Why Mr. Pius Power of South East Bight, Newfoundland, is not goin' down the road
In the Maritimes, by the concession roads near the small towns, there are frame houses turning black from neglect. A century of life was given definition by their walls and stairways and hallways and front rooms. Now they’ve been left to fall into the weeds. They look like an indignity to someone’s last remains.
The houses are the disappearing records of a culture abandoned for the values of the city; left behind by a generation goin’ down the road, seeking the fantasies of the factories and the offices of Upper Canada.
But in Newfoundland, where the Smallwood government threw its support behind the city and turned its back on the countryside, where the economies of small towns are fragile and indelicate and cracked and broken, where unemployment is the most severe in Canada, a change of mood is being felt. Smallwood’s attempts to close the outports has failed. Newfoundland was so recently a country in its own right that there is no escaping what it was. And there are those who are struggling to keep what it was in the past what it is in the present.
Alec Lockyer laid down the cutting dies with which he was making engine bolts for a long-liner and brushed the black hair out of his eyes.
“We’re on Woody Island to stay,” he said. “Whatever has to be done we’ll do for ourselves. Nothing short of guns will get us out of here.”
“Suppose it did come to that — suppose they sent the RCMP to take you off ...” I suggested.
He grinned but appeared bitter. “In that case they’d have to feed us, I suppose.”
This little man, a 50-year-old outport Newfoundlander who looks far younger than he is, no taller than the provincial premier, Joey Smallwood, and many pounds slimmer, looks like a bantam cock before the fight. He’s set himself the lifework of frustrating Joey’s grand plan to “close down” the Newfoundland outports.
The plan is going badly, not only because of opposition from fishermen like Lockyer but because émigrés of polluted cities are making common cause with them. Clarence Parsons and his wife Ramona knew nothing about the outports until they moved to Innismara from California three years ago. Their daughter and her husband, their young son and Mrs. Parsons’s mother are the only other inhabitants of this small Newfoundland island which once supported more than 100 families.
The Parsons clan is tough and experienced and making a success of pioneering. Most others need the help of neighbors: refugees from the industrial ice age, they come straight out of school or college and head for a fishing boat. Fortunately, fishermen (chronically shorthanded) are more than glad to share their work with long-haired young people who can tell them of the failures of the city. David and Linda Wilson, who went directly to Placentia Bay from McGill University, found a fishing crew who would take David on as a shareman. Fishermen are used to training “green hands,” and are not prejudiced about a man’s hip appearance. Pius Power, the gritty, balding leader of the resurrected settlement of the South East Bight, right next door to the harbor where the Wilsons settled, likes to describe himself as “the only man around here without hair.”
Besides fishermen and would-be fishermen, the outports are attracting a few writers and artists, seeking places where life is quiet and in touch with basic realities: people like Scott Symonds from Toronto, George Noseworthy and his wife from Boston, Christopher Pratt and his family from St. John’s. Though they do not fish for a living, some of them have become community leaders, deeply involved with the fishermen’s way of life. They live at Trout River, Green Island Cove, Maddox Cove, Bonne Bay, Salmonier, St. Thomas, Hibbs Cove. They and the fishermen and the hippies have one thing in common, a love for the serenity that the outports have always offered, and an opportunity to rediscover country values.
Woody Island, like South East Bight, lies in Placentia Bay on Newfoundland’s south coast. Three miles of woods and abandoned fields, its one great asset is fish, for it lies on the breeding ground of herring and mackerel, cod, lobster and scallop. It has salmon in spring, ducks in autumn and winter. An ice-free port, you can work from it all year round; the people who lived there after it was officially abolished by the government four years ago have never drawn a cent of welfare or unemployment insurance.
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The policy of closing down the outports is dear to the heart of the Newfoundland government, and especially to Smallwood, who firmly believes in farms and factories, and has built his own home on a ranch, many miles from the sight of the sea. One of Joey’s first acts, when Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949, was a call to the fishermen to leave their boats on the bank and flock to the towns to work. Fishing was obsolete. The future lay in factories and in cattle. “The cowboy looms larger than the fisherman in Newfoundland’s future,” he told a federal royal commission. Many fishermen, responding to the promise of “two jobs for every man,” left their houses and their boats to rot. Twenty-two years later, Newfoundland has the highest unemployment in Canada.
When the exodus from the outports proved slow, the government began paying people to move, to give up title to their land and to settle in “growth centres,” most of them welfare colonies. Launched by the Department of Welfare, the plan got into such a mess that a new Department of Community and Social Development was created, with professional axemen imported from the mainland to kill the outports and the traditional way of life — “To draw Newfoundland kicking and screaming into the 20th century,” as Smallwood put it.
They used the stick - and - carrot technique: government withdrew public services, cut off communications, at the same time offering “good hard cash” — $500 a household at first, now up to $2,500 — to those who would move.
Since most of the fishermen were living in houses built a generation earlier by people who had cut and planed their own lumber in local mills and handled little cash in their lives, they did not know what their property was worth, or that their new homes would cost 10 times what they were receiving. They woke up, when it was all over, with 30-year mortgages, their daughters slaving in factories for one dollar an hour and often unable to find work. Those without children of working age were put on permanent welfare.
The strongest man buckles, if he does not break, under persistent social pressure. It happened to Alec Lockyer,
when 80% of the people of Woody Island (then a village with 75 families) moved to nearby Garden Cove, or to Arnold’s Cove across the bay. Jubilantly it was announced in the legislature that Woody Island had been closed down, all its people moved to growth centres, one more obsolete fishing town out of the way.
“I lay awake night after night, worrying, wondering what to do,” Alec Lockyer recalls. “After all, I had children in school. What about them? I kept on worrying until I couldn’t think any more, and just stayed.”
It looked for a while as if the Lockyers might have to stay alone, but soon people began drifting back. Five families remained on Woody Island that winter. Others returned for the fishery the next summer, and a few decided to stay. Now there are eight families living there.
“What draws people to a place like this?” I asked him, as he worked among his lobster pots.
“It’s quiet,” he said.
Alec Lockyer knows all about the unquiet side of life. He served five years in the British Navy during World War II, worked in Canadian cities, sailed around the world as boatswain of a 10,000-ton freighter, and was in Israel during the Arab siege of 1948.
“Some people think I’m on Woody Island because I’ve never been anywhere else,” he chuckles. He is the island’s unquestioned leader, and he has rebuilt the little community on as solid a base as any small village in the world. The people of Woody Island are not just “getting by.” They are well off. Their average cash earnings are $5,000 a man, easily equal to $10,000 in a city, for there are no local taxes, no rents, no commuters’ fares, and the monthly grocery bill is just half the size of a city family’s. All the fish and shellfish you can eat comes free. You can shoot plenty of seabirds every year. You can get a carcass of moose every winter.
Ethel Lockyer bustled about her gleaming kitchen cooking salmon steaks for lunch.
“I’m perfectly contented here,” she says. “I grew up here, and I want to stay. I have children in grades eight, nine, 10 and 11, as well as a little boy in grade three. They don’t have to go away to get an education. I can think of five youngsters from our school who won scholarships.”
“There were more than that,” her daughter Sheila chimes in, looking up from her father’s account books.
“Yes . . . there were,” Mrs. Lockyer admits. “I can’t remember them all.” She selected fresh vegetables from the refrigerator, shushed the budgie bird that was competing noisily with the TV set. in the next room, turned dials on electric appliances.
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“Does the power come from the provincial grid?” I asked.
“No, from a small generator on the island.” Costing three times as much as city power, it is about the only thing that comes at luxury rates.
I had noticed cars outside and enquired about them. How were they moved back and forth to the highroads on the mainland?
Mrs. Lockyer looked as though she might think me a trifle stupid.
“Why,” she said, “if we want to move a car or van ashore, Alec just runs it aboard the boat.” At high tide, I discovered, you could simply drive on board the scallop dragger and be on the Trans-Canada Highway half an hour later.
Alec and his wife and seven children (two of them adults) not only proved you could lead a good life on Woody Island without government help but soon enticed others to join them. Ches Frampton and his family moved there from St. John’s. His son returned from New York to become a fisherman. Freeman Hollett returned from Churchill Falls, Labrador. Leslie Barrett gave up his trade as a welder in the city and settled down to fishing. Since the Barretts could get no house in the harbor where the other families lived, they bought an abandoned one on another part of the island and moved in.
The men who believed in the American idea of Smallwood’s economic and industrial centralization didn’t take all this lying down. Some of the returning families were living on land to which they had no title. Among them were Irven Strowbridge and his young bride, who had bought an old house and spent $4,000 fixing it up. Agents of the Department of Community and Social Development threatened to evict them because the former owner had signed away title to his land. It was the first time the gov-
ernment had ever bothered itself about land titles on Woody Island.
“If the ground here is all that valuable,” Alec Lockeyer told the centralizers, “I’ll give the Strowbridges a building lot and help them move their house. I’ve got more land than I can use, and I’ve got a fee simple grant.”
But the centralizers didn’t want the land. When they found they couldn’t drive the young couple off the island, they left them alone.
But they cut the telephone line, which had been operating for 60 years, and closed down the school.
“We didn’t even think about reopening it until the school year had already started in 1970,” Alec Lockyer said. “We thought at first we might take the kids to Garden Cove each school day. I’ve got a fast inboardoutboard that can make the trip in 15 minutes. We even clocked it once in 12 minutes when conditions were perfect.”
They would never get a teacher, the centralizers assured them. But a friendly columnist mentioned their plight in a St. John’s newspaper, and they got applications from as far away as Eastman, Quebec. They settled for a young man named Frank Shea, who had grown up on the nearby island of Bar Haven before the government closed it down and had just completed three years of college.
The job wasn’t easy, Frank assured me. He had to teach six grades at once, which allowed just one hour a day for each grade. This might sound hopeless to a city teacher, but it has its advantages. Children in such a school soon pick up the habit of independent study. Frank supplements his income by fishing, and expects to save enough to put himself through his final year of college this winter.
The group of rebels under Pius Power at South East Bight is larger than that at Woody Island. Four new families moved into the area last year, three of them young married couples. Power refused to abandon his fishing rooms at Clattice Harbor (which,lies
between South East Bight and Woody Island) even when everyone else had bowed to government pressure and left the village. He still uses it for lobster fishing. The centralizers tried to trick him into signing a paper “for the benefit of his neighbors,” during the forced evacuation. But Pius was not the illiterate fool the city slickers supposed. Reading the fine print, he discovered that it transferred ownership of his land to the government, so he passed the paper back to the centralizers and politely told them to go to hell.
Such rebuffs have not discouraged the professional axemen. They use every means to try to get people out of the outports, and to prevent new people from moving in. It’s the new settlers who really get them uptight. No fewer than six RCMP officers were sent to Greater Paradise in an unsuccessful attempt to evict David and Linda Wilson. Another RCMP raid on Little Bay West, where eight young men had moved into a village that was being abandoned, resulted in the arrest and conviction of three of them. The other five escaped into hiding. The three were given 18-month sentences for entering an unlocked, abandoned house, and for moving in a piece of furniture from another abandoned house.
Z. W. S a m e t z, Newfoundland’s Deputy Minister of Community and Social Development, who had been brought to the province for the special job of closing down the outports, was quoted by the newspapers as calling the 18-month sentences “very light.” The Newfoundland Supreme Court did not agree, however, and when the convictions were appealed the young men were set free.
Altogether, 14 settlements have been reopened by the new pioneers in defiance of government policy. One group has reclaimed 60 acres of land and is raising cattle. Despite government fondness for cowboys, it refused the usual assistance, through the loan boards, to this project because the place concerned had been officially written off.
Inshore fishing — the kind done in small boats by independent men — has been revived in dozens of places where it had been abandoned. Bauline, a stormy dent in the cliffs near Cape St. Francis, tucked in by precipitous hills, is a place where you can do little except fish. But for two years “there was not a trap in the water,” as the fishermen say. Those who had not moved away were using the town as a dormitory and working elsewhere.
Then there is Roland LeGrow, who fished in his youth, but later went to work in St. John’s as a carpenter. He has decided to return to fishing “because I wasn’t happy at anything else.” He put every cent he could into fishing gear: cod traps, seines, salmon nets and a large, high-powered boat. By the following year, two full trap crews (men operating huge, boxshaped nets that can enmesh tons of fish at a single haul) were working with him on shares. Within two years, 53 men (part-time and full-time) were again fishing at Bauline.
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The biggest problem in the reviving outports is getting enough men together to carry on a fishing enterprise that will make the most of the available equipment.
“I had nine men on my two boats last winter,” Alec Lockyer says. “I could have used at least 15, even 20. But they’re just not here on Woody Island. They’re at Arnold’s Cove and such places, on welfare.
“At least 40 small crews — say, two men each — could make a good living on this island. Some will gradually move back here. But not fast enough. If you move to Woody Island you have to do it entirely at your own expense. If you move to a place where you can’t earn a living, they’ll pay you to go, and feed you after you get there.”
In spite of government harassment the movement back to the outports is growing. I talked with groups of people planning to move into three abandoned settlements during 1971, but they asked me not to reveal their plans. They don’t want the RCMP to find out earlier than necessary.
The other day on Woody Island Alec Lockyer happened to refer to his life as “a nice quiet way of living.” A new pioneer with longer hair and another style put it another way: “In an outport you work hard, but the returns are in proportion to your work. You are never unemployed. You do not have a job to lose. You are your own boss, and you enjoy far greater security than the wage earner, cheaper and better food, and a true sense of community without the loneliness of city crowds. You also have clean air and water and soil and limitless space, the majesty and terror of the sea, the forests and encircling hills.”
Last spring as I drove cautiously over the rocky trail that serves as a road through a tiny cove now being reoccupied by people fed up with the cities, I stopped to give a lift to a young man hiking toward the next settlement. He turned out to be the son of Z. W. Sametz, the planning expert Joey Smallwood brought to Newfoundland to close down the outports. So it goes. ■