Little Bay Islands, Newfoundland, Canada – What was once a thriving port of more than 800 people with its own customs office, oceangoing ships at the docks, and six hotels, is today home to just 81 residents.
“It’s dying, it’s nearly dead,” said 61-year-old Dennis Budgell. “And it’s time to close her down. There’s nothing to do here anymore.”
To someone from the city, the rocky shore and hills behind the multi-coloured houses are beautiful – breathtaking even. To Budgell, they are a sad sign of what used to be.
Standing on a rickety wooden pier, he points around the deserted harbour. “There was a salt shack on that island, for making salt cod. Over there was a store. There were seven, eight stores. You could buy anything here. Now you can’t get a Coke.”
Incentives to leave, but none to stay
No jobs, no work - why stay?
As its name suggests, the village is on an island, a 45-minute ferry ride from Newfoundland’s road system. Medical care and groceries are about four hours away by car and boat. Before Canada’s inshore cod fish stocks collapsed from over-exploitation in the early 1990s, the island was perfectly positioned for commercial fishing. Now it’s a community of former fishermen, most in their late 50s and older. A few still catch lobster and crab, but only a few.
“No jobs, no work – why stay?” Budgell asked. “It’s time to take the resettlement and go.”
He’s referring to a Newfoundland government programme that allows residents of such communities – called “outports” – to vote on whether to stay or take government compensation to leave, often abandoning homes and other possessions. The programme has been in place since the 1950s.
Up until the late 1970s, some 30,000 people took payments to close down their towns. Then the pace of relocation slowed down. These days, the programme offers up to $250,000 per household to relocate, as long as a majority of community residents agree.
“It’s seen as economical for the government,” said writer and historian Marjorie Doyle. “Even before the cod collapsed, it seemed cheaper to pay outport people to move rather than give them expensive public services so far away from everyone else.”
Petitions sent to the Newfoundland Department of Municipal Affairs in 2013 suggested that nearly 90 percent of Little Bay Islanders want to leave. The government said it’s considering whether to call for a vote.
Outports in Newfoundlander DNA
But for those who want to stay, the issue has been divisive.
into my house. There’s no selling it, not for what it’s worth. What am I supposed to do?”]
“People think I’m crazy. Maybe I am,” said Perry Locke. He and his wife have two of the few permanent jobs in town, and their son is the only student in the local school. “Why shouldn’t we stay? This works for us.”
If the town votes to relocate, then Locke will have to leave. For someone who has retired, he explained, the money on offer is enough to buy something elsewhere. For a family, though, it’s barely enough to move.
“I just put tens of thousands [of dollars] into my house. There’s no selling it, not for what it’s worth. What am I supposed to do?”
The resettlement programme has been controversial since it began. There were early allegations of forced or coerced removals. Marjorie Doyle, who like 90 percent of Newfoundlanders lives in the capital city, St John’s, said outports are part of the province’s identity, its DNA.
“There must be something we can do to keep them there,” she told Al Jazeera. “It’s just terrible to contemplate a Newfoundland with outports continuing to shut down.”
‘Culture and care’ drives rebirth
A few hundred kilometres to the east, in a place called Fogo Island, a businesswoman and philanthropist named Zita Cobb is doing “something” to make sure her community doesn’t go the way of Little Bay Islands.
Cobb was born in 1957 in a hamlet called Joe Batt’s Arm on the bleak northern side of Fogo Island. One of seven children, she went away to university and business school and made a great deal of money in the fibre optics business. But her island and her upbringing never left her.
“I saw everything through Fogo Island eyes,” she told Al Jazeera, “and my brothers and I just decided we had to put something back into the place that formed us”.
They moved back and, working through a charitable foundation and an arts organisation, began investing in their island. They set up a trust called the Shorefast Foundation to fund their efforts. Then they built the Fogo Island Inn, a hotel that combines stunning contemporary exterior design with traditional motifs inside.
Since it opened in 2013, the inn has attracted high-spending guests who gaze out from their rooms onto icebergs and whales in the Atlantic Ocean. The restaurant offers dishes based on local ingredients, like cod, caribou, and wild berries. It employs dozens of local people and even offers resident islanders a free night’s accommodation with meals once a year.
“We wanted everyone to share what’s going on here,” Cobb said. She takes her philosophy from the British economist Tim Jackson. “He says the best way to cure unemployment is through culture and care, and that’s what we’re doing here.”
By culture, she means local artisans selling handmade quilts, carvings, and furniture to visitors, as well as an arts residency programme that attracts sculptors, painters, and writers from all over the world to work in strikingly modern studios scattered around the island.
Since her work began, the island’s population has grown to 2,700 people from 2,300 in 2011. At one time 8,000 people lived and worked there.
These initiatives are aimed at helping rural areas survive, even as cities prosper, Cobb explained. “I think about it as a quilt, a patchwork quilt. Fogo Island is one little patch. Toronto is a much bigger patch. Neither will keep you warm on a cold winter’s night, but put them together and you’ve got a quilt, you’ve got a country.”
Cobb’s way of preserving and reviving Newfoundland’s outports may not apply all over the province, but it does demonstrate that giving in to long-term decline isn’t the only option.
Now, if only Little Bay Islands – and others like it – can find their own Zita Cobb.