The Ballad of Joey Smallwood (and other themes)

Mad vikings, kamikaze moose, rugged scenery, quaint fishing villages, an indecipherable dialect — check, check, check, check and…yep, check.

It didn’t take long to cross off the items from the standard Lonely Planet™ to-do list for Newfoundland. One thing that I hadn’t expected however, was the discovery of a nascent separatist movement borne out of Joey Smallwood’s legacy and the 1992 moratorium on cod fishing. Of course, I exaggerate. To my knowledge, there’s no distinctive, coordinated effort. However, when I had jokingly suggested to one fisherman (we’ll call him Skip) that Newfoundland should follow Quebec’s lead, he didn’t laugh. Instead, I was given a lesson in Canadian history.

Smallwood, the Premier of Newfoundland from 1949-1972, and was accredited for dragging the new province “kicking and screaming into the twentieth century”. In 1949, a bare half of all Newfoundlanders enjoyed electrical services.As far back as 1933, the Amulree Commission noted that Newfoundland, “has always been, first, and foremost, a fishing country; the settlements are, therefore, situated in places from which fishing could most easily be conducted. The original settlers, in making their homes, paid little attention to what they considered relatively unimportant factors; such as, … the lack of amenities.” Well, if it was inconvenient to bring utilities to the outport residents, why not bring outport residents to the utilities? Better yet, why not put modernized filleting, freezing and cold-storage fish-processing industries at the hub and heart of these progressive centralized “growth centres”? After all, despite the many warning signs, the fish would always be there, wouldn’t they? Under federal and provincial auspices, three major resettlement programmes took place between 1953 and 1975.

The first most outport people heard about the scheme was when Smallwood made a public announcement that hundreds of small communities and thousands of people could expect to be affected by “centralization”. Adult children and their parents might well find themselves on different sides of the dispute, thanks to differing compensation schemes. Additional pressures were brought to bear once it was known that a certain proportion of the community had to agree to move or all would “lose out”. After all, the province had said it could not guarantee medical, educational, or utility services to hold-outs.

It is a mark of just how impoverished the outport communities were to think that between 1953 and 1965 alone, 110 outport settlements vanished utterly, the residents given the pitiful sum of just $150 from welfare services to pull up stakes. Clearances in all but name, sudden demand drove up housing prices in the new “growth centres” and one study estimated it would take the displaced a minimum of 20 years to replace all that had been left behind. The sight of a house being towed across the bay was commonplace throughout the resettlement years. No one seemed unduly concerned that poorly educated fishermen might not be able to compete in urban areas where unemployment rates already averaged 20 per cent. Between 1965 and 1972, 3,876 households and 19,197 persons were “evacuated”.

Skip gave me a tour of a number of these old fishing outports, such as British Harbour and Ireland’s Eye. Today, nothing remains at these sites. Skip showed me a few black and white photos illustrating how vibrant these old communities used to be, and how his grandparents and parents ultimately struggled to adapt.

This invariably led to a segue on the more recent moratorium on cod fishing. This was initially enforced to combat decades of over-fishing. The closure ended almost 500 years of fishing activity in Newfoundland and Labrador, where it put about 30,000 people out of work. Fish plants closed, boats remained docked, and hundreds of coastal communities that had depended on the fishery for generations watched their economic and cultural mainstay disappear overnight.

To help displaced workers adjust to post-moratorium society, the federal government introduced a variety of financial aid, retirement, and retraining programs. At the same time, a burgeoning shellfish industry absorbed some unemployed workers, while others found work in a growing tourism sector. Nonetheless, unemployment levels have remained high since the moratorium, resulting in heavy reliance on government aid and in increased out-migration – in the 10 years following the moratorium, the province’s population dropped by a record 10 per cent.

Today, Skip laments the loss of his god-given right to fish and tells of how he struggles to make ends meet. He relates how his sons have relocated to Fort McMoney (McMurray) to make money in the oil fields. This was a fact repeatedly corroborated by a number of the older generation on my trip.

As chance would have it, we were out on Skip’s boat for the last day of the 2 week, government-sanctioned cod fishing period. In apparent mockery of depletion claims, we caught our quota of 15 cod within approximately 10 minutes. His frustration, in the evidence of such abundance, was understandable.