Championing Champney's West: Community spirit keeps town going 25 years after cod moratorium

What started as a concert to lift spirits in Champney's West after the cod moratorium, has grown into a celebratory example of the Bonavista Peninsula community's determination to not only survive, but thrive in rural Newfoundland.

Whether it's playing a tune, performing a skit or working in the canteen, about 20 of the town's 54 year-round residents will participate in this weekend's variety shows, which they've staged every year since 1992.

"The year of the moratorium was very depressing, at the time a few of us got together and we said, 'Well let's try to have a spirit-lifter, to lift people and get them working at something,' and we decided to have this old fashioned slapstick concert," said recreation committee member Wanda Pippy.

"And because nobody had any money or anything we just charged a dollar for everybody to get in, and, it worked."

Now they're charging $15 for a ticket to the sell-out shows in the community's recreation hall, and were invited to perform at the Garrick Theatre in Bonavista last year.

The variety show was just the start.

Since then, community groups have been busy coming up with ways to attract visitors, make money and have a good time doing it.

"We now have a heritage house, and we have the famous Fox Island Trail, and we have a recreation hall, we have a volleyball program, a dart program … and the great cardboard boat race, which is a big fundraiser for us in summertime," said Pippy.

Pippy said residents got together after the moratorium to keep the town wharf operational, and they have spruced up old stages along the waterfront.

"It's almost like using the past to build a future."

Everyone working together

The jewel in the crown for Pippy is the community's brand new aquarium, which grew from an idea she and her daughter Maggie had to open a touch tank.

Bill Driedzic, a summer resident in Champney's West and professor in the Department of Ocean Sciences at Memorial University, helped them expand on that idea.

"People there in summertime are very supportive of what we do, and they're all involved," Pippy told CBC's Central Morning Show.

"For people in a little tiny place like we have, we don't even have a town council, to want to open up an aquarium, it's almost like a crazy dream."

'A really successful story'

The dream came true in September 2016, when the Champney's West Aquarium opened to 634 visitors for a few weeks before the close of the season.

A grand opening is planned for this year, with hopes that the venture will eventually become fully self-sufficient through admission fees, the sale of marine biology-related items, and training programs.

"There's a fierce sense of place here," said Pippy.

The community has almost raised enough to complete construction of a beach volleyball court, and the recreation committee is in the planning stages of an event to mark the 25th anniversary of the cod moratorium.

"We've really got a successful story," said Pippy.

"The people here are so proud, we live in such a beautiful community … and we have a lot of people who are hardworking and fun and very adamant about keeping our community going."