time."

DeMont has written three previous books, including 2009's Coal Black Heart, a global history of everyone's favourite fossil fuel.

Speaking of fossils, in A Good Day's Work, one occupation escapes his non-fiction net. To tackle the job of lighthouse keeper, he had to resort to a fictional composite, because the Canadian Coast Guard blocked all access to civil-servant lighthouse keepers.

"We think you're probably going to write about the de-staffing of the lighthouses," a Coast Guard spokesman told him. (Which was, more or less, true.)

His subject occupations, though not distinctly Canadian, are portrayed through people who are Canuck through and through.

They're rooted Canadians. Most are affixed to rural landscapes (New Brunswick's Westmorland County, southeastern Alberta, a Quebec countryside hamlet, the Ottawa Valley), but some are urban dwellers (Halifax, Saskatoon, Picton, Ont.). No Manitobans make the cut.

DeMont's encounters with these custodians of trades from the past are nicely drawn, frequently moving and sometimes amusing.

And with his focus on vanishing cultural icons, he's tapped into an oddly post-modern fascination with 19th and early 20th century jobs that have endured unto the 21st.

Paradoxically, while the jobs he profiles aren't cutting-edge, his book is.

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2013 A1

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