Voices from the Outports

JOHN GUSHUE August 13 2001

Voices from the Outports

JOHN GUSHUE August 13 2001

Voices from the Outports


in St. Johns

Fifty years ago, there were about 1,200 settlements in Newfoundland. Most were small villages where residents built their houses as close to fishing grounds as possible. Nearly half had fewer than 100 residents; eight in 10 had fewer than 500. Spread along nearly

But Joey Smallwood had a vision: move people from the outports to several dozen so-called growth centres, such as Arnolds Cove and Marystown. There, they could work in a modernized fishery or factories that the premier hoped industrialists would erect. Few, in fact, were ever built. Still, during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, the federal and provincial governments paid more than 28,000 people varying amounts to move from the old setdements. Some left happily, but others left feeling they were pawns in a government game. To this day, debate continues about one of the most ambitious and controversial social-engineering experiments in Canadian history.

As for the resetded communities, a few—like St. Kyran’s and Ireland s Eye—can still be found on contemporary maps, but rarely do roads or ferries lead to them. About 300 communities exist now only in memories. Alder trees and bushes have overgrown paths; wharves, fishing stages, houses and churches have vanished with scarcely a trace. But powerful emotions remain. Five Newfoundlanders recall the upheaval in their lives:

10,000 km of coastline, they were remote and difficult for the government to provide with public services.

GT ast year, I slept overnight on the island for the first time I Jin more than 30 years. For me, it was very lonely. For people who don’t know the island, they love it, but for me, I kept meeting the ghosts of people I knew. It’s the absence of these people that was overwhelming for me.

“When I was very small, there was no talk of resettlement, even though for years people had just been drifting away from the island for various reasons. With the Smallwood administration, the talk of resettlement grew. There was a slight element of fear for some people, especially for those in their 50s and 60s.

“You had people like my mother, who had never lived anywhere else, who really didn’t want to go anywhere else, and couldn’t visualize living anywhere else. They were independent, not owing a cent to anybody and had never heard of a mortgage. My father was different; he had lived in British Columbia for 20 years and wasn’t opposed to going. For us, the younger people, we had to go. We couldn’t get an education after Grade 10 even before resettlement.

“Having said all that, there is something about a summer’s day on that island. There was then, and there is now, a peace that you can’t find anywhere else. There’s no dust; the leaves are all shiny and bright. It’s so quiet, the birdsong is all you hear. It’s just beautiful.”

SINGER ANITA BEST, 53, was raised on

Merasheen, an island community in Placentia Bay, in southern Newfoundland. Now living in St. John's, she collects traditional songs and folklore so they aren’t lost to memory.

44 A fter school, we were outdoors constantly.

xxThe house was just the purest shelter—it was just a place to go to bed and eat meals. The house didn’t serve the same function that it does today. There was no central heating, so there was a woodstove, and all the entertainment was self-generated. The kitchen was where every-

thing went on, until you went to bed.

“Belief systems were completely different in those days. If you saw dead fellows—they were never called ghosts, they were called spirits or dead fellows, or by their names—it was generally a warning of some kind of bad weather approaching, so you would move your boat. I would hear people talk about them quite matter-of-facdy. Some people might laugh, but in some of the communities, if there was a critical mass of believers, you wouldn’t go out after night without some bread in your pockets in case you met the good people—aka, the fairies,


New York City photographer Scott Walden has travelled throughout Newfoundland photographing the remnants of the province’s resettled communities. Maclean’s presents a selection of images from his show, Unsettled, which opens this week at the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John’s.

or the little people. Those things were actually believed and practised. In my community, we never went out without bread in our pockets.

“As it got harder to get teachers and priests, the rumours started flying around, and the priests started talking about it from the altar—your children would get a better education, and soon there won’t be anyone here to bury your dead, and this sort of old carry-on.

“People fell for it, and why wouldn’t they? Also, they were offered cash money, and in an economy where cash was so rare, a small amount of cash seemed like a lot. They weren’t used to valuing their property in a market sense; they weren’t used to valuing it at all.

“My father didn’t want to have anything to do with resettlement, so we moved before, to St. Johns in 1960. My father feared you would be told where you had to move. We never got any money and we kept our land. My mother nearly died, but she adapted. My father became very bitter. I was like my mother. I adjusted pretty quickly, once I found out what you had to talk like and what you had to wear.

“Our heads were wrenched away from an appreciation of our own way of life, of what our ancestors built and had done. We were made to believe that it was all worth nothing. That was the worst of it—of being ashamed of being a Newfoundlander and of being from the outports. Our generation, we lost that pride.”

"Jewfoundlanders left little behind in the old townsjust ghosts and memories

PAT BYRNE, 57, grew up in Great Paradise, a small fishing village in Placentia Bay. He is a professor of English and folklore at Memorial University in St. John’s, and a writer.

I Te only reason that anyone came here was for

X the fishing. We didn’t come for the weather. It was a subsistence kind of existence—everybody did what they did because they didn’t have any bloody choice. There was no indoor plumbing, no corner stores or anything like that. Nobody ever went to the doctor, because there was no doctor. But there was a sense of being your own skipper—a sense of self-determination. Looking back at it now, it sounds in some senses idyllic, and in some senses absolutely deprived.

It’s amazing to think it was only 50 years ago. You were pretty isolated. Your only contact then was the coastal boat, and a bit of radio—but it was rationed radio, because all the radios were battery-operated with bloody big old dry cells, so the programming was rationed.

“Resettlement was an insidious operation, because they targeted the three things that people really needed: the merchant, the priest or the minister, and the school. They did nothing to recruit teachers.

“My family left before the whole centralization thing started; most of the people were out by 1965. They all left behind more than they took. They left behind a whole way of life, everything they had been used to. There’s nobody in Newfoundland who knows how to salt a fish. All those traditional skills are gone.

“The community I grew up in is gone. The house I grew up in is gone. It’s now just summer cabins and alder bushes. In some senses, we’re working only now on memory, and that’s it. And it’s too bad. It’s become the stuff of legend and poetry.”

ARTHUR WICKS, 82, a retired fisherman,

grew up in Port Nelson, Bonavista Bay; he now lives in Badger’s Quay.

££/^~\ur parents taught us how to survive, how to cope with the winter weather. We were independent—we grew our own vegetables, we raised our own catde, we got our own firewood from the forest and wood to build our homes and our boats, and we made our own medicines when people got colds or flus. The bottom line is that we survived by the sweat of our brow.

“Resettlement was a very, very painful experience. The politicians would come around and give notice that the government was no longer in a position to keep up the secondary roads in these areas, and that the schools cost so much, and the only salvation was for the people to move out.

“I held on for a few years. I was the last one to pull up stakes, and that was in 1956. They had all gone, apart from Uncle Baxter White, who lived there for six or seven years more. I helped other people move their houses to where they were going. Doing

that, it broke my heart. People would say they would want to stay, but then they would look at their children. There’s people who pulled up stakes, they’re still finding the smart of that today, my son. To take someone, and put them in a welfare state in an inland town, well, it was like somebody had stuck a knife between their two shoulder blades.”

For the 10 years after we moved, I would say that Mom cried every day

HEATHER WAREHAM, 46, a maritime

archivist at Memorial University in St. John’s, was 9 when her Placentia Bay community of Spencer’s Cove was resettled.

UT grew UP in a house with six kids. We got up Ain the morning, had our breakfast and went out—and when I say went out, we went out in a boat, or did whatever we wanted to do. We might have spent as much of the day on the water as we did on the land, and that was perfecdy acceptable then. It’s so completely different from the way that kids are brought up in an urban area now. It was a total, absolute sense of freedom.

“The mail boat would come two or three times a week. The ferry, I’d say, probably came twice a

week. Both were big events—it was like your connection with the outside world. It was not a very isolated place, because it was only an hour’s boat ride into Arnold’s Cove on the mainland. We had electricity, too, and that made quite a difference.

“My father owned a business, a typical fisheries supply business, and they had a really bad fire. The resetdement program was in full swing by then, around 1963, so he had a big decision to make. I’m sure Dad was looking at the big picture, and he decided to rebuild his business in Arnold’s Cove.

“My mother, she was really unhappy about this whole thing. Dad was much older, but he was more of a risk taker, and he was excited that he was going to go off at age 62 and start a whole new career and do something else. For the 10 years after we moved, I would say that Mom cried every day. And she never went back. I just think it was too hard. I think we children thought it was a good idea—we would get a better education, and we would be somewhere where there were cars. And ice cream. I thought that was something.” E3