Nfld. & Labrador·Moving On

'I'm going to miss it': Hearty settlers recall early days in William's Harbour

William’s Harbour has a long and storied history — families have fished there for generations — but it was only in this lifetime that people started staying in the community year-round.

Once-thriving Labrador fishing community being resettled on Nov. 10

Carl Larkham raised five kids in William's Harbour. He's proud they've all gone on to find jobs. (Katie Breen/CBC)

The about-to-be resettled community of William's Harbour has a long and storied history — families have fished there for generations — but it was only in this lifetime that people started staying in the community year-round.

The 15 residents have mixed feelings as they prepare to leave.

It was always a seasonal place.

People moved there in the summertime to make their living and left again in the winter for more hospitable, still remote, ground.

William's Harbour loses power Nov. 10. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Then, 40 years ago, power came to isolated parts of southern Labrador.

The first year — Thought we was all going to freeze.- George Russell

Only one seasonal community was going to be hooked up, and families had to pick.

"The first year — thought we was all going to freeze," recounted George Russell, the unofficial mayor of William's Harbour.

"You put a glass of water on the table and the next morning it would be froze solid."

George Russell is technically the chairperson of the local service district, but everyone considers him mayor. (Katie Breen/CBC)

They had picked William's Harbour because of its proximity to the fishing grounds, but the houses weren't built to withstand the harsh winters on an island off the coast.

"We lived out of it anyway … we lived to tell the story," said resident Craig Larkham.

Survived and thrived

He and the others have since built more more insulated homes, but the winters are still tough.

Sometimes, Larkham said, enough snow falls for him to walk onto the second storey of his house.

This home was built 25 years ago by Carl Larkham, known as Uncle Carl in the community. (Katie Breen/CBC)

There are hardly any trees — the vegetation looks like what you'd see in the Arctic.

Brush clings to the rocks where the wind can't get at it.

But residents adapted — stuck it out — and populated the place anyway.

"This community was a real busy community one time," said Rosalind Russell.

"You had a fish plant here … We used to work in the fish plant all the time."

The once-thriving fishing community is down to 15 residents. (Katie Breen/CBC)

She runs Freeman Russell and Sons Ltd., the only general store left in William's Harbour, and has watched 30 years of change from behind the counter.

"When we'd get the food come in, in the winter, fresh fruit and vegetables and everything, that would be fun," she said.

"Everybody in the community would be here before he'd get it in through the door … oh, what a going on, you wouldn't have it unpacked or anything … people would be there."

Rosalind Russell runs the last store left in William's Harbour. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Her son, Todd Russell, now the president of NunatuKavut, ran the family's store at one point too.

'We belongs to the land'

He was recently in the community alongside provincial politicians to answer questions about the move.

"We're an Indigenous people, which is to say we belongs to the land and the land belongs to us," he told the crowd at a potluck lunch prepared by the residents.

"I can also say with great certainty that we will be in a land claim in the next few months … And we will not abandon our rights to William's Harbour and to these lands and to these waters."

The president of NunatuKavut, Todd Russell, is from William's Harbour. His parents are resettling. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Todd Russell, like the others in his generation, ultimately moved away from the community.

After the 1992 moratorium on the commercial northern cod fishery, there wasn't enough work to keep people there, leaving older generations to face the elements alone.

I won't know what to do, really.- Rosalind Russell

For years they survived the climate, shoveled themselves out, kept the store going.

But they've voted now, and chosen to accept a resettlement offer from the Newfoundland and Labrador government.

Many are taking their buyouts of up to $270,000 per household and moving to nearby Port Hope Simpson.

"I think I'm going to miss it just the same," said Rosalind Russell, looking out over her dwindling inventory.

"I won't know what to do, really."

William's Harbour started out as a seasonal community but became year-round about 40 years ago. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Stay tuned all this week for more coverage of the resettlement of William's Harbour and its impacts, on CBC Television's Here & Now, on CBC Radio One and here on cbc.ca/nl.