Property values have tripled since I moved home to St. John’s 15 years ago. Condos are replacing old strip malls and abandoned buildings at a steady clip. Even former premier Danny Williams is getting in on the action, spearheading a 970-hectare residential/retail/industrial development.What was a row of unoccupied downtown storefronts and low-end retail when I was at university here in the 1980s is now awash with trendy shops selling Labradorite bracelets for $500 and coffee bars serving Espresso con panna and Aztec Chili Hot Chocolate.
There are also restaurants like Raymond’s, where customers can order up a seven-course meal featuring Newfoundland cod ($135), paired with wines chosen by the in-house sommelier ($85).
God knows we were due for a break. The long-time butt of jokes about backwardness and outmigration, Newfoundland and Labrador is finally bringing people to the area because of a steady economic boom fuelled by multibillion-dollar developments in offshore oil, hydroelectricity and nickel processing.
But while oil execs tuck into their gourmet fish, much of rural Newfoundland is falling deeper into a crisis that began with the cod moratorium in 1992.
A “temporary measure” when it was imposed, the moratorium is now into its 22nd year. And the most isolated of the province’s outports – some are still accessible only by sea – are reeling without the cod that made them possible. The only influx of cash on the horizon for many locals is a government cheque for leaving their homes. By this time next year, some of the island’s oldest villages will probably be abandoned. It’s anyone’s guess how many will have disappeared a decade from now.
Hard times and a sense of shared adversity used to be one of the things Newfoundlanders had in common. But the map is being radically redrawn these days and we are, increasingly, a province of two solitudes.
Traditional Newfoundland – a world of isolated, tightly knit communities that relied on the fishery and each other for survival – is still at the heart of our conception of ourselves, of how we present ourselves to the world. But with every passing year, that conception has less to do with the reality on the ground. A generation from now, what it means to be a Newfoundlander will be something altogether different.
Earlier this summer, I visited some outports on a cruise ship operated by an Ontario company that specializes in trips to out-of-the-way destinations. I was the resident culturalist on board, hired to help “interpret” the place to travellers from as far afield as Europe and Australia. The tourists signed on for the chance to see the remarkable physical landscape, the icebergs and whales and seabirds. And also to experience traditional Newfoundland, to meet people whose families have lived in the same isolated communities for two centuries.
One of our first ports of call was Little Bay Islands, for many years a centre of the cod fishery in the region – and the hometown of one of the ship’s staffers, Gerry Strong, who offered a guided walk “up around shore.”
Gerry was born into the merchant family that ran the local fish trade here through much of the last century. “Strong’s Room,” as it was known, included the buildings where the fish was cleaned and salted, and an entire hectare of fish flakes where the cod was set out to dry. Rail tracks ran the length of the flakes, to help lay out the fish in the morning and collect it again at the end of the day.
Trading vessels from Europe and the Mediterranean sailed into Little Bay Islands in the fall to buy the salt cod. Gerry’s father often fell asleep listening to the Greek sailors drinking and playing music on their ships in the harbour. When Gerry was a boy, he played in a large sandbox filled with ballast from trading ships that came to the outport from as far away as India and Egypt.
That incarnation of Little Bay Islands – vibrant, self-sufficient, oddly cosmopolitan – ceased to exist some time ago. Most of the younger residents have left to find work elsewhere. Many houses sit empty. Islanders have to take a three- to four-hour round trip by ferry to buy groceries or see a doctor. The school here still operates, but there is only a single student. The most action the gymnasium sees is when the Women’s Home League lays out a feed for visiting tourists.