[This article was first published on Vacay.ca on November 28, 2012]
NEW BONAVENTURE, NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR — Meet Bruce Miller.
He lives here, in the land of his father and grandfather, a remote swath of territory with enough arable acreage, clean air, pristine water, and wildlife to inspire poetry and instill a will to depart only upon a last breath. A thoughtful Canadian, Miller flies the flag of Newfoundland outside his home, a small cabin overlooking British Harbour and Trinity Bay at the edge of the continent. In an island of Baymen and Townies, Miller is Bayman to the core, with a lilt in his brogue and a ready wink to go with his easy smile. He makes a meagre living as a fisherman and labourer and augments his income operating one of the most unique and riveting tours in Canada, taking visitors to communities affected by Newfoundland’s controversial resettlement. The itinerary includes a stop in his own home, for a cup of tea.
“It’s the history that people seem to love,” Miller says on a wet day in September. He flips through picture books that show boats from a half-century ago trawling homes in a mass exodus that you would think only happens because of disaster or a plague. Among the photographs are some of Miller’s parents, who chose not to follow.
“This is home. You can’t replace that. The government can’t replace that,” he says. “These days, it’s becoming harder and harder to stay. You have to be real creative to make a living here.”
It’s no surprise Miller cherishes living in the Bonavista Peninsula. What a visitor might find bewildering is why anyone would urge people to leave Trinity Bay and the communities dotting it. But that’s what the Canadian government did over the course of 21 years, “resettling” Newfoundland from 1954-75, convincing more than 30,000 people who knew only of life with the land and the sea that the future was urban, in growing centres close to the Trans-Canada Highway and the goods shipped in by the big trucks that use it.
The resettlement of outpost Newfoundland emptied villages along the coast of Trinity Bay and elsewhere on the island that thrived on fishing and the lumber trade. Boats tugged houses across the waters, relocating them and their possessions — family heirlooms, old photographs, handmade furniture and the fishing gear that sustained life — to new locations miles away. The government compensated those Newfoundlanders who moved, but some refused the money and the lure of city life. Miller’s Rugged Beauty tour ferries visitors to communities affected by the resettlement.
Along the way, you get to glimpse the landscape that’s proved a magnet for Miller. His fishing boat passes alongside fjords that catch your ear with a gentle sound, nature’s form of a symphony applause when waterfalls plummet down craggy cliffs, over green stumps and jagged trunks. Eagles flap overhead as Miller steers close to the “Random Passage” movie site, which features buildings used in the filming of the 2002 mini-series. “Random Passage” is a fictitious story that chronicles life in outport Newfoundland when it was still a British colony. Its popularity has helped bring tourism into New Bonaventure, which needs any source of income it can get.
In 1992, the Canadian government did what was unthinkable in Newfoundland and Labrador. It banned cod fishing, saying the species had been so depleted that 20,000 workers in the Newfoundland fishing industry had to be laid off in order for the fish to survive.
“The moratorium on the cod fish, to me, that was the worst thing to happen to Newfoundland,” Miller contends. “Rural Newfoundland was resettled again.”
People who were suddenly out of work moved to cities and adopted new skills. Again, Miller stayed. Now, 20 years later, the cod are back. In one 20-minute flurry, Miller and I caught 15 fish — without using bait. The fish latched on to bits of yellow rubber. As the line sank, the hook would hit the heads of cod on the way to the bottom. I’m as awful a fisherman as you’ll ever meet and even I found fishing in Trinity Bay akin to something like a carnival game at a summer fair. It was about seeing how many you could catch and how fast, not wondering if you would catch any. Each September, the cod moratorium is lifted for two glorious weeks. During that period, each resident can catch up to five cod each per day, or up to 15 per boat (we had three in our boat, which is why we hauled up 15). After experiencing the bounty of cod in Newfoundland — and the giddiness with which people take to reeling in the fish — I had to wonder why the ban exists at all.
“The cod fish aren’t back, because they never left,” Miller says. “There’s always been fish in Trinity Bay.”