The fate of rural areas of Newfoundland and Labrador is a topic that usually incites passion, and occasionally reasoned debate, amongst the people of our province. Often there is a palpable sense of rivalry and discord, mainly focused on some sort of urban-rural divide; a sense of Townie verus Bayman. Political power was often the source of such conflict and with the attainment of “Have-Province” status and substantial oil wealth, we see new disputes about entitlement and the supposed abandonment of the rural areas of our province. Since many rural areas of our homeland are withering along with their populations and facing oblivion, it is understandable that there be desperation and accusations colouring any dialogue about our collective futures. We must put this aside, however, to properly decide on the path we will pursue as a united people and the ultimate future form our province will take.
I was raised in the Bay D’Espoir area of the Southern Coast of Newfoundland. The general area is quite remote (as anyone driving the Bay D’Espoir Highway will attest) and has often endured economic hardship and chronic unemployment. With the collapse of the cod fishery, the Southern Coast was economically devastated along with the entirety of the province. I was probably affected most by this through my education. Music, arts, social studies, and extra-curricular activities became luxuries and were systematically stripped from my schooling as the years progressed. Friends vanished as their families moved away. Later, I became aware of the overall cultural destruction we faced as communities became hollowed out as our people left the province for survival. Families were torn asunder; we as a people were changed. The Rock had hit rock-bottom. Yet, our story did not end there. We endured and eventually began to rise from our crippled position to stand higher than ever before. This is because we learned to adapt and that is where we will find the answer to the question about the survival of rural Newfoundland and Labrador.
As a passionate people, it’s quite understandable that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are fiercely attached to their communities. That these towns, villages, and cities have existed for decades and even centuries only heightens these connections. It’s unfair and unrealistic to judge these connections but we can certainly discuss the survival of communities without invoking them. That is because every single community, from the tiniest village to the capital city itself, shares a common origin. All of these communities were founded to provide economic existence to the people who lived there. If they did not, then the community ceased to exist. It’s a simple historical trend that is displayed throughout the Western World. People relocate to areas that can support them and their families. In Newfoundland and Labrador, this has led to a consolidation of population within the areas of St. John’s and neighbouring communities. It has also led to a lesser consolidation in communities, like Gander and Corner Brook, that can provide economic scale to support themselves. Rural communities thus have to adapt to the hardships and develop opportunities that support their people or face extinction. As a historian, I appreciate the history and heritage of a place more than most, but I cannot concede that heritage and nostalgia equates rural community survival when those communities fail their people. The people matter more.
The rural communities that are surviving, and with popular support can thrive, are those that embrace the changes we face as a people and adapt to meet them. The collapse of the fishery left my hometown area of Bay D’Espoir with only one major industry and employer, namely Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro. Such an existence is risky, so the communities of the area began developing reasonable alternative industries to provide continued economic existence. Bay D’Espoir, and ultimately the entirety of the South Coast, embraced aquaculture development. What was at the time a novel and risky venture, has morphed into a sustainable and innovative industry and is providing both jobs and increased development. Governments, responding to this adaptation, have provided millions in loans and infrastructure to further these developments and thus promote sustainability. Research and development in aquaculture is now taking place in the communities of the area and new projects are on horizon. The communities of the area are further supporting this with rezoning initiatives, industrial and community planning development, and the embracing of new ideas from the younger generations. This is resulting in population stabilisation and possible expansion with the proper support. Similar developments can be seen to a comparable extent in agriculture in Central Newfoundland and innovative mining developments in Labrador. A focus on adaptation and reasonable development can easily provide the needed justification for the existence of much of the rural areas of the province. Change must be embraced.
There is one last concept we have to comprehend in order to embrace our collective future: there should be no divide between urban and rural Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. We don’t have to be Townies or Baymen and never the twain shall meet. I love living in St. John’s. That basic fact has defined much of my life, including the determination of my education and career. I simply cannot bring myself to live anywhere else. This does not make me some sort of traitor to the outport where I was raised; indeed, part of my soul will always belong in Bay D’espoir and visits to my family back home are a source of great joy. Rather, city life fulfills me in ways I simply cannot get from living in rural Newfoundland. Likewise, there are others who cannot imagine leaving rural areas (such as my own brother). The outport provides their fulfillment and is just as worthy as my own urban based existence. We are two equal, yet distinct, parts of a whole. Collectively we are the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. If we focus on reasonable development and the embracing of community adaptation, then all of us can have a glorious future together.