RAMEA, N.L.—Ivan Giles may live in Nova Scotia, but the 34-year-old carpenter and part-time musician’s heart belongs to his hometown of Ramea, Newfoundland.
Getting to the tiny outport island community of Ramea off the province’s southwest coast requires an hour and 15-minute ferry ride — on a good day — from the town of Burgeo. That’s 22 kilometres away, across a picturesque swath of the Atlantic Ocean.
“There’s a song they used to play on our community channel every Sunday about Ramea and it’s called ‘Only Thing Grey’ by George Keeping. The first line of the song is ‘My heart’s beating faster as the ferry creeps closer to the island out in the sea.’ It’s beautiful, right,” Giles, who lives in Dartmouth, N.S., said in a recent interview.
“It tells a very great representation of Ramea itself and the people, and your heart does beat faster and you just can’t wipe the smile off your face because you know that you’re getting closer. It is really unexplainable. It’s just a feeling of pure happiness.”
Inhabitants of this wee island proudly refer to themselves as puffins, a nod to Newfoundland’s provincial bird that frequents the area and serves as the community’s mascot.
This week, hundreds of those human puffins have flocked back home with family and friends to celebrate this unique place they call home. Giles is one of more than 800 people who’ve planned their summer vacation around Ramea’s Come Home Year (CHY), a celebratory event that’s particularly prevalent in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The presence of these former residents and their guests has temporarily tripled the town’s population — from 400 to about 1,200. From Aug. 7 to 11, they’ll help fill Ramea’s days and nights with music, dancing, food and festivities.
This week, the streets are unusually busy, filled with people stopping to hug and chat with friends or family members they’ve not seen in years.
The visitors come from every province in Canada, with the greatest representation from Nova Scotia, Ontario and Alberta. Former residents who now live in New Zealand also came for the party, bringing with them friends from Australia.
Extra ferry crossings have been added to accommodate the overflow of visitors. The ball field and open spaces around the community are peppered with tents and trailers, and many island homes are at capacity, with guests sleeping on couches and air mattresses wedged wherever they can fit.
The island measures just 3.14 kilometres long by 0.93 wide, so space is at a premium.
The Ramea Islands are a small archipelago, with the town located on the most northwest island. Giant rocky outcroppings dotted with emerald green vegetation rise out of the sea for miles around, stretching as far as the eye can see. Colourful boats bob in the harbour, and whales occasionally breach close to shore.
Ramea has held a CHY event every 10 years since 1989. But an aging and steadily declining population means that this fourth CHY event could be the small town’s last.
That’s because a lot has changed in the last few decades.
Once a thriving outport, Ramea boasted 1,386 inhabitants in 1986 according to Statistics Canada census data. The collapse of the cod fishery and closure of the town’s fish plant in 1992 led to a steady population decline over the years. Today, most of the 400 people who live here full-time are seniors.
The town’s only bank, open two days per week, is closing its doors for good on Aug. 28. Residents who need cash can still access the community’s only bank machine, located in a small hut beside Ramea’s one and only gas pump. There are three convenience stores (only one boasts a liquor outlet, although all of them sell beer), a medical clinic and a small restaurant.
There’s also a school. During the 2018-19 school year, 24 students attended St. Boniface All Grade School. When classes resume in September, there will be three teachers and just 17 students from Grades 4 to 12.
“My crystal ball is not telling me how many people are going to be here 10 years from now, but considering the trend since last Come Home Year, then yes, it is quite conceivable that this may be the last one,” said Laura Kendall, Ramea’s 2019 CHY chairperson.
“You partner that, of course, with the age of the people who’ll be left behind by then, too, in terms of organizing and being able to physically carry off an event like that. It’s a big commitment and it’s busy as old heck and you need to be on your toes … I mean, nobody has come out and said this is the last one, but people are anticipating that it will be the last one for those reasons.”
Kendall and her organizing committee began planning the CHY in January 2018. The five-day schedule of festivities ranges from an opening day parade to dances, daily and nightly musical performances showcasing local talent, and a screech-in (cod-kissing) ceremony to make honorary Newfoundlanders out of friends and family not born here.
“I think there’s a bond among people that grow up in a place like this and that are from a place like this, even though they’ve lived away and they’ve not seen each other in 15, 20 years,” Kendall said.
“But when you see somebody across a crowded room, that’s it, you’re gone, arms outstretched for a hug. Because this is your buddy.”
For such a tiny island, the community has produced its fair share of talented musicians and singers, many of whom eagerly perform to enthusiastic crowds at Ramea’s annual summer music festival and its hallmark CHY events. Both serve as important fundraisers for the town’s volunteer fire department.
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George Keeping, the Ramea-born songwriter behind ‘Only Thing Grey,’ remembers writing the much-loved song in honour of his hometown’s first CHY in 1989. He’s looking forward to performing it again this weekend, and said the sentiment behind the song is likely echoed by anyone yearning for whatever special place they call home.
“I was like every other person growing up. You’re thinking beyond your own community and getting out to see the world, but after you leave you start to think about things,” Keeping said. “That was the premise behind it, that and seeing old friends and sharing good times but also times when you got yourself in trouble. The secrets that you keep with your real close friends.”
The packed slate of performers for the 2019 CHY includes the town’s mayor, Clyde Dominie, who’s also the singer of Ramea-based band We Fellers. He’s not sure why so many of the town’s residents are musically gifted.
“There just always seemed to be people in the community who could sing or could play,” Dominie said. “It is pretty amazing that we can pull this stuff off and all the music is just local people, that all you basically need is someone with a sound system and to control the technical parts and the rest just falls in place.”
Dominie described the CHY as a “huge economic boost” for the town, but added it also offers a unique way to celebrate community and connection.
“It has always been said that people who live on an island at a very young age learn to do a lot of things on their own because there’s no one really to call on but the people who live in your community,” he said.
“I think being brought up in a system like that, being born and raised here, family comes first and your whole community becomes like a big family. It creates such an attachment and I’ve got a feeling that’s where a lot of that excitement and pride may be coming from.”
Several communities across the province are also celebrating CHY events this summer, including Port Rexton, Ferryland, Holyrood and Corner Brook.
Folklorist/historian and retired Memorial University professor Phil Hiscock describes the CHY as “one of those pivot points” in the modern history of Newfoundland. These festivals, he notes, predate the province joining Canada, with the first recorded one sanctioned by the Newfoundland government in 1904.
Hiscock says that while no one has extensively written about or studied the CHY phenomenon, he believes it’s responsible for kick-starting the province’s robust tourism industry.
He points to Newfoundland’s 1966 CHY, planned by the Joey Smallwood government “partly to get a jump on the much bigger plans in Ottawa” for Canada’s 1967 centenary celebrations. That event is still remembered fondly, and cars still drive around the province proudly displaying 1966 CHY licence plates.
“He (Smallwood) was trying to develop what N.S. had at that time, a very highly developed local tourism market in the form of guest homes, what we now call B&Bs. In the ’60s no such thing like that existed in Newfoundland,” Hiscock explained. “Well, ’66 starts to change that and … tourist homes started being developed. There was a whole lot of stuff that happened. The government put money into supporting cultural things in a way that they had not before.”
Last year, the Newfoundland government’s cultural events fund gave small grants ranging from $500 to $1,000 to seven communities hosting CHY events. Hiscock points out that folk and music festivals, community days and other similar events might not officially carry the CHY title, but may essentially be the same thing.
“Often they start as reunions and so they’re spun out really to a small group of local people and seen as a more intimate thing,” he said. “It’s often only later that the reunions are seen as something that’s kind of capitalizable and then they look for other names for it … It seems to me that these are all one cultural wave, but they use different names.”
Hiscock believes part of the enduring appeal of the CHY phenomenon in Newfoundland is that the “formula” of planned events can be easily tweaked and tailored to showcase a community’s unique features and local talents.
“Newfoundlanders have for 150 years had a strong sense of their cultural differences from other English-speaking North Americans, and I think the development of local celebrations like these is part of that, or at least it draws on that,” he said.
“There was a tourist phrase that says ‘a world apart, a world of difference.’ Newfoundland could be just as well using that phrase. That’s really at the core I think of many people’s self-understanding of the province.”
Among the residents who’ve returned to Ramea this week for the fourth and possibly final CHY, Giles said he knows he isn’t alone in hoping there will always be a way to return.
“Knowing that it could be the last one is definitely kind of heartbreaking. I just hope that there will still always be a way to get back,” Giles said. “Whether or not it be a Come Home Year celebration, as long as I can come back, I guess things will still be OK. Ramea is always, always home. Always home.”
Giles clears his throat, tears filling his eyes, as he remembers the chorus of Keeping’s “Only Thing Grey,” the song written about their beloved little island out in the sea.
“There’s been some changes on the island out here. New ways have come here to stay. But for one week let’s go back to when we were much younger. And the fog was the only thing grey.”
Yvette d’Entremont is a Halifax-based reporter focusing on health. Follow her on Twitter: @ydentremont