When It’s Time To Burn Your House and Go

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.

When It's Time to Burn Your House and Go..

(Photo: www.fireengineering.com)

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.

When It's Time to Burn Your House and Go

(photo: www.lanephotography.com)

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.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others on Facebook or your social media of choice and consider checking my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com



Love Letter to a Country

Dear Canada,

It’s been said that you have too little history and too much geography. It’s a nice quip but the first part just speaks of too many bad history teachers convincing generations of kids that your past is short, boring, and without inspiring heroes and snidely villains. None of it is true, of course, but once a myth takes hold, it’s hard to shake.

The geography bit is interesting and a trifle more accurate because Canada, you are indeed massive. While old, thankfully gone history classes were having us memorize dates and the deeds of dead white guys, geography teachers were bragging that only the Soviet Union was bigger than you. Since, no matter what anyone says, size does indeed matter, it was exciting when Mr. Gorbachev let the ailing Soviet giant fall. The sparkle of elation was followed, however, as often happens, by the snuffed candle of disappointment. Even when shorn of its satellites, Russia remained biggest. But that’s alright. Famously modest Canadians would have been embarrassed to chant “We’re Number One”, so perhaps it’s for the best. But you’re still big.

A fun exercise is to have a friend close her eyes and then place her index fingers on an imaginary map, starting at the western tip of Lake Superior. Then, slowly move east and west to St. John’s and Vancouver Island, and then turn north with both fingers, angling in by the Yukon and Labrador to finally meet at the North Pole. If she squints just the right way, she has just drawn homeland as a home plate. That’s kind of nice.

Like in baseball, home is where we start. And during the frantic efforts of love and loss and jobs and kids and moving and moving again and through the trails and trials and travails of constructing our scrapbooks of madness along the base paths of our own design, home remains the constant, home remains the goal. After all, through it all, through the problems we invent for ourselves or have visited upon us, all we really want is to get home, and to be safe. Plus, its kind of nice that Santa Claus is Canadian.

But your geography is deceiving, because while you’re big, you’re relatively empty. Of course there are people everywhere but the vast majority of Canadians live along a two hundred mile swath hugging the American border. It makes sense. It’s warmer there. Crops grow there. But not every country is organized according to those considerations. This is where geography meets history.

The land has been here forever and aboriginal peoples almost as long, but you are not even 150 years old. That fact, by the way, makes you among the world’s oldest countries; but I digress. In the 1860s, the Americans were butchering each other over whether to enslave each other and also threatening, for a host of reasons, to invade and take the British colonies on their northern border. They’d tried before and were ready to give it another go. The bitty, broke Brits with their dysfunctional governments and a mother country more interested in abandoning than embracing them needed to save themselves by creating themselves.

Your birth had many midwives, but primary among them was John A. Macdonald. He linked his ambition to that of the country he envisioned. The conferences that cobbled you together would have failed without him. Much of the constitution is written in his hand. As the first prime minister, he knew two things for sure. First, the Americans still yearned for more land. Second, if the infant country did not grow, the Americans would soon have it surrounded and suffocated. It was grow or be gone and the only way was north and west. And the only way to do that, was with a railway.


The idea was ludicrous. If completed, and experts lined up to say it could not be done; it would be the longest railway in the world. Not only that, it would be built over the world’s most inhospitable terrain. The rocks and thick forests of the Precambrian shield would be hard, the muskeg that could swallow men and machines whole would be harder, and the snow-peaked Rocky Mountains, well, they were impossible. Macdonald told the people of British Columbia that he would have the steel line to them in ten years and, based on that audacious pledge, they joined Canada rather than the United States which was bigger, richer and just next door. Now, the impossible had to be done.

There is a great deal about Macdonald that deserves admiration. There’s a lot that makes our twenty-first century selves squirm. To build his railway he exploited Chinese workers – the navvies. They were imported to build the line, given the worst and most dangerous jobs and, when finished, Macdonald acted to have them kicked out and the door barred. Native nations were in the way. Macdonald swept the plains by emptying bellies and filling schools in a slow-motioned cultural genocide. He was slapped into the opposition penalty box when caught swapping railway contracts for political donations, but was soon back.

Canadians preferred Macdonald drunk to the sobor alternative and him a little crooked than the less bold a little straighter. Beyond that, the building of the railway and the building of the country had become synonymous. It was both or neither. Without him, it looked like it would never get done.

When the railway was done the country was one. Try the imaginary map again. Start at Lake Superior and draw a straight line west and see if it touches nearly every major prairie city. That’s the line Sir John built. He built it on the backs of the forgotten and dispossessed, but all for the glory of the rest.

Too much Geography? No. you has just enough to hold your bursting potential. Too little History? No again. No one understands where they are unless they know where they’ve been. It is the marriage of geography and history that makes you and makes us. And together, our iron will to continue, to remain whole and strong and on guard for thee remains reflected in the unlikely but ultimately indestructible and now largely metaphorical long steel rail.


A Friend.