In Newfoundland during the 1960s you could look out over the ocean and see houses floating by. But natural disasters weren’t the explanation for such odd sights, governments were. For soon after Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949 the federal and provincial governments colluded to centralize the island’s population, moving people from isolated fishing villages to larger industrial “growth centers.” Resourceful Newfoundlanders, rather than abandoning their homes, winched them down to the seashore and used their fishing boats to tow them along the coastline to government-approved destinations. This process of centralization, or “resettlement” as it was officially called, led ultimately to the displacement of nearly 30,000 people. More than 300 communities died abrupt deaths, many of them with histories stretching back more than three centuries.
Not everything could be floated away, however. Churches, cemeteries, schools, docks, wharves, gardens and many large homes all had to be left behind, and the result is a coastline dotted with ghost towns. These towns had been built in spaces that call out for human habitation, in sheltered coves where freshwater streams meet saltwater ocean, where the surrounding hills afforded plots for gardening, and above all where the fishermen could be near their nets. It’s these human-scale qualities that I find so alluring about the resettled communities, and it’s these qualities plus their tragic histories that led me to pack up my tent, sleeping bag and cameras and spend several summers photographing their remnants.
For centuries prior to confederation with Canada the Newfoundland economy and lifestyle was centered around the cod fishery. Most people lived in small “outport” communities along the coastline where they could be near the fishing grounds, and during the busy summer months all energies were devoted to cleaning and salting the daily catch. Most of the fish were traded to the local merchant for dry goods, but some, along with vegetables from garden plots, fruit from cultivated trees and berries from the surrounding tundra-like terrain, went onto the dinner table, where it formed the basis of the diet that had dependably supported the rural population for centuries.
However, with confederation came the sense among many in power that this kind of subsistence existence was unworthy of mid-20th-century Canadians. This was especially the case with Joey Smallwood, the man around whom the confederation movement had crystallized, and who became the new province’s first premier. Smallwood was convinced that the future of Newfoundland lay in a diversified and industrialized economy, and to this end his new government offered large cash subsidies to industries that would relocate to the island. In the decades after confederation factories were built to manufacture a motley assortment of products, including heavy machinery, cement, gypsum board, refined oil, batteries, rubber, newsprint, hardwood furniture, textiles, leather goods, shoes, gloves and–on a seeming note of whimsy–chocolates.
A workforce was required for these newly constructed factories, and for this the government looked to the outport communities. For scattered along the coastline were tens of thousands of people leading what the government saw as a precarious existence. Why not move these people to the industrialized growth centers where they could earn a steady income in factories? As far as the Smallwood government was concerned, their diversification-and-industrialization program went hand-in-hand with a policy of resettlement.
Resettlement started out rather low key. From 1954 until 1965 the provincial government offered each family that wanted to move from an outport to a more central location between $150 and $600 (the amount gradually increased over the years) to help defray the associated costs. But there was a proviso: no family would receive funding unless every family in the community agreed to move. The result of this early program was that over an 11-year period 115 communities were abandoned, and approximately 7,500 people were relocated. In 1965 the federal government joined with the province to set up a new, much more enticing program. Each household that wanted to move would receive $1,000, plus $200 for each dependant, plus up to $3,000 for the purchase of a serviced lot in a more central location. Here too payment was contingent on others in the community agreeing to move, but the requirement was this time lowered first to 90% and later to 80% of the outport’s families. In 1970 a third program was implemented, similar to the second. Between 1965 and 1975 approximately 148 communities were abandoned and more than 20,000 people were relocated, most within the first five years.
In principle the aim of diversifying the economy made sense, but in practice the project was a disaster. Newfoundland is far from both major markets and sources of most raw materials, factors which add appreciably to the cost of manufacturing, making its products less competitive. With only a few exceptions the industries failed and the anticipated jobs simply did not materialize. Many of those who relocated to growth centers ended up living on welfare. To this day the official government position is that the resettlement programs were non-coercive, and while this is true in principle, it’s arguable that things were de facto quite otherwise. For consider that in the later programs families were given money to relocate even if a minority in the community wished to remain. Once a community began to move, this minority had no choice but to move as well, as the government would soon cut off services and the merchant would be compelled to leave. For this minority at least, the later programs left them no choice. And even among the majority who did sign the agreement, it’s not clear that all did so in a truly voluntary way. For one thing, these were small communities in which people quite literally relied on one another for survival. One could ill-afford to make enemies, and if your neighbor wanted to move and you didn’t, but he couldn’t get any money unless you agreed to move, well, clearly there would be enormous pressure on you to acquiesce. Furthermore, life in these communities was not based on cash, but on exchange of goods and services. The merchant in a region typically also ran the supply stores, and would trade supplies for fish, with the result that no money actually traded hands. Having had little experience with cash, many people overestimated its value and were unaware of its limitations, and found an offer of a few thousand dollars simply irresistible. Government officials were well aware of this less-tangible but no-less-real psychological aspect of the programs, and relied on it for effectiveness.
Today the resettled communities have the loneliness of places that once knew human habitation but have lost it, the loneliness of places that have become mere spaces. As mere spaces they remain beautiful: I swim in the streams, listen to the waterfalls, breathe the ocean air, hike up the hillsides, and marvel at how they invite human habitation. But human habitation and its attendant significance are gone, and it is this absence that is now most important. For this absence stands testament to the folly and arrogance of governments that thought they knew best how and where people should live. And it’s this absence that should teach us not to make the same mistake again.