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Monday 22 April 2013


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?