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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Crossing the Bay - Resettlement Part 1

All these years and neither Wayne nor I had ever gone out "across the Bay" to where our families originally lived in the outports.  We were determined and we finally made it happen, with some help from his brother, Jim.

Brother Jim in the doorway, Nephew Tom in the camo gear

Placentia Bay has been renowned for fishing since the earliest European settlements in North America.  Once there were many outport communities scattered around the bay, established by Basque, French, Irish, and English fishermen. These small communities were what our ancestors called home before the government encouraged them to move to "growth centers".

Our destination was St. Kyran's - across Placentia to the west past Red Island and Merasheen

If you consult the map above, you can get an idea of where we departed which was basically that red dot. Placentia is Wayne's family's current hometown, Freshwater is my family's current hometown.  Between Freshwater and Fox Harbour lies Argentia which I've discussed often on my blog, the town where my grandfather's family originated before the land was leased to the Americans for a U.S. Naval base during WWII and where I was born when my father was stationed there.

Cormorants hanging out at the old airfield as we left Argentia

Crossing the Bay takes a little over 3 hours, at least it does when your Captain is Davey Maher and you are aboard the Royal Breeze.  He was a close friend to Wayne's brother, Martin, and was happy to be our guide for the day.

I think this is Greater Shearwater (Puffinus gravis)

Leaving Argentia we saw The Isaacs, Fox Island and Fox Harbour - the area where Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in 1941 to draft the Atlantic Charter Declaration.  The policy  defined the Allied goals for the post-war world, and later all the Allies of World War II confirmed it.  Yes, that happened in Newfoundland, probably a mile or so from where my great-grandmother was living.

Captain Dave and Brother Jim have a chat - The Isaacs lie ahead

But, let's move away from Argentia history and back to the story of the outports.   The Placentia Bay area provided rich fishing resources and excellent harbours, many with flat rocky beaches that facilitated drying fish.  The French and the British fought for years over Placentia, as a matter of fact, something you can learn all about if you visit Castle Hill National Historic Site.   It became a French settlement by the late 17th century although conflict with the English continued and the area was granted to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht (1713).

John Judge was our other crew member

By the late 18th century Placentia had a population of 1500-2000 people and rivaled St. John’s in importance.  As time went on though, the lack of services as well as the modernization of the fishery led most residents to accept planned resettlement during Prime Minister Smallwood's years, moving to the town of Placentia or other nearby centralized communities. Many were attracted by promises of work at the nearby American navy base (1941-44) in Argentia or other job opportunities.

Beautiful Red Island

Newfoundland did not become part of Canada until 1949.  Prior to that time it was a British Dominion, self-governing since 1855.  As a matter of fact, my mother is the only one of her siblings to be born a "Newfoundlander" and not a Canadian!  Joseph Smallwood was the first Prime Mininster of Newfoundland after Confederation which brought unemployment insurance and the baby bonus, helping struggling outport families survive.  But it still could not alter the fact that the provincial government could not afford to deliver the same quality of services to rural Newfoundland and Labrador as it could to the rest of the province. This was an issue that became an integral part of Joseph Smallwood’s platform to diversify, industrialize, and modernize the provincial economy. 

Jim's wife Donnie is originally from Red Island and was so happy to see it!
From Heritage Canada's website: Three different types of Government-sponsored resettlement programmes took place. The first one, Centralization, was introduced in 1954 and offered voluntary resettlers small sums of money to relocate to larger, more accessible areas of their choosing. As a community-focused venture government required a unanimous vote from all community members to resettle. This programme was plagued with issues and resulted in numerous families moving back to their original communities. 

Ten years after the first programme, a Federal-Provincial partnership was established and the Fisheries Household Resettlement Programme began. Unlike its predecessor, the second programme was clearly tied to the fishery and had slightly different criteria than the first. Under this agreement resettlers were encouraged to move to destinations chosen by Government as growth centres, which were defined as communities believed to be economically viable. The chosen communities usually had fish plants and the area often held heavy investment by both levels of government. This programme also had its share of flaws. 

Newfies call bottlenose dolphins "Jumpers"

In spite of the problems, Government felt the resettlement programmes were fairly successful and the Federal-Provincial partnership was renewed in 1970. Growth centres were replaced with special areas meaning a community in need of funding to enhance regional economic support. More money was allocated for resettlers than in the previous two programmes, but many of the social issues remained the same.

Bald Eagle guarding the harbour

It is difficult to weigh out the benefits of resettlement versus the trauma associated with uprooting entire communities.  Wayne's parents had left voluntarily before the issue came to St. Leonard's, following work and moving to Placentia, but many other family members remained until Resettlement happened.  I remember as a child many of the households that I visited spoke of where they came from and how they missed their home, whether it was an outport rousted by Resettlement or those who had to leave Argentia when the Americans came. Newfoundland and Labrador’s recent history pivots around this controversial issue.

entrance to Presque's harbor

If a community wished to resettle it had to have approval from 90% of the households and the petition to the government had to include to name of the community that they intended to move to.  After approval each household received $1000 with an extra $200 for each family member.  Up to an additional $3000 was paid to cover the cost of moving, including moving the family home itself but only after the move was completed and the receipts were turned in for reimbursement.

Images of homes floating across the Bay are something I grew up with.  The reality was that those who moved had difficulty finding work as many only had skills in fishing and those jobs were already taken in the communities they moved to.  With the decline of cod and in later years the Moratorium on fishing, it was an unfortunate necessity that would have happened at some point.

St. Anne's Harbor

Wayne's father was actually born in St. Ann's, just a few miles from St. Leonard's where his future wife resided.  We stopped there first for a look, noting the abandoned graveyard on the hill to the left in the photo which is now overrun with trees.

James Leonard Sr.'s home was located at the spot above where the tree is growing out of the rock in the center of photo

A popular song in Newfoundland is Joe Byrne's "The Government Game".  To me, it always told the story well.  It starts ... 

Come all you young fellows and list' while I tell,

Of the terrible misfortune that upon me befell;

Centralization they say was the name,

But me, I just calls it the government game.

Someone comes here to catch lobster...but doesn't live here 

My name it don't matter, I'm not young anymore,

But in all of my days I'd never been poor;

I'd lived the right good life and not felt no shame,

Till they made me take part in the government game.

view looking back out of the charter boat as we made for St. Kyran's

More from Joe Byrne's song and the outports of St. Kyran's and St. Leonard's in my upcoming posts.


  1. I saw some crazy photos in one of the museums while there of two-story houses being moved across the bay. Unbelievable.

  2. Resettlement has had a long and sad history. I enjoyed your post.