The time a Cape Breton college held a lottery for a job

On the Nova Scotia island with 30,000 unemployed in 1985, the competition for a position was formidable.

526 applicants put their names forward for a single position in 1985

One job, hundreds of applicants in Cape Breton

39 years ago
Duration 1:21
A Cape Breton college holds a lottery to fill a single job in its mailroom in 1985.

Playing the lottery was no game in Cape Breton back in 1985.

Not when the prize was a chance to secure employment in the mailroom at the island's post-secondary institution in Sydney, N.S.

"When we heard this remarkable story, we just had to look into it," said the CBC's Peter Mansbridge, hosting The Journal on April 19, 1985.

The lottery had taken place earlier that month, on April 1, and the stakes were high.

526 applicants

mailroom
The posting for a job as a clerk in the school's mailroom had yielded "a flood" of applicants. (The Journal/CBC Archives)

"It involves a job. One job," said co-host Ann Medina, before víewers saw a report that had originally aired on the local CBC news in Cape Breton.

Amid a "generally depressed economy," where some 30,000 Islanders were unemployed, the University College of Cape Breton found itself inundated with 526 applications for that one job.

"The necessary qualifications were a Grade 11 education and the completion of one commercial course," said Medina.

The mailroom clerk job paid $15,000 per year, or about $38,500 in 2024 dollars. And two-thirds of the applicants were university or college graduates, added Medina. 

"With the number of candidates, the only fair way to do it was … by a lottery," said UCCB vice president Tom MacNeil.

Another hurdle

Woman with glasses and wavy hair
Three-quarters of the pool of applicants was made up of women. Debbie Townsend, above, was surprised that her name was drawn. (The Journal/CBC Archives)

Debbie Townsend's name had been drawn, much to her surprise.

"I thought it was a joke at first, putting us in a hat … and drawing us out," she told a reporter.  "But it's fair, I guess."

Townsend had another obstacle to overcome before she could know if the job was hers.

Along with the nine other people whose names had been chosen, she would have to interview for the position.

'So many cans of soup'

Why a lottery?

39 years ago
Duration 2:29
An administrator at University College of Cape Breton explains the reasoning he used to narrow down the field of applicants.

MacNeil, the vice president for administration and finance at the college, was one of Mansbridge's guests on The Journal that night.

"If somebody goes to the trouble of writing out a letter of application and filling out a resume, shouldn't they deserve more than just a game of chance?" Mansbridge asked.

That was "all right" for one individual, said MacNeil.

"But when 500 people do exactly the same thing … it's very difficult … to decide how many should be interviewed," he said.

Faculty member Douglas Grant had been opposed to the lottery.

"The 500 applicants for this position … were treated like so many cans of soup on the supermarket shelf," he said.

Man wearing glasses in tweed jacket and tie
Douglas Grant, a professor at the university, said the lottery was "insulting" to people who worked in clerical positions anywhere. (The Journal/CBC Archives)

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