After a half-century as a province Newfoundland is on the cusp of change

JOHN DeMONT March 15 1999


After a half-century as a province Newfoundland is on the cusp of change

JOHN DeMONT March 15 1999




After a half-century as a province Newfoundland is on the cusp of change


When Larry Tremblett has a little free time—which is often, given the state of the fishery on Bonavista Bay these days—he likes to hop in his half-ton, light up one of his hand-rolled cigarettes and drive out towards the Cape. It is a short spin, past low-growing shrubs and grass where fishermen’s houses once stood. Heading out of town, Tremblett, 42, with a thick, dark moustache and a round face just starting to show the wear from a life spent outdoors, can forget for a while the former fishermen and plant workers now toiling away on a government make-work project—fixing up the town of Bonavista’s waterfront. For a few minutes, he can put out of his mind the growing number of boarded-up buildings on the narrow, meandering streets where he has lived all his life—and the worrisome fact that everyone seems suddenly old in this place that the young have, for the most part, abandoned.

Where he stops his truck, the road—and continent—ends. Bonavista is where, 502 years ago, Italian explorer John Cabot probably made land for the first time in the New World. Tremblett has history here, too: in April, 1985, his boat went down not far from this very spot. He watched his brother drown in the icy waters, himself clinging to his overturned vessel for six hours until help came. Still, Tremblett says he could never live anywhere else. “I don’t even like St. John’s— it’s just too big for me,” says the married father of two, looking out over the ocean. ‘We’ve been fishing here for generations. It’s hard now. But this is my place—we take the bad with the good.”

Anyone who has ever visited Newfoundland and Labrador can understand why the place fosters such fierce loyalty in its residents. Today, a half-century after Newfoundland joined Confederation, it remains raw, awe-inspiring and close to the elements—its 371,690 square kilometres one of the last great expanses of wilderness left on

the planet. In an age of the Y2K bug, cigar bars and techno-music, it is a province where men still hunt seal pups on the Atlantic ice and many people live in such isolation that they can only be reached by snowmobile, boat or float plane. And there is a stubbornness in the inhabitants that has helped them survive everything the hard land throws at them.

Yet, 50 years after Newfoundland joined Canada, change is a-coming. Since the province’s mainstay, the cod fishery, collapsed in the early 1990s, the outports have been dying. The young and ambitious continue to leave the province, looking for a better future. Political leaders, meanwhile, are touting new economic miracle cures—for a “new” Newfoundland. But there is a fear that the very elements that make Newfoundland so compellingly different from the rest of Canada could be disappearing, too.

At the very least, the province seems on the cusp of wrenching change—perhaps as wrenching as the decision to join Canada five decades ago. And what Larry Tremblett wants to know, as he looks out at the waters fished by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, is: will there be a place for people like him in this reconfigured Newfoundland?

Brian Tobin has a vision. And what the premier sees—as clearly as if he had the power to peer straight across the Atlantic—is Ireland, the land of his forebears. For most of modern history, Ireland was a stagnant island on the edge of a great continent, dying a slow death as its best and brightest migrated elsewhere. But in just a few decades, Ireland transformed itself into an economic powerhouse through a combination of information technology, manufacturing, tourism and entrepreneurial grit. It is a model Tobin thinks he can import and customize to break Newfoundland’s historic dependence on the fishery.

And the fact that political leaders have been talking about diversification since Newfoundland joined Confederation on March 31,1949, does not seem to faze him one bit. “There are a lot of parallels here,” he stresses. “If it works for Ireland it can work for Newfoundland and Labrador. All that stops us are the limits of our own imagination. It is a question of rewriting the script that says we are the poor cousin of Confederation.”

Although broad swaths of the island still seem trapped in the past, that revision has already begun.

The power of the merchants who for so long held sway in the outports and commercial centres has § dissipated, even as the standard of living of all Newa foundlanders has improved during Confederation. °

The immense influence of the Catholic church, weakened by a string of sexual abuse scandals during the late 1980s, declined even further last year when Tobin’s government finally brought in legislation secularizing the public school system. In 1949, the only Newfoundlanders with university degrees were those wealthy enough to pay for an education on the Canadian mainland, England or the United States. Nowag days, Memorial University of Newfoundland, which began granting « degrees the same year Newfoundland joined Canada, is turning out I as many as 3,000 graduates a year. “The story of Newfoundland in the I last 50 years is one of increasing sophistication and education and § less insularity,” notes James Hiller, a history professor at Memorial. Ü Economically, the situation is still bleak. As a “have-not” province, z Newfoundland depends on federal transfer payments: fully 40.6 per « cent of its current $3.3-billion budget comes from Ottawa. At 17.6 per

cent, the province’s unemployment rate is the highest in Canada, and nearly 10 percentage points above the national average. And the great exodus continues—in 1997-1998, Newfoundland suffered a net loss of 10,000 people.

But there are hopeful signs. For one thing, a new, scaled-down— and, ironically, richer—fishery has emerged from the wreckage of the 1992 cod moratorium. In 1998, 27,000 Newfoundlanders still worked full time in the industry, compared with more than 41,700 in the peak years before the moratorium. Inshore fishermen—those with boats under 10 metres in length—continue to struggle. But those who own bigger boats, ideally suited to go farther offshore in pursuit of high-priced shrimp, crab and other shellfish, are pulling


‘This is my place—we take the bad with the good’

in decent catches—so much so that the value of the province’s fish landings hit $380 million last year, the highest in history.

The fishery’s restructuring, moreover, comes at a time when production from the Hibernia offshore field is ready to hit full stride. The oilfield, which began producing crude in 1997 and has a projected life of 20 years, had an output of just 80,000 to 100,000 barrels a day last year. This year, Hibernia, which directly employs about 600 Newfoundlanders, should reach maximum production of 150,000 barrels per day—a big reason why Dominion Bond Rating Service Ltd. last summer upgraded Newfoundland’s credit rating (at BBB, it is still the lowest of all the provinces). And experts predict that Newfoundland will lead the nation in growth for the second straight year in 1999.

Granted, it does not take much to stir an economy as tiny as Newfoundland’s. But big things seem to be looming on the horizon: the Terra Nova oilfield is scheduled to go into production in late 2000. White Rose, Hebron and other fields will follow soon after. With a little luck, the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine—stalled by a dispute between the province and Inco Ltd. over Tobin’s insistence that Inco honour an earlier pledge to build a smelter in Newfoundland —could be back on track. And the decades-old, on-again-offagain talks between Newfoundland and Quebec over developing the gigantic Lower Churchill hydro project in Labrador could be heading back to the negotiating table. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” says Tobin. “But my own belief is that Newfoundland and Labrador is in the beginning stages of a dramatic shift.”

Some movement is already apparent. A recent ranking of Canada’s software companies by Ottawa-based research firm Branham Group Inc. placed five St. John’s software development firms on its list of 25 up-and-comers. But a home market of just 544,400—about the same as the Toronto bedroom community of Mississauga— means Newfoundland is still a province where taking business risks requires immense courage. ‘This is a great place to live,” says Craig Dobbin, chairman of CHC Helicopter Ltd., one of the world’s largest helicopter operating companies and perhaps the leading light in Newfoundland business. “But I’d still be depending on paving contracts if I didn’t take my business out of Newfoundland.”

Even so, the province, particularly the Avalon Peninsula where St. John’s is located and most of the population lives, is suddenly dotted with places that have the smell of prosperity about them for the first time in recent memory. Back in the mid-1980s, Arnold’s Cove, nestled deep on the shoreline of Placentia Bay on the neck of the Avalon, was teetering on the brink. After the neighbouring Come By Chance oil refinery closed down, a quarter of the hamlet’s 1,600 residents had to leave in search of work.

But now, with the town facing a decidedly brighter future, some are moving back. The refinery is up and running again, operated by Texas-based Vetoil Inc. So is the local fish plant, owned by Lunenburg, N.S.-based High Liner Foods Inc., where 400 people work processing cod caught by Russian trawlers in the Barents Sea. A few kilometres away loom the huge tanks where crude from the Hibernia oilfield is stored. Nearby, 18-wheel trucks rumble down an arterial road from the highway towards a fabrication yard where, by summer, some 700 people should be busy building production facilities for the Terra Nova field. “We’re right in the middle of it,” brags Fred Framp, president of the Arnold’s Cove Area Chamber of Commerce. ‘We’re going to be the onshore oil capital of Newfoundland.”

If only the rest of the province—which many people consider to be

the real Newfoundland—could feel so hopeful. Two hundred kilometres west of Arnold’s Cove, on the Burin Peninsula, a road runs between some newish homes, past a beach scattered with fishing boats, then through some pine trees where a small cemetery with neat, welltended graves sits in a clearing. A few hundred yards away, wet snowflakes cover Baxter Senior as he ties up his dory. It is late on a weekday morning. But the only sign of activity among the fishing sheds of Red Harbour is the blocky, bespectacled 46-year-old fisherman and his high-spirited dog, Blue.

Senior’s father resettled the family here in 1969, floating the house by barge from nearby Port Elizabeth. The move was part of premier Joey Smallwood’s outports resettlement program, under which the government agreed to pay whole settlements to pick up and move to larger communities. The program was brutally efficient: more than 200 settlements, including Port Elizabeth, disappeared from the map.

Senior now wonders whether history is repeating itself. The young people in his community want nothing to do with fishing. The cod are

gone, the bigger boats needed for catching crab and shrimp are prohibitively expensive, and new regulations make it harder for fishermen to collect employment insurance benefits. So the young leave, heading for the big cities and the booming economy of the mainland where streets, they think, are paved with jobs. Senior knows it is just a matter of time before his two boys, ages 18 and 16, will follow. “It’s sad, b’y, sad,” he says softly in his thick outport accent. “If this keeps up, this place is turning into a ghost town.”

In 1989, Clyde Wells and his Liberals swept into power in Newfoundland promising to “bring every mother’s son home.” Nothing could have been more unrealistic. Much as he and his successor, Tobin, have tried, Newfoundlanders continue to leave. Add to that the lowest birthrate of any province in the country and the full magnitude of the problem becomes apparent: in 27 years, Newfoundland will have fewer people than the 360,000 citizens it claimed when it joined Canada. In the face of these grim facts, Tobin, who has four brothers who had to leave Newfoundland for work, is being realistic. “This notion, ‘Elect me and I will keep every mother’s son home,’ isn’t true, it never was true and never will be true,” he says. ‘We are in a global economy where mobility is a fact of life. What we want is not to keep every son or daughter home, but to create an environment where people have a real choice about whether to go or not.” How this will be achieved is uncertain. The populations in the big

centres—St. John’s, Corner Brook and Grand Falls-Windsor—may remain relatively stable, but, on the fringes, entire communities are disappearing or becoming rustic senior citizens complexes. Creating new oil jobs in places like Arnold’s Cove has only exacerbated the drain from the outports. The exodus is so dramatic that 170 of Newfoundland’s 291 municipalities—about half of which have fewer than 500 people—are now eligible for debt relief from the department of municipal and provincial affairs, in part because of their eroding tax bases. As Wade Locke, an economics professor at Memorial, bluntly says: “Rural Newfoundland is dying.”

Defeat hangs in the damp air of the outports. After 12 years in English Harbour West, an isolated village of 120 on the southern coast of the province, Daphne Fizzard has finally had enough. Her husband William, who has lived all of his 34 years in the village, holds down a job as a custodian at the local school. But English Harbour West, like so many isolated Newfoundland communities, simply does not have

the facilities that bigger centres can offer. And so the family is getting ready to move after the end of the school year. In Daphne’s view, life has to be better in St. Isidore, Alta., where her husband has a job waiting for him at a heating company alongside his brother-in-law, who moved there four years ago, and where their 16year-old son will no longer have to drive for an hour just to find a hockey rink. “I’ve got no regrets leaving here,” she says wearily. “I don’t think I’ll ever be back, other than for the rare visit.”

But each time someone else leaves, a way of life moves one step closer to extinction. The old fishermen’s skills, rural folklore and outport traditions will die with no new generation to pass them on to. Those with a discerning ear say the distinct outport accents—derived from the dialects of southwest England and southeast Ireland—are already starting to disappear. Many people fear Newfoundland’s very identity could follow.

At some level that helps explain the recent explosion of homegrown artists de fiantly trying to express Newfoundland’s distinct texture, sound, smell and feel. It seems unusual for so small a province to be able to boast acclaimed painters like Christopher and Mary Pratt, award-winning musicians like The Irish Descendants and Great Big Sea, hot novelists like Wayne Johnston, whose version of Smallwood’s life, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, was recently sold to an American publisher for a six-figure price tag. Not to mention every comic, it sometimes seems, now working in Canadian television. But art is forged by passion. And if living on this still-impoverished island is about anything at all, perhaps it is the triumph of passion over logic. “Those of us who stay feel very strongly about this place,” explains Kevin Major, a St. John’s playwright and novelist. ‘You know that if you stay it will be hard to make a living, but if you leave you lose the thing that drives you as an artist. So you make that trade-off.”

As do all Newfoundlanders who stubbornly cling to their beloved island. On a clear day, amid the salt, water and rock, Cape Bonavista seems prehistoric, as if whole centuries could go by without anything fundamental changing. And there is a timeless quality to Tremblett’s words as he sits in his truck and explains what still draws him to spend what days he can fishing on an ocean that arbitrarily takes one brother and leaves the other behind. ‘You’re your own boss and you’re up in the morning and you’re out in the fresh air all day,” he says. “It’s a nice feeling at the end of the day to come home with a good catch and a full day’s pay in your pocket.” Such certainty has so often been a rare thing in Newfoundland, where the bare, unforgiving landscape has always been the perfect metaphor for life. Today’s hopeful signs could, as some Newfoundlanders fear, be just another false dawn. But, at age 50, it is easier, and far more pleasant, to dwell on the province’s awesome potential rather than its immense challenges. And dream of the day when the diaspora finally ends—and those who have gone down the road can finally come home. □