On the brink of re­set­tle­ment

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - Globe Focus - LIND­SAY JONES LIT­TLE BAY IS­LANDS, NFLD.

Af­ter hold­ing out for decades, mem­bers of a New­found­land out­port com­mu­nity may fi­nally sur­ren­der to re­lo­ca­tion

Find­ing Cressie Roberts on Lit­tle Bay Is­lands doesn’t take long. She lives in “the house with the yel­low flow­ers,” a re­tired fish­er­man of­fers from his deckchair fac­ing the har­bour in the mid­dle of Notre Dame Bay.

Ms. Roberts, who has resided here for all of her 86 years, used to be part of a bustling com­mu­nity of 600 res­i­dents, with 11 stores, three dock­yards, three churches, a doc­tor and a school. To­day, only 38 peo­ple – or 20 homes with smoke in the win­ter, as the lo­cals say – in­habit this once-thriv­ing is­land out­port that lived and breathed by the cod. The school is empty, one church re­mains and there are no doc­tors or stores, just a lone sea­sonal bed and break­fast.

A quar­ter-cen­tury ago, a mora­to­rium on cod fish­ing was the be­gin­ning of the end for hun­dreds of re­mote bays, in­lets and is­lands in New­found­land and Labrador. Ever since, many of the small com­mu­ni­ties have been dy­ing off. Now, there are few, if any, jobs and the re­main­ing res­i­dents are in their twi­light years.

Faced with ris­ing debt (in its last bud­get, the New­found­land gov­ern­ment posted a $778- mil­lion deficit), the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment needs to cut the cost of serv­ing these di­min­ish­ing com­mu­ni­ties. To do that, it’s pay­ing peo­ple to aban­don dwin­dling out­ports and move to larger, eas­ier-to-ser­vice com­mu­ni­ties. That’s a re­al­ity the res­i­dents of Lit­tle Bay Is­lands are now grap­pling with as they face an up­com­ing re­set­tle­ment vote. (Should it go for­ward, its re­lo­ca­tion would save the prov­ince $3.8-mil­lion over 20 years.) When re­set­tle­ment hap­pens, the gov­ern­ment with­draws all its ser­vices, such as garbage col­lec­tion, health care, schools and elec­tric­ity. Peo­ple can con­tinue to live in the com­mu­nity, but they have to ap­ply to re­tain their prop­erty rights and pro­vide their own wa­ter, elec­tric­ity and tran­sit.

For Premier Dwight Ball, money saved is only part of the pic­ture. “It re­ally comes down to mak­ing sure the res­i­dents that live there have ac­cess to ser­vices,” he says. “Most peo­ple, of course, would like to have them right at their doorstep, but in most cases that’s im­pos­si­ble to do,” he ex­plains, cit­ing high costs and dif­fi­culty find­ing work­ers to live in re­mote com­mu­ni­ties.

In a sense, re­lo­ca­tion is in­grained in the con­scious­ness of out­port life in New­found­land and Labrador. The gov­ern­ment re­set­tled some 28,000 peo­ple from 279 com­mu­ni­ties between the 1950s and 1970s. Since 2000, five com­mu­ni­ties have re­lo­cated. Now, the prov­ince is of­fer­ing res­i­dents up to $270,000 to leave the is­land, lo­cated off the rugged north­east coast of New­found­land. The amount dan­gles like a carrot over mod­est, hard-work­ing New­found­land and Labrador, where ac­cept­ing such a sum is akin to win­ning the lot­tery. Wil­liam’s Har­bour, in Labrador, just cashed in, sav­ing the prov­ince $7.9-mil­lion over 20 years. Sev­eral other com­mu­ni­ties are in the process of re­set­tle­ment, and more are likely to fol­low.

This is the sec­ond time Lit­tle Bay Is­lands has tried to re­lo­cate. A squeaker vote held the town back a few years ago, leav­ing frac­tures between friends and neigh­bours who had shared pick­les and pantry sta­ples for gen­er­a­tions. With re­lo­ca­tion on the hori­zon again, the prov­ince is eval­u­at­ing who is en­ti­tled to the pay­out (in­di­vid­u­als will re­ceive $250,000; house­holds of two will re­ceive $260,000; fam­i­lies of three or more will re­ceive $270,000), a process that res­i­dents fear could lead to lengthy ap­peals and de­lay re­set­tle­ment once again. (Not ev­ery per­son on the is­land is en­ti­tled to the funds: Cri­te­ria in­clude, among other things, liv­ing on the is­land year-round, with ex­cep­tions made for those who, for ex­am­ple, are forced to leave to seek health care.) Af­ter that, a vote will de­ter­mine the is­land’s fate. Last time, 89 per cent voted to leave, nar­rowly miss­ing the 90-per-cent thresh­old. The out­come this time is likely to be dif­fer­ent. In a re­cent poll held to gauge in­ter­est in re­lo­ca­tion, 100 per cent of the com­mu­nity said yes.

Cressie Roberts says when the time comes, she will vote to re­lo­cate. Up the hill from the main road that curves with the har­bour, yel­low peren­ni­als spill across the ditch out­side her cobalt blue cot­tage.

Many on Lit­tle Bay Is­lands, like Ms. Roberts, are el­derly and feel re­signed to re­lo­ca­tion. The clos­est doc­tor, gro­cery store and bank are two hours away by ferry and car from the is­land. And there’s no one left to pay to mow the lawn, shovel the snow or fix the deck.

When I ar­rive at the house, a slight woman with a froth of white hair an­swers the door with a grand­mother’s wel­come. She ges­tures at her di­lap­i­dated deck and apol­o­gizes for its state. She says it col­lapsed over the harsh win­ter, which saw the har­bour stay frozen un­til May. (The ferry runs year-round off the other side of the is­land.)

She braces her­self in the door frame, ex­plain­ing that her Parkin­son’s dis­ease of­ten leaves her dizzy, and this is one of her bad days. It’s why, for the first time in her life, she had to live off the is­land dur­ing the past three win­ters in or­der to be near a doc­tor. It’s also why she agreed to go for­ward with re­set­tle­ment.

“I’m not happy about leav­ing. I’d love to live here for­ever, but I know I can’t,” says Ms. Roberts, while knit­ting a baby sweater for a friend.

Her smile fades as she de­scribes these last few win­ters away from the only place she’s ever lived: “It al­most killed me,” she says qui­etly. She says she was so home­sick, she could barely eat: “I used to wear a size 18. Now I’m down to a 10.”

The an­nual rent for a home next to the hos­pi­tal two hours south in Spring­dale, pop­u­la­tion about 2,000, eats up her small old-age pen­sion. “I’m only here in the sum­mer­time and I still got one door to get out,” says Ms. Roberts, beck­on­ing to another en­trance off the kitchen. Plus, she adds, no one knows when re­set­tle­ment is go­ing to take place.

Grow­ing up on Lit­tle Bay Is­lands in the golden years of cod was the stuff out of Lucy Maud Mont­gomery nov­els: chil­dren’s pic­nics, pas­toral land­scapes and hard-work­ing fam­i­lies liv­ing off na­ture’s bounty, al­beit with more moon­shine than rasp­berry cor­dial.

She re­mem­bers her hus­band, Tom, a fish­er­man, bring­ing home what she claims was the big­gest catch in his­tory on the is­land. “She was just like this from the wa­ter,” she says, hold­ing up two fin­gers to show how the boat was weighed down to just an inch between the gun­wales and the wa­ter­line.

To­day, the re­main­ing cod fish­ery in Lit­tle Bay Is­lands is purely recre­ational. It’s just enough to keep sup­per on the ta­ble and Ms. Roberts’ freezer stocked. The old fish plant, once the ac­cess point to sur­vival, is but a grey husk that looms over the har­bour like a de­crepit mon­u­ment to a life that was.

For “din­ner” – which in New­found­land is ac­tu­ally the noon­time meal – she pulls fish and brewis out of the freezer. It’s her child­hood com­fort food, known as the mac ‘n’ cheese of out­port New­found­land. To make it, you cook salt cod and soaked hard­tack separately, then mash the two to­gether and add fried pork scrun­chions and onion.

What keeps her here, says Ms. Roberts, between fork­fuls of food, is her gar­den. She put­ters around her pa­tio stones to the swish of the birch and maple leaves, pluck­ing weeds from the bushes and flow­ers that have al­ways spelled home. Never mind that she was cut­ting the grass with scis­sors a few days ear­lier. The pur­ple and white fox­gloves are blos­som­ing right now, and in two days, when she turns 87, her pe­onies will bloom as they do ev­ery year on her birth­day.

Ms. Roberts’s Lit­tle Bay Is­lands isn’t the only east­ern com­mu­nity with shrink­ing de­mo­graph­ics. This is a trend in all of the At­lantic prov­inces, and pop­u­la­tion fore­casts for New­found­land and Labrador in­di­cate that the de­clin­ing num­bers show no signs of slow­ing down. A new re­port by the Harris Cen­tre pol­icy in­sti­tute at Me­mo­rial Uni­ver­sity of New­found­land looked at pop­u­la­tion projections for the prov­ince over the next 20 years and found that low birth rates, high death rates and out­mi­gra­tion will lead to an 8 per cent de­cline in the pop­u­la­tion by 2036. Re­mote com­mu­ni­ties will bear the big­gest brunt.

“The pop­u­la­tion is widely dis­trib­uted and scat­tered, but in smaller pock­ets, so it be­comes in­creas­ingly ex­pen­sive in ev­ery sense of the word to pro­vide ser­vices [such as health care],”

New­found­land is out­ports – that’s how we came to be. It’s crazy to think ev­ery­body can live in Cor­ner Brook, St. John’s, Grand Falls Doris Tucker Lit­tle Bay Is­lands res­i­dent

» said Pop­u­la­tion Project di­rec­tor Keith Storey. “In gen­eral, I think we will see more re­quests to gov­ern­ment to re­set­tle com­mu­ni­ties over the next 20 years for sure.”

De­spite its faded glory, the essence of com­mu­nity still ex­ists on Lit­tle Bay Is­lands. Neigh­bours drop off steam­ing loaves of por­ridge bread and share bags of freshly gut­ted cod. In sum­mer, a smat­ter­ing of grand­chil­dren and great grand­chil­dren liven up the scene. A few tourists still come by to hike and view the ice­bergs. And sum­mer res­i­dents – af­fec­tion­ately called “stouts” (another word for deer flies) – re­turn to sail their boats and pick par­tridge and cloud berries. There are craft cir­cles, potlucks and flotil­las in mem­ory of lost friends here on this edge of the Earth.

Some say they’ll re­turn re­gard­less of re­lo­ca­tion, like Doris Tucker, who was born on the is­land in 1939, and later lived and worked in Mon­treal as a nurse. She now lives part of the year in St. John’s.

“Emo­tion­ally, I never left,” she says over tea and cookies at the kitchen ta­ble of her pur­ple-and­white-striped clap­board home. “I’m just very com­fort­able here. I love get­ting up in the morn­ing and see­ing the sun­rise.”

Ms. Tucker owns Her­itage House, a turn-of-the-cen­tury home, which she’s packed to the gills with Lit­tle Bay Is­lands mem­o­ra­bilia: a stuffed seal, por­traits of for­mer premier Joey Small­wood and Je­sus Christ on op­pos­ing walls, a blue-and-white quilt with em­broi­dered names of the is­land’s found­ing fam­i­lies, an enamel wood-stove oven – pretty much any­thing any­one has ever tried to do away with on the is­land is pre­served here.

Ms. Tucker, whose nick­name is Mayor Tucker, is one of the few against re­set­tle­ment: “Why would you want to de­stroy out­port New­found­land? New­found­land is out­ports – that’s how we came to be,” she said. “It’s crazy to think ev­ery­body can live in Cor­ner Brook, St. John’s, Grand Falls.”

Across the har­bour, as the sun dips be­hind the hill fac­ing his house, Win­cel Ox­ford gin­gerly de­scends the out­door steps of his home with scraps from his fish din­ner. Al and Peanut are wait­ing on the stage; their beaks agape. He throws the food at the two gulls and stares out at the har­bour.

His “pets” help make the long, harsh win­ters bear­able, he says, when his niece, who he con­sid­ers a sur­ro­gate daugh­ter, is a world away in Toronto and the only sounds are their cries for food and the ice creak­ing with the mov­ing tide.

Mr. Ox­ford started fish­ing at age 16 with his fa­ther and has lived here all of his 84 years. He saw the first chain­saw, snow­mo­bile, all-ter­rain ve­hi­cle and pickup truck come onto the is­land. He still chops all his own wood and goes out in his boat to jig for cod. Ev­ery nook and cranny of the coast­line is fa­mil­iar to him and he finds his sweet spots for cod by how the bow of his alu­minum fish­ing boat lines up with the land.

He too is fa­tal­is­tic about re­lo­cat­ing, though he had tears in his eyes as he checked the box for re­set­tle­ment at the orig­i­nal vote. That X marked the cross­roads all of out­port New­found­land and Labrador’s ag­ing pop­u­la­tion will face in the com­ing years: Live on in a dy­ing com­mu­nity un­til the nat­u­ral end, or take the money and let the com­mu­nity die.

“It’s hard to walk away from your home and not get any­thing. You spend your life­time try­ing to get some­thing and then have to walk away from it. You can’t sell it. To me, it’ll be sad to leave here, but I will go along with it,” Mr. Ox­ford said.

For those whose en­tire lives can be mapped on this speck of land in Notre Dame Bay, that’ll be it. The shared mem­o­ries, traded recipes, known fish­ing spots and not-so-se­cret skele­tons in the closet – ev­ery­thing that brings a com­mu­nity to life – will dis­perse when the lights go out. Mr. Ox­ford will set out his last bowl of soup for the gulls. Ms. Tucker will open the door to her eclec­tic col­lec­tion a fi­nal time. And Cressie Roberts will see the last pe­ony bloom on her birth­day.

It’s hard to walk away from your home and not get any­thing. You can’t sell it. To me, it’ll be sad to leave here, but I will go along with it.” Win­cel Ox­ford Lit­tle Bay Is­lands res­i­dent

PHO­TOS BY DAR­REN CAL­ABRESE FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Win­cel Ox­ford, 84, has lived on Lit­tle Bay Is­lands his whole life. He plans to vote for re­lo­ca­tion.

Doris Tucker spends part of each year in St. John’s. She plans on re­turn­ing to the is­land, as she does ev­ery year, re­gard­less of the out­come of the vote.

To­day, cod fish­ery in Lit­tle Bay Is­lands is purely recre­ational. Ever since the fish­ing in­dus­try col­lapsed, there are few, if any, jobs for the re­main­ing res­i­dents.

The old fish plant, once the ac­cess point to sur­vival, is now aban­doned. A quar­ter cen­tury ago, the mora­to­rium on cod fish­ing was the be­gin­ning of the end for many out­port com­mu­ni­ties.

PHO­TOS BY DAR­REN CAL­ABRESE FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

When re­set­tle­ment hap­pens, the gov­ern­ment with­draws all its ser­vices such as garbage col­lec­tion, health care, ed­u­ca­tion and elec­tric­ity.

The essence of com­mu­nity still ex­ists on the is­land. Neigh­bours drop off steam­ing loaves of por­ridge bread, share bags of freshly gut­ted cod and get to­gether at potlucks.

There are only 38 res­i­dents liv­ing in 20 homes on the is­land to­day. In its hey­day, it was a bustling com­mu­nity of 600.

As the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment grap­ples with ris­ing debt, it is of­fer­ing res­i­dents of some com­mu­ni­ties up to $270,000 per house­hold to re­lo­cate.

Some res­i­dents split their time between Lit­tle Bay Is­lands and other places in Canada, fer­ry­ing their be­long­ings back and forth between their two homes.

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