Generations of Fogo Islanders have defied daunting odds
KEEPING THE FAITH
Generations of Fogo Islanders have defied daunting odds
Patrik Foley lies there; so do Ambrose and Agnes McGrath, and three of their children who died before they reached two years of age. They are among the scores of Foleys and McGraths whose names are engraved on white headstones in the Old Cemetery in Tilting, a fishing village settled by Irishmen more than two centuries ago on the eastern shore of Fogo Island, Nfld. Their Irish brogue still echoes through the voices of their descendants, generation after generation of fishermen eking out a harsh living from the sea. But now, Leonard McGrath, 36, and Dan Foley, 53, are on what locals call “the package”—federal assistance for fishermen and fish-plant workers thrown out of work by what was supposed to be a two-year moratorium on northern cod. Recently, Foley and McGrath were learning how to repair small Fiberglas boats, a specialist’s job, at the idled groundfish plant in Joe Baft’s Arm. But with no end in sight to the moratorium, they have no idea when they will be able to put those skills to use. “The only thing we’re living on,” says McGrath, “is hope.”
Hope and perseverance—perhaps even a wilful denial of daunting odds—run through Fogo Island history. But now, the 3,900 residents of the island in northeastern Newfoundland’s Notre Dame Bay may be facing their greatest challenge. Some are still employed in the fishery, mainly in crab. But most of Fogo’s estimated 650 fishermen and 450 fish-plant workers are on the package, which pays them $225 to $406 a week, depending on past unemployment insurance benefits. In order to get maximum payments, they must take such retraining courses as small business management and boat repair. Meanwhile, the compensation program is set to expire next May, but experts now say that the cod fishery is unlikely to reopen before the turn of the centuiy. No one in Fogo seems to know how the island will survive—unless the package is continued—until then. “I don’t seriously think about it,” says John Greene, the 42-year-old purchasing manager at the local fishermen’s and plant workers’ co-operative. “Maybe I’m afraid to.”
Older residents recall the days when fishermen worked from dawn until dark all summer, then sold their dried and salted catch to the merchants in the fall. But in 1967, the last of the large merchants left and then-Premier Joey Smallwood offered to resettle all the residents of Fogo Island as part of a scheme to centralize Newfoundland. “I remember when Joey came,” says 37-year-old fish-plant worker Cecil Godwin. "I was really scared. The only way of life we knew was fishing. What were we going to do if they plopped us down in Gander?”
Many outports disappeared during Smallwood’s resettlement program. But the Fogo Islanders clung tenaciously to their piece of the Rock, and to the way of life it represented. Cecil Godwin’s wife, Anne, 34, has a photo of her father and grandfather in 1967 at the first islandwide meeting to forge a producers’ co-operative. From salt cod to boat building, to processing fresh fish, the co-operative has expanded and responded to the changing tides of the fishery while some privately owned plants elsewhere closed down in tough times. ‘With the co-op we had something a lot of people didn’t,” says Cecil. “It has given us 25 years of stability and a good living for a lot of us.”
Certainly, the oneand two-storey white clapboard houses in the island’s 10 villages look well maintained. There are satellite dishes in many backyards (installed before cable TV arrived in the mid-1980s) and a car or truck in front of almost every home. Fishermen who went into debt to buy large boats or fishing gear are having a difficult time making their payments now. But for debt-free fishermen and fish-plant workers, in an area where most people build and own their own homes outright, the moratorium package offers a decent income—almost as much as, and in some cases even more than, they were making before.
Still, it is more than economics that keeps the islanders at home. “You can’t compare this life to any other,” says Cecil Godwin, as he struggles to find words to express his attachment to the island where his great-great-grandfather settled in the late 1700s. “We’ve got a very strong sense of home,” he adds. The couple have three boys, aged 8 to 15, and, says Anne: “It’s the best place you’ll ever raise children. There’s not a lot of violent crime and there are no big drug pushers around who would try to get our kids involved.”
But the suspension of the fishery has taken its toll. Seasonal employment alternating with unemployment insurance had become a way of life. Residents only fished in the summer, while plant workers got 14 to 20 weeks of work in a good year. But the package seems to bear a stigma. “I find it a little degrading,” concedes Cecil Godwin of the $630 he receives every two weeks. "I’d rather be working for the bit I’m getting, even painting a fence.” He adds: “We’re really not lazy people.” It is a common refrain, laden with resentment towards mainland Cana-
dians who perceive Newfoundlanders as government-dependent layabouts. In fact, there are even tensions on the island between those on the package and those who are not. And there is criticism of a government program that some say discourages people from seeking work. “If I could get $406 sitting at home, I don’t think I’d want to work,” says Gerald Freake, 41, a teacher who runs an auto body shop in the summer. “With working people now, there are bitter feelings, especially if their pay is less” than the package. “On the other hand,” concedes Freake, “a lot of these fishermen would rather be fishing.”
Anne Godwin’s brother says he would rather be at sea. “When I was fishing, I left at four in the morning and got back in the dark,” says Laurie Collins, 39. “In the winter, there were cod and capelin traps to mend, lumpfish and flounder nets to make—every day we had something.” This summer, Collins spent more on fuel and gear than he earned fishing off and on for lobster and lump. He has taken courses and renovated his kitchen. And he spent 10 days in Halifax applying for jobs, to no avail. Still, Collins says that he has too much time on his hands. “The women find it a big strain,” he says. “The men are underfoot and they’ve got to listen to us complain because we’re not fishing. There’s lots of days when I’m not fit to talk to—all we think about is May, 1994.”
The two Tilting fishermen, McGrath and Foley, say that they are hoping the government will extend financial aid past that date, even if it is reduced. If so, “I can hold out for five years at least,” says Foley. “If they close the fishery for 20 years, I’ll still stay,” insists McGrath. But some islanders say that Ottawa is unlikely to continue supporting them, or their lifestyleno matter how idyllic or unique. “The government simply can’t afford it,” says the co-operative’s Greene. “And why should fishermen get different treatment? That’s the question being asked by a logger where the mill closes or a miner where the mine closes.” Abandoning the island, is not feasible either, he says, when jobs are so scarce on the recession-buffeted mainland. “What are they going to do,” he muses aloud, “create a total welfare province?”
Many youths have already fled the island. Christopher Cole is about to. A tall lanky 18year-old enrolled at Memorial University’s Gander campus this fall, Cole is working in Fogo’s Bleakhouse Museum over the summer, showing visitors butter churns and other artifacts from days gone by, old pictures and rusty fishing gear. “A lot of young people say they can’t wait to go away,” says Cole. “But I lived away for four years, I got a taste for other things, and I love it here. Fogo Island’s got a slow pace to it.” But he knows that he will not find employment at home. “I’m not staying,” he says, “I’d love to, but I can’t.” If many others join Cole, there may yet come a time when the settlers’ graves are no longer visited by their descendants—and when their lilting voices no longer sing through the generations.
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