The Renaissance of Community Relocation Policies in Newfoundland and Labrador

Jennifer Mutton

Canadian author Michael Crummey recently published a book, entitled Sweetland, about the toll of resettlement policy on an isolated Newfoundland village. Readers will be reminded of former Premier Joey Smallwood’s economic development policies of the 1960s and 1970s, under which hundreds of towns were moved or abandoned in the pursuit of industrialization. In Crummey’s fictional modern context, this type of provincial government policy may seem outdated—a relic of a time in which heavy-handed authorities forced rural families to consolidate into growth centers.

But resettlement in Newfoundland and Labrador is still an option today for some isolated villages. In the province’s 2013 budget, then-Minister of Municipal Affairs Kevin O’Brien announced that the payout for resettling a family of three would top out at $270,000, a notable increase from the previous level of $100,000. With several towns now debating and voting on resettlement, policy-makers must once again grapple with the issues it present.

Talk of “resettlement” in Canada generally evokes memories of mid-20th century governments that were prone to moving people around like pawns in a chess game. The Inuit resettlements of the 1950s, for example, saw Quebecois Inuit forcibly relocated to the high Arctic as the federal government tried to assert its sovereignty over the North. The Inuit people became representations of Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic, and in the process of relocation and resettlement were forcibly severed from their homelands and traditional ways of life.

Resettlement policies in Newfoundland and Labrador have been similarly controversial. Centralization under the Smallwood administration began in 1954 and continued in various incarnations until the mid-1970s, as people were encouraged to move into economic hubs such as St. John’s. But much was abandoned: houses, traditional communities, and livelihoods. The hoped-for outcomes of the resettlement of almost 16,000 people—increased employment, better educational opportunities, and more streamlined government services among them—were indeed realized. But so too was the cost, in intra-community strife, an idle workforce removed from its traditional fishing grounds, and the financial burden families shouldered incurred as a result of scant government assistance in the resettlement process.

Policy-makers today should consider if, given the divisive legacy of resettlement policies across Canada, the current policies in Newfoundland and Labrador are likely to be beneficial to the intended populations. The town at the current epicenter of the debate, Little Bay Islands, is home to a predominately aged population, no grocery store, and has only two students in its school. Its only access to the mainland is a four hour ferry ride. The town’s 70 residents have recently reached the 90 per cent threshold of agreement for relocation, and are waiting on government assistance.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s resettlement policies are no longer marked by an ideological shift toward centralization, but instead by an attempt to cut the costs of servicing under-populated and remote towns. The recent increase in the financial payouts for relocation indicates that the provincial government wants to incentivize resettlement, for a fair price. While this may seem like a large expense, it pales when compared to what the government could save in no longer having to provide basic services such as water, education, garbage pickup, health care, transportation, and electricity to remote communities. The ferry servicing Little Bay Islands alone cost the government $28 million.

The province’s modern resettlement policies are not only cost-saving, but are also concerned with moving people closer to the resources they need. How can the sick receive emergency care when they are four hours from the nearest hospital? How will the elderly fare after all the young people have abandoned them for jobs in the city?

This sort of contemporary thinking behind resettlement policy may seem at odds with how many Canadians view their country, in particular those residing on the East Coast. Many have come to define Canada as a large country made up of small disparate towns — a network of strong communities with distinct regional flavours — that together form the nations vibrant identity. To pursue relocation clashes with the pastoral ideal of Canada: are we sacrificing rich cultural pockets in rural areas for the sake of efficiency?

Despite the skepticism re-settlement policies often receive, its contemporary manifestation is, at the very least, predominantly voluntary. It is rare that a government today gets to move its pawns around the chessboard at will.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, a 90 per cent threshold must be reached before a resettlement process is commenced (unlike in Crummey’s fictional Sweetland, in which there must be consensus). And Canadians do ask for it, enticed by economic gains and the opportunity to move somewhere where getting groceries does not include an eight hour roundtrip on a ferry.

Little Bay Islands has voted yes to resettlement, although the government has been slow to do its part. But soon, assuredly, Little Bay’s streetlights will shut off, the ferry will stop running, and all that is left will be a deserted town on an island in an inlet along the coast. It will join the almost 300 ghost towns of Newfoundland and Labrador, where steeples and rotting buildings poke out of the unpopulated ground. And following the provincial government’s commitment to reducing the associated financial cost, more towns are now considering resettlement. From an outsider’s perspective, it is hard not to see the appeal of a policy that leads to better access to resources and employment opportunities, even if it means abandoning one’s traditional way of life.

Jennifer Mutton is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from McGill University. Jennifer is particularly interested in policy issues related to international trade, social programs, and the labour market.