Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Going home — to Alberta

A Twillingate fisherman wrote the following letter in 2005, although it’s just as timely today. With a provincial general election set for October and a federal election likely to be held this year (rumour has it an election may be forced within weeks), the future of the NL fisheries must be brought front and centre.

A young friend of ours dropped by one day last summer, quite unexpectedly, just as we were having dinner.

Having grown up next door in a Newfoundland outport, and being the same age as our son, he became an accepted part of our family, so it was no surprise that he just pulled back a chair and joined in, as if it were yesterday.

Fact is, Jack has been working in Alberta for a decade. He started by earning his tractor-trailer license and has since started his own business in Grand Prairie, bought a mobile home, married, and started a family.

It was good to see him and to know that he appeared to have his life on track, knowing the many pitfalls and temptations that confront youth today.

As he was leaving, he said something that has haunted me since.

“I’m going home next week,” he said, “so I’ll see you again before I leave.”

“Going home,” I thought, “to Alberta!”

That one simple sentence evokes such a maelstrom of emotions that I struggle with where to start.

On one hand, I feel privileged to have been among the last generation of youth with a childhood so inexorably linked to the little outport harbour, that no matter where one moved or lived there was only one place in the world worthy of that sacred word — home.

For us, home was our whole community: the woods where we cut our bonfire boughs and set our rabbit slips; the ponds where we swam in summer and skated until dark in winter, when the thought of lamb chops smothered in gravy hurried us along, our feet icy in frozen boots; and the ocean where we set out lobster traps after school on nice spring evenings and rushed back, not to miss the evening cod-trap haul.

The house was just a place for gulping down meals; there was much more to do in your outport home.

That great love for outport Newfoundland (immortalized in song and in such worn phrases as, “You can take the boy from the bay, but you can’t take the bay from the boy”) was a product of an idyllic life of adventure, freedom and companionship seldom found, and the reason why Newfoundlanders have always found an interesting tug at the heart strings to return home.

Sadly, that will end because the conditions that produced the emotional attachment no longer exist.

We can blame government for allowing technology and corporate greed to vacuum our oceans and siphon the lifeblood of outport Newfoundland.

We can see ourselves as the victims of cultural genocide by a succession of federal regimes that have considered our resources bargaining tools for the benefit of central Canada.

Or, we can blame ourselves for baring our flesh to the whips of those in authority — from fish merchants to politicians — more concerned with careers than constituents.

I prefer the latter because in spite of all the five-gallon plastic buckets on the chimneys of rural Newfoundland, and in spite of all the heartache associated with the loss of a way of life, our behaviour has not changed.

We are still doing an excellent job of educating our best and brightest youth to turn the wheels of industry, build their homes, raise their families, and pay their taxes in other provinces.

We give quotas as the property of fish companies and leave communities at the mercy of corporations. We talk about overcapacity in harvesting and processing as if a few large boats selling to two or three mega companies is a desirable goal, when in actual fact such a policy, perhaps already irreversible, will be the final blow that leaves rural Newfoundland gasping its final breath.

One of rural Newfoundland’s biggest problems is that those who chose to live elsewhere, and don’t have a sound connection to the land or the culture but nonetheless know what’s best, make decisions affecting the lives of the people.

When the cod collapsed, people said we should have listened to the fishermen.

Just this year fishermen had to resort to desperate measures in an attempt to have their views heard. So what have we learned?

Maybe for some, Alberta has become more home than home itself.

Just think of the answer to this question: Where will you see more Newfoundlanders out enjoying themselves among Newfoundland friends, money in their pockets, on a Saturday night — Fort McMurray, Alberta or the community hall in Dildo Run?

Personally, I am presently restoring the old family house in my little hometown of Tizzard’s Harbour on New World Island.

Most of the people I grew up with have moved or passed away, and as I work in the tranquility of the most beautiful harbour in the world, I throw this question out to the world: What’s the answer?


Terry Miller said...

It's hard to say home is anywhere else when the outline of the Rock is stamped on my heart. Like many others I would love to see a time when conditions at home were of properity to help me raise my family, when the future was not just a guessing game of will anyone have a job tomorrow, when "gettin me stamps" isn.t the only way to survive.Hmmmm?
Maybe home isn't that far away!

Anonymous said...

Ryan, what level of government do you think it was that essentially ended the feudal state of Newfoundland's merchant class in the middle of the last century?

Which level of government made it possible (rightly or wrongly) to earn an income between fishing seasons?

Nobody disputes the impact of technology, greed and poor regulation on the state of our stocks and our industry.

But you can't write a history of our fishery and simply skip the chapters that don't agree with your conspiracy theories.