Newfoundlanders fight to break the cycle of poverty
Bitter on the Rock
Newfoundlanders fight to break the cycle of poverty
As he sits in the kitchen of his white clapboard house in Pouch Cove, a fishing village 30 km north of St. John’s, Nfld., retired fisherman William Noseworthy casts his mind back half a century, to a bygone era of abundance. “Back then, the cod were so thick that you could just look over the side and see them swimming in the water,” says the ruddy-faced Noseworthy,
69, between puffs on a hand-rolled cigarette. But those days are long past.
Noseworthy’s 34-year-old son, Barry, now has to drop four times as many cod traps to pull in half the number of fish that his father once caught in a day. “I don’t think there’s much of a future in fishing anymore, ” the younger man says. It is a common complaint among the 28,000 men and women who work in the northern cod fishery. And unfortunately for Newfoundlanders, the outlook for the rest of the provincial economy appears no less bleak.
Recent events have focused new attention on the province’s perennially desperate economy. In February, Newfoundlanders learned that a massive $5.2billion plan to develop the Hibernia oilfield, 220 miles southeast of St. John’s, had been shelved because low oil prices have made the megaproject less attractive. That decision put 800 people immediately out of work and dashed, perhaps for all time, the province’s dreams of offshore riches. Then, last week, federal Fisheries Minister John Crosbie dealt a near knockout punch to the province’s economy. Crosbie announced a 35per-cent rollback in the total allowable catch of northern cod—Atlantic Canada’s most important fishery. Inevitably, the reduced quota will force thousands of fishermen and fish-plant workers onto the unemployment rolls—a severe blow to a province where the jobless rate already stands at 19.2 per cent, eight points above the national average.
Yet the immediate consequences of those announcements were overshadowed by a deeper fear—that the already beleaguered province has entered a downward economic spiral that could continue for years, perhaps even decades. According to some analysts, New-
foundland’s future can now be secured only by adopting painful economic policies aimed at weaning the province from its reliance on government supports—a strategy that could threaten the island’s social fabric. Declared Newfoundlander Harry Steele, president of
Newfoundland Capital Corp., a Dartmouth, N.S.-based transport and communications company with many interests in the province: ‘Tough medicine is needed. The question is whether the patient can stand the treatment. ” Already, the province is reeling. In slashing the total allowable catch to 120,000 tons from 180,000 tons, Crosbie left fishermen with a quota that was one-third the size of their 1988 allowable catch. By most accounts, the Newfoundland-born fisheries minister had little choice. Earlier this month, a federal scientific advisory panel urged Crosbie to slash the quota even more, by 50 per cent. The panel warned that the cod stock, which first drew European fishermen to the Grand Banks nearly 500 years ago, could be wiped out if fishing continues at current levels. Declared Cabot Martin, president of the Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries Association, which represents the province’s
10,000 small-boat fishermen: “What has occurred on the Grand Banks is an ecological disaster. ”
The fact that Crosbie stopped short of the panel’s requested 50-per-cent reduction was cold comfort to the thousands of Newfoundlanders already suffering from the fishery crisis. The province’s biggest fishing company, St. John’s-based Fishery Products International Ltd., has already tied up 11 trawlers and closed shut several Newfoundland fish plants due to declining catches. Only two weeks ago, the company mothballed its state-of-the-art cod plant in Catalina, 300 km north of St. John’s, putting 890 plant workers and 150
trawlermen out of work—including about 70 employees who are particularly vulnerable because they have not worked enough this year to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. “It was a shock, ” recalls Ambrose Butt, 34, a former cutter at the Catalina plant who now supports his wife and 18-month-old son on Ul benefits of $320 a week. “If we don’t reopen in the spring, I’ll have to think about looking elsewhere for work. ”
Variations on that theme can be heard throughout Newfoundland—in devastated fishing outports as well as in inland communities that have been hit by layoffs in the province’s severely depressed mining and forestry industries. Nowhere, perhaps, is the concern greater than in Arnold’s Cove, a tiny fishing village nestled on the rugged shoreline of Placentia Bay. Last month, the village’s 1,400 inhabitants were rocked by the news that the
Hibernia project had been put on hold and that work had been halted on a $ 1.2-billion offshore platform being built only five kilometres away. But the cod cuts were an even bigger blow. Last week, the village’s main employer, Halifax-based National Sea Products Ltd., announced the temporary closure of its Arnold’s Cove plant, which employs 500 people. Declared Thomas Osburne, the village’s mayor and a supervisor at the National Sea plant: “We’ve made it through tough times before. Hopefully, this time won’t be any different. ’’ In fact, many Newfoundlanders say that they fear the province may never recover from the latest economic setbacks. Among economists,
politicians and business leaders, there is widespread agreement that many years of dependence on government handouts and regional development programs have spawned a welfare mentality among some Newfoundlanders. That attitude is likely to become even more pervasive as the fishery layoffs exacerbate the cycle of government-sponsored make-work projects and short-term employment that marks life in many outports. Said Karl Kenney, vice-president of product development for Matrix Technologies Inc., a St. John’s-based electronics company: “Decades on the government dole have made us docile and dulled our edge. ” Although successive federal and provincial governments have attempted to break the cycle of dependence, none of them has succeeded. Most economists and businessmen agree that the Ul system—which allows fishermen to become eligible for 42 weeks of payouts
after as little as 10 weeks of work—has left recipients with little motivation to retrain or to search for work elsewhere. “The Ul system is a disincentive to work,” says Craig Dobbin, chairman of St. John’s-based Canadian Helicopters Ltd., North America’s second-largest helicopter operating company.
But simply cutting off income supports now, in the midst of a recession, would only cause more pain in the outports. And there is no consensus on an alternative to the Ul system. Donald Savoie, an expert in regional development and an economics professor at New Brunswick’s University of Moncton, says that unemployment benefits should be paid only to people who are actively trying to upgrade their skills by enrolling in jobtraining programs. Other analysts, such as Wade Locke, an economics professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, have called on Ottawa to introduce some sort of mobility incentive to assist people in moving from the outports to jobs in urban areas elsewhere in Newfoundland and on the mainland.
Ultimately, an exodus from the outports may be unavoidable. “There has to be a rationalization of some of these outlying communities, ” says Christopher Collingwood, president of Baine, Johnston & Co. Ltd., a St. John’sbased real estate and insurance firm that is one of the oldest companies in the province. Adds Steele, a native of Musgrave Harbour: “Newfoundlanders cannot stay put in the province if the opportunities are not there. ” Whether the future will be any brighter may well depend on the results of several recent initiatives. Among the most prominent is the province’s Economic Recovery Commission, which Premier Clyde Wells created three years ago. Its objective: to help diversify the provincial economy and reduce its reliance on fishing, forestry, mining, energy megaprojects and federal transfer payments. The commission, led by Memorial University economist Douglas House, has provided advice to struggling small businesses and has even acted directly to arrange business deals between outside investors and local companies. Next month, a group of industry leaders appointed by the commission will report on ways to create jobs in 11 different business sectors, including non-resource manufacturing, tourism and high technology. Declared House: “We need to widen the scope of industry in the province.”
But for now, and perhaps forever, the depleted fishery remains the province’s major industry. And for Newfoundlanders like Barry Noseworthy, that means a future that is as unpredictable as the weather over the North Atlantic fishing grounds where he makes his meagre living.
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