For more than 200 years, the mostly Acadian residents of Nova Scotia’s Isle Madame made a living from the sea. That came to a shuddering halt in February, 1995, when the East Coast cod crisis forced the Richmond Fisheries Ltd. plant to close its doors for good, putting 500 of Isle Madame’s 4,300 residents out of a job. “It was a shock to everyone’s system,” says Donna Boudreau, who worked at the plant for 12 years. Many other coastal communities, facing similar challenges, have lapsed into despair and dependency.
But on Isle Madame—a 70square-kilometre island off southwest Cape Breton—residents banded together to try to end the reliance on the traditional fishery by pursuing job opportunities in fields as diverse as call centres, small manufacturing and aquaculture. “We are survivors,” says Boudreau, who now runs Production Picasse, a company that makes handpainted pottery and provides part-time employment for seven other former fish-plant workers.
As early as 1992, community leaders started sounding out residents on how best to respond to the fisheries crisis. That led to the creation of the Development Isle Madame, a communityowned, nonprofit company that has helped retrain displaced fish| ermen and plant workers surviv§ ing on the federal government’s
Atlantic Groundfish Strategy ?
(TAGS) income support—which, after several extensions, finally expired on Aug. 29. The development group also tapped private and government funds to help former fisheries workers start their own businesses or convince existing companies to expand their workforce. Now, more than half of the island’s eligible TAGS recipients have shifted to work outside the traditional fisheries—a success rate that is the envy of many communities.
One of those successes is Allan Savoury, who had dropped out of school after Grade 7 to spend the next 20 years working on large offshore trawlers. After the fishery collapse, Savoury earned his Grade 12 equivalency, then decided to get into aquaculture. Supporting his wife and three children through carpentry work, Savoury slowly built up a scallops and mussels farm that now employs up to 18 people. He also developed an innovative cage for raising scallops,
which he is beginning to market. Savoury, who only received TAGS while he was going to school, has harsh words for former colleagues who failed to move on. “A lot of good guys,” he says, “turned lazy and became too dependent on TAGS.”
Edgar Samson evinces a similar can-do attitude. The president of Premium Seafoods Ltd., a company founded in 1984, Samson responded to the cod crisis by buying frozen
A Maritimes community knew it had to change
bulk fish from countries such as Russia, Norway and Iceland and processing it on Isle Madame for export across Eastern Canada. The strategy worked: Premium Seafoods has nearly doubled its workforce and quadrupled its revenues in the years since the cod moratorium. “I knew I had to adapt,” says Samson.
Still, steely resolve can only go so far. For people like Jerry Doiron, who spent 21 years working as a cook on the trawlers, the outlook remains bleak. Although he took extra schooling, Doiron finds that, at the age of 54, he does not attract the interest of many employers. “It’s depressing,” Doiron says of his life these days. “It’s boring.” Even as Isle Madame moves into a brave new era, haunting memories of the old one linger.
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