Nfld. & Labrador

Waiting for the resettlement package: Does the prospect keep people in rural towns longer?

Offering reduced services, ending payouts for people who resettle are just two suggested approaches to handling dwindling numbers in some Newfoundland and Labrador communities.

'Have we thought about the cost of not having these communities?' asks MUN professor

Peter Fenwick, former NDP leader and now a mayor, says the Newfoundland and Labrador government should stop dangling the possibility of a resettlement allowance because it keeps people from moving on their own. (Mike Parsons/CBC)

Could all the doom-and-gloom talk about the future of small communities in Newfoundland and Labrador turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Opinions on that depend on who you talk to.

Resettlement — shutting down places as rural populations dwindle — is a very real debate right now.

At a time when former auditor general Terry Paddon is one of many questioning how the provincial government will keep itself going given current spending levels and a debt of $13.6 billion, the cost of providing services to small communities is very much under scrutiny. 

One example is the ferry to the island community of St. Brendan's, in Bonavista Bay.

The MV Grace Sparkes prepares to dock in St. Brendan's. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

At an annual cost of $6 million for a population of 114, that's nearly $53,000 per person each year.

The 'easy solution'

Kelly Vodden is an associate professor of environmental policy and geography at the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University. Both her research and her passions revolve around the notion of vibrant, remote, rural communities. 

Kelly Vodden, associate professor at the Grenfell Campus of Memorial University, says once a community is resettled, it's irreversible. (CBC )

Vodden says resettling isolated and small places is the "easy solution," but other, less drastic options should be considered about how to provide essential services. 

"I mean, I don't want to be naive and suggest that the costs of services aren't an issue in rural areas. But … looking at this [as] black or white — either resettle, move everyone, which is an irreversible kind of decision — at least have the conversation about service alternatives."

For Vodden, that includes considering on-demand transportation, telehealth, distance education and home schooling in aging communities with very few children. 

She also offered the example of the village of Alert Bay, off northern Vancouver Island, where she says people opted to go with a walk-on passenger ferry to take older children back and forth to school instead of a more expensive car ferry. 

Will there be X-ray machines? 

Rob Greenwood, the executive director of the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development at Memorial University, said people need to know what services will be available where they live.

"I think it's silly to even talk about resettlement" for communities that have homeowners who are either retired or close to it and are within driving distance of bigger towns with more services, Greenwood said.

Rob Greenwood of the Harris Centre says people who live in remote communities will have to decide if they're willing to grow old in places that won't have easy access to specialized health care. (CBC )

However, the picture becomes more complex for those living in more remote places. 

"People do have to make decisions about, 'Am I willing to grow old in a place that isn't going to have easy access within a short drive to specialized health care?'" said Greenwood.

He added that it's crucial the government make clear what services would still be available so that people can plan.

"You can have criteria that are fairly clear on the population catchment area that justifies an X-ray machine, that justifies a certain type of doctor, etc. etc." 

Ask the women at dart night in Gaultois, a south coast town at the end of a ferry run, if they would like to resettle and this is the reaction you get. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Right now, the Newfoundland and Labrador government waits for individual communities to show serious interest in the resettlement process, and then looks at whether that would save money on services over the next 10 to 20 years.

If yes, 90 per cent of the permanent residents must vote in favour of resettlement. They are then eligible for financial assistance of $250,000 to $270,000, depending on the number of people in a house.

'Foolish policy' backfiring, says critic

Cape St. George mayor and bed and breakfast operator Peter Fenwick is convinced that offering that much money — far more, he says, than would be required to buy a new house in most communities in Newfoundland and Labrador — is actually deterring people from moving on their own.

Must have been dreamt up by somebody who had to buy a house in St. John's.- Peter Fenwick

"They sit there and wait. And they wait for … the package, as it's called. And that means the policy is basically flawed," Fenwick said. 

"It's doing exactly the opposite of what it's supposed to. It's keeping people in rural communities who have very few opportunities, rather than encouraging them to leave."  

A crane lifts everything from mattresses to ATVs on board the ferry as people prepare to leave William's Harbour, Labrador. Many moved to Port Hope Simpson. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Fenwick maintains the province should instead offer only market value for homes as people resettle, even though market value in a place about to be shut down would be extremely low. 

"What they should have done was done nothing. And then people probably would have gone a lot faster than they have in the past or they are going now," Fenwick said.

"But they're not. They're trying to encourage them with this foolish policy. Must have been dreamt up by somebody who had to buy a house in St. John's because nobody pays $275,000 for a small house in a rural community." 

Fenwick claims the real cause of the Newfoundland and Labrador deficit is not the cost of providing ferry service but the "tens of thousands of extra civil servants in St. John's."

What would be lost?

For her part, Vodden says it's important to look at what could be lost as a result of wide-scale resettlement: 

"Have we thought about the cost of not having those communities as well? Economic costs, environmental stewardship, social and cultural costs to our province?" said Vodden, pointing to the recent success stories of Fogo Island and Bonavista.

In Bonavista, restored heritage buildings that were in danger of being lost have formed a key part of the revival.

Morning tranquility in Little Bay Islands, where a decision on whether to resettle has turned into a protracted, painful wait after just under the required 90 per cent voted in favour. (Submitted by Mike Parsons)

There's no question that some communities will not survive. William's Habour, Labrador, was the most recent to go through resettlement. This month, the government announced that a formal vote will take place for the 10 people in Snook's Arm, on the Baie Verte Peninsula. 

But Greenwood said there's no danger that rural Newfoundland and Labrador itself is about to die, not with tourism, forestry, small-scale manufacturing and the fishery outside of urban areas being such a significant part of the overall economy. 

"There will be rural communities in Newfoundland and Labrador 100 years from now, 200 years from now. As Glen Blackwood, the head of the Marine Institute, always says, 'If we can get the fishery right, it's a never-ending mega-project.'"

Regional government makes a lot of sense, he said. 

"We need the supports to have a humane, planned transition."

Join Ramona Dearing at CBC-NL's Rethinking Resettlement town hall in Gambo on Wednesday Nov 29th. 7:30 at the Smallwood Interpretation Centre. Accessible venue. Tea and cookies provided. You can also watch live on CBC-NL's FaceBook page.