'I'm going to miss it': William's Harbour residents bid farewell and begin relocation

"The ties to this community run generations deep. Everyone has family buried on the island and they themselves want to be buried next to them."
William's Harbour started out as a seasonal community but became year-round about 40 years ago when power was available. (Katie Breen/CBC)

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This Friday, the lights will be turned off in William's Harbour — for good.  

Over the last month,  each ferry run from the small Labrador community has been loaded up with a lifetime's worth of possessions.  Most of the residents — about a dozen — are now heading to Port Hope Simpson after voting in favour of relocation.

There's no gas station in William's Harbour, and only one store left, run by Rosalind Russell. She remembers a very different time when the community was vibrant when people used to work in the fish plant.

"When we get the food come in the winter and you know fresh fruits and vegetables and everything — that would be fun because everyone in the community would be here," Russell recalls.

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

Now her shelves are bare. 

"I'm going to miss it just the same. I won't know what to do," she says.

CBC reporter Katie Breen who spent time in William's Harbour tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that the store doesn't run like a regular store anymore with specific business hours.  The store is next to Russell's house so she'll open up the business when residents call her about picking up some goods.

"That's the kind of compromise that they come to on that island. It's a really hardy group that's left there. They've had to endure the elements on their own for a long time. And that's a big part of the reason why they decided to leave in the winter. The ocean freezes up and the ferry stops running," Breen explains.

In the winter, William's Harbour can be dangerous. George Russell, known as the unofficial mayor of the community, says there are dire consequences attached to living in such a remote part of the island.

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

"Everybody is up in age, sort of thing, no clinic here, nothing," he says.

"One year we were here 19 days [with] people running out of medications. We're one of the most isolated communities in Labrador come the wintertime."

Still it's not easy to just leave, even though living in the community can present challenges, says Breen.

"The ties to this community run generations deep. Everyone has family buried on the island and they themselves want to be buried next to them," Breen tells Tremonti.

"There's one church and even though they're leaving, they have insisted on reshingling it."

There's a document inside the William's Harbour church saying it's the oldest in southern Labrador. Residents were planning to reshingle it before leaving. Most want to be buried in the community. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Relocation has been happening in Newfoundland and Labrador since the 1950s. The practice is relatively rare now.

When people in a remote community decide they want to leave, they approach the province. If at least 90 per cent of residents vote to leave, the government will pay to move the community.

For an island like William's Harbour that needs a ferry, medical flights, and electricity — the cost adds up. Once Friday hits, the government will no longer be responsible for keeping the place connected.

Breen says that in over 20 years, the province predicts relocating residents will save taxpayers about $8 million. 

"The province is going to spend a total of about $4 million in buyouts and decommissioning costs," she tells Tremonti.

'I don't know any other place to live': St. Brendan's residents worried about community's survival 0:55

The province will own the houses so residents can come back to visit, but they will have to find a way to get there without a ferry running. 

Michael Penney didn't want to give up the deed to his house. and didn't accept the resettlement packager offered.

"I had the papers come and everything, and I read the fine print and I didn't like what it had to say ... I talked to the wife, of course, and we both agreed. Yeah, not going to sell. Not going to sell out," Penney says.

The Penney's house is across the harbour from most of the people in William's Harbour giving them a view of most of the community. (Katie Breen/CBC)

He owns another house so he won't stay in William's Habour all winter but he does plan to go for weeks at a time living without power. The community was only hooked up to electricity 40 years ago, so losing power isn't a big deal for many residents.

Penney says he plans on watching William's Harbour go dark when the lights go out on Friday.

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien with files from CBC's Katie Breen and Terry Roberts.