Re­mem­ber­ing the mora­to­rium

It was 1000 work­ers, day and night, year round in Port Union

The Compass - - Front page - BY JONATHAN PAR­SONS THE PACKET

2017 marks the 25th an­niver­sary of the cod mora­to­rium, an event that cre­ated lots of tur­moil for fam­i­lies all over New­found­land and Labrador. To help com­mem­o­rate this an­niver­sary, SaltWire Net­work pub­li­ca­tions col­lab­o­rated on a fea­ture ded­i­cated to this mon­u­men­tal moment in the prov­ince’s his­tory.

TRIN­ITY BAY NORTH, N.L. — If you took a drive through Port Union in the 1980s, you would have had to slow down driv­ing past the fish plant.

In those days, over 1000 peo­ple worked at the plant — then owned by Fish­ery Prod­ucts In­ter­na­tional (FPI) — and ve­hi­cles filled the plant park­ing lot and lined both sides of the road.

With three shifts, work­ing day and night, the plant was op­er­at­ing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, pro­cess­ing cod fish landed by the FPI off­shore trawlers.

Back then the plant was op­er­at­ing al­most 52 weeks of the year, with a 10-day shut­down dur­ing Christ­mas when the trawlers came in for the hol­i­days.

An es­ti­mated 1,400 work­ers in that area alone were di­rectly af­fected by the clo­sure of the cod fish­ery in 1992.

Darryl John­son was one of them.

Today he’s the town man­ager of Trin­ity Bay North, but 25 years ago he was one of many fac­ing a very un­cer­tain fu­ture with the an­nounce­ment of the mora­to­rium on north­ern cod.

He started work­ing at the FPI plant in 1979.

“When I grad­u­ated school, I went to the plant for a cou­ple of months be­fore I went to trades col­lege in St. John’s,” John­son told The Packet in a re­cent in­ter­view.

“But when I got there, I got hooked. You got in with good money com­ing there, I liked the job … and be­fore it was time to go to school, I got my­self a car and said, ‘I’m com­fort­able here’ .”

He ditched the idea of get­ting a trade, in favour of full-time work close to home.

He fondly re­mem­bers the days of work­ing at the plant.

Within a year or so, John­son was elected to the ex­ec­u­tive for the lo­cal union. He went on to be­come the vice-pres­i­dent of the lo­cal union for the area.

As 1992 was ap­proach­ing, John­son says they could see some­thing com­ing. Com­pared to the “boom” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the fish­ery was chang­ing.

“Over a pe­riod of time, you saw that the fish wasn’t there, they used to sched­ule shut­downs for the sum­mer, and things like that,” he said. “Prob­a­bly a cou­ple of weeks the first year, a month the next year, then a cou­ple of months. Then you could see where it was com­ing to a point where there were go­ing to have to be some dras­tic changes made.”

When the cod mora­to­rium was an­nounced by fed­eral fish­eries min­is­ter John Cros­bie on July 2, 1992, at the Sher­a­ton Ho­tel in St. John’s, mem­bers of the lo­cal union were watch­ing from the Sea­port Inn in Port Union.

While they watched as in­censed fish har­vesters tried to break down the door of the room where Cros­bie was mak­ing the an­nounce­ment, John­son says the sen­ti­ment at the Sea­port was less anger and more frus­tra­tion and worry.

He says they thought about the 70 to 80 peo­ple who didn’t have enough hours to qual­ify for em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance and what they would do.

John­son says, thank­fully, the work­ers were able to get through that first year with an in­come, but the anger started to grow when what he called an “in­ad­e­quate” com­pen­sa­tion pack­age was an­nounced.

“There was a re­cal­cu­la­tion of how you got paid. They were just giv­ing a flat rate to ev­ery­one,” says John­son. “Peo­ple were say­ing, ‘That’s al­right for a young fel­low that made $25,000, but we had cut­ters down there that made $35,000. Why shouldn’t it be based on some sort of cal­cu­la­tion of what you made.’ “So that’s what they did.” This went on for the next two years.

John­son says, at first, ev­ery­one fig­ured that would be okay be­cause the fish­ery would be open again in two years.

“When the time was go­ing and showed that there was no re­cov­er­ing of the stock and then they re­assessed it for an­other five years, peo­ple started to worry.”

Yet John­son says the sit­u­a­tion be­came a bless­ing for some.

He says for the peo­ple who re­trained, got bet­ter jobs and got an education, they ended up bet­ter off.

John­son was one of those peo­ple who de­cided to re­train.

“I got work at other places, and did a lit­tle bit of train­ing, and then the last two years (of the fed­eral as­sis­tance pack­age) I de­cided I was go­ing to take some train­ing at school.”

In 1998-99 John­son at­tended the lo­cal trade school.

“The big thing then was Y2K,” he re­calls with a smile. “There was go­ing to be 40,000 jobs on Jan. 1.”

And while the ex­pec­ta­tion of that type of em­ploy­ment never came to fruition, he com­pleted his school­ing.

John­son says he man­aged to stay in the area by work­ing sev­eral odd jobs.

“I was for­tu­nate enough that I could.”

But many busi­nesses shut down, fam­i­lies moved away, or­ga­ni­za­tions and groups folded and the pop­u­la­tion took a hit. John­son re­mem­bers his son hav­ing his friends move away be­cause their fam­ily went away to work.

He says the hard­est part of the mora­to­rium wasn’t the fi­nan­cial loss, it was the emo­tional hard­ship. With all the peo­ple who had to be away from their fam­i­lies to work, that was the hard part.

“We’ve al­ways had peo­ple that worked at the plant and said, ‘Ah, jeez, I’m go­ing to Al­berta … or the (On­tario) Lake boats.’ But it was al­ways their choice to do it.

“(Af­ter the mora­to­rium) there was no choice. You had to do it or you were on so­cial ser­vices and do with­out.”

In 2005, John­son be­came the town man­ager for Trin­ity Bay North, the mu­nic­i­pal­ity con­sist­ing of Port Union, Catalina, Mel­rose, and now, Lit­tle Catalina.

And as for the fu­ture for his re­gion, and the pos­si­ble re­turn of the ground­fish, John­son says there’s no guar­an­tees.

“Places like us, that did more north­ern cod than any­where else in Canada, is not go­ing to get a lick of it. That’s the fear I’ve got. “We were the king of cod, now that with the pos­si­bil­ity of it com­ing back, and we’re not even be­ing looked at. There’s no men­tion, when you talk of cod, about bring­ing it back to the places of his­tor­i­cal at­tach­ment.

“This place was cod.”

JONATHAN PAR­SONS/THE PACKET

Trin­ity Bay North town man­ager Darryl John­son re­mem­bers the cod mora­to­rium and how it af­fected the area.

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