Hands up for resettlement in Gaultois as island community braces for winter
It's not talked about formally, but it's clear many Gaultois residents want to leave
It's Wednesday evening in Gaultois, the liveliest night of the week.
Inside the Lions Club, the women of this remote community on Newfoundland's south coast, just under 20 of them, are sharing laughs over libations and sharpening their aim in front of the dart board.
The youngest is 28. The oldest is 80-plus.
There are high-fives, the clinking of glasses, and the occasional chorus of screams when someone hits the big score.
Music that makes your feet tap is blasting from the sound system.
It's something they look forward to every week.
"It's the only thing that's here," says one woman. "It's the only thing we got."
'We're surviving. That's about it'
Beyond the darts and the music and the drinks, though, thoughts about the future are never far away.
So when the music fades, so too does the mood, especially when the topic turns to the possibility of resettlement — of leaving their hometown and starting a new life elsewhere, away from the uncertain ferry service, the fragile economy, and the gradual loss of services and amenities.
"I wouldn't give it a second thought," one woman blurts out.
And she's not alone. When asked if they would leave Gaultois if the province made a reasonable offer, all but a few of the women raise their hands, some slowly, some nearly knocking their shoulders out of joint, reaching for the ceiling.
"We're surviving. That's about it," says a voice in the crowd.
From celebration to commiseration
And just like that, celebration turns into commiseration.
Smiles and laughter are replaced by blank stares and deep thoughts, and periods of uncomfortable silence.
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"It's not much to it when your family is gone," says one of the women.
It's a sobering scene to witness in a bar where the drinks are flowing freely, perhaps helping ease the discomfort that might accompany the arrival of a reporter and a cameraman.
But that's the reality today in Gaultois, a once-bustling fishing community located on a mountainous island in Hermitage Bay.
It's well off the beaten track, about 200 kilometres south of the Trans-Canada Highway and service centres like Grand Falls-Windsor, and a full day's drive to the capital city, St. John's.
'Resettlement is coming'
Gaultois is a throwback to an earlier era. Boats and ATVs are the main mode of transport. A locked door is about as rare as a traffic light. And the only way in or out? By ferry, across six kilometres of ocean to the dock in Hermitage.
It's one of seven remote south coast communities that depend on a ferry service, and most face realities similar to those in Gaultois.
Once home to 600 people, the population has plunged by 80 per cent, leaving many to lament that Gaultois faces the same fate as the eight other settlements that once existed on the island. Places like Piccaire, about a 40-minute hike to the west, are now ghost towns.
"Deep down, you got to face reality, because resettlement is coming," says soft-spoken Earl Kendell, 80, who is the lay minister at St. Luke's Anglican Church.
He ministers to a shrinking congregation of about 20 at the best of times, and doesn't know who will keep the church going once he's gone.
"That's a million-dollar question. I just can't say," says Kendell, who resettled to Gaultois from the abandoned community of Pushthrough in the 1950s.
Kendell has never owned a vehicle. He walks wherever he goes, carries his groceries in a wheelbarrow, and is usually the man to get the call if a washer breaks down or there's an electrical job to be done.
"A quad would make me lazy," he jokes.
But like many, he's in his twilight years. His beloved wife Winnie died nine years ago. His four children live elsewhere.
Still, this is home, and he's determined to stay as long as he can.
"Gaultois is still a knit community. It's still home. Still friendly," he says.
'Our hearts have been torn apart'
The slow, steady erosion of this town began with a fateful phone call to then-mayor Roy Engram in early 1990.
It was from Vic Young, chief executive at Fishery Products International, the company known to most as FPI and the then-operator of the town's vital seafood processing plant.
Hundreds of year-round processing jobs were put on notice with these words:
"I don't have any good news for you this morning," Young began, adding that the plant was slated for closure.
CBC was there when the axe fell, recording Young's call, and rolling later that day when residents turned out for an emotional public meeting.
"Our hearts have been torn apart today by the announcement of our Gaultois plant is not going to open," Nadine Northcotte, a young mother of five and owner of two businesses in Gaultois, said before an open mic nearly three decades ago.
Not long after that emotional outburst, Northcotte and her family, along with many others, left Gaultois.
Today she lives across the bay in St. Alban's, her children raised and her attachment to her hometown fading with each passing year.
But she still remembers that final walk to the ferry, and spotting her best friend standing in the window of her home.
"When she saw me look up, she backed off. When she backed off, I started to cry. And I just walked down the road and got aboard the boat," Northcotte recalls, her eye filling with tears.
'They can do better'
Northcotte has no regrets about leaving, and says those remaining should do the same.
"If they get financial help, I think it's time for people in Gaultois to realize that even though it's their home, to realize that they can do better — medically, financially — but the unknown is the scary part," she says.
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There have been resettlement votes in the past, with 80-plus per cent in support — a strong majority, but below the 90 per cent threshold required to trigger the province's relocation program, and the quarter-million dollars or so that each household can receive to help them move.
So resettlement is happening naturally.
Former mayor has dire prediction
Empty homes are everywhere you look, families scattered, owners passed on. Homes are selling for less than the price of a used car. School enrolment is below 20 students, with not a single baby in the community.
It's hard to find anyone with a positive outlook for Gaultois, and that includes Roy Engram, the former mayor who took that chilling phone call from from Vic Young all those years ago.
I can't say I've given up, but I haven't got much pride into it now.- Roy Engram
"I can't say I've given up, but I haven't got much pride into it now," says Engram.
Engram still lives in Gaultois for part of the year, but like many, says his days there are numbered.
He came as a boy from Piccaire, that abandoned town to the west, and he foresees a similar fate for Gaultois.
"It's sad but there's not much you can do about it," Engram says after stepping off the ferry and into the Gaultois darkness one recent evening.
"It's a dying community right now."
Aquaculture an economic lifeline
The fishery is what attracted people to Gaultois, and it's a new twist on that traditional industry that's keeping some people there.
A small number of men work in aquaculture, growing salmon in open cages in Hermitage Bay.
It's provided an economic lifeline to the entire Coast of Bays region, but even those with year-round jobs know it won't save Gaultois.
"I'd like to see it come back, but it's too late for it now, I think. It's too late," says Gordie Mullins, a Gaultois resident and father of two children.
Leaving Gaultois, but not going far
To escape the isolation and limited opportunities, many people have moved across the bay to places such as Hermitage-Sandyville, where there are jobs in a plant that processes farmed salmon, and access to health and other services does not involve a ferry ride.
That exodus includes people like Sheldon Nash, his girlfriend Olivia McDonald, and her nine-year-old son Drake.
They moved a year ago to Seal Cove, Fortune Bay, just a short drive down the road from Hermitage, drawn by the hope of better educational and medical supports for Drake.
"It wasn't easy leaving Gaultois but pretty much I had to do what's best for my family," says McDonald. "I think my future here is going to be really good."
"We loves it here," adds Nash.
Fighting against the tide
Despite the odds there is someone fighting to save Gaultois. Her name is Jane Toller Pitfield, a businesswoman and municipal politician with roots in Ontario and Quebec.
Gaultois has a beauty that is unique. It is a jewel.- Jane Toller Pitfield
She came to the south coast a decade ago and fell in love with place. She purchased and operates the local inn, has helped market the town as a tourist destination, and has raised hopes that there might be a fighting chance for Gaultois.
"Gaultois has a beauty that is unique. It is a jewel," Pitfield says.
She arrived just recently with two organic gardening experts from Quebec, with the idea of converting the dormant fish plant into a greenhouse for growing vegetables.
The feedback was positive, and Pitfield hopes to get some government help to make it happen.
The payoff — three, maybe five, jobs.
"My hope for Gaultois is that we can find a way for it to be self-sustaining," she says.
That's an audacious goal, and a level of hope that you won't find at dart night in Gaultois.
"I'm gone as soon as I get a phone call. Definitely this time," says one woman, the look on her face proof that she means what she says.