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Fish Bones by John Andrews

A tale of two countries: Part 1

in Featured/Journalism by

Once upon a time there were two countries.

One was an island, full of bountiful forests and minerals, with access to the richest fishing grounds of the Atlantic, and control of entry to North American airspace.

The other one also had great wealth across its huge landmass, provided its people with strong social programs and was a pretty open, tolerant place.

Herein lies the final betrayal of the treaty signed between two countries in 1949.

So after staring at each other long enough, they decided to join up. It seemed like a pretty sweet deal. The smaller island would get access to health care, pensions, unemployment insurance, public housing and lots of other good stuff. The bigger country would get to share the big fishing grounds, get to control entry to North American airspace, lots of resource and tax revenue and other good stuff. To seal the deal, the two countries signed a treaty, where the bigger one promised all the things it committed to looking after: the railroad, lighthouses, social programs like pensions and the fishery.

Unfortunately, this fairy tale doesn’t have a very fairy ending. The railroad is gone, the lighthouses are being sold off, health care and social programs have been gutted. And somewhere on the edge of the cold Atlantic, a fisher sits surrounded by nets that will lie forever furled, as the harsh winds sweep the sands of history over the deck of a boat named for Nan, and the sun sets on a 200-year-old village that may never see it rise.

Herein lies the final betrayal of the treaty signed between two countries in 1949.

“Red is the sea-kelp on the beach,” wrote Newfoundland poet EJ Pratt. “It is red as the heart’s blood, and salt as tears.”

Enough of the fisheries, already

Growing up in St. John’s, I hated the word ‘fishery’ almost as much as I hated the word ‘broccoli’. It was associated with boring tales of woe on the nightly news; a synonym for unemployment; I couldn’t understand the fancy words they used to discuss it. I didn’t even like fish. I figured I knew it for what it was: a relic of history, no future in it, and maybe good riddance.

It took years of visiting friends around the bay to realize that almost every bit of culture and society on this island is linked to the sea. And that the sea is linked to fish, and that we are inseparable from both.

It took even longer to think that maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t write the fishery off as dead and gone. Maybe my attitude was the product of that era — which saw Newfoundland’s future as hopeless, and us as responsible for it. Word has it we’ve reclaimed our pride. Maybe now it’s time to reclaim our future.

Should that future include the fishery? That’s the question that’s never asked, and maybe it should be, because we need to make a collective decision about it and we need to make it now. Our failure to tackle that question head-on is why we have a Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture on the one hand, and on the other a minister who recently questioned whether his government should have any role in it.

The ocean lies at the heart of our culture, and we abandon that at the peril of everything that holds meaning for us.

It’s sometimes said the fishery is a way of life for Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s said with a snicker by corporate CEO’s who couldn’t care less about the plight of thousands of unemployed fishers, and who care more about their IT investments. It’s said with desperation by fishers who watch their debt grow and their catches shrink. It’s said with a tear in the eye by Nan, as she waits for Canada Post to bring mail from her children working in Korea.

But way of life doesn’t just mean tradition. It means values, and that’s why it’s important. As Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, we’re known for our courage — a courage that is only learned by taking our lives in our hands on the most dangerous seas in the world. We’re known for generosity and self-sacrifice — values borne from the need to share knowledge and resources unselfishly, to survive in an uncertain resource industry.

We’re known for easygoing humour and joy — qualities that come from working side by side in the open air and with only ourselves for masters. We will not learn courage in high-rise offices, nor generosity through investment banking, nor easygoing humour in a city of cold concrete and skyscrapers. This is why we must protect our way of life. Lest we wind up like Toronto.

It doesn’t mean we must all be fishers. But it means the ocean lies at the heart of our culture, and we abandon that at the peril of everything that holds meaning for us.

Recap

For those of us just tuning into the fisheries, here’s what you missed in previous episodes. The all-powerful cod got fished out by a combination of bad policy within Canada, and international overfishing from without. No more codfishery allowed. Tens of thousands out of work.

But then the fishery rallied — sort of. Shellfish became the new thing. There seemed hope for our communities. But last year, the bottom fell out again, and the province ordered a commission to produce a report — the Fishery MOU — to figure out why and how to fix things.

We’re asking the wrong questions.

That brings us up to the most recent episode, where the report got released. It basically said: there’s too much fishing going on. Get rid of one-third to two-thirds of the fishing boats (especially the ones used by smaller community fishers; keep the bigger ones). Draw from a pot of half a billion dollars to pay off some corporate fish plant owners to shut down. Let the remainder do better marketing. It doesn’t say what to do for all the workers — just their corporate owners.

Tomorrow morning, we’ll look at the problems with the MOU.

But first of all, one general problem: it’s a business solution to a social problem. It’s not the fault of the well-meaning chair and his team. Ask a silly question, get a silly answer. Ask business people to solve a community problem, and you’ll get an answer that helps the businesses in the community.

We’re asking the wrong questions. The question should not be: ‘How can we make the industry viable?’ The question needs to be: ‘How can we ensure the communities which rely on it survive?’

Hans Rollmann is a regular columnist for TheIndependent.ca and in this 3-part series he looks at the Fishery MOU report and the future of our fisheries. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 this Thursday and Friday morning.

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