Furlong | The tides still ebb, long after the moratorium

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the moratorium, John Furlong writes on what's become of a province that had defined itself through cod.

Who could have imagined the riches we enjoy after so dark a day?

"Here the tides flow and here they ebb..." From E.J. Pratt's poem Newfoundland

July 2,1992. A day of absolutes. The single biggest layoff in Canadian labour history. As many as 30,000 out of work. Five hundred years of fishing came to end. The start of an outmigration that has seen the loss of 75,000 of our population in the past 20 years. 

Who are we now?

Starting Monday, CBC in Newfoundland and Labrador will explore the changes in a province that has lived through 20 years of a moratorium on northern cod. Some of the pieces may challenge what you think about the fishery, and what it means to us today.

Yet in many ways, the fishery is as vibrant as ever. Intact and surviving, even thriving.

It's a billion-dollar business, and growing. According to the province's statistics, the fishery has never been more valuable. Now that's a tough argument to sell in Marystown, or Burin, or Port Union, or Black Tickle, or St. Lewis, or Little Bay Islands, or St. Joseph's, or Jackson's Arm, or any other community that has lost a fishplant.

And if it's a better fishery, tell that to our beloved, iconic codfish. One fisherman told me he fished his quota of cod last year, froze some of it, and plans to use it as bait.

But talk about the ebb of the fishery, and the flow of oil! It's been 20 years since the moratorium. We have a whole new generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who don't pine for the "good old days" of the cod fishery.

As a matter of fact, one industry observer believes that some of the up-and-coming harvesters may not even have the exact skill-set necessary to catch cod. We have a new generation whose fishery, their province's fishery, is defined by the crab and shrimp industry. It's a brave new world.

Moving along

Many of the younger crowd have moved on. They haven't turned their backs on the fishery; they just haven't been forced to embrace it. They have other options.

The world has opened up a whole new set of possibilities and the young have spilled out of rural communities, anxious to seize them.

If there was any good to come out of the moratorium it would be that it forced young people to get an education. No longer could they drop out of school and go to work in the fishery.

Many have found work in the oil industry, either here at home or in Alberta or in oilfields all over the world. They finish their shifts, go home for a couple of weeks and eagerly goose up their local economies with oil money.

They buy big flashy trucks. They build houses. They throw lots of money around in their communities during their three-weeks-off and then return to their three-weeks-on.

The way we are now

This province has changed. Not only do we remember Brian Peckford's promise that "one day the sun will shine," not only did Danny Williams guide us into being a "have" province, but we are actually living it.

The sun is shining. We do "have." Despite recent government restraint, there's lots of money flowing around.

And our identity is changing. We are no longer perceived as just a stereotyped cap-in-hand, ragged-arsed crowd of fishermen. Our reputation now boasts a wealthy, proud, educated, skilled population that would make even the codfish proud!

We started to get richer when, as fate would have it, the cod fishery was in decline. On its way down, the cod fishery met an expanding oil industry.

And in another stroke of good fortune, as cod declined, crab and shrimp grew. As we lost our young out of the fishery, we watched them with dollar signs in their eyes as they eagerly embraced the oil industry.

For some, it's another day

Maybe that's one reason why July 2, 1992 is just another day for most people. Oh, it's still a lightning rod for some. A reason to nurse the feelings of loss and sadness, a rallying cry of blame, a reason to reflect, a source of resentment and frustration.

There are still the romantics who want to turn back the clock and return to the days of the Grand Banks dory, there are still the politicians who want to play to the electorate, and there are still those who mourn the passing of the horse and buggy.

But nevertheless, 20 years on, and we're about to mark what is another milestone.

One door closes …

July 2, 2012. Another day in the life of a changing province. Some might even say it's a better, more prosperous province with a brighter future.

We were able to withstand the harsh realities of one difficult day as the door slammed shut on the cod fishery and opened another door to more riches than we could have imagined two decades ago.

Perhaps our darkest of nights has evolved into the brightest of mornings. For some of us anyway. My children don't miss the cod, and don't know much about the moratorium.

But, oh, this province! What potential it holds for them as they look to the future. Because they know there are fewer regrets when you head in that direction.

E.J. Pratt started with the ebb and flow of life in his poem Newfoundland. He ended prophetically with what may have been a glimpse of where we are now.

"... And the story is told Of human veins and pulses, Of eternal pathways of fire, Of dreams that survive the night, Of doors held ajar in storms."

About the Author

John Furlong

John Furlong is a host on CBC Radio One in St. John's.