Belonging to Place

Credit: Library and Archives Canada / National Film Board fonds / e011177529

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Editor’s note: This is the first article in “Soundings,” a series of articles jointly published by The Otter ~ la loutre and the Acadiensis Blog that considers new approaches to history and the environment in Atlantic Canada. The entire series is available here on the Otter and here on Acadiensis.

By Tina Loo and Sally Hermansen[1]

The fog comes in quickly around Tilting, Newfoundland. So it was only the crunch of gravel that announced the arrival of a stately beige Buick of 1980s proportions. Its elderly driver rolled down his window.

“Do you belong to this place?” he asked, smiling.

“Sorry?” we replied, giving him his answer.

“Do you belong to this place? Are you from here?”

It turned out the Buick driver did belong. Though he had moved with his family to Grand Falls under the government’s resettlement program and lived there still, it wasn’t where he belonged. Tilting was.

Some forty years after leaving Fogo Island he and his wife were taking a driving trip to show their friends – who waved from the back seat – the place he was born. His was a sentimental journey, one that also recalled the wrench and resentment of leaving Tilting for what the government promised would be a better life.

A new generation of Newfoundlanders is experiencing many of the same emotions now. With the economy faltering because of a decline in offshore oil revenues, the province has embarked on yet another version of resettlement, incentivizing communities to relocate.

As with Smallwood’s Centralization Program (1954-1965) and the federal-provincial Fisheries Household Resettlement Program (1966-1975), the current Community Relocation Policy insists that the government “will only consider relocation requests that are community-initiated and community driven.”

But then as now, communities consisted of people with different interests. And then as now, the distress started long before people left, in the course of deciding whether to take the “shifting money.”

The pain of relocating is often explained with reference to Newfoundlanders’ deep connection to place. When local journalist James McLeod decided to leave the province at the end of last year, he knew most people wouldn’t be joining him: they were “as rooted as the tuckamores on the East Coast Trail.”

And I can’t blame them. Newfoundland and Labrador is magic, and in its best moments, it’s beautiful, whimsical, primal and profound. The sense of nationalist identity beats in the hearts of so many people here, and leaving it would be a little bit of treason.

But there is and was more to Newfoundlanders’ attachment than aesthetics or ideology – as powerful as they are. From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, people’s “sense of place” was grounded in material considerations. Gender, age, technology, and sunk costs structured their sentiments and shaped decisions about whether and where to resettle.

During those years, more than 20,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians moved under the auspices of the federal-provincial program. While it touched all parts of the province [Map 1], its effects were uneven. The communities that sent the most individuals were located in and around the southern coast.

Map 1: Receiving and Sending Communities in Newfoundland and part of Labrador, 1966-1975

In many ways, Placentia Bay was ground zero of resettlement: not only did its outports figure prominently among “sending communities,” but many of the most important “receiving communities” were also located there [Map 2, Map 3, and Map 4].

Map 2: Top Ten Sending Communities, 1966-1975
Map 3: Top Ten Receiving Communities, 1966-1975

Burin, Grand Bank, and Marystown, along with Fortune and Harbour Breton on Fortune Bay, were designated “fishery growth centres,” places to which Newfoundlanders were encouraged to resettle so they could participate in the industrial fishery. As much as it was aimed at improving people’s social security, resettlement was also an economic policy aimed at weaning outport residents from the inshore, small boat fishery to create what Miriam Wright calls “a fishery for modern times.”[2]

Map 4: Receiving and Sending Communities in the Placentia and Fortune Bay Regions

That said, many Newfoundlanders didn’t move to these designated growth centres: in fact, the top ten receiving communities accounted for just 32 per cent of the people who were resettled.[3] Instead, people went to communities throughout the province, many of which didn’t offer the kinds of job opportunities or better social services that justified the state moving people.

Indeed, many of the moves the government funded made little sense when measured against the purpose of the program: why, for instance, would it have paid for four families (twenty-one people) to move from one place on the tiny Change Islands in Notre Dame Bay to another in 1967? Island communities weren’t considered particularly viable – so much so that at the same time the government supported the move within the Change Islands it was also paying people to leave them.

While contradictions like these speak to the inconsistency that can accompany the implementation of any government policy, they’re also evidence of the extent to which Newfoundlanders were able to bend the resettlement program to their own desire to stay rooted even as they may have taken issue with the necessity of leaving.

We can get a sense of how and why they managed to do so by returning to Placentia Bay and looking at the resettlement of Port Elizabeth on Davis Island.[4] As was the case in other outports, Port Elizabethans were divided about whether to relocate. Nevertheless, the community was eventually completely “evacuated.”

The people who went first were younger, attracted perhaps by the jobs at the fish plants in Burin, Grand Bank, and Marystown, or on the trawlers working out of them [Map 5]. The holdout households, consisting of more than 150 of the outport’s total population of 388, were headed by older, prosperous men aged forty-five to sixty-five with a significant investment in gear.

Map 5: Where Port Elizabethans Resettled

In the end, they agreed to leave, but only if the government allowed them to move as a group to Red Harbour, about five kilometres across Placentia Bay, on the Burin Peninsula.

Theirs was no small ask. Red Harbour had been abandoned in the early 1960s under the Centralization Program. As an officially evacuated community, it was closed to permanent settlement. The site was neither serviced by water, sewer, and electrical lines, nor was there a school. In the opinion of the engineer sent to survey the area, moving to Red Harbour would mean a decline in Port Elizabethans’ standard of living. They were better off staying where they were.

That wasn’t an option – not for the government, which reluctantly agreed to the move, or for Port Elizabeth’s remaining residents, who insisted on going there. In making their case, these Port Elizabethans drew on the same arguments offered by the framers of the resettlement program: moving to Red Harbour would give them better access to schools and social services and the opportunity to work in the industrial fishery for those who might want to – like their children.

Many of the men certainly had no interest in doing so. Their age and lack of education worked against them – or so they felt. As their clergyman put it, “the men are few today accepted for other employment above 50 years old.”[5] In any case, they wanted to fish as they’d always done, with the gear they’d amassed through years of hard work. It would be a waste to walk away from an investment of more than half a million dollars. These “sunk costs” or fixed capital in the small boat fishery moored them to place.

From Red Harbour, these men would still have access to their fishing grounds and be able to maintain their independence and dignity as breadwinners. “The people of Port Elizabeth with such fishing geer [sic] and myself and others included if we cannot get somewher [sic] near to move all our work for the past years will be in vain,” a fishermen’s union representative insisted.[6]

Explaining the position of Port Elizabeth’s residents, the Deputy Minister of the Department of Community and Social Development told his colleagues, “they could not operate as [inshore] fishermen from either Burin or Marystown and because of very little formal education they would not be able to secure employment and continue to be self-supporting.”[7]

Other locations wouldn’t afford the same possibilities: their gear wasn’t suited for it and neither were they, lacking the kind of knowledge of the local grounds that was essential to fishing success. These grounds have only recently begun to be mapped through community-based research projects.

We may hear nostalgia when we listen to Newfoundlanders sing about the rocks of Merasheen, the combers off Cape St. Mary, or the waters off St. Leonard’s and Toslow. But the experience of Port Elizabeth’s residents with resettlement reminds us of how gender, age, technology, and fixed capital worked to create a sense of place and belonging.


The authors would like to thank Norman Potter for research assistance.

The maps accompanying this article were compiled in a GIS to geographically reference 812 historic resettlement place names. The process of researching and verifying the locations of the unique resettlement names resulted in 784, or 96.5%, of the names being correctly located. For more information on the GIS methodology, contact Sally Hermansen, UBC Geography.

[1] Sally Hermansen is a Professor of Teaching in the Department of Geography, University of British Columbia. She works on collaborative projects that use GIS to visualize environmental history and undertakes research on the evolution of teaching cartography in academia, and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

[2] Miriam Wright, A Fishery for Modern Times: the State and the Industrialization of the Newfoundland Fishery, 1934-1968 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

[3] In total, the Fisheries Household Resettlement Program moved 20,614 people in 4094 households. The top ten receiving communities accounted for 6573 people and 1261 households. Statistics: Federal-Provincial Resettlement Program: community consolidation program, first resettlement agreement (1965-1970) & second resettlement agreement (1970-1975). (No publisher and no date).

[4] The Port Elizabeth to Red Harbour move is discussed at greater length in George Withers, “Reconstituting Rural Communities and Economies: the Newfoundland Household Resettlement Program, 1965-1970,” (PhD dissertation, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 2016), Chapter 8.

[5] Gerald G. Sacrey, U.C. Minister, Port Elizabeth, to K.M. Harnum, Household Resettlement Division, 19 October, 1968. Newfoundland, Department of Community and Social Development, Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL), GN 39/1, file S140.

[6] John J. Like [?], Secretary Treasury Local 150, to K.M. Harnum, 26 October, 1968. PANL, GN 39/1, file S140.

[7] Z.W. Sametz, Deputy Minister, to H.U. Rowe, Deputy Minister, Department of Municipal Affairs, 25 October, 1968, 2. PANL, GN 39/1, file S140.

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Tina Loo

Professor at University of British Columbia
Tina Loo teaches Canadian history and environmental history at the University of British Columbia. She's written on wildlife management and the social and environmental impacts of hydroelectric development. Her current project is an examination of forced relocations in postwar Canada.

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