A Great Destruction

The last resort has failed. The fishery can no longer carry its traditional burden. This reality is faced daily by the hundreds of communities. Overwhelmingly, they are small, remote and isolated and depend on Canada's Atlantic groundfish fishery.

If you are an unemployed fishery worker anywhere in Atlantic Canada, you have a serious problem. If you live in a community anywhere in Atlantic Canada that is partially dependent on the groundfish fishery, such as southwestern Nova Scotia or northeastern New Brunswick, your community has a serious problem. If you live in a coastal area such as Quebec's lower north shore or the eastern shore of Nova Scotia, where the whole coastal region is primarily dependent on groundfish, there is a real crisis. This crisis is really compounded, more serious and more threatening, if you live in a province like Newfoundland, where virtually all of the fishing communities are almost entirely dependent on the groundfish fishery.

Governments have a responsibility towards affected individuals to help them adjust to the calamity of losing their livelihood. Governments have a responsibility towards fishery-dependent communities to help them adjust. This is true throughout Atlantic Canada, but particularly in those coastal regions primarily dependent on groundfish. There is a further responsibility to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador to help them - as the society most dramatically affected - to adjust to the disastrous economic and social consequences to their province of the resource crisis.

The full impact of what has happened, while it is being felt by those individuals and communities directly affected, is not yet fully understood by the society. It is not just the people in the industry who will grieve for the loss of the fishery, but the whole community - be it Canso, La Tabatiere, or Burgeo. It is more than the loss of jobs. It is more than the closure of single-industry towns. It is a fear that whole coastal areas will be wiped out.

Aside from a few larger centres, in most of these groundfish-dependent coastal regions, every community depends on the fishery. In Newfoundland, the dependence is staggering. Virtually every community depends on the fishery. There are three pulp and paper towns: Corner Brook, Grand Falls and Stephenville. There is one mining town: Labrador City. There is one town based on hydroelectricity: Churchill Falls. There are a handful of small farming communities, like Codroy, and there are several administrative and business centres, like St. John's and Gander. Almost all of the other 700 communities in the province depend directly upon the fishery. Indirectly, even the administrative and business centres depend on the fishery, as they exist in large measure to provide services to the fishery-dependent communities. The loss of the groundfish fishery, for a period of years, can trigger the collapse of whole coastal areas in Atlantic Canada. For Newfoundland, this could threaten the whole economic and social structure of the province.

The significance of the fishery for Newfoundland can be highlighted by the following:

The magnitude of the devastation of the collapse of the resource is clearly most pronounced in Newfoundland. While this will require a very special approach to Newfoundland's society as a whole, it should in no way distract attention from what is, in many parts of Atlantic Canada, a similar crisis for those individuals and communities involved. What is true of Newfoundland and the assistance it needs also applies in varying degrees to the other provinces.

Provincial revenues will fall, with the impact varying according to the dependence on groundfish. Provincial governments will face greater demands with fewer resources. In the case of Newfoundland, this will be even more significant. In these circumstances, governments which have already accepted severe budget cuts will be faced with the prospect of also reducing the most fundamental services. Under such conditions, even the basic health and education of the people will be in jeopardy.

Of particular concern will be the varying ability of the provincial governments to maintain the necessary social infrastructure such as schools that will provide adequate opportunities for the people in coastal regions to achieve the appropriate levels of education. Young people, and others seeking to upgrade their skills, will lose hope if they are unable to prepare themselves for whatever employment there may be in their own region or elsewhere. Nothing is more important to the future of the region - let alone the fishery - than the ability to educate people. Yet that is precisely what provincial governments may be less able to do.

Already, educational achievement varies widely throughout the region. The crisis in the fishery will worsen this. People in coastal regions often live in small, remote communities and already have high levels of unemployment coupled with generally low levels of educational achievement. These people and these communities will be hardest hit. There has to be special assistance to enable provincial governments to provide educational opportunities in order to break the cycle of high unemployment and low incomes. Otherwise, historic problems will be exacerbated.

We should not tolerate the myth that people who are chronically unemployed need little education. Fewer jobs are open today to the unskilled. Using the fishery once more as the employer of last resort will just accelerate this futile, vicious cycle of unemployment and low incomes. We are surely beyond the stage of believing that those who live in remote communities somehow need less than urban dwellers.

We must develop a different attitude to the value of education. If people are out of work, if they have low skills, low education values, they will see little point in upgrading skills in the absence of alternative employment. "Retraining for what?" has been a constant refrain in our work, and we have not heard a satisfactory answer. However, globally, the economic history of the past half century has shown that those economies which do best are those that invest in their people, and regard them as their most valuable resource. This is just as true in Canada's Atlantic region as elsewhere. Nevertheless, if people upgrade their skills and are still jobless, if they cannot get work despite their willingness to move to get it, the impact on others will be crushing. Unless rewarded, improving literacy and numeracy, training for new employment, willingness to seek work elsewhere will be seen as meaningless, and add despair to the cycle.

Many people in the fishing industry today question the need for training. Many are attending literacy and numeracy training in an environment which they find sometimes hostile and threatening. There is a resentment already building among fishermen and plant workers towards those from outside their ranks who often appear to be preaching or talking down to them.

We feel it worth noting that special emphasis must be given to community based adult education. There must be meaningful participation by the plant workers and fishermen in this process. Professionals, whether they be deliverers of government programs or instructors and teachers in conventional institutions, should not feel threatened by a new emphasis on community based adult education. They should respect that where people have their own organizations, such as fishermen's organizations, trade unions and co-operatives, that these may be more suitable vehicles for introducing the relatively new concept of peer training. They should perceive that people will respect education more where it is practical, and comes from those they trust. And, where education is respected, the society as a whole benefits.

This has already been done in some parts of Atlantic Canada and elsewhere in the country, by organizations accountable to their own members. This type of approach involves local people in similar circumstances taking a leadership role. It is the kind of creativity and ingenuity needed if we are to make a quantum leap in bringing about a change in the level of education in the adult population. More importantly, it is intrinsic to bringing about a lasting, long term change in the society's value of education.

We also note the importance of the people of the coastal regions having adequate opportunities for higher education, either at universities or community colleges. Historically, this has varied among individuals, communities and provinces. However, people of lower income and less historic attachment to education generally will face greater obstacles, particularly when they live in small or remote communities.

Higher education in Newfoundland has relatively shallow roots. The province did not have a degree-granting institution until the late 1940's. While Memorial University of Newfoundland is now the largest university in Atlantic Canada, it has the smallest endowment. In contrast, Nova Scotia has a long history of post-secondary education, with many distinguished colleges and universities.

Partly as a result of insufficient funding, admission standards and fees have been raised throughout Atlantic Canada. For those in smaller communities and those returning to school hoping to pursue new career opportunities, this could not happen at a worse time. When admission needs to be more open, it is becoming more closed. When those with disadvantages most need opportunities to overcome them, those opportunities will increasingly be denied to them. The same can be said for community colleges. Special assistance is needed to arrest and reverse this.

It is believed that the federal government's effort to increase economic opportunities for Atlantic Canadians requires targeting certain sectors for special attention. Post-secondary education and the opportunity to get that education are fundamental requirements in building a long-term strategy of social and economic adjustment. This is a requirement generally for all coastal regions affected by the fishery crisis. It is of even greater significance in Newfoundland and Labrador because of the tremendous numbers of people and communities affected. Such a plan of assistance would mean that universities or institutions benefitting from such help would have a special responsibility to development and implement an affirmative action plan for the educationally and economically less advantaged. Such a program would continue beyond the entry level.

Education is critically important, but it is not the only fundamental service provided by provincial governments. The same is true of health and social welfare. As with education, the scale of the problem is vastly beyond the financial ability of the provincial authorities to meet. They need national help. In an important sense, the crisis in the Atlantic fishery is a graphic demonstration of the stresses to which Canada is subject.

This much is clear: the social and economic consequences of the groundfish failure are a challenge to be met, a burden to be borne, for the entire nation: not merely by the victims. Our concern, compassion and ingenuity will be needed to rescue and reconstruct the economy of Canada's Atlantic coastal regions, especially in Newfoundland. Whether we speak of Bonavista or Canso, we must face up to the need for special assistance to communities facing very bleak prospects.

What is happening to Atlantic Canada's coastal communities is much more than the loss of some manufacturing plants or the closure of some mines. The extraordinary and in some ways unprecedented resource collapse constitutes a potentially fatal threat to the whole fabric of coastal society, especially those dependent on groundfish.

Coping with this is a challenge that will test the strength of the Atlantic fishing community. More than that, it will take the political will and help of the nation as a whole to rescue and reconstruct the economy of the Atlantic fishery. In Newfoundland, the threat is greater than just to coastal communities: it is to the province and the society as a whole. We need concerted action. We need today's equivalent of a Marshall Plan.

Prospects in the Atlantic region have not always been bleak. Newfoundland's entrance into Confederation was a time of great hope. The 200-mile economic limit in 1977 gave great hope to the fishery, albeit perhaps unrealistic optimism. However, the 200-mile limit or even the accession to Confederation were not enough in themselves: they needed further action. The talented and resilient citizens of the coastal communities deserve to be a productive part of Canada's future. In the end, the result will be not merely a healthy, sustainable Atlantic fishery providing a decent living to those working in it, but an important step towards completing Confederation.

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