Nfld. & Labrador

'They're cutting everything back': As rural N.L. gets whittled away, PCs, NDP pledge to preserve way of life

Vital yet expensive services like ferries came up at Wednesday's debate, an issue one resident in Black Tickle says has already been cut to the bone.

Rural cuts make it 'almost impossible to survive' says Black Tickle fisherman

Black Tickle is accessible only by ferry or plane, and neither is adequate to serve fish harvesters' needs, says resident Alex Elson. (Facebook)

In a lifetime of cod fishing, Alex Elson has never seen catches as good as they are now.

Despite the bounty, though, the fisherman — who splits his time between his hometown of Black Tickle and Cartwright — says it's never been harder to make a living. 

Ferry and plane services between the two remote communities are spotty or restrictive, making it tough to transport the bulk of his catch. When he does make it back to Black Tickle, he finds a town cut to the bone, bearing the weight of Newfoundland and Labrador's bleak financial state.

"They're cutting everything back. Like the medicare is cut back, the transportation is cut back, everything else is cut back and it's almost making it impossible for people to survive," Elson said.

The pain of continued cuts weighs on Elson, as he presses for the survival of communities and ways of life like his to become an election issue, petitioning politicians with a simple yet urgent plea: "Something's got to change."

Rural realities

Change is in the air, as political parties jockey for votes ahead of the Feb. 13 election. Their promises stand in contrast to the stark economic realities of a province weighed down by debt, with oversized public sector spending, struggling revenue streams and population either aging, outmigrating, or both.

Alison Coffin, Ches Crosbie and Andrew Furey took part in a televised leaders' debate Wednesday night at the House of Assembly. (NTV/CBC)

At Wednesday's leaders debate, when asked if cutting some services to rural communities — particularly in those that pay no municipal taxes, such as local service districts — opposition leaders were firm.

"It would be grossly imprudent to cut services to rural communities. That is a tacit form of resettlement and I will not stand by it," said the NDP's Alison Coffin.

"If we want stronger communities, we need to invest in those communities."

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie acknowledged the province's expenditure problem, but at the same time said rural living is "a way of life" that contributes to the economic engine. He singled out St. Brendan's, the island community on the Eastport Peninsula with a little more than 100 people, every one of them employed, he said.

"It's a tourist destination. it provides jobs to people," he said.

"It is part of the web of our way of life. We want to build on our tourist economy … preserving rural Newfoundland is the way we're going to do it."

In 2016, it cost $6 million to run ferry service to St. Brendan's, a figure subsidized by taxpayers to the tune of 93.3 per cent.

The MV Grace Sparkes prepares to dock in St. Brendan's. The ferry is heavily subsidized to serve a community of just over 100 people. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

Public support for change

Under an NDP government, ferry services would not be touched, pledged Coffin, in order to revitalize the province.

"It is paramount that we continue to provide services to rural Newfoundland and Labrador," she said. That promise goes against what the NDP told CBC when the party filled out CBC's Vote Compass tool, in which the NDP selected "somewhat agree" in response to trimming ferry services for underused routes.

The PCs selected "strongly disagree" to the ferry-cutting idea, and on Wednesday Crosbie said instead of cutting rural areas, the provincial government should look elsewhere — such as the hefty bonuses handed out to Nalcor executives last year.

In a poll by Narrative Research released Wednesday, before the debate, 77 per cent of respondents said they'd support changes to how programs and services are delivered, in order to reduce spending.

On Wednesday, Liberal Leader Andrew Furey spoke to some of his parties' plans for change. Speaking to the persistent doctor shortages in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, Furey said few newly minted physicians want to set up shop in isolation — nor should they be expected to.

"The new graduates are being taught in medical school to practise as a team, yet when they go out they're not given the supports to accomplish that. They're often practising by themselves," he said.

"We need to change that paradigm."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Here & Now and Labrador Morning

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