“Oil is strong and fish is weak!”…Tert Card.

So where is Newfoundland today in regards to where it was 20 years ago?; 10 years ago? Now? Changes have been occurring with breathtaking speed and with consequences unforeseen, almost.

         An incredibly beautiful place beset by the loss of fish and the discovery of oil.

I’ve written and photographed about the back story in my upcoming book “Arn? Narn.” throughout this blog. But to recap, 20 years ago Newfoundland was about to crash and sink much as the Titanic did 375 miles off its shore 100 years ago. After independently supporting itself on cod fishing for over five centuries, the fish were gone. The Canadian government (Ottawa) enacted a 10 year moratorium on cod fishing in the expectation that in 5-6 years, the cod stocks would return to normal levels and fishing could resume. That was the plan at least. In the past, that had worked and there was no reason to believe otherwise.

After the 10 year period, the stocks were in worse shape and the moratorium was left on indefinitely. In that same 10 year period, Newfoundland lost 20% of its population to out-migration. Simply stated: no fish meant no jobs. People left in droves. Rural Newfoundland was on the ropes then and largely still is. Unless the fish return (doubtful), it will most likely remain so. As the island was settled based on how quickly one could get to sea, there are beautiful, picture-perfect, small fishing villages all over the coast. There is very little settlement in the interior. Consequently, it will be hard to sustain that culture as people continue to leave.

I returned to one village 3 years after my first visit. While it was not thriving during that initial visit, the town was active, the general store was doing business, and people were there. Jump ahead those 3 years: the store is closed and boarded up; houses are abandoned; and there are weeds growing in the road. That is the fate of almost all of rural Newfoundland. That’s the bad news.

For the entire province, the news is a bit better. St. John’s, the capital, is doing very well. Some outports quickly pivoted to tourism and are holding their own. The province of Newfoundland is rich in minerals and has a growing off-shore oil industry.

One of the several oil rigs off the coast of Newfoundland. In some places, one can see them from land. (heritage.nf.ca)

It will survive, maybe even thrive as a whole. But with a handful of exceptions, the heart and soul of this province, rural Newfoundland, may not.

  There’s a line from Annie Proulx‘s wonderful book The Shipping News: Tert Card, the editor of the local newspaper The Gammy Bird and a very distasteful character declares: “Like I say, the hope of this place is oil.”

Other characters within the book go on to dispute the benefits of that and what would occur if the oil boom were to happen. Crime, prostitution, vandalism – Tert Card wants to hear none of this. His bellicose response: “Oil is strong and fish is weak!”

Quoyle, the protagonist in the book, then writes a column for The Gammy Bird entitled: “Nobody hangs a picture of an oil tanker on their wall.” That exchange largely summed up that particular issue. The tanker is not a thing of beauty even if it were a solution. The fish were disappearing and oil riches were on the horizon. But at what cost? The fish were not to return – but the oil was there.

Proulx was completely accurate and prescient in her description of both sides. Oil will be a boon to the province; it will also mean the further deterioration of the cultural side of Newfoundland. It is not an object lesson of one over another; it is that survival depends on what kind of hand you’ve been dealt and how you play it. In this case, the oil will allow the province to survive – only not as it once did. Arn? Narn.

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