Novel looks at resettlement of Newfoundland coastal towns

TORONTO — While on a 10-day trip circumnavigating his native Newfoundland, best-selling novelist and poet Michael Crummey encountered first-hand entire coastal towns that, he says, are considering packing up and moving to greener pastures.

“What we are seeing now as the cod moratorium stretches on and on is a lot of these communities are looking around and saying without the fishery, there’s no reason for us to be here,” said Crummey while in Toronto promoting his latest novel, Sweetland.

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The concept of resettlement isn’t new.

Between the mid-1950s and 1970s, monetary offers from the government enticed more than 250 communities to relocate. Resettlement resurfaced in 2002, when Great Harbour Deep asked the province for relocation assistance — just one example of a small coastal community that simply couldn’t survive 20 years of steady out-migration after the 1992 restrictions on cod fishing choked once-thriving economies.

Even at the price tag of up to $270,000 per family, relocation will save the province money when compared to the high cost of keeping services like schools, ferries and electricity running in remote places with dwindling populations.

The policy used to dictate that every person had to agree to resettlement but now, communities need 90 per cent support. As Crummey visited tight-knit communities facing similar challenges as Great Harbour Deep, he became interested in how resettlement divides residents.

“What happens when people start turning on each other or everyone’s trying to make one hold-out change his mind?” Crummey said, recalling his early inspiration for the book. “And what happens if that one guy were to find some way to stay behind?”

Contemplating what that one hold-out would look like is how the character Moses Sweetland was born.

“There is a particular old-timer Newfoundland character who fits the bill perfectly,” said Crummey. “Somebody who is a little bit crusty, self-reliant to a fault but also underneath the crust is actually emotionally soft as butter.”

The main character in Crummey’s fourth novel refuses to leave the island Sweetland, despite being nearly 70 years old and facing an onslaught of anonymous threats.

“I didn’t realize this until I was finished writing the book but I think the biggest influence on the novel was watching my father die of cancer,” said Crummey.

“In a way, what Sweetland is going through is like a person dealing with terminal illness and part of what I loved about him as a character was his fight and his willingness to hang on even when, in many ways, it made no sense.”

And that’s a characteristic he saw in some of the places he visited.

“In some of those communities, that’s what’s admirable about them — that they’re still fighting.”

Sweetland’s namesake island was imagined as a blend of the 200-year-old community Francois, with a population of just over 100, and the long-abandoned Baccalieu Island, which is now a seabird sanctuary.

For Crummey, the loss of these places is “devastating.”

“We are going to be less without those places,” said Crummey. “The fact that they won’t be there to visit means that what Newfoundland is as a thing, as a totality, is something a lot less.”

But his views on what that means for the local culture have changed.

“I used to think the loss of that traditional way of life, meant the loss of the Newfoundland character — that the culture that world created would disappear as well,” said Crummey.

What changed his mind was looking at his own upbringing in an interior mining town, as he put it, “nowhere near salt water.”

“When I look at myself I think well, hell, I’m a Newfoundlander to the core,” said Crummey.

“In some ways, my experience was a precursor to what all Newfoundlanders — this generation of Newfoundlanders — is dealing with, which is growing up in a world hearing about what Newfoundland used to be like but seeing a very different world.”

Growing up on his parent’s stories is what made him who he is today and even though his three kids have an entirely different life than he had — so in touch with the rest of the world and with “phones attached to their faces” — they still reflect the province’s unique culture, said Crummey.

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