Sometimes it’s not your fault. Sometimes the business cycle’s spin, the greed or stupidity of folks with big wallets and little hearts, a microscopic bug, or tiny shift in weather patterns can change everything. No matter how hard you work or how well you raise your children, respect your neighbours, love your spouse, or live by your God’s rules and land’s laws, things slip away. Cyril Oxford understands that. Today he is considering burning his house down.
You see, Cyril lives in Little Bay Islands, Newfoundland. He was born there. For his seventy-two years, Cyril forged a life and living as a cod-fishing boat captain. Now, though, with his wife gone and children moved away, he has a decision to make.
Little Bay Islands is a group of five islands just off Newfoundland’s northeast coast. The abundant fish attracted Europeans over 200 years ago. The story goes that in 1825, a summer resident named Budgell shot the last Beothuck, thus ending the indigenous nation that had once thrived. But, of course, like many stories on and about the rock, legends and facts are seldom on speaking terms.
The Little Bay Island community grew with the bounty of the sea and indomitable spirit of people toughened and united by perpetual wind, ruthless winters, and the songs, jokes, and tales that fill dark nights and ease tough times. By the 1920s, 116 men on 14 boats fished and trapped cod, crab, and shrimp, a ship building company created three fine schooners a year, and determined farmers coaxed vegetables from thin soil. The Wesleyan church pews were full every Sunday and children learned at the little school. By the 1940s, nearly 800 people proudly called the place home.
Things changed after the war. Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. In 1957, its premier, Joey Smallwood, the mercurial little man to whom so much is owed and on whom so much is blamed, undertook an aggressive program of relocation. More than 300 outport communities, accessible only by boat, that had been around for one or two hundred years were deemed financially unfeasible. People were given money to leave. Many fought. Many pocketed the cash. Black and white photographs of big wooden houses lashed to bigger barges and steaming through the waves were either sad signs of defeat or sparkling signals of courageous resilience. Through it all, Little Bay Island survived.
There was a crab processing plant, a cooperage, a shipyard, a fish plant, and eleven stores. Along with the new road came electricity, telephones, and a water system. A shiny, new ferry connected the islands to the mainland. A gym was added to the school. History books and old men’s tales boasted of days when you could drop a bucket over a dory’s side and pull up fish, over and over, stopping only when arms ached. Such abundance, it was believed, could never end.
But foreign trawlers and profligate habits meant that by the late 1980s, there were fewer crab, and then shrimp, and then cod. In a feeble and far too late attempt to save what remained, a moratorium was declared. And then there was none. One at a time the businesses closed. One at a time the young people left, and then families. Boats were sold and houses were shuttered. Today, only two students attend the school. The gym’s hardwood floor gleams in silence. There are no stores. There are no jobs. Only about 70, mostly gray-haired people remain.
Three years ago a town counsellor approached the Newfoundland and Labrador government. He proposed the assisted suicide of his town. If it were killed, or allowed to finally die, then money could be saved with the end of government services. A deal was made whereby each resident would be offered $270,000 to leave. To ensure that death was truly the community’s will, it was insisted that a secret vote must be held and that 90% must agree.
The impending referendum split families. It divided friends. Summer residents had no vote but exerted pressure to vote no. There were arguments and threats as some wanted the cash and others spoke of tradition, home, and ancestor’s bones.
When the vote was tallied, all but ten had opted to go. It meant only an 89.47%, plurality, just shy of the necessary 90%. The government would not round up. The money stayed in St. John’s and the acidic atmosphere remained in Little Bay Island.
In 2014, acclaimed Newfoundland novelist Michael Crummey published a superb novel entitled Sweetland. It tells the story of a small, remote, and declining island town whose people are offered resettlement packages with the proviso that all must leave. Moses Sweetland says no. He then watches the community torn asunder by those seeking to change his mind and others changing theirs. The novel is exceptionally well written and the characters quirky and expertly drawn. It suggests the thin and wavering line between fact and fiction and Oscar Wilde’s wisdom in observing the imitative nature of art and life. I highly recommend the book.
A provincial election held on November 30 threw out the Tories and created a Liberal majority government. When the dust clears, the new government will need new answers to Little Bay Island’s old questions. For now, like Moses Sweetland, Cyril Oxford sits alone in his house. Outside and around town, the warmth of emotion fights the chill of logic as what’s fair battles what’s possible and proof is once again rendered that money does not really talk; it swears. Cyril told a reporter, “Things just can’t go on like this around here. When I go, my dear, it will be the last of the Oxfords on Little Bay Islands.”
If he goes, if they all go, it will be the last of a lot of things. It will represent the inevitable turning of the wheels of progress and the tragic consequence of bad decisions and lost opportunities. It will be a victory of the head and failure of the heart. It will be the sad end of two hundred years of hard work and dreams. If Mr. Oxford and the others go, the wind will still blow, the waves will still crash, and Little Bay Island ghosts will stand in silent reverence with Beothuck spirits.
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