ARE THEY GOING TO THROW THIS TOWN AWAY?
THOSE OF US who live in the built-up areas of Canada find it easy to believe that life in a frontier town must be refreshingly simple. Compared to the city, especially, with its traffic jams and air pollution, ward politics and property zoning, the frontier town seems, from a distance, to present clear-cut problems that can be solved neatly, if not swiftly, by direct action: clear that bush, pull those stumps, pave that road, put up this building and that one — and you’ve got yourself a town.
Perhaps life is that simple in some frontier towns today. But there is at least one where the people have as much cause as any city dwellers to wish for problems half that simple.
I know because I recently spent a week talking to its inhabitants.
It’s a town in Labrador called Happy Valley. The name may sound ludicrous to you, but Happy Valley has several things going for it which some people would think are enough in themselves to justify the name.
The natural surroundings are pleasant to look at in the late spring (and. I'm told, spectacularly beautiful in winter). Crime there is negligible. The people, for the most part, are gentle, hard-working and quite friendly, though a little shy. Many of them earn good money and own homes that are fully paid for.
Yet Happy Valley has deep-rooted problems, including one that no city ever had to face. You’ve heard of northern Indians and Eskimos having their lives disrupted by a sudden confrontation with modern civilization. But where else did you ever hear of the same thing happening to white. English-speaking settlers? Yet this is exactly what has happened, within the past quarter century, to one minority group in Happy Valley. They are the Labrador-born people (they resent being called “natives” because it seems to suggest they're not white) whose forebears had been simple hunters, trappers and fishermen for more than a century. Within the past generation, many of these people have abandoned the / continued overleaf
continued / old skills for hourly-paid jobs. Now those jobs may soon disappear—a catastrophe that could turn Happy Valley into a ghost town. If that occurs it will happen, ironically, for two of the most civilized of all possible reasons: a cold war has grown lukewarm, and some of the world's fastest airplanes have grown obsolete.
Happy Valley’s basic problem is that it has always depended on the military for its existence. The town got started during World War II as a tiny settlement of civilians working at Goose Bay airfield, just five miles away. The airfield, atop a broad plateau overlooking Labrador’s largest inland waterway, had just been established as a busy takeoff point for bombers being ferried to Britain. After the war. Goose Bay remained a vital stopover for both military and civilian pilots on trans-Atlantic hops because, unlike Gander, down on the island of Newfoundland, it is seldom fogged in.
Today Goose Air Base is a big U. S. Air Force establishment, part of the North American Air Defense System.
with an adjoining station where Royal Canadian Air Force personnel control all air traffic, military and civilian. Fifty-six hundred Americans—servicemen and their families—live on the U. S. base, and there are 1,200 Canadians on the RCAF side. The Americans employ nearly 1,000 local civilians; the RC'AF another 330. From the two military establishments, these 1,300-odd civilian workers earn nearly eight million dollars a year, and most of them live in Happy Valley.
With many of its wage earners taking in $400 to $500 a month, Happy Valley has the makings of a prosperous town, not just by the modest standards of the Province of Newfoundland, but by those of most cities and towns across Canada. And so it's hardly surprising it has grown, since 1943, from a settlement of 40 people living in three tents to a town of 6,000. What is surprising is that it still looks so much like a makeshift frontier settlement.
"It’s the only town in the north built entirely by the people them-
selves,” one long-time resident told me, sounding half proud and half apologetic. I suspect he was exaggerating, there must be other such towns, but he made a telling point. Certainly there is no suggestion of prefabbed mass production in Happy Valley’s hodgepodge of houses, schools, stores and small businesses. Free enterprise has done a job here; within a few blocks you can avail yourself of most of life’s necessities — groceries and hardware, drugs and dry goods; and many of its comforts and pleasures as well — bowling or billiards, a permanent wave or a glass of beer, a Volkswagen or a TV set, a thickcarpeted hotel room or a radio-equipped cab. And in case you run out of cash, two friendly finance companies sit waiting to ply you with more.
And so the town has its share of thriving stores and businesses even without a basic industry of its own. (Labrador’s famous iron deposits lie nearly 300 miles to the west.) But you'd never mistake Happy Valley for a boom town. Too many of its buildings have been there too long without
a fresh coat of paint and too many of its streets, after too many seasons, are still rutted dirt roads. And the sand doesn’t help. Happy Valley sits on a huge sandpile, a spit of land between the Goose Bay plateau and the broad mouth of the Hamilton River. Once the snow is gone each spring, the sand begins to drift over everything, making the town look more neglected than it actually is. Because of the sandy soil and brief summers, residents find good lawns hard to grow and splendid ones impossible. They don't even try flowers.
But, as an editorial writer once remarked in the St. John’s Evening Telegram, “Happy Valley is built on shifting sands in more ways than one.”
What he meant was that the military could pull out at any time. A few townspeople are betting heavily that this won’t happen. One of these is the mayor, Leon Cooper, who has lately spent large sums of money expanding his once-tiny Goose Motel into a luxury hotel with 29 guest rooms, plus a restaurant, coffee shop, private dining room and an elaborate
cocktail lounge with its own bandstand and dance floor.
"I can’t see any cause to worry about anything happening before 1972,” Mayor Cooper told me, naming the year w'hcn the present U. S. lease on Goose Bay expires. By then, he believes, the town will have other industries. But as that kind of optimist. Cooper belongs to a very small club. The prevailing mood in Happy Valley is a nagging feeling of impermanence.
"Our whole economy is so uncertain,” says another member of the town council, Ben Swim, who operates an upholstery shop. “You never really know how long you’re going to be here.”
Swim thinks this mood is contagious — something the townspeople have caught from the military “w'ho move in with a suitcase and move out with a suitcase” with never a thought of settling down. And he adds, “We just can’t live that way.”
They can’t but they do, for the town suffers from several kinds of instability, from several causes — transient workers, easy credit, inexperience
with money, and even the good wages that are the town's reason for existing.
Most of the transients are to be found among the Newfoundlanders who make up two thirds of the towm’s population. Many of these are men who intend to stay only until they save up a stake or hear of a job back home. But even Newfoundlanders who would like to stay feel unsettled because they can never fully discount the rumors that suggest Happy Valley is a town without a future. It’s true many own their homes outright, having paid all cash. But in most cases they did so because they couldn't find houses to rent and couldn't raise mortgage money. Understandably, they aren't inclined to tie up more money fixing up their houses. Instead, they have such a preference for portable possessions — cars, appliances, motorboats, motor toboggans — that Happy Valley has become known throughout Newfoundland as the town with more cars than families. It doesn’t seem to matter that there’s hardly any place to drive, except to the air base and back.
“People buy cars as soon as they’re married — before they've even budgeted for furniture,” says Father Charles DeHarveng. the town's resident Roman Catholic priest. Worse than that, he adds, is their weakness for instalment buying. He knows some families who have as much as 70 percent of their incomes committed to “easy-credit" payments.
Councillor Ben Swim is equally appalled. “Half the people in this town,” he says, “are deep in debt.”
The most appalling cases of money mismanagement are to be found among the town's largest minority, the Labrador-born people, or “Labradors” as they are often called locally. These people, who make up almost a third of the town's population, are descendants of Newfoundlanders and other white fishermen who settled along the Labrador coast early in the 19th century. Through isolation, and some intermarriage with Eskimos, they developed as a group quite distinct from island Newfoundlanders. For generations, the Labradors lived in the same / continued on page 24
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The money comes easily — why worry?
at the air base. Many jobs they hold are menial — sweeping floors or runways, shoveling snow, tending furnaces — but the pay, $1.50 an hour and up, is far more money than they ever saw before.
Unfortunately, they have never learned how to handle it. Door-todoor salesmen have discovered that and moved through the town in waves. One salesman’s success, especially, has become a bitter joke around Happy Valley, for he sold encyclopedias, at $685 a set, to families in which nobody, even yet, knows how to read.
But much of their spending is a matter of sheer inexperience. One couple with 1 1 children haven’t yet acquired enough chairs or plates for everyone to eat a meal at once, yet they own two television sets (there’s only one channel — the station at the air base). This couple bought a second TV set simply because the first one broke down and they couldn’t be bothered getting repairs made.
“If they shear off a pin in an outboard motor, they’ll buy a new motor instead of replacing the pin,” says the Rev. Walter Sellars, a Newfoundlander who just completed a two-year term as pastor of Happy Valley United Church.
Their traditional habit of bartering, Sellars believes, accounts for their apparently reckless spending. “In converting their money into goods, they’re completing the barter process,” he points out. Among those who came to him for advice, he was quick to discover a disturbing lack of financial know-how. One man wanted him to co-sign a $1,000 loan — until Sellars pointed out the man would be agreeing to repay $1,750. Another was anxious to buy some five-percent debentures, believing he’d recover five times his investment within a year.
With Sellars as my guide, I spent an afternoon touring one street of houses occupied mostly by Labrador people. Many were impeccably clean inside; a few were not. But even the cleanest and tidiest were scarcely more than shacks sitting on untended lots.
(According to Sellars, the most badly neglected places belonged to people with such problems as desertion, drinking and gambling. There’s a bingo game “for charity” somewhere in Happy Valley almost every night, and some civilians play the slot machines that are an important source of revenue for U. S. servicemen’s clubs at the air base.)
But what the Labrador people are doing with money may not be so disastrous in the long run as what money is. doing to them. For it is causing the older generation to lose its old skills, notably as trappers, and encouraging the younger generation to grow up without any new skills. Two sweepers I met on the U. S. base are good examples: 14 years ago they
gave up a rugged existence in a small coastal village where every man had to trap, hunt or fish — and perhaps all three — to keep himself and his family alive; now these two men were pushing brooms along the USAF runway for $1.79 an hour. I met others like them on my neighborhood tour
with Walter Sellars. What if the base closed — could they go back to trapping? No, they told us, one by one; it was too late for that.
“I’m too old and out of shape,” one said. Anyway, a second said, the fur market isn’t what it was. A third pointed out that much of the game is gone from Happy Valley now, frightened off by the growing population and the noise of jets.
And most of their sons were already too old to learn trapping, they said. To be a good trapper, a boy must start learning at the age when other boys are just starting school.
On our way out of the neighborhood we met five examples of what is happening to a good many of the younger generation. Labradors and Newfoundlanders alike. These were teenaged boys, all dropouts without training and without jobs. They were waiting, they said, for a bridge project to start in two or three weeks. Then they might, just might, get laboring jobs there. In any case, they’d be out of work again by fall. But they hadn’t seen much point in staying in school. And it’s a hard point to make, especially to the ones who do find jobs.
“You’ll be lost,” one teacher warned a grade-10 boy who decided to drop out. The teacher emphasized the practical value of a high-school diploma in getting a good job. But the boy ignored the advice of the teacher, who was earning $180 a month, and got a job at the air base — for $360.
Rumors to reality
“Twenty-year-olds don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a base,” says Sellars. “To them, it was put here at the Creation.” And, he adds, they seem to think it will always be there, for rumors of the base closing have been circulating since they were infants. But to many older people in Happy Valley, the rumors seem to have more foundation today. For one thing, the Royal Canadian Air Force is already reducing its personnel strength, as the first step in a withdrawal that will be complete next year. At that time, the federal Department of Transport will take over air-traffic control. Some people, including Premier Joey Smallwood, say this move won’t cut the civilian payroll and could even increase it. But one insider with full knowledge of the employment situation there told me such claims are nonsense. He said at least 100 jobs will disappear, possibly 200, with the RCAF phase-out.
On the U. S. side, authorities will say only that they have no plans to leave. But this doesn’t go far toward reassuring people in Happy Valley. They’ve watched the gradual American withdrawal from Newfoundland and the consequent loss of civilian jobs — 1,200 at Peppered, outside St. John’s, another 1,300 at Harmon, the base now being closed at Stephenville. And they can’t forget that the continent's northern defense system seems less vital every year. At any rate. Goose Bay’s equipment by now is militarily obsolete in the missile age: supersonic F-102 Delta Daggers,
HAPPY VALLEY continued
“If they don’t do something soon, we’ll
go it alone”
fer intercepting enemy bombers; tanker aircraft for mid-air refueling of U. S. bombers headed north; a Pine Tree warning station which would detect an approaching missile perhaps 90 seconds after the DEW Line had.
Happy Valley people aren't afraid of the Americans pulling out without a long phasing-out period—the Yanks are known to be far too considerate to do that. But what people in the town do fear is that there w'on't be a start made soon enough on some alternate industry, even if the USAF stays on until expiry of the present agreement, in 1972.
For the immediate future, industrial possibilities are very limited. There are no known mineral deposits of value in the region and no large, accessible markets for fish. The only realistic hope is for an industry to exploit the huge stands of black spruce that cover much of the countryside. But people in Happy Valley have been half-promised such a development for a long time; so long, in fact, that announcements about it sound almost as familiar, and only half as convincing, as rumors of the base closing. At least five schemes for cutting pulpwood have been put forward in the past few years, most of them by John C. Doyle, the controversial financier who is said to be a confidant of Premier Smallwood's. The latest plan calls for a mill on Lake Melville, near Happy Valley, to cut wood into chips, which would be shipped out through the lake to paper-making plants elsewhere.
Earl Winsor, member of the legislature for Labrador North, which includes Happy Valley, assured me that some sort of pulpwood operation would get started “within a year or two.” But he couldn’t suggest where such a mill would get its power until the proposed hydro - electric power projects get built at Churchill Falls and Muskrat Falls, both upstream from Happy Valley. These two dams could generate nine million horsepower, make Labrador a big exporter of electricity and, almost incidentally, pro.vide cheap power for Happy Valley. But they haven’t been started and will take several years to develop.
And when I asked Joey Smallwood about the plans for pulpwood cutting, he told me, rather sharply, that these were “not plans but ideas” and suggested they might take time yet to develop. I mentioned a newspaper clipping I’d just seen, dated June 1964. reporting a speech Smallwood had made in the House of Assembly. In it he had quoted John C. Doyle as saying a start would be made on a Lake Melville mill “within the next six weeks.” Smallwood’s response was that I shouldn't believe everything I read in the papers. Which, I realized later, was perhaps good advice for me but hardly something I needed to pass along to the people of Happy Valley, who have already read many more of their premier’s announcements than I ever will.
“If they don’t do something soon, we’ll go it alone.” says Arthur Hale, who hopes to run as a Progressive Conservative in the next provincial election. But Hale is not noted for his
moderate views. He runs a one-man newspaper in Happy Valley, the Labrador News, which is notorious for its vitriolic attacks on the Establishment. In the past two years. Hale has violently criticized (among others) the mayor, the town council, the provincial government, the courts, the RCMP. and the Moravian Church.
Since Hale has managed to alienate almost everybody in Happy Valley who can read (even those who agree with his aims deplore his immoderate position), it’s hard to imagine him recruiting followers for even the most farcical and abortive separatist coup. If the air base closes and there are no other jobs, most Newfoundlanders.
they say. will probably go back home.
As for the Labrador people, one man I talked to — a man of about 60 — pretty well said it for everybody.
"1 was born here.” he told me. meaning Labrador, “and I’m here for life. I guess I'd try to live on what I could pull out of the forest and the water.”
But we agreed that after years of cars and television, motorboats and bingo games, it wouldn't seem like much of a living. ★