Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 19, 2006. Red Bay, Labrador - sort of

Red Bay is the last town along the paved road on the Labrador coast. It’s not much of a road – sixty miles to the west in Labradaor, and perhaps another forty in Quebec. It’s linked to Newfoundland by a ferry from St. Barbe across the Straits of Belle Isle to Blanc Sablon, just over the Quebec line from Labrador. And it’s linked to the Canadian mainland by 330 kilometers of gravel road to Cartwright, a day-long ferry into Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and then several days of driving on isolated gravel roads into eastern Quebec. They are building a road from Cartwright to Goose Bay, which will certainly change things. And I

just heard on the radio that the Premier of Quebec is allocating one hundred million for a road to connect that bit of paved coastal road to much of the north shore of the St. Lawrence – though it still won’t link them fully, as they haven’t come up with the funds to bridge one of the rivers.

Canada must be the only modern country that still has communities as isolated as those of coastal Labrador. When they were built, everyone depended on the sea, and the lack of roads was not such a constraint. Now the sea has less to offer, we’ve used most of it up, and it no longer constitutes a way of life. But even when it was the way of life, it was a very hard one, and people who had alternatives were lucky. Jeff Wyatt, for decades the lighthouse keeper at Point Amour down the coast from Red Bay, was the wealthiest man in town, the first to bring in a car, and the first to construct himself an early version of the skidoos (snowmobiles, in the US) that now populate the area in winter. In Newfoundland, men eagerly left the sea for jobs in the US military bases opened in the mid twentieth century in Argentia and Gander; salaried work on land was much better than piecework on the water.

But still, the culture was formed by five hundred years of fishing, and now the fishery is gone. Looking at Newfoundland and Labrador, I thought of Jared Diamond’s analysis of the Greenland Viking community that survived for five hundred years, but eventually died out because they couldn’t change their ways to cope with a shift to a colder climate.

The Newfoundlanders lost the last remnants of their way of life in 1992 when the Canadian government closed the fishery. As in the case of the fourteenth century Vikings, the young people are moving to where the jobs are – Alberta mostly, it seems – and their parents

are left behind. As my mother’s parents both moved to New York leaving their parents behind, and millions of Irish, Italians, Russians, Germans, and other Europeans left their communities behind. Europe certainly survived their loss. But Europeans – perhaps with the exception of the Irish – left because home was overcrowded, not because life was no longer possible at home. Those who left may have lacked opportunities, but only because they had been taken by wealthier or more privileged people. Whereas there simply aren’t any opportunities in Newfoundland, as there weren’t any for the Vikings in Greenland.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. The Newfoundlanders won’t die out like the Vikings. Some of their way of life certainly will die out – indeed much of it already has, and good riddance to being cut off for six months of winter, traveling on dog sleds and covering seventy five miles on a good day, five on a bad one, heating only with wood, and having no access at all to doctors or dentists or electricity. And some towns may die out in another generation – ones like Ramea, an outport on a tiny island off the southern coast, whose fish plant has closed leaving not much in the way of employment. But Newfoundlanders are adapting, too, trying to use tourism to help the fishing villages survive. And they are adapting by moving to their cities, as many already have. After all, while the outports are charming, life is still more exciting in the city. You know, nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

I talked to a lot of young people about leaving or staying. Most want to stay in Newfoundland – but in St. John’s, not the small villages where their parents

live. There are exceptions, of course, especially among the summer employees at Gros Morne Park, but they are biologists who want to be part of Newfoundland’s natural resources. One young man said he figured he’d have to go west to find a job after college. He’d rather work in St. John’s, but those jobs all go to more experienced people. Maybe when he builds up more credentials, he’ll be able to return, but not for some years. Another girl, a native of the Labrador Coast working for the summer at the Point Amour lighthouse – now a provincial park – wrinkled her nose at her home town. She much prefers St. John’s, where she is in school; home is boring.

An older woman working for Parks Canada at Red Bay said all the kids are bored now. She doesn’t get it; when she was young, she said, they had lots to keep them busy. But she’s one who didn’t leave. Her family’s roots in Labrador are strong; they have been the lighthouse keepers on the island in the harbor at Red Bay for a century. They were having a family reunion to celebrate that while I was there. The extended family was camping out on the island overnight, pitching dozens of tents, bringing food and drink and music and a rather impressive fireworks display. I visited the Red Bay museum on Friday, and as I was leaving I saw them heading out to the island in small boats with bags and boxes and backpacks and guitar cases.

The island is part of the Red Bay historic site – it’s a former Basque fishing village, and they found a seventh century Basque boat submerged in the mud of the harbor a few years ago. In the morning I returned to visit it. I was the only tourist around, so the Park staff had to phone up their boatman to ferry me over. He promised he’d come back to pick me up on the island when he saw my bright yellow rain jacket on the dock – or if it started to pour, whichever happened first. The island was lovely, quiet, open, and windswept – like all of the Labrador coast, really. Gray clouds hung low in the sky, but it didn’t rain on me as I followed the short trail, dutifully noting places where there had once been Basque fish processing facilities or houses. It would be lovely to stay out there for a while, pitch a tent and watch the twinkling lights of Red Bay just a short way across the water.

As I headed back towards the dock, the lighthouse keeper’s family was packing up to return to the mainland. They had so much gear, you’d have thought an army had camped there for three weeks, not just one family for one night. It had been an exciting night, as it turned out. It had rained hard, tents had blown over in the wind, they had gotten soaked. But they were

all cheerful, and excited about one hundred years of their family keeping the lights burning on the island, even though the now automated and the current keeper will be the last one. The young people may not be staying in Red Bay, but still they all have roots there. And it’s an exceptional place, the Labrador Coast, not some ordinary suburbia in middle America. At least from where I stand, it’s extraordinary.

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