Who are we now? 20 years without cod

The next 20 years

Essay by Earle McCurdy

Earle McCurdy
Earle McCurdy is the president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers' Union.

For Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, it's a bit like the assassination of President Kennedy or Paul Henderson's winning goal - in that most of us who were around at the time remember exactly where we were when John Crosbie made that fateful announcement on July 2, 1992, closing the northern cod fishery.

I was at the hotel where the announcement was made, not surprised, but still shocked at the stunning impact of the announcement and its implications for our province and our people.

The years that followed were exceptionally challenging, as people used to being very productive were left idle. But our trademark resilience kept us going, and other fisheries, notably crab and shrimp, picked up some of the slack.

In some respects, Newfoundland and Labrador today is doing better than ever. Or at least that's the case in terms of the provincial government's financial capacity and the economy of metropolitan St. John's, driven by the wealth of offshore oil. There has been a resurgence of pride in many quarters, fuelled in part perhaps by the province's "have" status. But for many, "have" status is an abstract concept that doesn't match their day-to-day reality.

One of the biggest challenges facing us in the next 20 years is the province's demographics. This is particularly challenging in areas where the fishery traditionally was the economic mainstay - rural communities.

As the baby boomers have been moving toward retirement, aging of our population has been inevitable. But the moratorium on northern cod and other stocks hollowed out our fisheries workforce and magnified the problem.

It's been more than two decades since there has been any significant hiring going on in fishing communities. While the landed value and export value of our fishery are greater than in the pre-moratorium days, jobs - especially in fish plants - have been few and far between.

The overall result is that young people have left our coastal communities in droves for work elsewhere. The booming Alberta oil patch has been an enormous political safety valve, soaking up unemployed workers who would otherwise have been a source of ongoing pressure on our politicians.

However, the unfinished business of the moratorium and the lack of a coherent strategy - other than the hit-or-miss coverage provided by the early federal adjustment programs - has left many of our small fishery-based communities in precarious condition. The exodus of young people over 20 years has emptied our rural schools. Community leaders are left with a tremendously challenging task, made even more difficult by the current mean-spirited regime in Ottawa.

We have bounced back before - from the devastating losses of World War I, the great sealing disasters, the Great Depression and the loss of self-government. Necessity has bred an ingenious and resilient people.

What we need now is a made-in-Newfoundland and Labrador plan to use some of our oil wealth to challenge the dog-eat-dog mantra of the federal government and revitalize our rural communities.

Most of us are proud of the exceptional job that has been done promoting our province through innovative tourism advertising. But tourism needs something to promote. A big part of what we have on offer, in addition to our magnificent geography, is the uniqueness of our fishery-based coastal communities. For the people we are trying to attract, that's a little something that they can't get at home.

This is not a romantic or nostalgic sentiment. A lot of the change we have seen in our outports is permanent. But the character of our province - the hospitality, generosity and ingenuity - have their deepest roots in our outport communities. A vibrant Newfoundland and Labrador is one that includes vibrant rural communities. We have the history, we have the people, we need the leadership. It's our latest challenge, just as formidable as the one we faced 20 years ago.