The Day the Avro Arrow Died
It’s been 50 years since Black Friday, the day the Avro Arrow was cancelled – and economic disaster spread like wildfire through the hills.
The Avro Arrow brought my family to Dufferin. Well, not literally, but in the late 1950s both my parents and an uncle had good jobs in Malton, working for A.V. Roe Canada on the design and manufacture of what is now the mythical CF-105 Arrow interceptor aircraft.
Though neither of my parents completed high school, they were both earning fairly handsome incomes. They decided to move out of Brampton and bought a 140-acre farm along the banks of the Grand River in Amaranth. The farmhouse on the property had previously burned down, so they set about making plans to build a new home.
My mom worked as an assistant in the Avro engineering department, and as a result she knew some of the test pilots. As she and dad visited the farm one day in the fall of 1958, they were buzzed by a low-flying Arrow – one of only five that ever flew – the pilot thinking it very funny that he managed to scare my mother senseless.
On February 20, 1959, only weeks after taking ownership of the farm and with the house not yet started, the Diefenbaker government in Ottawa abruptly cancelled the Arrow project. At four in the afternoon a blunt announcement came over loudspeakers at the Avro plant. Workers were to return their tools, remove all their personal belongings, and not expect to come back. My parents were both instantly unemployed.
The day of the cancellation became known as Black Friday, and it’s easy to see why. The project employed more than 47,000 people, either at Avro itself, its sister plant Orenda Engines, or among its thirty major suppliers and 650 sub-contractors. Many of those employees lived in Peel, Dufferin and the surrounding region. It was estimated at the time that a quarter of Brampton’s entire work force was employed in some way by Avro.
As workers headed home to shocked families who had heard the news on the radio, the region itself was thrown into economic chaos. Fat pay cheques, totalling in the order of three million dollars a week, had been flowing into the local economy for years. Brampton, with a 1959 population of about 14,500, was in the midst of unprecedented expansion, as were all areas within commutable distance of Avro’s Malton plant.
Diane Allengame, curator of the Peel Heritage Complex, also grew up with the Arrow as part of her family lore. Her father Tom and two uncles – Bert and Stan – were employed there. The Peel Heritage Complex maintains an ongoing exhibit dedicated to the Arrow, and pieces of it are drawn from Diane’s own family archives. At this fifty-year anniversary of the cancellation, she can’t help but see similarities with current-day economic concerns: “People were buying homes, cottages, cars. Then it all crashed around them. Sound familiar?”
Severance packages equal to one week’s pay were provided, as was a meagre form of unemployment insurance, but the fact remained that there was a vast idle work-force. In the weeks following the cancellation, with desperation setting in, the Brampton Conservator carried many classified ads of the sort that said: “Ex-Avro worker. Will do anything.”
The Orangeville Banner reported that “approximately 3,000 people surrounding Orangeville have been affected by the layoffs.” A committee of Orangeville-area ex-Avro workers was formed, with the aim of addressing people’s housing and employment needs.
Two weeks after the cancellation, in the March 5th Orangeville Banner, real estate agent R. Frank Hendry bought a large advertisement as an “Open Letter to Discharged A.V. Roe Employees.” In a long and heartfelt discourse, he acknowledged that his business relied on getting listings, but went on to plead “don’t list your property out of desperation,” warning that there were “ruthless bargain hunters” working in the area, trying to take advantage of people’s predicament.
“Perhaps the most difficult adjustment to be made by the unemployed aircraft workers involves the fact that they were living in what proved to be a false economy.”
From a Brampton Conservator editorial, 1959
The banks also got involved, holding public meetings for all the people unable to pay their mortgages. In the case of my parents, my grandfather came to the rescue, putting up the princely sum of $10,000, and thus eliminating the farm mortgage altogether.
A mass exodus from the region began, as former Avro employees left to pursue other work.
Many of the upper echelon were offered opportunities at competing firms. In what became known as the “Brain Drain,” most left for the United States, including more than thirty who became part of the NASA space program. The Brain Drain was a highly contentious political issue for years after the cancellation.
For the average worker on the floor, however, there was no similar demand. People were forced to take any job they could get in order to survive. Anne Allengame, Diane’s mother, remembers being better off than some. “We always saved and paid cash for things, so we didn’t feel the pinch too bad.” Still, her husband Tom had to hustle: “A group of men in Caledon East got together. Every morning they’d set off in the car looking for work. Any kind of work.”
Over the next year and a half, Tom held three different jobs, all of them menial labour. “There was a place we called the ‘sweat shop’ in Port Credit,” Anne recalls. “Another group of men got together and started a boat-building business. They never went back to Orenda. Most of us just managed with what we had. A lot of the workers were farmers as well. I recall someone owed Tom money. You called in all your reserves, you know? You had to.”
“We were in shock. I could see it in their eyes – many of the boys had got themselves into debt – it really got to me. I tried to get them all jobs.”
Burt Scott, Avro Test Engineer, Memoir, Peel Archives
For those that moved away, families were uprooted too. My cousin Roxy Rollings, who at the time was living in the village of Churchville, near Brampton, recalls “I was just a young kid. I remember we would all run outside when we heard the Arrow coming, to hear the sonic boom. Then after the shutdown, it seemed like all my friends were leaving.”
Eighty-six year old George Scott of Erin worked on experimental projects at Avro. He says when the shutdown announcement was made, “I was standing beside one of the planes. People’s hearts fell out. I’m sure there was some crying. It wasn’t exactly a surprise though. There had been rumours for months.”
George points out that many of the people who moved away after the cancellation were newcomers to begin with. “People with aircraft experience from World War II had been coming from England, all over,” he says. “They had moved in throughout the area.”
After Black Friday, George says, “Rumours spread that aircraft plants in the U.S. were hiring. Carloads of men were heading off to Georgia, California, looking for work. They’d get hired on somewhere, and houses weren’t selling, so they were left empty. I know people who just walked away from their homes and mortgages. We never heard from them again.”
An order was issued in April, 1959, for the destruction of everything associated with the Arrow: the built and partially built planes, the assembly line, drawings, films, photographs – anything to indicate the Arrow had ever existed. George, who was kept on at Avro for about a year after the cancellation (“We were the chosen few.”) bore witness as the now infamous destruction was carried out.
“I had an office on the second floor overlooking the main hanger. From this debatable advantage spot I could see the Arrows being cut up by acetylene torches.”
Wally Walsh, Avro Supervisor, Memoir, Peel Archives
“They cut the planes up in sections,” he says. “The wings, the nose, the mid-section and the tail.” Then they broke them down further with hand tools, offering George a chance to take part. “As I walked by, the wreckers would say ‘Take an axe George.’ I’d put my head in my hands and say ‘I can’t.’”
Ultimately, no one ever took responsibility for the order to destroy all traces of the Arrow. Many insist it was simply standard practice after the cancellation of a defence contract. The federal government, including Diefenbaker himself, denied that any such order had ever been made. Some speculated that Crawford Gordon, president of A.V. Roe Canada, secretly ordered the destruction out of spite at the cancellation. Gordon was fired not long after and died of liver failure from alcoholism in 1967, having lost a three-million-dollar fortune.
A.V. Roe Canada itself ceased to exist in 1962. The only part of the company to survive was the much reduced Orenda Engine division, renamed Orenda Aerospace, and later Magellan Repair, Overhaul & Industrial.
In the years that followed, my parents survived the crash of the Arrow. Over the summer of 1959, they built a Beaver Lumber kit house themselves, though it was years before it had indoor plumbing. My mother spent the next decade as a full-time farmer – a fairly unconventional career for women at the time – but she had little choice. My father eventually got “called back” to a job at Orenda Engines, where he remained for nearly a decade. Diane Allengame’s father, Tom, and my Uncle Ed were also called back, and both remained at Orenda, commuting to work together, until their retirement in the 1980s.
“The collapse of the Malton empire can never be minimized, but its epitaph must surely include the recognition that for better or worse it left its mark on the growth and development of Peel County. There can be no turning back now.”
From a Brampton Conservator editorial, 1959
Like Crawford Gordon, my parents’ time spent working on the Arrow turned out to be the halcyon days of their working lives. There was other employment, of course, but the Arrow meant much more than a pay cheque. Never again did they get up in the morning feeling they were on the edge of something new, contributing to something so important. Anne Allengame says it was the same for Tom: “He became a tool-and-dye maker while working on the Arrow, and afterward, he never did get back to that. He was very glad to have been recalled, though, and I never heard him complain.” His daughter Diane is more concise: “After that, it was just a job.”
Perhaps George Scott says it best. Were his years at Avro the highlight of his career? “Oh yes. I was a nothing when I went there. But they valued our input. I felt like a hero all the time.”
The real crime of the Avro Arrow cancellation lies not in the economic calamity it unleashed, nasty though that was. The lasting tragedy is that confidence and hope for the future were also demolished for so many of our residents on that Black Friday in 1959 – taken apart, like so many Arrows in a hangar.
While the money has been long forgotten, that sadness lingers still.