Nfld. & Labrador

With few prospects, Northern Peninsula youth say they'll join the exodus

There are nine students in this year's graduating class at Viking Trail Academy, a school in Plum Point on the Northern Peninsula, and none foresee a future for themselves in their home communities.

Enrolment at Plum Point school half of what it was 15 years ago

There are just nine students in the graduating class at Viking Trail Academy in Plum Point on the Northern Peninsula. Not one of them plan on staying in the community where they grew up. 1:54

Seven girls. Two boys. That's the extent of this year's graduating class at Viking Trail Academy, an all-grade school in Plum Point on the Great Northern Peninsula.

Barely enough bodies to fill the first three rows of a bus.

Huddled recently in a hallway, they are asked a single question: Do you see yourself living on the Northern Peninsula in five, seven years?

Without exception, they all shake their heads, and offer a succinct "no."

"There's nothing to do," says one of the students.

"There's not much opportunities here," adds another.

Enrolment cut in half

That's the story of the Northern Peninsula: heavy youth out-migration; one of the oldest median ages in the country; an economic base teetering on the brink.

"It saddens you to think so many people are moving away. But at the same time we realize why they have to move," says principal Dalton McLean, who's worked as an educator on the Northern Peninsula for nearly three decades, and has had a front row seat to the decline.

When Viking Trail Academy opened in late 2002 — a consolidation of several schools in the area — there were 330 students. It's now half that number.

When Viking Trail Academy in Plum Point opened for the 2002-03 school year, there were nearly 40 graduates. This year, there are only nine students in Level III, and they expect to leave the region once they finish high school. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The school has been coping well with dwindling resources, leaning more and more on technology like distance education, but expect more multi-age and multi-grade classes if the trend continues, says McLean.

"It's not going to look that good if we keep following the same trend … that's no doubt going to impact our school system in terms of course offerings."

Despite the decline, McLean remains upbeat.

"One thing I do know about rural Newfoundland is we've been pretty versatile and resilient in our ways over the years. I think we will rise to the occasion," he says.

'You just got to do what you got to do'

But the young students at this school are not convinced of that.

"I'm going to go to St. John's, get a good job and move away, and not come back," says Level II student and Castor River North resident Kobe Gaslard.

Jonah Genge is a Level II student at Viking Trail Academy in Plum Point. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

When asked how she expects her future to unfold, Level II student Shaelene Bailey says, "Just being successful and having more than what's around here."

Fellow Level II student Jonah Genge adds, "It would be nice if everyone came back home and everything, but you just got to do what you got to do: find work and make a living."

Vacant, re-purposed schools

There's evidence of youth scarcity all over the Northern Peninsula, most notably in the form of abandoned or re-purposed school buildings. 

In Hawke's Bay, for example, a former school is now a Dollar Store. Others have been converted into building supply stores and apartments, or remain empty shells. 

Enrolment records also paint a startling picture.

Courtney Thatchell, centre, is a Level III student at Viking Trail Academy in Plum Point. She is one of nine students set to graduate from the Northern Peninsula school this year. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

James Cook Memorial in Cook's Harbour had an enrolment of 117 students 30 years ago. This year? Eleven.

When Englee Mayor Rudy Porter took up residence in the town more than four decades ago, there were 350 students in the community.

Now there are just 40-plus students attending the K-9 school, with the remainder being bused to nearby Roddickton.

"We do have a problem in young people … in keeping the place going," says Porter.

Despite the challenges, McLean says students are not being short-changed on their education and predicts a bright future for the upcoming generation.

But if past trends continue — and based on their own comments — that future will unfold far from the Northern Peninsula.

The enrolment at James Cook Memorial all-grade school in Cook's Harbour has fallen to just 11 students for the 2016-17 school year. (Bruce Tilley/CBC)

About the Author

Terry Roberts is a journalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.