Thanks to the fed the outport's dead,
Is I the b'y that failed her?
The Destruction of Newfoundland's Outport Communities
On July 1, 1916, at Beaumont-Hamel, on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, no unit suffered greater losses than that of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Afterwards, the Divisional Commander said an odd thing: "It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further." Of the eight hundred and one men to face that hell on earth, just 68 answered roll-call next morning. If anything, the remainder of the century would treat Newfoundlanders with less courtesy.
Proudly calling itself "Britain's Oldest Colony," Newfoundland's semi-autonomous status was ordained by King Henry VII's letters patent to John Cabot. The Cod-fishing grounds of the Grand Banks were a known and jealously-guarded secret among a few close-mouthed Basque, Irish, and Viking fishermen -- but the immediate effect of Cabot's 1497 voyage was to spread the word: In the New World there were fish to be had in such unimaginable profusion a man might almost walk upon them! In his 1620 "Brief Discourse of the Newfoundland," Englishman John Mason remarked, "Cods so thicke by the shoare that we heardlie haue beene able to row a Boate through them." It is impossible to overemphasize the historical significance of the Codfish. Called the "Faithful Friend" by the Portuguese, this boneless, skinless staple would not only sustain Catholic Europe over centuries of Lenten seasons and meatless Fridays, it alone kept far-flung colonies (including slave colonies) nourished and productive. Something never before seen in such abundance would reliably feed the world over the next 500 years.
For three hundred of those years, English, French, Basque, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen arrived on the Newfoundland shore for a share of seasonal plenty before heading back to winter in European ports. Since most of these sojourners were themselves, employees or indentured servants, Newfoundland's permanent population growth remained sluggish until the Napoleonic Wars at the close of the eighteenth century. The sudden inrush of southeastern English and southwestern Irish settlers introduced to Newfoundland cultural traditions that would endure as if preserved in a bell jar. Between 1804 and 1884, the island population increased ten-fold, to 200,000 souls, with immigration slowing to a mere trickle after 1840. A hundred years after that, with the highest birth rate in the country, the native-born comprised over 98 per cent of Newfoundland's 1940 population. Fishing had by then evolved into a family affair and a way of life wholly dependent on the annual shoreward migration of the Northern Cod. As James Yonge, Plymouth Surgeon, remarked in 1670: "The middle or end of June came the capling, a small sweet fish and the best bait, and when they come we have the best fishing, the cods pursuing them so eager that both have run ashore." By 1934, 1,292 small fishing settlements straggled along Newfoundland's rocky coast. Only 100 of these had populations over 500. So scattered and strung-out were the small outport settlements that the only outfitters prepared to set up shop in such commercially rugged climes were those who relied upon the autocratic "truck" system of credit. When, at some crucial juncture, a demand for payment was made, the usual solution was to "pay" with precious finished fish -- allowing unscrupulous merchants to "buy low and sell high" at every turn. Each year the merchants raced to dump fish in the market as early as possible, each hoping to get the kind of prices that prevailed before the dumping began. Such ruinous competition inevitably led to gluts of poorly cured fish. These gluts drove down prices, but the merchants continued to profit; controlling as they did the prices of supplies they bartered for the fish. It was a system that kept the market depressed and fishing families and real money-in-hand relative strangers for centuries. According to a 1760 English description, the Newfoundland merchants were "infamously intent on Trade, proud of their quick raised fortune, unsociable amongst themselves and envious of any success that strangers who settle among them meet with. Remember, we are not in Newfoundland to buy fish but to sell goods." - Newman and Company, 1850
Under such conditions, the Depression of the 1930s would hit Newfoundland folk especially hard, and for the first time, one-in-six were "away" looking for work. Among those back home, there was a growing sense that the whole world was beginning to pass them by -- with some justification. Given the eccentric outport settlement patterns, electric, telephone, water and sewage services were virtually unattainable. A 1934 health survey found that there was just one hospital bed for every 644 Newfoundlanders -- a poor showing against the then-American rate of one bed per 130 persons. With the establishment of WWII bases and the arrival of tens of thousands of American and Canadian servicemen, the long years of privation came to an end, but as always, the price was unjustifiably high: Newfoundland contributed more than its fair share of War Brides. By 1949, there were 1,187 (mostly mission) schoolhouses in Newfoundland -- of which, 778 were single-room affairs. While much of this poverty could be laid at the feet of an archaic and inefficient economy, there's little doubt that Newfoundland was ready for big changes. What it got was Joey Smallwood. Socialist, journalist, union organizer, publisher, and pig farmer, Smallwood was the best-known personality in Newfoundland, broadcasting nightly on radio as "The Barrelman". He would single-handedly dominate provincial politics over the critical years 1949 to 1972. In 1950, a visiting British wag observed how he towered above his colleagues: "Mr. Smallwood obviously enjoys his position as the head of a one-man government." Desperate to bring Newfoundland into the Canadian fold, he played shamelessly on the yearnings and ambitions of the outport fishermen. Smallwood's confederation movement was generously, if anonymously, underwritten by the federal Liberal Party and, having once achieved the barest victory in the confederation referendum, his hastily-organised provincial Liberal Party urged voters to "let Joe finish the job!" There were, in fact, two votes: in the first referendum, a return to responsible government won, but as there had been three options (independence, Canada, or Britain) a run-off referendum was arranged to decide between independence and confederation with Canada. Hasty infusions of money meant that before the campaign was out, Smallwood and his confederate forces had spent almost five times as much as the combined opposition. Smallwood found his strongest support among the fishing folk of the outport communities, and -- by a stroke of incredible good fortune or something else -- electoral boundaries, redrawn after 1949, gave a preponderance of seats to those very communities! In the time-honoured way of Canadian politicians, this "man of the people" would repay voter loyalty with betrayal and the utter destruction of their way of life.Note fish drying in foreground
Don't vote confederation,
Now that's my prayer to you,
We own the house we live in,
Likewise our schooner too;
But if you vote Joe Smallwood,
And his line of French patois
You'll always be paying taxes
To the man up in Ottawa.
- a fisher boy's plea to his mother
"The Hero of '48"
Meanwhile, the fact that Atlantic Cod stocks were in trouble was, by unanimous consent, simply ignored. In the 1870s, the fishery accounted for over 95 per cent of Newfoundland's annual exports; by 1920, seventy-one per cent; by 1930, thirty-seven per cent. Nor had Newfoundland developed any alternate economic base over those years -- the fish stocks were simply being systematically depleted by increasingly sophisticated foreign fishing fleets and increasingly desperate domestic fishermen. It was a problem with a long pedigree. Over the furious protestations of Sir John A. Macdonald, Britain and the US concluded the convivial Treaty of Washington in 1871. Under this instrument, Americans were free to fish Canadian waters for twelves years, and Britain walked away with a cool $5,500,000 weighing down its pockets. Since Newfoundland was technically a British -- not Canadian -- possession there was little Macdonald could do, other than mourn: "Here go the fisheries ... we gave them away." Britain would assuage Macdonald by extending a loan to help get his CPR up and running. That didn't help the Cod. As usual, the costs to Newfoundland were incalculable. There was an enforced moratorium on the fishery during WWII, and the tremendous recovery of stocks indicated that the resource badly needed a break it was just not going to get. In 1949, Joey Smallwood declared: "The fisheries are NOT finished. Anyone who says they are, is wrong." Thus, the typical Northern Cod catch, 150,000 tonnes in the 1940s, peaked out in 1968 at 810,000 tonnes. From this killing spike it was all downhill until July 1992, when the Cod Fishery closed.
But Cod don't vote. On April 17, a scant 10 days before the 1997 federal election call, Liberal Fisheries Minister Fred Mifflin announced that 6,000 tonnes of Cod might now be taken from the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the west coast of Newfoundland, and 10,000 tonnes from the southern Newfoundland coast! And Atlantic voters fell in line. Such games -- with Cod and fishermen serving as pawns -- have prompted scientists to call for "a complete separation of science and government" (an odd spin on science as secular religion). One scientist said: "Irrespective of whether or not cod should be fished, this process stinks." The September, 1999 Marshall decision by the Supreme Court has only exacerbated fishy politics, putting large numbers of native fishermen on the water, in season and out. In PEI, the Department of Fisheries is actually buying back non-native licences to present to native band councils. The current Fisheries Minister, Herb Dhaliwal, a Sikh, brings to the embattled fisheries department a wealth of experience -- in the taxi industry. But worse, after fifty years of stupendously poor management, the Canadian fishery is not even about fish anymore -- it's about native land claims. It might have all been so different had Canada chased off foreign interlopers in timely fashion and resisted the urge to underwrite our own giant masticating factory trawlers, but managing the world's biggest Cod fishery was a complex and subtle affair. As always in Canada, it is meddling and social engineering that puts a spring in the bureaucratic step. In the end it would not be the foreign fishing fleets that were "dealt with," but local fishermen.
Joey Smallwood swore he would "drag Newfoundlanders kicking and screaming into the twentieth century." And, in a bitterly ironic way, that's just what he did. The last Father of Confederation's solution? In a word -- resettlement.
In 1949, a bare half of all Newfoundlanders enjoyed electrical services. As far back as 1933, the Amulree Commission noted that Newfoundland, "has always been, first, and foremost, a fishing country; the settlements are, therefore, situated in places from which fishing could most easily be conducted. The original settlers, in making their homes, paid little attention to what they considered relatively unimportant factors; such as, ... the lack of amenities." Well, if it was inconvenient to bring utilities to the outport residents, why not bring outport residents to the utilities? Better yet, why not put modernized filleting, freezing and cold-storage fish-processing industries at the hub and heart of these progressive centralized "growth centres"? After all, despite the many warning signs, the fish would always be there, wouldn't they? Under federal and provincial auspices, three major resettlement programmes took place between 1953 and 1975.
It is a mark of just how impoverished the outport communities were to think that between 1953 and 1965 alone, 110 outport settlements vanished utterly, the residents given the pitiful sum of just $150 from welfare services to pull up stakes. Clearances in all but name, sudden demand drove up housing prices in the new "growth centres" and one study estimated it would take the displaced a minimum of 20 years to replace all that had been left behind. The sight of a house being towed across the bay was commonplace throughout the resettlement years. No one seemed unduly concerned that poorly educated fishermen might not be able to compete in urban areas where unemployment rates already averaged 20 per cent -- or that fishing grounds around settled areas were reserved for long-time residents, not penurious newcomers. Even the much-loathed merchants lost out: not only did their customers vanish overnight, there was no compensation plan for shops, stores, wharves or sheds. Under a final scheme, the householder's pay-off reached a magnanimous $1,000 (plus $200 per household member), but under this disposition, government officials would dictate where the newly-homeless would be permitted to settle. In other words, the household would only receive assistance if and when they agreed to move to a region approved by a committee of federal and provincial bureaucrats. Between 1965 and 1972, 3,876 households and 19,197 persons were "evacuated". More and more, federal health dollars were dedicated to addressing "lifestyle problems" associated with the relocations.
Predictably, no good came of the massive uprooting of the outport people. The centralized fish processing industry would die with the Cod. Subsequent polling found that in some cases, no single member of a dispersed community was willing to admit that he or she had ever wanted to move. Those who went willingly felt they had been seduced with false promises, while the remainder continued to feel they had been pressured and driven out. Some Canadians now regard Newfoundland as a fiscal sinkhole of doomed regional development schemes -- but honestly -- is that attributable to some previously unseen innate Newfie sloth and profligacy, or the congenital genius of the federal-provincial decision-making mob? For too many, resettlement was just a first step on the way to leaving Newfoundland for good. Faithful to some few traditions at least, the latest (2000) election had the Liberal Party talking about a limited Cod fishery in the near future, despite the fact that Cod stocks are showing absolutely no sign of recovery. And Atlantic voters fell in line. Through it all, Newfoundlanders endure with characteristic good grace, good humour, and, as always, ever more out-migrations. From the highest in the land, Newfoundland's birthrate today is even lower than that of its old rival, Quebec (the other lowest birth rate in the country).
- Her face turns to Britain, her back to the Gulf.
- Come near at peril Canadian wolf.
- - Anti Confederate Toast
If you read the sundering of Newfoundland as a metaphor (or blueprint) for the ecological and cultural destruction of Canada as a whole, it only proves that -- when we really apply ourselves -- we can overcome almost any natural advantage.
Deemed to be one of the three best movies of all time, How Green was My Valley laments the passing of another traditional way of life -- that of a Welsh mining family. It was not the sea that provided for their wants -- but that passing was at least noted. Like the peal of church bells from the bottom of a lake -- listen: "I can close my eyes on my Valley as it is today -- and it is gone -- and I see it as it was when I was a boy. Green it was, and possessed of the plenty of the earth ..."
- A wet sheet and a flowing sea,
- A wind that follows fast
- And fills the white and rustling sail
- And bends the gallant mast.
- - Allan Cunningham(1784-1842)