NATIONAL

THIS TOWN IS SHUT DOWN

Only two couples are left in Aylmer Sound. And they barely speak.

MARTIN PATRIQUIN March 10 2008
NATIONAL

THIS TOWN IS SHUT DOWN

Only two couples are left in Aylmer Sound. And they barely speak.

MARTIN PATRIQUIN March 10 2008

THIS TOWN IS SHUT DOWN

Only two couples are left in Aylmer Sound. And they barely speak.

MARTIN PATRIQUIN

Howard Ander-

Meanwhile, there are inconveniences. He has to take his own garbage to the dump. Soon, the water and the town lights are going to be turned off, the telephone lines will likely go dead, and the helicopter will stop coming, putting an end to subsidized trips to neighbouring villages. He can’t drive anywhere, since there’s never been a permanent road in or out of the place. And he’s miffed at his last remaining neighbours because he knows they are probably going to “take the package”—their slice of the $1.7 million the Quebec government has paid Aylmer Sound residents to leave, the first time it has done such a thing in four decades. They used to play cards and have dinner together; now, the two couples are the only ones left in town, and they barely speak to each other. Once these neighbours leave and the 30 or so houses in this tiny, harsh and stunning corner of Quebec’s Lower North Shore are demolished, Aylmer Sound will be erased

son, all his former neighbours will say, is stubborn man among stubborn men. So stubborn, in fact, that he has outlived Aylmer Sound, the village in which he was born and that, last year, officially legislated itself out of existence. He chops wood, shoots rabbits and watches nature shows on satellite TV. He says the only way he’ll leave the town that no longer exists is with a gun to his head.

from the landscape, leaving only Howard and his wife, Patsy.

“If someone told me 25 years ago that Aylmer Sound was going to close right up, I would have spit on them,” Howard declares from his dining room table. “When it came up a few years ago, I decided, well, I grew up without a grocery or a clinic, so I guess it’ll be like that again.” Then he looks out the window, trying to hide what is plainly evident: Howard, the stubborn fisherman and father of three grown men, is crying. He doesn’t want to leave; he just wishes everyone would stay.

Howard and Patsy are running against a sad tide on Quebec’s Lower North Shore: the region’s population of5,000, mosdy anglophone, is quickly disappearing. Unemployment stands at 34 per cent, nearly five times the provincial average. Aylmer Sound, provincial administrator Richmond Monger says, is the proverbial canary in the coal mine on the North Shore, where about 11 per cent of the population has either died or left in the last seven years.

Those who have stayed are old enough to remember the days when the Gulf of St. Lawrence was full of fish and work was as close as their boat, or the nearest seafood plant. At its peak, Aylmer Sound was home to 140 people, and was an important staging area

for the local fishery. Founded in 1850, the town was the permanent settlement for English fishermen and their families who, during the summer fishing season, would decamp to surrounding islands to haul in crab and cod. Food and fuel came in mostly by boat; residents of the Lower North Shore have been waiting on government promises of a road for nearly 50 years—the streetlights in Aylmer Sound, installed not long after the town was hooked to the electrical grid in 1971, illuminate a 200-m main street cut through the trees, leading nowhere. The village got its health clinic in 1988, and a brand new school—a huge thing, with several classrooms,

offices and a gym—for its 19 students in 1991.

All was relatively well in Aylmer Sound until the 1993 cod moratorium, which effectively snuffed out the village’s reason for being. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans bought out fishing permits and tried in vain to steer

fishers into fish farming. It was too expensive a venture, and without a fishery to support itself or a road to connect it to nearby employment, Aylmer Sound began to disappear.

By 2001, there were only about 30 people remaining. In 2002, Aylmer Sound voted to ask the Quebec government to shut down the village. The province, burdened with the subsidization costs, readily agreed. By 2005, the end of Aylmer Sound was a fait accompli, and government evaluators arrived to put a price on the houses. Ruby and Wilson Mitchell, neighbours to the Andersons, found out about it after returning from a hunting and fishing job near James Bay. They say they’ll probably leave, but they agonized over the decision. “I stay awake at night,” says Wilson. Ruby just shakes her head over the toll it’s taken: “It’s

made a lot of bad friends,” she says.

Howard and Patsy, whose house sits on the water, were offered $116,000—including $10,000 for “emotional suffering.” They reacted predictably enough. “I don’t care if you writes this in black and white,” Patsy says of those who have already left. “They took the easy way out. They took the money. Money looks awfully good to some people.”

Suddenly, there were paying jobs in Aylmer Sound. The Quebec government mandated that all the town structures, save for the church, had to be destroyed, and some residents were paid to do in their own houses. “If there was a road, there would be no need for this foolishness,” says Danny Bobbitt, whose brother organized the votes and who, on a recent sunny day, was destroying the house he built 23 years before. He says funding for Aylmer Sound’s clinic and school

would have been better spent on a road between here and nearby Tête-à-la-Baleine, which already had both: “We could have stayed here just as well as anywhere.”

It’s remarkable that so many did for so long. The 5,528 sq. km of rock, sand, stunted trees and stunning views making up the Lower North Shore has more in common with neighbouring Labrador than Quebec. Roughly two-thirds of its residents speak in the fast, vowel-obfuscating inflective of Newfoundland English, while the French minority does much the same with its mother tongue. When the two converse it sounds as though they’re making fun of one another. Families intermingle; language isn’t really an issue. “Our survival depends on having people staying around,” says Richmond Monger. But since

1978, when he took the job, Monger figures a third of the population has left, mostly for construction or the oil sands in Alberta.

The government’s plan to dismantle Aylmer Sound was, in fact, a noble (if misplaced) attempt to stem the flow. Payouts, which saw residents receive between $13,000 and $117,000, were contingent on them staying within the villages of La Tabatière to the east and Kegaska to the west, a distance of roughly 200 km. Moving outside this area—say, to someplace

where there are actually jobs to be had—means forfeiting the money. “The idea, and I think it’s a good one, was to consolidate the people from Aylmer Sound in larger towns, without losing that population,” says Monger. This perplexes Ruby Mitchell, who says she will spend her payout building a new home in yet another place with no jobs. “There’s no more work anywhere else on the shore than there is in Aylmer Sound.” (The government of Newfoundland and Labrador, which has moved residents of three outport communities in the last 10 years, also pays residents to leave, but typically allows them to move anywhere in the province.)

Nevertheless, Aylmer Sound’s demise has perked up ears along the coast. Monger thinks Middle Bay, a village near the Labrador border, might be the next to go. And the residents of Tête-à-la-Baleine, a mainly French town of 250, are also debating the idea. “If the road doesn’t come in, it won’t just be us,” says Tête resident Martin Marcoux, who owns the local auberge. “They’re going to have to move the entire Lower North Shore.” In 2006, the Charest government announced $100 million over 10 years for an extension of the road to the Labrador border—by which time, people here say half-jokingly, they’ll either be dead or in Alberta.

Howard doesn’t worry much about the highway anymore. Though they haven’t paid municipal tax in three years, he and Patsy will have to buy a satellite phone for emer-

gencies should they lose the service. They wonder what to do when the water’s shut off (it might find itself turned back on; Howard has a lot of spare time). He especially wants to patch things up with Ruby and Wilson before they leave. “I even say things that I regret to my wife, and that’s not good,” he says. Besides, he thinks they’ll come back to Aylmer Sound if and when that highway comes through. “It’s like that old expression,” he says. “Dogs always come back to their own vomit.” M

PEOPLE WHO ACCEPTED MONEY TO MOVE `TOOK THE EASY WAY OUT,' ANDERSON SAYS

MORE AT MACLEANS.CA: Audio slide show of Aylmer Sound and the North Shore