Monday, 22 April 2013

SMALL POPULATIONS AND GUT WRENCHING DECISIONS

The ruckus over the St. Brendan’s ferry, earlier this year, and the Budget allocation of $275, 000 to assist families with community relocation has given new focus to an old issue; the unviability of declining NL rural communities.  It is a sensitive subject and one that Governments, since Smallwood, have approached carefully. The cost to the public purse, of the most sparsely populated islands, is absurdly high.  The residents of many of these communities must know it is not sustainable.

St. Brendan’s is one example. The community’s small population has dwindled to 140; fewer during the winter.  The population statistics do not vary a lot whether the subject is Rencontre, Petite Forte or Long Island.
Every island, St. Brendan’s, Ramea or one of the others, sees itself differently.  Certainly none, so far, wish to be seen in a category with Little Bay Islands. A sizeable number of the latter’s residents (72%), voted for relocation last year; though the community still failed to meet the Government’s arbitrary benchmark of “…ninety percent or more” to trigger relocation assistance.   While they were given a closed hand, the Government’s gesture had none of the hallmarks of malice. 
The minimum political price of Government’s generosity to anyone, seeking relocation, is an iron clad guarantee that the offer must never be construed, by even a single dissenter, as a marching order to leave town.  Yet, the Province can’t afford to invest so much money into the welfare of so few.  It never could.
There is an arsenal of economic figures available which conspire against the logic, not just of St. Brendan’s but, indeed, of many remote and island communities.  Neither population size or demographics favour their survival.

While people cling to ‘home’ for a multitude of valid reasons, when the scales of fairness are tipped too far in one direction, the ‘bean counter’ may not always be deserving of the mantle ‘heartless bastard’.  Sometimes, though, when the numbers are so distorted because the economies of 'scale' are completely absent, analysis needs little interpretation.

The cost of operating a single ferry, aside from the capital cost, exceeds not just the taxes collected, but the total incomes of all the residents relying upon it, because the numbers supporting the system as so few.  The Little Bay Island’s population is a little more than half that of St. Brendan’s; the cost of maintaining that community is, therefore, even more extravagant.   Though this is only one measure, it is tough to ignore the fact that the last two ferries built here each had a capital cost of $27.5 million.  Add, too, the cost of other essential services and the increased allocation contained in the recent Budget, if taken up, looks like a pretty good deal for the public Treasury.

Some would argue a similar case can be made against a host of road connected rural towns. That may be true, except that the per capita cost of maintaining an island is demonstrably higher than that of most 'mainland' towns. 
At the heart of the question of a communities’ survival, is the elevation of public money ahead of people, their quality of life or their way of life.  It is a tricky argument; one that will resonate with many who were witnesses to the iconic image of houses being floated to a ‘growth center’. 

In the 1950s and 60s, Premier J.R. Smallwood invoked a “develop or perish” mantra, with promises of “burn your boats, two jobs for every man”, though he denied the utterance.   

The ghosts of abandoned communities piled up as ‘fisher folk’ railed against arbitrary edicts from Confederation Building and a program called “resettlement”.  The anger had a solid foundation: a stressed elderly uprooted from the only place they knew, fisher people separated from their traditional fishing grounds combined with the nostalgia displaced humans feel when their sense of place is irrevocably interrupted, all conspired to compose an image of an uncaring, insensitive and overbearing government.

Smallwood took a bad rap, perhaps legitimately, for a policy that many believed would have occurred organically, without any nudge or strong arm tactics.  Understandably, Governments since Smallwood’s have been loath to be marked by even the most tepid policy of rural relocation.

When former Federal Fisheries Minister John Crosbie announced the “northern cod moratorium”, in 1992, few doubted that any support program could counteract its devastating impact. Still, no one imagined that a greater centrifugal force: the pursuit of big pay cheques, by skilled and un-skilled alike, could sever the roots of generations, dim any feelings of nostalgia or suppress thoughts of dread for the monthly commute.

Fort McMurray changed rural NL forever.  It ripped the guts out of a labour force, most of whom, had already come to terms with being a ‘seasonal worker’. 

No one will dispute a person’s right to pursue a better economic life even if it hastens rural demise.  But, we are forced to ask: should the enormous cost, to the public purse, of communities that have dropped below any definition of viability, be ignored, as if no change, at all, has occurred?  And, should this policy be maintained until the last person, in a dying community, has departed?

A large majority of the people of Little Bay Islands made a very tough personal choice by asking for the helping hand of their Government.  They should get it.  They deserve acknowledgement that they have anguished over the decision, and wrestled, not just with personal doubts, but with the criticism of neighbours and family, alike.   

In May, 2011, upon arrival from Marystown, of its $27.5 million “state-of-the art” ferry, the Gander Beacon captured the sentiments of St. Brendan's Mayor Bloomfield, on behalf of the community, when she stated,   it feels like we won the lottery”.

Is there a “win win” here, not just for Little Bay Islands or St. Brendan's, and the many other islands and remote communities, relying upon a very costly support system, but for the whole Province?  The answer is less than certain. But, it won’t happen unless the people of these island towns know that they have a financially viable option (which they have now received).  Whether they have a Government, with the courage, to discuss the issue with them is a separate question.  Likely, it is waiting for a call.

Local leadership is now called for.  The decision is a tough one, but, it is long overdue. 

Though many will argue that Government will get the better deal, it may be time to invoke the wisdom of those who ask: who better to make a difficult decision than those with the most to lose?

10 comments:

  1. Des. An excellent post. This is singularly the largest issue facing the province today. We need to ask ourselves where will be in 20 years when we have hundreds of communities where the average age is over 75. Who will take care of the seniors. The complete deconstruction of rural newfoundland in the last 20 year is the sudject of PHD thesis. But this was inevitable irrespective of the cod moratorium. The draw of a different life Alberta was going to lead to higher levels of emigration, but perhaps not as devastating as what has occurred. We need strong leadership on this one, and face the inevitable.

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  2. Excellent article. I think an equally difficult decision being avoided by all levels of Government is closing/relocating the Corner Brook Paper Mill. The thing is a cancer on the waterfront of NL's 2nd largest city. It is stopping any growth into a modern economy. The whole thing should be torn down, spend that 90 million cleaning up and building a new waterfront office district to attract real sustainable business. What will happen instead is a death by thousand cuts, by the time the mill DOES shut down, Corner Brook and the region will be too poor to make any attempt at rebuilding itself, maybe a relocation package for West Coast residents to St. John's will be available by then?

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    1. The real solution to both the Corner Brook and our Electricity requirements is looking us in the face. The mill should operate 8 months of the year. From December 1 to March 31 the mill should shut down. Kruger should sell the power from Deep Lake into our grid. This combined with the Upper Churchill RECALL power, would hold us over to 2041. It would likely also provide Kruger enough revenue to keep the mill alive. We would also save 3 Billion in the construction of Muskrat Falls. I agree with you, the mill will close eventually. It may not be today, next week or next year. However, the old mill will be closed in the next 10. Without the mill the entire reason to build Muskrat dissappears. Government are propping up a dying industry (pulp and paper) to justify a white elephant (Muskrat Falls).

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    2. That could be a win win for the mill operation and our electricity supply. We need that power for winter heating of our houses, but is not needed in the other 8 months, when the mill would use it.But the government is closed minded with Muskrat Falls.This power from Corner brook is a big piece of an island solution for our power needs. W.A.

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  3. Historically the fishery has always been neglected in terms of research and development. If other nations had the resources we have!It has and will be the most important industry for rural Nfld. Proper attention will keep more of those towns viable. The continuous depopulation, and closure of poorly insulated houses, will further negatively impact our electricity demand. Just one more thing to cut away at the economics of Muskrat Falls.Sure, they'll move to newer houses on the island, but will use less electricity for heat than the older houses. The list of events that will reduce electricity demand for residential use just keeps growing, but Nalcor's forecasters don't see it.

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  4. The real question for me is what will sustain NL when the oil is gone. With little or no industry, an ever-declining fishery, small-scale mining and the aging population one can't help but wonder about the future. The original reason for being here was fishing. Without the fishery then what?

    Tourism??? Any place that has tourism as it's #1 industry tends to be third-world.
    Industry/manufacturing??? Our location is a huge disadvantage to reaching the markets.

    I stongly suspect we will eventually revert back to dependency on federal gov't transfers (2006 and before) and a bloated public sector (2006 and beyond).

    Again the real question will be, "Why are we here?" Perhaps relocation of the whole province??

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  5. It is a terrific article, but you make a quantitative statement without providing an estimate:

    "The cost of operating a single ferry, aside from the capital cost, exceeds not just the taxes collected, but the total incomes of all the residents relying upon it, because the numbers supporting the system as so few."

    Could you give us a ballpark on how much the ferry costs per year or per person per year?

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  6. I was going to skip making a comment on this one as it is a conversation much in my heart and not at all in my economic sites. I have long moved "away" and now see the outports and small settlements of Newfoundland as a beautiful moasic of my past and my roots.
    Of course economics must play a part as these wonderful remnants of a time long gone echo the vibrant life struggle that it was. I am not at all sure of the details of the demise - perhaps over fishing, perhaps bad management at a more senior level, perhaps a culmination of events that shape all things to change.
    If something is due or owed it should be paid. Who is deserving, how much and why must be considered. The group would have to be those that most felt the immediate impact of the closed fisheries and what else might limit their ability to rake out an economic existence. Once a group is identified, then a time can be set. When those who have passed are gone likewise should the entitlements. This may not be just or fair to those who come after but it represents a way.

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  7. Most of these communities relied on the inshore fishery. Their death warrants were signed when the FPI's of the day went off with their associated quotas. It's simple, quotas equals survival.

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  8. This article "rings true" more than ever, after today's provincial budget :(

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