LAST FISH, FIRST BOAT

When the cod fishery collapsed, it ended this fisherman’s career overnight. He pivoted to boatbuilding, a self-taught practice he continues today, in his eighties. It’s an old story, adapted from a 2019 book, “Cod Collapse,” and it holds new meaning in the current pandemic, as Canadians found themselves out of work, staying at home and needing to pivot.

Last Fish, First Boat is a project by Jenn Thornhill Verma (writer) and Kat Frick Miller (visual artist), recently funded by the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Originals initiative.

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Last Fish, First Boat

When the cod fishery collapsed, fisherman Eugene Maloney’s livelihood is yanked out from underneath him. All his pride, all his life, everything he’s ever known is suddenly gone. He doesn’t recall spending days and weeks on land, certainly not in summertime. But here he is with fishing gear that’s no longer of any use. In the spring of 1992, Gene had fished his last cod, marking an abrupt end to a five-generations-old way-of-life for the Maloney family. But every bit the enterprising Newfoundlander, Gene marks the end of the fishery with a new beginning. He pivots to boatbuilding, a self-taught practice he continues today, in 2020, Gene now in his eighties. Set in Bay Bulls, Newfoundland and Labrador, Last Fish, First Boat revisits the 1992 cod moratorium through a fisherman’s eyes. It’s an old story that holds new meaning in 2020, as a global pandemic put Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast out of work, stuck at home and needing to pivot. Like Gene’s story, where there’s will, Canadians will find their way.

*UPDATE* Last Fish, First Boat makes the news! CBC news reporter Prajwala Dixit talks to Gene Maloney and Last Fish, First Boat collaborators Kat Frick Miller and Jenn Thornhill Verma on August 28, 2020.

Here and Now (CBC NL TV)

The Broadcast (CBC NL radio)

Online (CBC NL)

Fisherman-turned-boatbuilder Eugene Maloney sits in one of his woodsheds in Bay Bulls, NL (photo credit: J Thornhill Verma, 2018)

The project

With funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, this digital storybook (video) adaptation draws from an existing nonfiction 2019 book, “Cod Collapse: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland’s Saltwater Cowboys” (Nimbus Publishing), by Jenn Thornhill Verma. The video will showcase still-frame animations (or gifs) based on new illustrations by Kat Frick Miller. The video, to be released this fall, will be hosted on multiple platforms, including the artists’ professional websites and social media with captioning (accessible for the hearing impaired) and an alternative narrated/text version (for the visually impaired). Stay tuned to the artists’ websites for details.

Last Fish, First Boat received funding from the Digital Originals program, part of the Canada Council for the Arts’ Strategic Funds and Initiatives. This project marks the first collaboration for Jenn Thornhill Verma and Kat Frick Miller and both artists have experience undertaking focused works about the east coast fishery. 

Read an exclusive excerpt from “Cod Collapse” featuring Eugene Maloney in Canadian Geographic.

Image (L): Visual artist Kat Frick Miller’s first study for the project features fisherman-turned-boatbuilder Eugene Maloney in his woodshed in Bay Bulls, NL. Although Gene, as he’s called, retired from fishing immediately following the 1992 cod moratorium, nearly three decades later he often wakes early to check the weather, recording the dates of weather events on the wall behind his wood stove in one of his woodsheds. Photo (R): Gene’s woodshed (photo credit: J Thornhill Verma, 2018)
*UPDATE* Images: Visual artist Kat Frick Miller’s study for the project

*UPDATE* MEET OUR COLLABORATORS:

In addition to funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, we acknowledge:

Video editing/production: Matt LeMay, LeMay media and consulting

Audio and music: Jamie Bonaparte and Michelle Opthof, Paragon Cause

Content review: Dean Bavington (Memorial University of Newfoundland), Costas Halavrezos (BookMe! podcast host; former CBC Maritime Noon host), Jeffrey Hutchings (Dalhousie University), Wayne Maloney (The Maloney Family), Whitney Moran (Nimbus Publishing), and Kimberly Orren (Fishing for Success).

AN OLD STORY HOLDS NEW MEANING

After the east coast cod fishery collapsed, fifth-generation fisherman Gene Maloney made light of the grim situation by cracking a joke (as Newfoundlanders tend to do), “I never knew we had a lawn until 1993,” he said. That was the first summer after the federal government called a moratorium on cod fishing, so everyone stayed at home and everything on land got a lot more attention. The houses and properties around Bay Bulls, NL looked immaculate, with all the lawns mowed and fences painted. The excitement of the fishery was gone, and boredom was setting in better than any grass fertilizer.

But Gene was never one for sitting around and he certainly wasn’t about to start now. Instead, he took up boat-building. Nearly three decades on, the 1992 cod moratorium, meant to last two years, is still in effect, and Gene continues building his wooden boats.

Retelling Gene’s story in 2020 is important for a variety of reasons. The cod moratorium was the largest mass layoff in Canada’s history. Unemployment rates reached a high in Newfoundland and Labrador that year of 20 per cent, the greatest in the country, where unemployment was, on average, two-fold lower at 11.2 per cent. Today, as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic put millions of Canadians out of work and forced everyone to stay at home, Gene’s story is more relatable than ever before. The national unemployment rate more than doubled from 5.6 per cent in February 2020 to 12.3 per cent in June 2020. Last Fish, First Boat is a story about reinvention at a time when the world is crashing down around you. Gene is anyone facing a personal or professional identity crisis and Bay Bulls is every community forced to renegotiate its own existence. 

The painted fences of 1993 are today’s home improvement projects, with Canadians then and now landlocked and turning their attentions to refurbishments at the homestead. Of course, not everyone has the luxury of a fenced-in yard or roof over their head. When events of this nature happen, everyone is displaced, but some are more vulnerable than others. How we respond as a community is especially revealing. 

Northern cod also represents the greatest numerical reduction of a species in Canadian history. The demise of this mighty fish – once so plentiful, it fed the world – didn’t happen by an act of God. Just as measures could have prevented the global COVID-19 pandemic, so too could we have averted the collapse of Northern cod and the subsequent moratorium. Only since 2019 (more than a quarter of a century after the cod moratorium) does the federal Fisheries Act include language supporting the recovery of species like Northern cod. And yet, in 2020, there remains no such recovery plan (though a Northern cod recovery plan is in the works). This reality also holds comparisons to pandemic times, as Canadians remain in limbo, while plans are in development, for example, for return to some form of normalcy to life as we knew it.

Capturing Gene’s story in a digital format will broaden its audience and reach. It will create a more accessible entry-point for more people (of all ages and demographics) to learn about the 1992 cod moratorium – an important time in Canadian history – and how it holds renewed relevance today amidst a global pandemic. 

The artists are grateful for the support from the Canada Council for the Arts as well as to the Maloney family (especially Gene) for once again sharing this important story. As Last Fish, First Boat will create an adaptation from a chapter in the book, “Cod Collapse,” the artists also acknowledge the publisher, Nimbus Publishing.

ABOUT THE ARTISTS

Kat Frick Miller (http://katfrickmiller.com) is a visual artist and book illustrator living in Nova Scotia. Miller received her Bachelor of Arts from NSCAD University in 2009. Kat is known for her playful work exploring east coast heritage and culture. Her vibrant colours and whimsical exploration of the Maritimes lend a distinctive personality to her work. In 2018 Miller illustrated If I Had an Old House on the East Coast, a celebration of the East Coast lifestyle and cultural heritage, by Wanda Baxter and published by Nimbus Publishing. Miller works in traditional mediums including watercolour, ink and gouache.

Jenn Thornhill Verma (https://jennverma.ca) is a literary writer and landscape painter from Newfoundland and Labrador living in Ottawa. She holds a Master of Science in Medicine (Memorial University of Newfoundland) and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction (University of King’s College). Last fall, Jenn published her first book, “Cod Collapse: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland’s Saltwater Cowboys” (Nimbus Publishing). Her book received praise and is now available outside of Canada with a forthcoming audiobook. Jenn has bylines in national and regional publications such as ExploreMaisonneuve, and Reader’s Digest; DownhomeThe Independent, Newfoundland Quarterly, and Saltscapes. For two years running, Jenn was a silver finalist for Best Profile Article (2019 and 2020 Atlantic Journalism Awards). In 2019, she was a nominee for Best New Magazine Writer (National Magazine Awards). Jenn is also a landscape and nature painter, with works featured in galleries in Ontario and NL as well as in print (magazine and book) and online. In 2020, her landscape art was recognized for Best Cover at the Atlantic Journalism Awards for the fall cover of Atlantic Books Today. Jenn recently received the Denis Diderot Grant as part of a forthcoming (2021) Artist-in-Residence at Chateau d’Orquevaux in France. Jenn Thornhill Verma is represented at Santini Gallery in Ottawa.

ABOUT CANADA COUNCIL FOR THE ARTS

The Canada Council for the Arts is Canada’s public arts funder, with a mandate to foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts. The Council champions and invests in artistic excellence through a broad range of grants, services, prizes and payments to professional Canadian artists and arts organizations. Its work ensures that excellent, vibrant and diverse art and literature engages Canadians, enriches their communities and reaches markets around the world. The Council also raises public awareness and appreciation of the arts through its communications, research and arts promotion activities. It is responsible for the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, which promotes the values and programs of UNESCO in Canada to contribute to a more peaceful, equitable and sustainable future. The Canada Council Art Bank operates art rental programs and helps further public engagement with contemporary arts.

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