Monday, February 25, 2013

On the outports of Newfoundland as a globally-relevant paradigm

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine wrote an essay about the outport communities of Newfoundland, an essay titled "On Futility". The outport is a form of community unique to Newfoundland, a densely-populated coastal village with a population in the dozens or hundreds dependent on the once-abundant cod fisheries. A 2008 article by Jenny Higgins for the Newfoundland Heritage site points out how low living standards and the attractiveness of other areas--urban Newfoundland, mainland Canada, maybe even points further--created a tradition of emigration that only intensified after the collapse of the same fisheries in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

[The Newfoundland fisheries] existed for centuries and employed thousands of people, with many more engaged in processing, exporting and transporting the catch.

Then it got overfished. It collapsed in the early 90s, and it crashed hard: in some areas, stocks declined 99% over 50 years.

The fisheries have been under a moratorium for exactly 20 years now. There has been no improvement. Instead, the ecosystem is changing: invasive species are moving in, predators are devastating the remaining populations, and there is little to no evidence of a recovery. The Newfoundland fisheries are, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Large numbers of Newfoundlanders refuse to accept this. They demand that the fisheries be re-opened, as if the fish are merely hiding: the second a boat hits the water, the cod will come leaping out of the surf by the thousands, eager to be caught.

Others have accepted that the fisheries are dead, but insist that the jobs need to find them: they’re going to sit tight and wait for the government to find an industry for each and every teeny, tiny dot on the map. Even the towns with only a dozen residents. Even the towns accessible only by sea. Even the towns without reliable electricity or running water.

The hinky thing is that the young people seem to get it.

The exodus from the outports, and rural Newfoundland, is continuing to this day. There have been news reports of a very partial recovery of cod stocks last year, not nearly enough to justify the revival of the fisheries outports. A 2011 essay by sociologist Deatra Walsh--in Walsh's case, the town of Lewisporte--points out that many rural communities of Newfoundland may survive, service towns and the like, but that the outport is doomed. A 2001 paper (PDF) by Hamilton and Butler, "Outport Adaptations: Social Indicators through Newfoundland’s Cod Crisis", emphasizes that rural Newfoundland managed to retain a fair amount of social cohesion in the decade after the mortatorium in 1992, thanks to off-the-book employment and federal subsidies. In a 2012 opinion piece in the National Post, Newfoundland-born columnist Rex Murphy points out that the collapse of the outport has significant cultural repercussions for Newfoundlanders.

The end of the cod fishery stirred the greatest in-country migration of Newfoundlanders of modern times. Thousands of fishermen and plant workers and their families, scattered through all the towns and villages of Newfoundland’s meandering coastlines, were forced to look elsewhere for sustenance and employment. They were forced to abandon what they knew best, the environment of their families for generations, the peculiar set of skills that goes with fishing, and go out of province to an abruptly new life.

The moratorium brought on a seismic alteration in Newfoundland. The outports have been drained of their most active people; the long chain of continuous living from the sea and living on its very borders has been broken beyond repair. Many of the famous towns and outports — names that have been in songs and stories almost forever — are now whittled to half their size and less. Some old people remain. The younger come back every little while to visit, see parents, or just to savor time close to the water. But the dynamic life of the majority of outports is over with the fishery that gave birth to it.

It’s a striking, very melancholy change. While the outports dwindle into mere picturesqueness, the capital city of St. John’s explodes with activity and commerce from the offshore. There’s a Calgary feel to how fast things are moving in St. John’s. The offshore oil developments came at a very providential time. They also, I think, take the mind away from the stark prospects of Newfoundland outside the city.

[. . .]

Those who have left for good know how deep the change was. Those who remain carry the largely unspoken insight that outport Newfoundland, which gave birth to such a singular culture, rich in humour and pathos, indented with hardship and tragedy, and irresistible to those who felt its appeal, is on the point of vanishing.

All this is true. And yet, I'd suggest that the movement away from the outports towards urban areas--places like the capital city of St. John's, or like any number of destinations in Canada like the big cities of Ontario or Alberta--is a good thing for the people who lived there, or who would have lived there. Isolated one-industry villages capable of providing only marginal standards of living aren't good places to live. I'd question, like Wonkman, if it's a good idea to spend resources keeping non-viable communities alive at an artificial level of activity, as opposed to allowing for a certain amount of planned decline. Certainly the young people of the outports don't seem interested in staying in communities which have outlasted their economic base.

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