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What it means to be a Newfoundlander is quickly changing

Duckworth Mural in St. John's

Property values have tripled since I moved home to St. John's 15 years ago. Condos are replacing old strip malls and abandoned buildings at a steady clip. Even former premier Danny Williams is getting in on the action, spearheading a 970-hectare residential/retail/industrial development.What was a row of unoccupied downtown storefronts and low-end retail when I was at university here in the 1980s is now awash with trendy shops selling Labradorite bracelets for $500 and coffee bars serving Espresso con panna and Aztec Chili Hot Chocolate.

There are also restaurants like Raymond's, where customers can order up a seven-course meal featuring Newfoundland cod ($135), paired with wines chosen by the in-house sommelier ($85).

God knows we were due for a break. The long-time butt of jokes about backwardness and outmigration, Newfoundland and Labrador is finally bringing people to the area because of a steady economic boom fuelled by multibillion-dollar developments in offshore oil, hydroelectricity and nickel processing.

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But while oil execs tuck into their gourmet fish, much of rural Newfoundland is falling deeper into a crisis that began with the cod moratorium in 1992.

A "temporary measure" when it was imposed, the moratorium is now into its 22nd year. And the most isolated of the province's outports – some are still accessible only by sea – are reeling without the cod that made them possible. The only influx of cash on the horizon for many locals is a government cheque for leaving their homes. By this time next year, some of the island's oldest villages will probably be abandoned. It's anyone's guess how many will have disappeared a decade from now.

Hard times and a sense of shared adversity used to be one of the things Newfoundlanders had in common. But the map is being radically redrawn these days and we are, increasingly, a province of two solitudes.

Traditional Newfoundland – a world of isolated, tightly knit communities that relied on the fishery and each other for survival – is still at the heart of our conception of ourselves, of how we present ourselves to the world. But with every passing year, that conception has less to do with the reality on the ground. A generation from now, what it means to be a Newfoundlander will be something altogether different.

Earlier this summer, I visited some outports on a cruise ship operated by an Ontario company that specializes in trips to out-of-the-way destinations. I was the resident culturalist on board, hired to help "interpret" the place to travellers from as far afield as Europe and Australia. The tourists signed on for the chance to see the remarkable physical landscape, the icebergs and whales and seabirds. And also to experience traditional Newfoundland, to meet people whose families have lived in the same isolated communities for two centuries.

One of our first ports of call was Little Bay Islands, for many years a centre of the cod fishery in the region – and the hometown of one of the ship's staffers, Gerry Strong, who offered a guided walk "up around shore."

Gerry was born into the merchant family that ran the local fish trade here through much of the last century. "Strong's Room," as it was known, included the buildings where the fish was cleaned and salted, and an entire hectare of fish flakes where the cod was set out to dry. Rail tracks ran the length of the flakes, to help lay out the fish in the morning and collect it again at the end of the day.

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Trading vessels from Europe and the Mediterranean sailed into Little Bay Islands in the fall to buy the salt cod. Gerry's father often fell asleep listening to the Greek sailors drinking and playing music on their ships in the harbour. When Gerry was a boy, he played in a large sandbox filled with ballast from trading ships that came to the outport from as far away as India and Egypt.

That incarnation of Little Bay Islands – vibrant, self-sufficient, oddly cosmopolitan – ceased to exist some time ago. Most of the younger residents have left to find work elsewhere. Many houses sit empty. Islanders have to take a three- to four-hour round trip by ferry to buy groceries or see a doctor. The school here still operates, but there is only a single student. The most action the gymnasium sees is when the Women's Home League lays out a feed for visiting tourists.

And much of the talk over partridgeberry pie and toutons was about "resettlement." A referendum was held here last winter, with 55 of the 69 voters in favour of leaving Little Bay Islands for good.

"We knows we have to go," said one woman, who admitted she had never lived anywhere else.

I asked how old she was.

"Eighty-two this year."

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"Where will you go?"

She laughed. "I haven't got a clue."

But that resignation isn't unanimous. Among the dissenters is Gerry Strong's old babysitter, a retired nurse who moved back to Little Bay Islands after a 30-year career in Montreal.

"This is not over," she told me. And she looked ready for a fight.

A $270,000 moving bonus

It's not a new fight. Sixty years ago, the Joey Smallwood government launched the first hamfisted resettlement program to drag the province into the 20th century.

New to Confederation and Canada's cradle-to-grave social programs, Mr. Smallwood faced the near-impossible task of delivering modern conveniences such as roads and electricity, as well as health and education services, to 1,200 communities scattered along 29,000 kilometres of coastline.

Reaching the province's smallest and most remote outports was so impractical that households were paid between $300 and $600 to move to a more central community. From 1954 to 1965, 30,000 people from 300 outports relocated. In 1965, the government's resettlement package increased to $1,000 per family, plus $200 per dependent. An additional 20,000 people left behind 148 outports in the decade that followed.

But if it was technically a "voluntary" program, resettlement was mired in controversy. In the hundreds of outports that accepted packages, there was rarely universal assent. Neighbours and relatives were pitted against one another. Coercion and intimidation, subtle or otherwise, poisoned friendships and families. Many people moved under duress and lived the rest of their days in a kind of internal exile.

It's a touchy subject, still.

And after an extended period of dormancy, resettlement is making a comeback, fuelled by chronic unemployment in the fishery and an aging demographic. After a lengthy and acrimonious internal debate, Great Harbour Deep on the Northern Peninsula took a government package to relocate in 2002. Petites was abandoned in 2003. The residents of Grand Bruit, also on the south coast, followed suit in 2010.

The modern version of resettlement is different in this crucial respect: the government is happy to facilitate the process, but only when outport residents make the request. Withdrawal of power generation, regular ferry runs and other essential services to unsustainable communities is a long-term economic win – but the government isn't about to "force" relocation on anyone.

Instead, they're sweetening the pot. Last year's provincial budget nearly tripled the cash incentive per household from $100,000 to $270,000. The requirement that a decision to resettle be unanimous was also set at a more workable 90 per cent.

All this hasn't set off the mad rush to move that some might have expected, but the numbers and interest are growing.

Round Harbour on the Baie Verte Peninsula has voted in favour of the move. The Department of Municipal Affairs has met with residents of south coast communities Gaultois and McCallum, and has working files for Snook's Harbour on Random Island, William's Harbour in southern Labrador and Nipper's Harbour on the Baie Verte Peninsula. La Poile, also on the south coast, has set up a resettlement committee and residents are filling out official "expression of interest" forms.

Barring a sudden recovery of the cod stocks, what we're seeing now is likely the thin edge of the wedge.

What is lost

It was raining steadily as we steamed toward Francois (usually pronounced Fran-sway) on the south coast. The 600-foot headlands disappeared in fog above us.

I've done a half-dozen circumnavigations, and on each Francois has been a favourite stop. Tiered on steep hills at the foot of a stunning fjord, it looks and feels like something out of another world, another time. First settled in the late 1700s, it is one of the communities that successfully resisted the Smallwood resettlement program. There are no cars and no roads. Residents are able to travel to the nearest town by snowmobile during the winter, otherwise the only access is by boat. Less than a hundred people still live here, a handful fewer each time we visit.

I've alway thought of this community as a microcosm of Newfoundland's place in the world before Confederation: singular and inaccessible and largely unknown. Francois, and hundreds of other outports like it, are the crucible in which the distinct linguistic and cultural character of Newfoundland was formed.

Buchans, the central Newfoundland mining town where I was raised, is an anomaly in the province – a community nowhere near salt water, its residents all from "somewhere else." But both of my parents were raised in outports, as were all of their friends and neighbours. No one ever locked or knocked on a door. We had no blood relatives in town, but I was surrounded by people I called uncle and aunt, to acknowledge a tie that felt familial. Even as a youngster I recognized that "the outport" had made these people who they were.

The accents around me reflected this: Some people dropped their aitches, some added haitches. Isolated from the larger world and from one another, each of Newfoundland's bays developed dozens of distinct dialects. Even now, 60 years into standardized education, in a time when every child is raised on 200 mainland cable channels, it's still possible to identify where someone is from by the particular idiosyncrasies of their speech.

That isolation, coupled with dependence on an industry as fickle and dangerous as the cod fishery, also bred a distinctly Newfoundland character – a peculiar mix of self-reliance and fatalism, a long-suffering acquiescence to larger forces that can look to mainland eyes like defeatism; a flahoolic generosity and love of a good time, an irreverent sense of humour, a well-known gift of the gab. "If you don't want any part of engaging conversation," one of our expedition staff warns passengers, "don't make eye contact with a Newfoundlander."

The people who lived in Buchans carried the outport with them when they moved inland to work the mines. Through their influence, the outport shaped me as well, though I didn't spend more than a few weeks a year near the ocean. Even as the fishery has diminished over recent decades, even as more and more Newfoundlanders move to the mainland or to larger urban centres on the island, the culture and character of the people remains remarkably unchanged.

But there's a question troubling me as I enjoy my bacon-wrapped scallop and spinach salad downtown in St. John's, watching another BMW drive by: How far can the outport travel before we lose it altogether?

Ashore in Francois, we wandered the warren of paths in the continued downpour. The most adventurous slogged their way to the lookout at Charlie's Head. Except for our local guides the weather kept folks inside, and the town felt nearly abandoned.

There was a reception at the Community Hall, where we dried out and dug into a lunch of bakeapple tarts and molasses buns. I sat with three of the women who prepared the food and the conversation turned, inevitably, to resettlement. There was an "internal" vote on the issue over the winter, but there wasn't "enough interest" at the time, one of the women told me.

I asked if she thought it would happen eventually.

"Oh it will," she said. "It might be next year. Or 10 years from now. But it will happen."

It's a sad fact of life that the disappearance of these and other outport communities won't alter much about the world at large. The GDP won't change, the oil boom will carry on pumping money into provincial coffers, the northeast Avalon will continue to be swallowed by cookie-cutter suburbs. In almost every way we quantify such things, their absence will make no difference. But the loss we're facing is real, if subtler and harder to measure.

It may be true that we won't be poorer without them. But we will be, intangibly and inevitably, something less.

Michael Crummey is a novelist in St. John's. His book Sweetland, about a community faced with resettlement, is in stores Aug. 19.

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