Dr. Jeff A. Webb is a professor in the Department of History at Memorial University and author of Observing the Outports: Describing Newfoundland Culture, 1950-1980. I interviewed Dr. Webb for the January 2018 issue of Downhome Magazine (see “Abandoned Architecture As Art: Newfoundland Resettlement In Photographs”). This is our full edited interview.
Q. What were the main periods of resettlement in Newfoundland and Labrador
A. What we call resettlement is really two separate programs that overlap with one another. The first one the provincial government paid for, and it was called the Centralization Programme. That ran in the 1950s. The intention there was to help families move from places where it was too expensive and too difficult to provide them with government services to more central communities where they could be provided with medical care, roads, education, that sort of thing. The second program was cost-shared between the federal government and the provincial government, and that was the Fisheries Household Resettlement Program. That was intended to aid people in communities that were engaged in the small-boat inshore fishery to move to places where there were wharf facilities that could handle larger vessels so they could then become employed in a mid-shore fishery in deeper water and then an offshore fishery farther out to sea again.
[In summary t]he first program was intended more to save government resources and provide access to social skills and social services that just couldn’t be provided to people on very remote islands. The second program was intended more as part of a package of making the fishery more modern and efficient.
Q. What has been the magnitude of resettlement in terms of how many communities and people have been relocated?
A. That’s difficult to answer because to start with what constitutes a community? In some instances, it’s just a very small number of families and they’re moving from one place to another place only a few miles away. In other instances there are communities that might have several dozen families that are being moved. I can’t quote a number of individuals or a number of communities confidently.
Q. Although numbers have been reported in several sources?
A. Yes and I always ask myself when I’m looking at these things where do the numbers come from? How did they get those numbers? Very often you hit a dead-end as to where those numbers come from. It might have originally been something that was quoted in the newspaper or something that was quoted in the House of Assembly (Newfoundland and Labrador) or it might be a comment made by a critic of the program. I think it would be quite a great deal of work to reconstruct a precise number.
Interviewer note: These numbers do not come from a single source. For example, people were moving out of outport communities on their own prior to the introduction of formal resettlement or relocation programs.
Q. To what degree is relocation still practiced today in Newfoundland and Labrador? You certainly see it in today’s news – communities that are relocated, contemplating relocation or are in the news because of it.
A. The moving of people from rural areas to urban areas has been something going on for a couple of hundred years everywhere in the world that I am aware of. People in Newfoundland and Labrador sometimes think the resettlement program here was something unique. It was not. Had the government not sponsored the resettlement program, most of those communities would have disappeared on their own. There were already communities – if you look at the 1911 and 1921 censuses, and the 1935 and 1945 censuses – then you will see communities disappearing.
What the government funding did was it made it easier. It subsidized the cost of families relocating. In some instances, particularly in the period after 1965 or so, it caused many people to feel they were being pressured into leaving. Many people felt it wasn’t fully their choice – that they were having their arm twisted by the government into relocating. For me, [relocation] has long happened. It continues to happen. And it’s been happening for two hundred years now everywhere in the world. If you go to Saskatchewan, then you’ll hear the same thing. You go to places in Africa, you hear the same thing. People moving from rural settings into urban settings has long been something that’s been a worldwide phenomenon.
Q. You mentioned the “arm-twisting” that some people may have felt was going on, as if these were forced evictions but what is the process by which people have been resettled or relocated through these programs?
A. Well, that’s hard to be accurate and concise about at the same time. No communities were resettled without the majority of people in the community consenting to being moved. The percentage of households that had to agree changed over time. At some points, it was 90 percent of the people in the community having to agree. Other times, it was 80 percent. There were questions about who exactly qualified to vote, but you can be confident that the majority of people in each one of these communities did agree. That meant always there were a small number of people who moved but weren’t happy about it.
For me, people had the wrong end of this. The failure of the resettlement program was not in getting [residents] out of these islands and remote harbours – that’s not where the program failed. Where the program failed was in the communities that were moved into [the receiving communities] because as resettlement picked up steam with rumours that people would be left behind and fears they wouldn’t be compensated for their land if they left too late, that kind of thing caused many communities to move without the government having had the time or money to plan for municipal infrastructure in the communities they were moving into or indeed for there to be jobs in the communities that were received. Had there been good jobs, good housing, good water and sewage and everything else like that, then people’s memories of this would be quite different. [Some] families found themselves with unrealistic expectations – and some of those unrealistic expectations are the fault of government for making promises for education and jobs outside of the fishery [and not following through]. Had [follow through] materialized, then people would feel very different about it. For me, the failure was not in moving people out, it was the fact that the government lost control of the pace of moving.
Early on it was a small number of families and a small number of communities. The government was able to do a better job of easing people’s transition into new communities. Later on in the program, communities were shutting down, people were voting to move and people were moving without there being adequate preparation for the communities that they’re moving into.
Interviewer’s note: According to the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment’s Community Relocation FAQ, the department “will only consider relocation assistance requests that are community-initiated and community-driven. The department will not initiate any actions to encourage relocation assistance requests from communities.”
Q. There’s a sentiment from some critics that taxpaying dollars ought not contribute to paying for resettlement or relocation. What are your thoughts?
A. That’s a matter of how you look at it. You might look at this and think, “Well, these people should abandon their houses and their property and the investments that their families have made, in some cases over generations, abandon all of that investment and go somewhere else and start from scratch with nothing just the same as if they were refugees from a war zone.” That’s one way you can think about it. Another way that you could think about it is if a community remains in a particular place, the government has a moral and legal obligation to provide healthcare, road access, electricity, emergency search and rescue, education, all of those things. Those things all cost a great deal of money. If we take a community – let’s just imagine one – where the cost of resettlement is one million dollars, then in the year that you spend that – that’s a great deal of money. On the other hand, you might save that much over a ten-year period and so in year eleven, you’ve made money by doing it by year twelve and so on. You could argue in the long run, it is a good investment of taxpayers’ dollars to end a liability.
Q. In terms of those long-term potential gains, do we have any sense whatsoever of what the returns have been, financially speaking for Newfoundland and Labrador?
A. You could ask an economist who might have a back-of-the-envelope kind of calculation. I don’t have any knowledge to base an opinion on that. Part of the problem is you don’t know what the alternative would have been in terms of productivity of households. If you have a household that’s exporting a certain amount of fish, for example, in the year 1950, then you can calculate the economic value. Then [let’s say] that family gets moved to another place and maybe some of them are still involved in the fishery. Maybe some of them are involved in some other economic activity. You would then have to have a sense if they had stayed [in their home community], then what would their production might have been? In the new setting, what is their economic production? Then compare the two. I’ve never thought that through and it’s an economic calculation that falls outside of my skillset.
Interviewer note: A media contact for NL’s Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment, which is responsible for the province’s Community Relocation policy, shared it takes twenty years to realize savings. The magnitude of those savings was not immediately available (note: awaiting a cost-benefit analysis that offers detail). Given relocation withdraws all municipal and provincial services from each relocated community, it is reasonable to assume costs are contained at the least. The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website does offer some resettlement program cost information (summarized into 2017 CDN dollars – scroll down to last paragraph), but no cost-effectiveness information.
Q. Resettlement has clearly had an influence on culture in Newfoundland and Labrador with influence on film, art and music, often with a political thread. To what extent have you seen this cultural influence?
A. There is a lot of nostalgia and romanticizing of rural life among people that grew up here – people whose young childhood, in many cases, was in a remote location. But then they later moved to a bigger town and ultimately [their memories] become an artistic cultural production. For many of those people they drew on the stories, songs and imagery they remember when they were young and from the stories that have been passed on by parents, aunts and uncles and other family members. That’s been a source of inspiration and a source of raw material for many people’s cultural productions.
Q. I understand a number of relocated residents return to their home communities to visit. Do you have any information on this?
A. There are other people that could speak more to that than I could. I know it is not unusual for many families to have semi-regular or regular reunions each year in the places their families came from. It’s also not unusual for people to have gone back to the communities they came from and build summer camps. In some instances, the [resettled] community has been recreated as a summertime leisure site rather than a year-round economically productive community. I think that there are many examples, and I was recently on Fogo Island, which is a tremendous example and a tremendously interesting place. There, tourists don’t go there for the weather. They don’t go there for the theme park kind of Disney excitement. They go there because they want to immerse themselves in a community which has an old cultural tradition that the people there maintain.
Q. You mentioned that relocation is not unique to Newfoundland and Labrador, but resettlement is a predominant part of this region’s history. Why is that?
A. Some of it is a matter of scale and timing. The Newfoundland government put money into the resettlement program a little like pouring gasoline onto a fire,” says Webb, “So it caused something that had been happening naturally to happen much more quickly and with a greater degree of disruption. That made it feel like this is something which is particular and unique to us and something which is really life-changing. Of course, it was life-changing for the people that moved.
Q. Is there anything else that you would like to add that I should have asked?
A. There were two kinds of criticisms of the resettlement program. One you could think of as the critique that government shouldn’t be forcing people to move. [Instead t]hey should be helping [residents] make a livelihood in their homes. The other critique was most associated with this economist named Parzival Copes, who died [in September 2017]. His critique was that the resettlement program didn’t go far enough; he felt people in these rural communities should not be moved to bigger rural communities or to St. John’s. [Instead] people from these rural communities should be moved to Ontario and other parts of Canada where there were labour shortages. Copes’ criticism of the program was that it was a half-measure; it moved people from places where they were underemployed to another place where they were underemployed when what they should have been doing was moving them from Long Island, Placentia Bay to Scarborough, Ontario. That would have been right and then that family would have had an ability to make a much better life for themselves than they did when they were moved from an island in Placentia Bay to a place like Arnold’s Cove. Copes taught for a long time at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He was about 95-years-old when he died.
That concludes this Q&A. Thank you to Dr. Jeff A. Webb for his time and expertise. To learn more about his latest book, Observing the Outports: Describing Newfoundland Culture, 1950-1980 visit the publisher’s website. To read the full feature article, “Abandoned Architecture As Art: Newfoundland Resettlement in Photographs,” visit Downhome magazine.