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Homecoming: Twenty Years Later

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Twenty years ago this week, as July 1992 began, I was on my way home. I’d left Newfoundland in 1983 to attend university, then gone on to teach in Ontario for four years, returned home temporarily to go to grad school, and then gone to Alberta to teach for a year. I’d had enough of seeing the Big Wide World and when a teaching position opened up at the my old high school, I jumped at the chance to move back to St. John’s.

As I drove into St. John’s with my parents, who had flown up to drive back from Alberta with me, there was only one story on the news. After many warnings about disastrously low cod stocks, the federal government had just decreed that the cod fishery — the backbone of Newfoundland’s economy for 400 years; the only reason people ever settled here — was going to close. Fishing would be illegal during the two-year moratorium period, which was supposed to allow the cod stocks time to recover. 30,000 people (out of a population of just over 500,000), people who made their living primarily through fishing or working in fish plants, would lose their jobs.

It’s all coming back to me this week, thanks to the excellent coverage on CBC of the twenty-year anniversary.

There’s nothing you can say about the impact of the moratorium on Newfoundland society that won’t sound like trivial understatement. It was overwhelming. The news stories and conversations from those days are forever in my memory — the clips of federal fisheries minister John Crosbie lashing out angrily, “I didn’t take the fish from the g-d d-mned water!!” The half-funny, fully serious catchphrases on people’s lips: “She’s gone, b’y, she’s gone,” and “The arse is gone out of ‘er.” The talk of retraining programs for people displaced by the moratorium; the dark humour about training fisherpeople for service jobs in communities where there would no longer be anyone to serve. The gloomy predictions about this being the end of Newfoundland, about everyone leaving.

It was a great time to move back home.

According to family lore, sometime back around the turn of the 20th century my great-great-grandmother, after nearly losing her son to an accident at sea, put her sensibly-shod foot down and said, “No man in this family is ever going out in a fishing boat again.” This unlikely declaration allegedly led to my great-grandfather moving to St. John’s and becoming a printer. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side of the family had also moved into St. John’s from the bay; he was a mason, though I have no idea whether any mythic declarations about leaving the sea behind fuelled his relocation. In practical terms, what this means is that like many Newfoundlanders in St. John’s, I grew up in a family where for three generations no-one had made their living from the cod fishery. The industry that shaped our history and drove our economy was completely irrelevant to me: I had never set foot on a fishing boat and knew no-one who fished for a living or worked in a fish plant. In the summer of 1992, I was as removed from the fishery as a Newfoundlander could possibly be.

So in one sense, the moratorium didn’t affect me at all. Nobody I knew was out of work because of it. People moved away to look for jobs but then people had been moving away to look for jobs as long as I had been alive, and many of them had had nothing to do with the fishery. The two-year moratorium that stretched into three years, then five, then on and on till it became the new reality, never impacted me directly in any way.

Yet it was the unavoidable background to everything that happened after I came home. That same summer two of my friends also moved back from the mainland to take teaching jobs in Newfoundland, and all three of us got the same reaction from our fellow Newfoundlanders: shaken heads and bewildered stares. “You moved BACK? From Alberta …? From B.C….? You moved back HERE?” Here, it was clear, was a place people were supposed to be leaving, not coming back to.

Even for those of us not involved with the fishery, the mood of young Newfoundlanders was one of pessimism and gloom. It was hard to imagine what the future might hold.

Some people imagined it anyway. My aunt, Bernice Morgan, released the book Waiting for Time in 1994, the sequel to her highly acclaimed novel Random Passage. Waiting for Time not only deals with the end of the cod fishery, it projects forward thirty years into a bleak future where outport Newfoundland, abandoned and desolate, has descended to the level of a developing country, where life for the few people who still live there is hard and almost subsistence-based. The final chapter of the novel is a dystopia set in our own backyard. And as I remind my students when I read that book with them in class now, we are living in the middle of the future that book imagines — Newfoundland after cod.

Today I make that same drive into St. John’s that I made coming home twenty years ago — only now you have to take an exit off the highway to get onto Kenmount Road, and even before you reach the exit you drive past a sea of identical rooftops, the apparently endless new-home construction of what used to be the tiny town of Paradise, now St. John’s most bustling and aggressively-growing suburb. All of Conception Bay South is a fast-growing bedroom community spawning subdivision after subdivision — and the same is true on the other end of St. John’s, down in Portugal Cove, St. Phillips, Torbay. All fishing communities, once; now, rather than being abandoned outposts, all are home to huge new homes with giant two-car garages, going up faster than anyone can build them.

The promise of money from offshore oil was held out to us from the time I was a small child, a carrot gleaming on a stick so far away that we treated it as myth. But it came, and came with a vengeance, and now we live in a boomtown. Just as I was never directly touched by the fishery, I don’t work in the oil industry. Even my engineer husband has never worked for an oil company. But the spin-off impact of oil money has been felt by those who don’t work directly in that industry just as surely as the impact of the moratorium was felt by those of us who’d never set foot in boat.

The outrageous growth of St. John’s is the most obvious sign (I highly recommend this article by John Gushue about the changing shape of St. John’s and our perception of the city). In 2008, we stopped being a “have not” province. Our population, which had been on the decline since 1992, turned around and started to climb. We wrestle with the problems of growth and development rather than with unemployment and a fleeing population. We wonder — at least, if we’re smart, we do — what are we building, how do we plan to sustain an economy that’s once again dependent on a single resource. This time, it’s a resource that couldn’t possibly be renewable even if we managed it carefully. Someday, the oil will run out. What will we do then? And we look at tragedies like the Cougar Helicopter crash, we look at environmental disasters in other places like the horrific oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and wonder if we’re being prudent enough about even this one resource, if we might possibly be destroyed by the very thing that saved us.

The other thing we do, here on the booming Northeast Avalon, here in St. John’s-Mount Pearl-CBS-and environs, is turn our faces resolutely out to sea, towards the oil that fuels that endless new-home construction, and turn our backs on the rest of the island and on Labrador, on the outport communities that never did recover from the body blow they took in 1992. The hundreds of small towns and villages where life, even if it hasn’t sunk quite to a Waiting for Time level of desparation, is still matter mostly of watching the young and able drive away, of boarding up stores or of converting homes to summer vacation cottages. Some people in these communities have done well by fishing for other species, notably crab, but the number of people employed by those fisheries is tiny compared to those who used to fish and process cod. And Newfoundland’s other industry town — like Grand Falls and Corner Brook, built on the pulp and paper industry — are now staggering under the impact of the twenty-first century economy, where everything on the planet can be made cheaper in China.

One of my most vivid memories from the 1990s is of visiting, one Sunday, a  Salvation Army corps in a small town in outport Newfoundland. Among the announcements made that Sunday morning was the news that a sum of money had been donated to the church to buy band instruments — the band being a big part of most Salvation Army churches. However, since the corps no longer had enough people, especially enough young people, to support a band, they had received permission from the donor to use the money  instead to buy a “Promoted to Glory” flag. That’s the flag they drape over coffins at Salvation Army funerals. I started to cry as I listened to that announcement and I’ve cried every time I’ve told the story since, because for me in encapsulated so much about outport Newfoundland in those days. Money that had been donated to what was supposed to be a vibrant, growing community was being used instead to bury the old people as they died off. And in many outports, that hasn’t changed despite the oil boom. The best-case scenario for many people now is to go away to work in Alberta or in our own offshore or in construction in St. John’s, and come  home on weekends or vacations for a taste of what used to be real life.

I came home twenty years ago and although I’ve never set foot on either a fishing boat or an oil rig, like every Newfoundlander I’ve lived through the downs and the ups of these last twenty years. Our own fortunes have been touched by the larger movements of our economy. The house Jason and I bought dirt-cheap in 1995 is worth more than twice what we paid for it now — though there’s no point selling since any other house we’d want would cost twice as much again. And despite the booming economy I go to work everyday to teach people who find it hard to find a job, to break out of the trap of poverty even though opportunity is supposedly all around us. I am so very, very glad people are working and staying here and we are not living through some kind of apocalyptic worst-case scenario — but to be honest, for a lifelong Newfoundlander, prosperity is sometimes a little hard to believe in. I always feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the bubble to burst — and reminding myself that in many places there’s been no bubble at all, and both shoes have remained firmly planted on the floor.

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2 thoughts on “Homecoming: Twenty Years Later

  1. This is an excellent account of those last “twenty years.” Not being knowledgeable about your area, this was very interesting and enlightening to me. You hint at the issue of going forward which prompted me to refelect that people in Newfoundland are not so much different from people in any place with which I am familiar, nor indeed most likely with people anywhere.

    You are a very thoughtful person and demonstrate a true concern for the future of you beloved country. You, I suspect, are in the minority; for so it seems to me in the “:any place” I mentioned. Most people who are doing well give no thought for the morrow, those who aren’t haven’t the luxury of being able to devote time to solutions for the future; nor are they in a position of influence such that their ideas would be heard if they did have ideas.

    I am clearly writing from my jaundiced viewpoint, my quasi-pessimistic outlook. Nevertheless, I encourage you to keep the faith, preach the message, for without your sort, we will all perish, sooner or later.

    • It’s true, we are not that different from people anywhere else. People here reacted to the cod moratorium as though we were the only people on earth ever to suffer such a blow to our economy when in fact the story is retold over and over, whether due to collapse of a resource-based economy, or loss of jobs in a manufacturing economy when the work can be done more cheaply elsewhere (during my late teen years, before the cod moratorium but when jobs were scarce and times were hard at home, my favourite song was Springsteen’s “My Hometown” which is about a dying factory town). And it’s sadly true that when prosperity does come along we are all too quick to celebrate it without asking too many hard questions about how long it will last and what the side-effects will be.

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