Layers: an overview of research & sources informing the creative process of the artists involved in Company Town

Layer one:Once the city's top employer, General Electric opened its factory in 18911 and only closed its manufacturing operations in 2018.2 For over one hundred years, the factory became a space where thousands3 of workers built a community and livelihood.4 For many workers, General Electric was a 'family' company, an omnipresence in their lives and a place where friendships and familial ties were formed.5 Throughout the 20th century, the factory provided steady local jobs(often lifelong and across multiple generations), a distant dream to us, artists working under conditions of 21st century precarity.

Layer two:General Electric's golden age of 20th century manufacturing is unsettled by information that former workers are bringing to light in the 21st century. General Electric engaged in heavy industrial manufacturing processes, inhumane production demands and knowingly failed to implement adequate health and safety practices,6 which is estimated to have poisoned, injured and/or killed thousands of workers and their families.7Workers were in general not adequately warned about the risks or given access to proper safety equipment.8 Those who tried to sound the alarm were largely ignored or even threatened.9 As a result, General Electric ran the factory like a city within the city, operating on its own rules with limited oversight.10 We only know about these failings because former employees collectively wrote and researched an account of their experiences working in the factory in 2017.

Layer three:Prior to the workers writing their own report, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) was relying on a widely-debunked GE-funded study to decide workers' claims and was dismissing many of them.11 Individual claims can take decades to reach resolution,12 however since the Advisory Committee published its report in 2017, the WSIB has reopened and reassessed many claims.13 And yet, according to family members and the Advisory Committee of former GE employees, many workers are still facing denials of their claim without adequate, transparent explanations.14

Layer four:a perception of General Electric's benevolence in the community can be seen as larger than its role as an employer. It donated to United Way campaigns and local fundraising.15 It donated land to assist the founding of Trent University,16 while GE employees donated a portion of their own paychecks over five years to fund the university. GE started several local sports leagues and hosted picnics and Christmas parties.17 Beyond these specific examples, we have often gotten the feeling of an almost mythic presence that the company had in the city, an aura. This may partly have been due to the fact that the company exerted control over its own image in in-house publications like Works News.18

Layer five: When the company established itself in Peterborough/Nogojiwanong, it successfully acquired the city permission (and financing) to build two pipes from the factory directly into the Otonabee River. While we cannot know precisely what the company sent through the pipes, its relationship to the river makes it clear that it sought to make the water system some form of dumping ground.19 The company sold or gave away its excess asbestos to workers for insulation and is now cleaning up this highly toxic material from Peterborough homes.20 Toxic chemicals continue to leak from the closed factory site into the environment.21 The site sits mostly unused because it has so far been deemed too toxic to rehabilitate for other uses.22

Layer six: General Electric is still a multi-billion dollar enterprise.23 The company has never acknowledged its failures to protect the people it employed.24

Layer seven:The polluted site of the closed factory and much of our work as artists have occurred on land that is called Nogojiwanong, Treaty 20 of the Williams Treaty, where we, the artists, are residents as well as uninvited guests. GE sits on the traditional territory of Anishnaabeg nations who have felt the effects of toxic industries on their lands, waters and health. General Electric employed workers from local First Nations such as Curve Lake who likely would have experienced the same toxic burdens in their workplace.25 Additionally, Hiawatha First Nation sits directly downstream of Peterborough.26

Layer eight: After shutting down operations here, General Electric has outsourced its manufacturing operations to countries like Brazil, Mexico and Vietnam, seeking countries where they can pay their labour force less and bypass health and safety regulations.27 We understand this dehumanization as a problem inherent to a capitalist system that has impacted Peterborough/Nogojiwanong and continues to impact workers and environments in other countries.

  1. Standards of the Highest: From Edison to GE Canada, Peterborough 1891-1991”, Centennial Committee, GE Canada, Peterborough, ON: 1991. Peterborough Museum and Archives Ref: APB 4.
  2. The history of General Electric in Peterborough:
  3. Historian Elwood Jones estimates that families with at least one member tied to General Electric made up 24,000 residents in a city population of 60,000 at the factory's height of operation: g-back-at-ge-s-history-in-the-city.html
  4. See expressions of workers' community in issues of the Works News (available at Peterborough Museum & Archives and Trent Valley Archives); while these must be understood as a form of corporate propaganda, they were also written by employees and demonstrate the sports teams, social events and sense of community that many participated in. We were also struck by descriptions of community and relationship in Sue James' description of her workplace and co-workers.
  5. Conversation with Sue James, Chair of workers' Advisory Committee. Also see Natasha Luckhardt's thesis, p. 78-79 for a discussion on the "loyalty" of workers to General Electric because generations of the same family worked for the company:
  6. See Report of the Advisory Committee, particularly notes on manufacturing p. 3, notes on the piece rate system and circumventing safety practices p. 4, notes on shift changes that disrupt circadian rhythms p. 6, notes on what GE knew p. 6-7: _web.pdf
  7. Exact numbers are difficult to claim given there is no conclusive database of victims of occupational disease. The Advisory Committee tracked a total of 1069 claims between 2004 and 2017 from GE workers for several health problems. This does not account for affected workers who could not or did not file claims. For a full discussion on why occupational disease numbers are under reported or go unrecorded, see p. 2-3 of the Advisory Committee's Report.
  8. Advisory Committee Report: "testimony from focus group participants and government inspection reports indicate that workers were handling asbestos in a friable state without any respiratory protection, nor were workers warned about the hazards" (p. 6). The Report also lists "Inadequate knowledge about the health hazards and exposure controls for worker protection" as a "risk factor" that contributed to "significant exposure of workers to a wide spectrum of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals"(p. 12-13).
  9. In conversations with Sue James, we heard that when safety concerns were raised, management typically responded by threatening to move jobs elsewhere. The story of John Ball is also an example of a worker pushing for safer conditions who was frequently ignored:
  10. Advisory Committee Report: "GE employees laboured under very poor working conditions marked by inadequate to non-existent exposure controls and lax enforcement" (p. 26). See also Advisory Committee's Report at p. 11: "These common conditions were also confirmed by the independent multiple source of documentation the researchers reviewed e.g. MOL, JHSC reports, etc. In addition to supporting the reliability of the focus group based data, the multiple sources of documentation exposed a pattern of recalcitrance on the part of GE towards making necessary improvements and repairs to protect worker health and, often, outright refusal to adhere to the law with regard to providing workers and their union with information they requested and to which they were entitled. There was also evidence of an unclear relationship between the Ontario Ministry of Labour inspectorate and a very powerful multinational corporation, one with widespread influence both locally and internationally. What else could explain the inspectorate"s seeming reluctance to issue orders preferring instead to give "advice to management" or issue unenforceable "recommendations" -- rather than write "orders" where compliance is mandatory. For one painful example of many illustrating the failure of government inspectors to protect workers, see the Advisory Committee's Report at p. 22-23. Here, reports of unsafe conditions span nearly 40 years but are repeatedly only addressed through 'recommendations.'
  11. Find a discussion of this in the Town of Widows documentary, and at p. 165 of the Advisory Committee's Report.
  12. ar-wait-wsib-approves-claim-in-1995-cancer-death-of-general-electric-peterborough-worker.html
  13. See
  14. See b-despite-hardships/ & ng-for-ford-government-to-step-in-on-wsib-claims/
  15. Elwood Jones' "A current running through Peterborough: Looking back at GE's history in the city" g-back-at-ge-s-history-in-the-city.html
  17. For a discussion of social life at GE, see David Tough's article "The Half-Life of Canadian General Electric"​& Elwood Jones' "A current running through Peterborough: Looking back at GE's history in the city" g-back-at-ge-s-history-in-the-city.html
  18. You can see examples of the Works News at (launching July 13th, 2020)
  19. By-Law 617, passed 29 September, 1890 (retrieved from Peterborough Museum and Archives, June 25, 2020).
  21. ;
  22. ue-to-chemical-contamination/​ ; orough-to-demolish-smokestack.html
  24. To our knowledge, GE has yet to offer an update to this statement from 2017: "GE maintains that health and safety have always been its 'number one priority' and that the company has 'always followed the best health and safety practices based on the best knowledge available to us at the time.'" html
  25. See Natasha Luckhardt's thesis, p. 21 and an interview with Ojibwe elder Murray Whetung: for examples of First Nation employees.
  26. From our research, we have not found a source or study that specifically focuses on potential adverse health effects at Hiawatha. However, in her master's thesis at Trent, Sera Weafer- Schiarizza found that levels of environmental contaminants in the Otonabee that were found in GE production processes (ex. PCBs) are higher downstream of Peterborough. Weafer- Schiarizza observes that Hiawatha First Nations communities' reliance on use of the water also puts them at greater risk of experiencing adverse health effects. %5Bpage%5D=9&solr_nav%5Boffset%5D=6
  27. See these articles: een-general-electric-unifor-on-ge-peterborough-plant-closure-agreement-workers-upset-they-are-being-as ked-to-help-overseas-plants-in-taking-over-their-jobs.html ; ;