AuthorTopic: Canada: lights to go out on tiny remote island as locals agree to resettle  (Read 270 times)

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Sign of the times.

Little Bay Islands in Newfoundland, home to 54 year-round residents, becomes the latest isolated community to take relocation money

Little Bay Islands in Newfoundland. Rural and remote areas in Canada have long struggled to access services like healthcare, utilities and the internet.
Little Bay Islands in Newfoundland. Rural and remote areas in Canada have long struggled to access services like healthcare, utilities and the internet. Photograph: Mike Parsons/Courtesy photographer

Little Bay Islands is the kind of place where you can leave your doors unlocked, go on vacation for three weeks and return to a perfectly undisturbed home. The owner of the only store in town keeps irregular hours, and in his absence leaves a container with coins and wrinkled bills on the counter. Residents take what they need and make their own change.

The tiny island community in Canada’s easternmost province, Newfoundland and Labrador, is home to 54 year-round residents, and more in the summertime.

Most families have been here for generations, subsisting on the once-booming fishing industry.

But on 31 December, electricity and water will be switched off and ferry service discontinued. Little Bay Islands is the latest isolated village to agree to resettle on the mainland as part of the province’s community relocation policy, which offers government compensation to people who leave remote areas.

Two-thirds of Canada’s 37.5 million inhabitants live within 100 kilometres of the country’s southern border with the US, a horizontal strip of land that constitutes just 4% of Canada’s territory. Rural and remote areas in the rest of the country have long struggled to access services like healthcare, utilities and the internet.

Newfoundland and Labrador faces one of the most acute struggles in the country: a rapidly ageing population, spread over a vast area.

Its community relocation policy was invented in 1953 to ease the financial burden of delivering services to remote fishing communities. In the policy’s first 20 years residents of more than 300 outports were relocated, some say through the use of coercion, and today, resettlement must be initiated by the community and agreed to by at least 90% of the population.

Ted Grimes has lived all of his 70-odd years on Little Bay Islands. His parents and grandparents did too. But in early 2019, he – and everyone else – voted to resettle the community: he didn’t want to be abandoned along with the island.

“I don’t really want to leave, no. But I had no other choice,” said Grimes in a reluctant phone interview.

Instead, he will use his government cheque to resettle in a cottage in the town of Lewisporte (population 3,400), leaving behind a lifetime’s worth of mementos on the island. “The sentimental stuff, you take. Some of the stuff the kids and the grandkids gave us, you can’t throw it out,” said Grimes. “It’s gut-wrenching.”

Newfoundland and Labrador faces one of the most acute struggles in the country.
Newfoundland and Labrador faces one of the most acute struggles in the country: an ageing population spread over a vast area Photograph: Mike Parsons/Courtesy photographer

The town’s decline began in earnest in 1992 with the cod moratorium. To manage dwindling Atlantic cod stocks, the federal government plunged 30,000-plus people across the province into unemployment overnight.

Little Bay Islands stuck it out longer than most by switching to snow crabs, but that industry eventually closed down too, back in 2009. Soon, only elderly people remained. The store shuttered, as did the school in 2018 after two consecutive years with no students.

Yolande Pottie-Sherman, a researcher and geography professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, said resettlement poses important questions: should remote communities and outport culture be kept alive, and at what – and whose – expense?

The decision to resettle Little Bay Islands’ population has been nine years in the making. A 2016 vote on resettlement failed, dividing the town and pitting seasonal residents against full-timers. “The length of the process itself has been harmful,” says Pottie-Sherman. “You have, essentially, a community that becomes frozen because [of the uncertainty]. In that time, it’s just excruciating.”

As part of Little Bay Islands’ resettlement process, the province compared service delivery with paying each household between $250,000 and $270,000 to leave. It estimated it could save $20m over 20 years by resettling the community. It rubber-stamped the move last April.

By New Year’s Day, Mike and Georgina Parsons – and their dog – will be the only permanent residents of Little Bay Islands. At 53 and 44 respectively, they are the island’s youngest full-time residents.

They moved to the community a few years back, attracted to the idea of living off the grid in Mike’s hometown, and have spent the last couple of years preparing for a life of solitude on the edge of the Atlantic.

As winter draws near residents have been slowly filing out, each weekend bringing more farewells. At least half the numbers in the phone directory have been disconnected. Many residents intend to return to their homes in the summers, but for others this may be goodbye.

Watching his parents and other residents pack up and go is tough, said Parsons. “In spite of the fact that 100% of the permanent residents here voted to leave, I know that to actually do it, to pack up their things and leave, is just heartbreaking.”

When everyone is gone, he and Georgina will rely on solar panels, a freshwater well, stockpiled food, a satellite connection and other off-grid features to live their secluded life on the edge of the Atlantic. There will be a few weeks each winter where Arctic ice chokes the bay, making it impossible to cross over to the mainland. Then, they will be completely cut off, left alone to witness the town’s fiery sunrises and the dead silence of starry winter nights.

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