Newfoundlanders in love with rural life lament small-town resettlement strategy

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Newfoundlanders in love with rural life lament small-town resettlement strategy

The scraping of skate blades on ice cuts through the stillness on a winter afternoon in Little Bay Islands, an island town 553 kilometres northwest of St. John's. It's because Mike Parsons and his wife, Georgina, have cleared a skating loop on the harbour.

While the 51-year-old Parsons grew up in this picturesque outport, he moved to Ontario to work in the software industry. But he and Georgina, 43, have moved back to retire here — at precisely the time that everyone else is getting set to leave.

That's because Little Bay Islands is the next community in Newfoundland and Labrador slated to close under a provincial government program designed to save money.

"Myself and Georgina, we wanted to become a part of the community while it still existed as a community," said Parsons. "We do all the stuff we love to do. We're outdoors people. We ski. We skate. We snowmobile."

"Money can't buy the happiness that this place brings us," said Georgina Parsons, who still works as a chartered accountant.

But the breathtaking beauty of their Little Bay Islands idyll may not be enough to save it. Under the provincial government's Community Relocation Policy, it would cost less to pay people to move to a larger town than to continue to maintain services such as electricity, garbage collection, road maintenance and ferry services.

Province expects savings

Little Bay Islands' only school has closed, the local fish plant has not operated for years and there are no medical services in town.

The provincial government said that a "rough cost-benefit analysis" projects a savings of $6,754,000 over 20 years if Little Bay Islands closes.

Two Newfoundland towns have been closed since 2002, and half a dozen more are at various stages of the process.

Under the program, residents receive between $250,000 and $270,000 to move to another town. But communities must volunteer to close and in a vote, at least 90 per cent of residents must be in favour of relocating.

A vote in Little Bay Islands came up just short of 90 per cent, but there's a strong likelihood they will reach that threshold in a subsequent vote.

The decision to leave has created a rift among a handful of residents. The Parsons are not eligible to vote and have decided to remain neutral.

"I totally get why people want to leave. I totally get why some people want to stay," said Mike Parsons.

Gord Weir, 81, a retired fisherman, said at one time, the town had a fishing industry, three sawmills and three dockyards, supporting a population of 500 people. But Weir said that for seniors or anyone with health issues, living on the island can be precarious.

"If you had a doctor's appointment, you might've been waiting three months to get one, and that very day that you're supposed to be to the hospital, the ferry's not running," Weir said. "But it's not going to be a great day when the time comes [for the town to be closed]."

The resettlement program has its critics, including Peter Fenwick, an innkeeper and the mayor of Cape St. George, on Newfoundland's Port-au-Port Peninsula.

"I think that the resettlement project is morally unjustified ... primarily because it targets rural Newfoundland to de-populate it," said Fenwick. He said that in many cases, the small, far-flung towns are major tourist attractions.

As housing becomes more expensive in cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and, to a certain extent, St. John's, Fenwick said small towns with good internet coverage can be attractive to some people looking to live off the beaten track.

Furthermore, Fenwick argues that the program is not as fiscally effective as it may seem, because it encourages residents in some communities that were likely to close anyway to hold out until they agree on resettlement and the payout to relocate.

"I would hope that the government would say, 'Our deficit is two billion dollars, we can't afford to do this anymore,'" said Fenwick.

Ferry too expensive

To further illustrate what he sees as misguided spending, Fenwick pointed out that the government shelled out $27.5 million to build a ferry, the Hazel McIsaac.

Launched in 2011, the Hazel McIsaac connects Little Bay Islands and nearby Long Island to the mainland, a half-hour ferry ride away, at an annual cost of nearly $4 million. The cost per resident per year for the ferry service is $16,455.

"Some bureaucrat or some politician has decided that we're going to have some big fancy boat," said Fenwick. "Other than the ferry service, living in rural communities is fairly inexpensive."

For some small communities, relocation may be inevitable, but one solution to closing down towns can be found in Centreville-Wareham-Trinity, population approximately 1,100, about a four-hour drive from St. John's.

Individually, these three communities may not have survived on their own, but in 1992 they amalgamated to form one municipality, which cut down on the cost of providing services.

Coming back

Shane Noble, 40, owner of New Wood Manufacturing, grew up in Centreville. When he moved back to Newfoundland 15 years ago after a stint in Ontario, he said he convinced four families to return with him to work.

"I said, 'I've got an opportunity, can you come back?' And every one of them did," said Noble.

In the past two months, Noble has created a second company that will produce low-cost modular furniture. The co-founder of that venture is 25-year-old Alexa Perry, who recently moved back to the area after leaving as an infant with her parents when they lost their jobs after the cod collapse in 1992.

"If I told anybody that I was moving to Newfoundland to do marketing, they'd think I was insane, and it turns out there's plenty of opportunity to do marketing," said Perry.

She is happy she came back and plans to stay and reconnect with her roots. "I think there's an opportunity to cultivate creativity here," Perry said.

Indeed, the appeal of rural life is what drew Mike Parsons back to Little Bay Islands in its dying days. He is chronicling Little Bay Islands in photos for future generations.

"I'm trying to create or recreate some of that emotional connection to Little Bay Islands so that it doesn't get lost," he said.