Nfld. & Labrador

What does 2020's pandemic have in common with the 1992 cod moratorium? More than you think

The shockwaves that Eugene Maloney, a fifth-generation fisherman, felt when the cod fishery collapsed are familiar to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Prajwala Dixit.

Bay Bulls fisherman and N.S. artist connected by 2 historic Canadian events

Fifth-generation fisherman Eugene Maloney, from Bay Bulls, N.L., had the rug pulled from underneath his feet when the cod moratorium came into effect in 1992. (Prajwala Dixit/CBC)

Barbecues, swims in cool waters and the warm summer breeze — typical beats of summer across Canada, even in 1992. That year's summer meant a seismic shift for about 40,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In an unprecedented move, due to the depleting numbers of northern cod, the federal government announced a moratorium on the cod fishery. On the eve of the moratorium taking effect, John Crosbie, then fisheries minister, paid a visit to the idyllic town of Bay Bulls where he came head to head with riled-up Newfoundlanders.

It was a dark day in Canadian history, the moratorium sent a shockwave through Newfoundland and Labrador, ripping its people from the sea, its impact still ringing through time.

Eugene Maloney, a fifth-generation fisherman, was not one of the people protesting on Canada Day. What had he been doing when the news came down?

"I was out on the water setting cod traps and when I [came] in, the wife said, 'The moratorium is on. No more fishing.' That was the end of it," said Maloney.

'Lawn was in for a surprise'

Something that was meant to be a temporary measure — the original plan was a closure of northern cod for two years — not only expanded to include other fisheries in Atlantic Canada, but is still in place nearly three decades later.

For generations, the cod collapse has affected lives in Newfoundland and Labrador. Much like today, jobs were lost overnight and people were forced to stay at home. And while baking and gardening have become coping tools during the pandemic, for Maloney and his neighbours it meant that "the lawn was in for a surprise."

Gene Maloney pivoted careers to boat building and wood work when fishing wasn't a means to livelihood. (Prajwala Dixit/CBC)

"I never knew we had grass. I [would] come out in the dark [and] I [would] come home in the dark," said Maloney.

Financial circumstances and the demanding life of fishing meant some people didn't mow a lawn because they didn't have time and they didn't own a lawnmower. When circumstances changed overnight, Maloney said that manicured lawns started cropping up in Bay Bulls.

A pandemic pivot

With Maloney's family income halved and with life giving him an ultimatum, he had to quickly find a way to pivot. Finding his passion in woodworking, he taught himself the craft, eventually churning out 73 boats, swing sets, dining sets and garden benches that are scattered across the province and the country.

Amid today's turbulent times, Nova Scotian artist and illustrator Kat Frick Miller finds herself mirroring Maloney's situation. As a small business owner dependent on the tourist season, April and May are her busiest times. In past years, she would prepare to sell her art prints, towels and cards to stores and at markets in Halifax. But with pandemic travel restrictions coinciding with the tourist season, Miller's orders were heavily reduced.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit has helped, she said.

Gouache paintings, which use an opaque watercolour, will be animated to help tell Maloney's story. (Submitted by Kat Frick Miller)

"It provided me with some stability. Is it compensating for the sales that I have lost? No. But it's making sure that I am able to pay rent this month," said Miller.

Like Maloney, Miller chose to pivot to a new project that would involve Maloney. Using Gouache artwork — a type of opaque watercolour — Miller is partnering with writer Jennifer Thornhill Verma to bring Maloney's story to life for a new audience. The project will use Thornhill Verma's story and Miller's illustrations to create a digital storybook with a few animations.

Floating in the same boat

As a Newfoundlander, living in Ontario, Thornhill Verma came across Maloney and his story in 2017 while writing a collection of stories related to the cod collapse. During the lockdown, Thornhill Verma instinctively turned to drawing parallels between the cod moratorium and the pandemic.

Thornhill Verma said the northern cod remained the greatest numerical reduction in a species in Canadian history. She added that the moratorium also resulted in the largest mass industrial layoff in Canadian history. As a proportion of the provincial population, she said, 30,000 to 40,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians would have been the equivalent of about 600,000 Ontarians. What remains common, she said, to the job losses due to the moratorium and the pandemic, is the sense of having the rug pulled from underneath one's feet.

Halifax artist Kat Frick Miller found herself in a similar boat like Maloney, and related to the economic pinch of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by Kat Frick Miller)

But Thornhill-Verma notes a key difference.

"During the pandemic we've had many people put out of work. Many of them may return to work. That wasn't the case for Newfoundland and Labrador at the time," she said.

"Find something to do…."

These two historic moments are filled with insecurity and uncertainty, something that drew Miller to the project. In these turbulent times, she sought solace and strength in Maloney's story, knowing that adapting her skills for the new world is the way forward.

As for Maloney, he didn't stop. The 88-year-old said it was important for him to find something to do. His advice to the next generation is simple.

Jennifer Thornhill Verma captured pictures of Eugene Maloney in 2017 while collecting stories about the cod collapse. Using these pictures, Kat Frick Miller is illustrating Maloney's life. (Submitted by Kat Frick Miller)

"You park your car for six months, what happens? All the brakes and everything on her seizes up and then you gotta go into the garage. If I don't come out here every day, I'll end up in a hospital or somewhere, in a box somewhere. That's what kept me going after the moratorium," said Maloney.

The cod moratorium — an Atlantic story — has life lessons to offer as Canada navigates the current pandemic. The common thread in the story of a fisherman in Newfoundland and Labrador and an artist in Nova Scotia is the resilience to sail through their new normal, whatever it may be.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Prajwala Dixit


Prajwala Dixit is a journalist, columnist, playwright and writer in St. John's.