Death in the Outports
A Town Called Fortune
Edited excerpt from the book, Who Killed the Grand Banks by Alex Rose
Utter devastation should never look so lovely.
By late summer a post card: the town of Fortune, near the southern tip of Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula, is bathed in a translucent light slanting in from the south, reflected off the sea. It picks out a row of tidy, salt-sprayed saltboxes perched on a spit of granite here at the edge of the Grand Banks.
Up top, the widow’s walk of a dowdy bed-and-breakfast affords an unobstructed 180-degree view of this great big sea, the fabled and frightening body of water that has, in almost every way, so absolutely defined every aspect of life on this rock-ribbed island for 500 years.
Until, that is, King Cod was slaughtered in the catastrophic, made-in-Canada collapse of one of the world’s greatest and most valuable resources. In 1992, with northern cod stocks overfished to near extinction on the Grand Banks—the nutrient-rich underwater plateaus where the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current merge — the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on cod fishing, the lifeblood of these communities for 500 years. In that one single day of infamy, 40,000 jobs disappeared, changing forever the history and landscape of thousands of Newfoundland outport communities. Allocating them to a bitter history and the post-card sensibilities of tourist brochures.
Fortune has never been the same. Dying a slow and insistent death since 1992.
That’s when federal fisheries minister John Crosbie announced the closure of the Northern cod fishery in St. John's. In essence he was also admitting that the fisheries management scheme set up by Ottawa in 1977 after the declaration of the 200-mile fishing zone had failed.
For the thousands of Newfoundland inshore fishermen who had warned for years that the federal government's strategy would lead to the destruction of the Newfoundland fish stocks, it was cold comfort indeed to say "We told you so."
Of course Mr. Crosbie did not admit — does not to this day — that government policy was at fault. Instead, he blamed first his fisheries scientists, then continued to advance the official government line that the collapse of the fishery could be attributed to three causes: foreign over fishing outside of the 200-mile limit; a rapid increase in the seal population; and various oceanographic phenomena such as cold-water barriers impeding migration into inshore areas. He was wrong. It was a lie.
Since then, these and other explanations have been offered up as the reasons for the catastrophic Grand Banks cod collapse, which has tarnished Canada’s reputation around the world. There followed a series of willful, labyrinthine and quasi-scientific obfuscations, practised denials and state-sanctioned silence. Politicians, senior fisheries managers and officials and industry leaders, embarrassed and afraid, chose to stay silent on a mystery that obliterated 40,000 jobs, destroyed a way of life, cost taxpayers billions of dollars and changed forever the landscape of the province of Newfoundland.
Until now, that is. During the summer of 2007, the author, after examining sheaves of technical documents and data, traveled to Newfoundland to investigate the facts of the cod collapse. In St. John’s and in the outports and bays, he interviewed hundreds of people who shared their stories. And, in these pages, offers documented proof, buried deep beneath the official story, that explains why so many have had so little to say about one of the world’s worst ecological catastrophes.
In modern times, no other country has so absolutely destroyed a sustainable resource once considered the eighth wonder of the world. No other country—not Brazil and its rainforests—has practised killing with such rapacity, with such greed, such monumental stupidity. This, despite the once-stellar reputation of Canada’s fisheries scientists.
The truth of the cod collapse is an inconvenient one indeed. Especially for a country that so incessantly hectors others with a made-in-Canada morality, particularly when it comes to conservation and sustainability. Today, playing the blame game, there are those who affect a philosophical view, that everyone is guilty of killing the Grand Banks cod, and so, quote the parable in the Bible in which no one dares throw the first stone.
Wrong. Categorically, indisputably wrong. Surely, the first step in any authentic remedial action is to accept responsibility. Because only then can we set a course of action for the regeneration of the Grand Banks cod. But in sixteen years, no one has stepped forward to take responsibility for this sea of slaughter. Not politicians, nor scientists, corporations, managers, fishermen themselves. It has been a conspiracy of silence.
In the summer of 2007, the author made his way down the Burin Peninsula and came to understand that cod was directly linked to every historic event and every building in every village he visited.
Here can be found the wild, boreal seascapes for which the island is justly noted, as well as historic villages where one could start to unravel the various strands of Newfoundland's colourful history.
The pretty towns of Burin are gradually seeking more tourism to offset the collapse of the fishing industry. In towns such as Grand Bank and Fortune, a series of upmarket bed-and-breakfasts, often heritage buildings with commanding views of the Grand Banks themselves, tower over tidy homes of white clapboard and wood shingles, with handsome old churches tucked on small lots along narrow lanes, many edged with picket fences. Each village has a dollhouse scale to it, and is reminiscent of both Ireland and New England. Yet it remains distinctly Newfoundland, with its squarish, no-nonsense white homes trimmed
with tropical colors.
A visitor will succumb to indolent reverie when wandering the winding streets — more lanes, really — of half-empty town, visiting cemeteries and sitting on a bluff looking out at the Atlantic Ocean. One can begin to imagine a past of cod drying in front of many homes on wooden racks. The sour-sweet aroma wafted across the road, suggesting maybe, that one day, the cod will return.
Once each outport had its wharves and warehouses, factories producing cod-liver oil, and a payroll of including blacksmiths, boat builders and storekeepers. And when the men, in schooners and dories, were working the Grand Banks, the women and children would climb the stairs to the widow’s walk to see if a black flag, signifying death at sea as was very often the case, was flying on the schooner mast. If all was well, and the catch and been good, the vessels would be unloaded in a cacophony of shrieking sea gulls, the village would share in the celebration and, on Sunday morning, handsome old churches would swell with Anglican and Catholic hymns.
But King Cod is dead now. Village life gone forever.
Down at Fortune, past the shuttered fish plant, past the hulks of a fleet rusting idle at the dock, a clutch of tourists lurch off the catamaran and straggle back onto land after the 25-km run back from St. Pierre & Miquelon. One does not have to be bilingual to understand the crossing has been less than gentile. A broken two-metre chop with Force 5 winds adds up to a wicked, running sea.
The sole remnant of France's once-extensive possessions in North America, the Atlantic islands of St Pierre and Miquelon lie off the Canadian island of Newfoundland. The ferry run is one of the few reasons that people come to Fortune anymore, and then only in summer.
Since the cod collapse this once proud outport has been gutted and filleted like the fish that once sustained it. More than 2,000 people lived and worked in what used to be a thriving community, its residents either fishing or processing Grand Banks cod. Now, less than half remain, and they are the old, the pensioned, the resolute. Some practise an obstinate denial. But most live off the mathematical formulas of complicated federal government schemes of social assistance provided since the 1992 cod collapse.
Walk the main street of Fortune to see the faces: many are old, worried and lost in distraction. Sixteen years after the moratorium, they have stopped believing King Cod will ever return. Despite brave talk—the latest is oil royalties from Hebron—and a patented made-on-the-Rock optimism that stretches long into a hardscrabble past. In fact, there is compelling evidence that the billions of resource-based profits exported every year far exceed the net income received by federal transfer payments.
Ironically, there is a new kind of economic activity here today: vulture capitalism. As the old people die, and the young leave for the oilfields of Alberta, homes here are going up for sale.
Up and down the rock-ribbed coast of Newfoundland in centuries-old fishing villages like this one, foreigners are taking advantage of a struggling regional economy to buy seaside summer homes.
Not long ago, the number of foreigners in Fortune could have been counted on one hand. Today, the summer people arrive each June and July from Tennessee, Ohio, Washington, California, New York and Massachusetts. And from nearby St. Pierre, of course.
This same scene is repeated down the road in nearby Grand Bank and in countless post-card pretty outports right around the province.
In Grand Bank, a handful of up-market bed-and-breakfasts regularly book Americans and Europeans, far more today than just two decades ago. The tourists come to mellow out from the frenzy of big city life, to nose about the history of this fabled place now allocated to memory. Several times each summer a big sailboat may arrive from Boston, but this is rare. Only a skilled skipper can navigate the unforgiving waters of the Grand Banks, a forbidding body of water that has, over the centuries, taken the lives of so many dorymen. By late September, the visitors have gone and cold mists and terrifying winds batter the coastline. As near-constant rain, fog and drizzle drape over Fortune, many bed-and-breakfasts, especially those without insulation, close up for winter.
Even with the Canadian dollar hitting a 30-year-high against the U.S. dollar, the tiny white cottages can be found for as little as $10,000, the price of a used car. Realtors crow the cheapest places to buy recreational properties tend to be the places that are the farthest from major Canadian cities.
Not including a six-hour ferry ride, the drive between St. John's, the capital of Newfoundland, and Montreal, the closest major Canadian city, is 1,600 miles. Direct flights from both the U.S. and London, however, have increased in recent years and that has helped to attract more Americans and Europeans.
Here in Fortune, the influx is making some locals uneasy. Some say the Americans have built enormous homes utterly out of sync with the area's architecture and history.
The jump in demand for local real estate by foreigners as well as among mainland Canadians comes as the province of Newfoundland continues to endure a prolonged out-migration.
Since the 1992 cod moratorium the population of Canada has risen by 16 per cent while the population of Newfoundland has fallen by 11 per cent. The majority of the 61,000 people who left the province were from rural fishing villages like Fortune, where populations have routinely shrunk up to half. Before the moratorium, Fortune was home to 2,000 people. Today, its population is less than 1,000. Many headed west to work in the oil, gas and mining industries.
In 2006, more people died in Newfoundland and Labrador than were born. The population peaked 15 years ago at 580,000 and dropped 70,000 by 2006. In 1971, half the population was under 21. The median age was the lowest in all of Canada. Today, at 42, it is the highest. In 1971, this province had 163,000 kids in schools. This year, that figure has fallen to 70,000 and is falling still.
When a visitor sees the empty schools and abandoned sports fields, he begins to understand the pervasive sense of despair that, like the Atlantic mists and fog, cloak the island.
In his op-ed in a national newspaper Memorial University political science professor Michael Temelini wrote, “ … that Canadians simply do not know, or care, that this 500-year-old civilization is disappearing. We are witnessing an entire generation without hope, enthusiasm or meaningful, steady employment.”
Mere steps from the ferry terminal, in the shadow of the shuttered FPI fishing plant, Charlie’s Bar serves as a community centre for the locals. Here in late summer, tourists are introduced to a fast-talking Newfoundland accent that falls somewhere between Dublin and the East End of London. Talk is friendly, inclusive. But once the summer people have gone home, the regulars ruminate about the death of their single-industry town. The tone is modal and minor key, an Irish lament.
Locals stop by and fall into easy conversations which embrace scores of people, their illnesses, marriages, relationships and deaths. Here, in Fortune, it is still possible to know almost every family. As they speak together extensive networks of relationships spring to life, conjured back from the dead and mingled with the living in the afterlife of the unforgotten.
Owner Frank Fizzard is a former schoolteacher, a man of a clever asides and a certain erudition. Fate, he ruefully acknowledges, has cast him a role in a tragedy. He must bear witness to the death of Fortune.
Like almost everyone here, he has his theories about who killed the Grand Banks cod, about its effects on Fortune and the rest of Newfoundland. Attuned to every nuance of outport life, he hints – but won’t quite say — that foreign overfishing, bunk science and bad management — from Ottawa, of course — that led to the cod collapse. But, he really doesn’t want to go on the record. But he will allow he knows more than few people who consider Confederation a fraud and disaster: we should have joined up with the Americans instead.
(This sentiment was a stapled of outport life. Resting two nights in a tidy bed-and-breakfast near Marystown, a visitor was charmed by the attention and huge plates of food proffered by the hostess, a spinster and grandmother of six. Rattling around the place, she doted on her guests, mixing shards of local history with the story of her ancestry. She may have been lonely, too: all her children had left Newfoundland to look for work – to Boston, Halifax, Toronto and Calgary. But she still made bread every morning, working the flour with what can only have been the largest pair of hands on the Burin Peninsula. Friendly with a lively and inclusive sense of humour, she shared, over a glass of sherry one evening, another side of her personality: a hatred for all things Ottawa — its fisheries department, its scientists, its managers and what she called fish cops. Ottawa alone, she insisted, as her voice hardened, had brought suffering to rural Newfoundland. Policies dreamed up in Ottawa were directly responsible for the poverty, high unemployment and every other aspect of social dislocation and bewildered malaise that so defines outport life today. “We should have never joined Canada, in the first place,” She said. “The Americans wanted us. We should have gone to the south.”)
Like almost everyone else, Fizzard’s children left the province to find a better life. A life beyond the “six-and-two” of state sanctioned forms of welfare and make-work programs in a province with the highest rates of employment insurance.
If, as befits the owner of a pub, Frank has perfected a relaxed presentation to the world, his deadpan observations are delivered with a kind of weary cynicism, reflecting painful truths. He and his wife will soon join their daughter in her new home in Alberta.
Here in Fortune, people have little discretionary income. “I have to keep my prices down,” he says. “Bottled beer is three dollars here. If I moved it up to $3.50, they just wouldn’t come anymore.”
He points to Luke, the local fisherman, who chuckles, a practised routine. But today, they have an audience. Luke, a former cod fisherman, is a regular at Charlie’s. He now fishes lobster from a rusting 39-foot trawler. And, like many here, he has a story to tell. It goes back in time, down the centuries of schooners and dories when cod was king and the most dangerous job in the world was one of the most lucrative, most prestigious. To a visitor’s ear, the accent evokes the speech of settlers from England and Ireland who were drawn here centuries ago by the cod.
Proud, fiercely independent and brave beyond all meaning of the word, they skippered the Grand Banks schooners now showcased in a nearby museum. It was a great and noble age. The men fished for cod and the women salted and dried them on the flakes here just down the road, and across the province.
All along the waterfront were the fish-merchant warehouses, where the salt cod was brought ashore, dried and stored and later stacked in the holds of ships bound for England, Europe and the West Indies, where it was consumed at ten times the rate per person that it was in Newfoundland. Barge cranes moved back and forth all day, loading, unloading stacks of salt cod the size of houses. The technology of preserving fish had not changed in five hundred years. Soak it in brine until its every fibre was so salt-saturated it would be safe from rot for years, and then dry it in the open air.
Salt cod would lie drying everywhere within several hundred feet of Fortune’s harbour. It lay on the rocks in backyards and on elevated fish-flakes near the water; cod split and cured in brine and set out to dry. When it rained, everyone rushed out to turn the cod over so that the side with the rain-impervious, leather-like skin faced upward. The docks reeked of fish and brine.
Luke’s ancestors were among thousands of fishers who fished from the schooners and dories plying the treacherous waters of the Grand Banks, just to the south of Fortune. The dorymen fished in bitter cold, often in thick fog. It was a dangerous occupation indeed. When storms hit, everyone had to face the towering waves on his own.
Consider this log entry from Captain Walters when the famous Bluenose was hit by a storm on the Grand Banks on Sept. 16, 1935:
“The day beings blow hard; bad sea running; sky looking very heavy. Wind hauled WSW with hurricane force…. Vessel labouring very hard and terrific sea running…. Vessel pounding very heave aft. Impossible to do anything…. Tons of water going below doing the damages, causing vessel to leak very bad. Hard to keep continue pumping. So ends this say.”
Many Grand Banks fishers were not as lucky as Captain Walters who saved his famous vessel, which limped into port one week later.
Luke was a little boy when came the change. In the 1950s and 60s, industrial fishing started up on the Banks: all that steel, ice, and the weighted nets that went on forever. They marked the beginning of the end. In a few short decades the inshore fishery was wiped out as the cod were overfished to near extinction. And outport communities in every bay around the province were dealt a death knell. A provincial economy, built on a single resource, had been destroyed forever.
Once Luke made more than $100,000 a year fishing cod. Today he makes less than $30,000 fishing lobster and shrimp on the Grand Banks, scouring the shallows for fish the cod once ate, scouring and tearing at the habitat that once served as spawning grounds for the immature cod. “I’ll be out of this within five years,” he says. “I’m going into tourism. Fishing is no good any more.”
“But who’s to blame for the cod collapse?” the visitor asks.
“Blame enough to go all around,” Luke says. “And who knows maybe one day the cod will come back. But it will never be the same. And lots of people will have to change their thinking. There’s an old saying on this island: ‘If it runs, walks or flies, kill it.’”
Meanwhile many have fled the province. Barry Shortt moved from Burnt Point, N.L., to Leduc in 2005 and now works as a mechanical engineering technician doing piping design for refineries and oil sands plants. Shortt bought a house, got engaged and is expecting his first child, so it would be difficult to move back to the East Coast. "I'm not interested in going back to Newfoundland because you have to look at the opportunities and the position Alberta is in right now," he says