An article made the rounds of a few of my circles on Facebook a while ago, and while it very deeply struck me, I never expected to be struck in this way by content like this. Michael Crummey, one of Newfoundland’s leading novelists, investigated the people who live in very small, ancient communities that are currently being resettled.
It’s a very sad story for people who live in these communities that have existed for centuries in these isolated crags of that island, watching their hometowns disappear around them. This is actually the second wave of rural resettlement in less than a century of time. The first wave came in the years after Newfoundland joined Canada: hundreds of small, isolated communities were so physically inaccessible that the government couldn’t bring them the social services that the Canadian state mandated. So the Smallwood government evaluated which communities were the most inaccessible, then forcefully moved them to larger towns in the region.
|Just pointing a camera anywhere in key neighbourhoods of|
St. John's can capture remarkably beautiful images.
Crummey contrasts this experience with the modern experience, which is a voluntary resettlement born of irreparable economic decline. The province is flush with oil money. The people of Newfoundland are confident, bursting with national pride. I was actually very happy to leave when I did, as this confidence was expressing itself in a kind of arrogance. My last couple of years in Newfoundland, I felt very out of place, and I still do when I come back to the city where I grew up, even as it’s all very familiar and remarkably beautiful. The particular articulation of national pride that Newfoundlanders showed at the time, I found distasteful and tasteless. I still do. It articulated itself in a disdain for intellectual pursuits, slavishly socially conservative politics, and a worship of the oil economy with no real concern for its ecological harms and its inherently limited lifespan.
My ambivalent attitude toward my home island comes out in the stories of my A Small Man’s Town collection. Hell, it’s pretty clear just from the title. And I always had a similarly contrary attitude toward the resettlement program. I learned about the horrifying poverty and economic exploitation that many of the smallest towns in Newfoundland had lived for centuries. I was always told throughout my Newfoundland history classes in grade school that resettlement was a terrible thing that ripped people from their homes. But when your home is a place of absolute poverty and total cultural isolation, I would think you’d be glad to leave.
So I wasn’t sure at first why reading Crummey’s article and his interviews with people in the smallest and most isolated of Newfoundland’s remaining rural communities struck me to the core. But as I was thinking about what to write about this article, I understood. The resettlements now are not mandated by a government central planner. They’re self-organized. The government gives them winks and nudges and assistance packages between $100-200,000, but the people themselves organize their own local votes.
They see how the economic boom of the oil fields and related industries has passed them by. Expensive, haute-cuisine versions of traditional Newfoundland food is served in high-end St. John’s restaurants. Real estate prices are booming in the centre of the province’s business life, and the towns that have integrated themselves with the oil industry, either through refineries or other construction and processing business, have similarly caught fire. But small towns like Gaultois, Nipper’s Harbour, and Little Bay Islands have none of that. They’ve been told that they’re superfluous, unimportant for the new, proud Newfoundland.
I would go absolutely stir-crazy living in any one of these tiny, isolated villages for longer than a single day. But I sympathize today with how these people feel, looking at their world and realizing that their way of life is gone. They can no longer live how they want to, and adaptation means that the place they called home for countless generations is no longer viable. The towns essentially commit suicide through a public vote.
It reminded me of the isolation and superfluousness I felt when I was leaving Newfoundland. I was an environmentalist in a province who welcomed oil companies and refineries with open arms. I was a left-wing democrat who watched Danny Williams and his cabinet of idiot yes-men take over government and enjoy levels of popular support that military dictators usually get. And even Bashar Assad still needed the secret police and institutionalized torture networks to get those poll numbers. All Danny had to do was speak in his natural accent while yelling at the federal government. I saw a culture where the work I wanted to do had no value. There was no place for a misfit writer like me. So I tried Ontario and the university sector. Had a good run there.
When I left Newfoundland, I looked around me and saw that the place where I lived no longer had a place for me. Reading Crummey’s interviews with the local people of these communities whose desires, lifestyles, and heritages were so different than mine, I saw others realizing the same thing.