Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

What if resettlement meant moving people into rural Newfoundland?

Old fears have been revived about the demise of rural communities, but a geographer and political scientist argue a very different approach could be taken.

In Ireland, resettlement involved moving urban dwellers to rural communities

Political scientist Isabelle Côté, left, and geographer Yolande Pottie-Sherman are faculty at Memorial University in St. John's. (CBC)

With the closing of the tiny community of William's Harbour in November, resettlement is once again making the headlines in Newfoundland and Labrador, reviving old fears about the decline of rural communities.

But what if resettlement contributed to rural revitalization rather than rural demise?

Resettlement policies have played a key role in Newfoundland and Labrador's history and economic development.

From 1953 to 1977, 307 outport communities — and between 28,000 and 50,000 people — were resettled to one of the province's growth centres.

This represents the closure of approximately 25 percent of the province's existing communities and the relocation of 10 per cent of its total population.

The strains of providing government services to a far-flung population, chronic unemployment in the fisheries and an aging demographic have recently renewed government interests in resettlement schemes.

And thanks to the 2013 Community Relocation Policy (CRP), which nearly tripled the buyout package offered to families, from $100,000 to $270,000, some communities are cautiously considering taking advantage of it.

Strong-arm tactics used in past

Resettlement programs have a long history in Newfoundland and Labrador, and they remain highly controversial. In the Smallwood era, communities were often convinced to relocate via strong-arm tactics.

Even the new community-oriented resettlement program, with its minimum threshold of 90 per cent support, has resulted in deep community schisms, as in Little Bay Islands.

The resettlement of entire rural fishing communities, critics decried, contributed to rural depopulation and the eradication of traditional ways of life.

A one hour radio special hosted by Krissy Holmes and produced by Caroline Hillier examines why resettlement is a popular — but dangerous — topic in Newfoundland and Labrador. 54:00

But, as our ongoing research project on resettlement programs in Western democracies suggests, resettlement does not need to mean the end of rural life.

In Ireland, for instance, resettlement efforts have focused on the relocation of urban families, many of them unemployed craftspeople, into rural communities to rejuvenate them and strengthen their future prospects.

Did it work? The 800 or so families relocated all over Ireland as part of these resettlement efforts were credited with keeping local schools, shops and post offices open in their small communities.

The controversial resettlement program of the Smallwood era moved people from small outports to "growth centres" like Arnold's Cove. (Stories of Resettlement website)

This project is no small feat as a decline in public services currently represents one of the main drivers behind resettlement requests in N.L.

Could we relocate town dwellers here?

But could this relative success be reproduced in Newfoundland and Labrador? It is not yet clear.

Important features distinguish resettlement in N.L. and Ireland. For one, the Irish variant was, until recently, promoted by Rural Resettlement Ireland (RRI), a non-governmental organization founded in 1992 that works closely with local partners.

The fact that RRI and rural communities are the main drivers behind resettlement in Ireland thwarts claims that this process is forced upon them.

On the other hand, having a grassroots organization in charge of resettlement severely restricts its financial means, the scope of its operations and its ability to make long-term commitments.  

Resettlement — this time involving international migrants — has also gained attention in Canada more broadly following the large influx of Syrian refugees to the country.

An example from Italy

The example of Riace, a small village in southern Italy that has experienced a demographic and economic revival of late thanks to refugee newcomers, indicates yet another alternative response to rural decline.

While the burden of reversing rural decline should not be placed on newcomers, the case of Riace suggests that refugees and rural municipalities can thrive when resources are in place to support meaningful employment.   

Research has shown that rural depopulation is a major factor hindering rural development and sustainability.

While current local resettlement policies are emptying the rural hinterland, the Irish and Italian examples demonstrate that it does not have to be the case; resettlement does not have to imply rural outmigration.

The fact that resettlement once existed in Newfoundland and Labrador should not suffice to justify its continued existence in today's uncertain economic context.

Are N.L.'s current resettlement policies the most appropriate public policy response to the socio-economic challenges faced by the province today?

Perhaps, instead of shying away from talks on resettlement, the Department of Municipal Affairs would do well to look across the Atlantic for more cost-efficient resettlement approaches that may not only put an end to outmigration from Newfoundland and Labrador's coastal communities but even foster rural revitalization.

About the authors 

Isabelle Côté is an assistant professor of political science at Memorial University in St. John's. Yolande Pottie-Sherman is an assistant professor of geography at Memorial.

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