RED BAY, N.L.—Red Bay is small enough that when a large snowbank near the National Historic Site melted this spring to reveal a Diet Coke can, staff had a good idea who the likely culprit was.
The community on the Strait of Belle Isle is home to a 16th-century Basque whaling station that attracts around 12,000 tourists each summer, but it is small enough that Mayor Wanita Stone knows every inhabitant by name and is able to give precise population updates (149 when the Star visited in May, 145 as of August). It is small enough that the three young people in the park with the mayor on a crisp spring evening — Tiffany, Blake and Owen — represent nearly half of the student body at the local school.
The rocky shoreline was busiest when the Basques were here hunting whales in the 1500s, boiling their blubber into oil, and sailing back to Europe to sell their lucrative fuel. When settlers came in the early 1800s, they also made their living on the water, fishing cod and the like. In the late 1970s, thanks to researcher Selma Barkham, the archeological wonders of Red Bay’s Basque era were discovered, and the town eventually became a tourist destination. In 2013, UNESCO gave it the world heritage stamp of approval.
Wanita Stone grew up in Heart’s Content, on the northeast coast of Newfoundland, where the first transatlantic cable connected the continent to Europe in 1866. She moved to Red Bay in 1979 when she married her husband, Bob. In those days, the place was buzzing with the archeological discoveries, and many of the locals were helping with the digs. There were more kids then, too.
The population peaked at 334 in 1986, and it has been in decline ever since. The cod moratorium in 1992 didn’t help, but a life built around the fishery was already on the wane. For years, children were leaving and not coming back.
“We didn’t want our kids at it,” says Stone, who worked in the local fish plant, while her husband was a fisherman. “You want better for your kids.”
Red Bay is part of the Labrador Straits, a rugged and remote region of Labrador that is a ferry ride away from Newfoundland’s northwest coast. Towns here have long been fishing communities, and it remains a crucial part of the economy with jobs in offshore fishing operations, and seafood processing plants in communities like L’Anse-au-Loup, but according to studies it is a region of “chronic decline,” which needs an “in-depth strategy that examines fertility and young-worker retention issues.”
According to a recent report by the Harris Centre’s Regional Analytics Laboratory, close to 1,600 people lived in the straits in 2016. Factoring in birth, death and migration patterns, the population is projected to fall to around 1,100 people by 2036.
The entire province is struggling with an “unprecedented population challenge,” the Harris Centre notes on its Population Project website. Newfoundland and Labrador has the most “rapidly aging” population in Canada: birth rates are on the decline, young people are leaving for opportunities elsewhere, and people are leaving rural outposts for the city.
The cod moratorium is only a part of the story. Once the government assistance programs dried up in 1996, there was a “massive spike” in out-migration, says Keith Storey, the former director of the Harris Centre’s Population Project. While rural communities in particular have never recovered, there has also been a “dramatic change in the social attitudes toward family construction and size,” he says.
A few generations ago, when the cod fishery was booming, it made sense to be spread out and have lots of children, says Jamie Ward, a geographer at the Harris Centre’s Regional Analytics Laboratory. In 1966, there were close to 7,000 households across the province with 10 or more people. By 1986, there were 690.
Ever since 1982, the school system has had more 16-year-olds than 6-year-olds, he says. “We’ve just been bleeding kids forever.”
If you visit communities across the province, you might notice there aren’t many 20-year-olds, he says.
“Everyone age 20 to 30 is just scooped out and piled in to St. John’s, because everyone comes here for university,” he says.
That’s what Wanita Stone’s children did. They’ve been gone ever since, and she doesn’t blame them.
“There is no industry here, there is nothing to bring people back,” she says. “There are parents here that do have their kids here and their grandkids here, and I don’t know if they realize how lucky they are.”
Down in the harbour, there is the Parks Canada National Historic Site (where Stone works as an interpreter in the summer). Right next door is a small inn and restaurant that operates in tandem with tourism season. Around the basin, on the way to the school, there are a bed-and-breakfast, a gas station, a post office and variety store. Many people are retired and the tax base is small. (The average age was 52.5 at the last census.) There is a health centre a few towns over, but if you’re pregnant, you have to head to St. Anthony in Newfoundland at last three weeks before your due date.
The closest movie theatre is a ferry ride and considerable drive away in Corner Brook, but the local school has a can’t-miss Christmas concert that nearly everyone in town attends. “It does your heart good,” says Stone, who last had a child in the school in 2002.
People don’t live here for convenience, but for the connection — to the land, the people, the way of life. It is a challenging, serene landscape. When a few shingles flew off the community centre this year, it was the mayor who was up on the roof with a local volunteer, patching the hole until a more permanent fix could be secured. It’s just what you do.
With seven students enrolled at the end of the 2019 school year, Basque Memorial is one of the smallest schools in Newfoundland and Labrador English School District. It is one of eight where the principal also serves as a teacher, but if you’re picturing a quaint one-room schoolhouse, think again. Basque Memorial is a modern, blue-sided building with purple pillars that opened in 1992 as a K-to-12 school, and it reflects Red Bay of the 1990s. There are five classrooms, a science lab, a kitchen, a gym, and specialized spaces for skilled trades. When Stone’s two children attended, they each had around nine students in their grade.
I was curious about what it’s like to be one of the only children in town, and the mayor suggested I speak with Tiffany Pye — a “real smart cookie” and the oldest student at the school, one of two Grade 8 students. Owing to the mayor’s impressive community Rolodex, and Pye’s agreeable nature, it was minutes later that we met at the playground, just across from the drop-in centre for teens.
The “Teen Stop” closed a few years ago. Not enough adult volunteers, but more importantly, not enough teens.
Red Bay proper is a rocky landscape with moss, shrubs, and few places to hide. The further you are from the shore, the more you’ll find small trees shaped by the strong winds. When the mayor’s recognizable blue Ford Edge pulled into the park, two boys on ATVs zoomed off, since the playground is supposed to be off limits to ATVs. But it wasn’t long before the boys returned, pulled off their helmets, and joined the conversation.
Blake Layden, 10, was born a few days before Christmas, and Owen Ward, 11, was born in a leap year. They both wore sweaters and rubber work boots as they enjoyed the run of the town after dinner.
“It’s what people in big cities probably dream about,” Stone says later. “You let your kid go out and play, and you know your neighbour is watching. Everybody is watching everybody’s kids all the time.”
At school, a teacher usually splits her time among the different grades, giving some students work to do while teaching others a lesson, Tiffany explains. The school also has a student assistant, hired after parents protested cuts that eliminated the position at the start of the last school year. Tiffany likes the small school because it’s not overwhelming or stressful. It would be nice to pick your own friend group, she says, but “being forced is OK,” she says.
“Even if we do have our differences,” she says, “we get along really well.”
Tiffany goes fishing after school in the ponds with her dad, listens to music and watches Family Guy. She can go anywhere, and her dad doesn’t worry. Blake and Owen see each other every day, unless there is a blizzard, or one of them is away. They like to play video games, pick bakeapple and partridge berries in the summer, and when the weather is good, they hop on their ATVs for a tour.
On this spring night, the sun is shining, but it’s cold enough that the flies aren’t out, which is 10 times better than when they are, Blake says. Sometimes they’re on bikes. In the winter it’s snowmobiles.
Being outdoors, Blake says, is “kind of part of our culture.”
The future of Red Bay depends on its ability to attract newcomers, and retain its youth. But if you ask the classic question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” the answer doesn’t always fit the town’s reality.
Tiffany would like to have a piercing studio someday. She is not sure where, but if it doesn’t work out, maybe she’ll come back here. Perhaps she’ll retire here. Her heart is set on this place.
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“I was thinking about being an astronaut,” Blake says as he swings side to side. “I know a lot about space.”
With the serious questions out of the way, the mayor sits in the swing next to Blake.
“Oh my God, I haven’t done this in years,” she says, gaining momentum.
The sun is setting, the ice is cracking in the basin below, and Blake and the mayor are trying to outdo each other. “Come on Blake, catch me!” Stone says. Blake is winning, the mayor is laughing, and everyone in the park feels like a kid.
At Basque Memorial, Grade 9 students take high school courses through the school district’s Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation, which employs 29 “eTeachers” who teach “real time” classes over the internet. If you want to go to actual classes with high school students, you have to move to attend a bigger school.
Tiffany was planning on staying in Red Bay and taking the online courses, but over the summer, the plans changed. For a little while now, the tight-knit parent community has been considering the issue. They wondered if it might be better for older students to go to school in L’Anse-au-Loup, which is about an hour’s drive down the coast. They could play sports, socialize with people their own age, and have more academic options.
In June, they pitched the school district on the idea — Make Basque Memorial a kindergarten-to-Grade 6 school and bus the older children to Labrador Straits Academy.
Vicki Hancock says her son Blake is excited by the prospect — and the coming year could be his last at Basque Memorial if the plan goes through. Blake has thrived in the small school, but the wide age range means that younger children “mature faster than they should,” she says. Gym is tough with seven children, especially when you mix a kindergarten student with 14-year-olds. Hancock says the girl’s mother has taken her home on certain days, worried she might get hurt.
If the district accepts the proposal this month, three of the older students, including Tiffany, will be gone next year. That means that Red Bay’s school will have four students this September. But Hancock says there are seven children on track to enter in the coming years.
Hancock is a parent representative at the school and often quoted in local press about school issues. But the last time she spoke to a Toronto paper was about 15 years ago. (“My mother was hit by a whale,” she says. It was a freak occurrence on a boat just off L’Anse-au-Loup, when the tail of a startled whale made impact with her mother’s head. She recovered in hospital in St. Anthony.)
People in Newfoundland and Labrador know that towns can boom and towns can die. On Valentine’s Day, 1957, Premier Joey Smallwood announced that his government was looking into how to handle province’s demographic trouble. “It has long been felt by thoughtful people that the terribly scattered nature of our population has made it very expensive for the government to provide public services to all the people,” he said.
The eventual remedy was government resettlement programs, a controversial and emotional part of the province’s history. The idea was to modernize, improve service delivery and attract industry, according to the Maritime History Archive. All told, from 1946 until 1975, 28,000 people left 307 communities behind. Many of the “growth centres” that they landed in provided better services than abandoned outposts like Ireland’s Eye and Muddy Hole, but there weren’t always jobs — and the “promised industrial developments did not occur,” the archive notes.
Wanita Stone’s husband, Bob, grew up in Henley Harbour, just up the coast from Red Bay, a place accessible only by boat and snowmobile. His family moved to Red Bay in 1970 as part of a resettlement program, but they returned to Henley Harbour in the summers to fish, and the family still uses the home as a cabin. Like the students at Basque Memorial, he only had one teacher when his boyhood home had government services.
“I keep telling everybody, we turned out all right,” he says over a barbecued moose steak.
“I wonder,” Wanita says with a mischievous smile.
These days, the process is called “community relocation,” but the idea is more or less the same — financial compensation for people who leave remote communities behind. The provincial Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment only looks at requests that come from the communities themselves, and 90 per cent of voting-age permanent residents must be on board in a special vote. When deciding whether to approve the request, the government considers how the long-term cost of service delivery — things like ferry service, schools, electricity — compares to the total payout (which can be as much as $270,000 a family).
The government won’t approve relocation at a loss, and there are many stipulations along the way. A department spokesperson said that since 2000, seven communities have been abandoned with a net saving of approximately $30 million.
The province is currently considering a relocation request from Tilt Cove, a once-bustling mining community that is now home to four people. Earlier this year, Little Bay Islands, a town with 54 permanent residents accessible by ferry, was approved for relocation, and $10 million has been set aside in the 2019 provincial budget for those costs. The process has taken a long time, including one “failed vote” and “a lot of bad blood between residents,” the CBC reported, noting that “much of that is past now.”
A spokesperson confirmed it’s preparing offer letters for permanent residents, and if more than 90 per cent return signed agreements, the minister “may approve relocation for these residents.”
If that happens, the government will work with the town and utility providers to determine the date to cut the cords and say goodbye. People still own their property, and no one is forced to leave, but those who stay — or use their home as a cabin — do so at their own risk. The government doesn’t stipulate where to start over, but it only provides “relocation financial assistance” once in a lifetime.
Red Bay will keep aging, the kids will keep leaving, and Wanita Stone does not know what the answer is, but it certainly isn’t relocation.
It doesn’t make sense with the town’s history, the Parks Canada site, the UNESCO world heritage status. The locals love to see the tourists disembarking from cruise ships and buses, checking out the Parks Canada site, or walking along the Boney Shore trail, where, as promised, you can still find the skeletal remains of whales from long ago.
“Newfoundland has been through this all before, and the place has survived for hundreds of years,” says Keith Storey, the former director of the Harris Centre’s Population Project. “I think it is just going to look a lot different in the future, and there are some places that won’t make it, and others that will.”
Standing underneath an articulated whale skeleton in the community centre, Stone can’t envision a time when Red Bay won’t be here. She doesn’t want to.
“This is home and it always will be home.”
Katie Daubs is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @kdaubs