CHAPTER V.--THE PRESENT STATE OF THE ISLAND. (continued)
The Life of the People.
202. The people of Newfoundland
are a maritime race and may be numbered amongst the best seamen of the world.
For nearly two hundred years prior to 1914 the Island proved a valuable recruiting
ground for the Royal Navy; over 2,000 Newfoundlanders served on H.M. Ships during
the Great War. The Newfoundlander is at home in any boat; and, though he possesses
as a rule little knowledge of the science of navigation, his practical seamanship
is of the highest order. The courage and hardihood which he habitually displays,
notably in the seal and Bank fisheries, have always been the object of
|Tess Cove, n.d.
Photo by Holloway. From the album of photographs furnished to the Newfoundland Royal Commission, August 1933. Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Coll-207),
Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
203. The average fishermen
is also a "farmer," that is to say, while he is primarily dependent for his
livelihood on the products of the sea, he also cultivates a small strip of land,
either attached to or in the neighbourhood of his home. In most cases the "farm"
or "garden" is little more than an allotment which serves the purpose of supplying
the owner and his family with potatoes and other vegetables and sometimes supports
a few sheep or goats. The inshore fishing season commences in June and, in most
parts of the country, ends in September or early October. Employment between
September and June is at best available to only 4,000 to 5,000 men, and that for
only part of the time. The average fishermen is thus faced with the problem of
earning enough in three or four months to keep himself and his family for the
rest of the year. It is hardly surprising, in these circumstances, that the
general standard of living should be low and even primitive.
204. Normally, the Newfoundlander,
after the conclusion of the fishing season, occupies himself with the cutting of wood
in the forests for fuel for his household; with repairs to his house, boat and fishing
gear, and perhaps with the building of a new boat; with the erection or replacement
of fences; with attending to daily household requirements and with any odd job he
may find. In most cases there is a plentiful supply of wood, all land within three
miles of the coast being reserved for the use of the people, but in some localities
intensive and reckless cutting without adequate supervision has led to the depletion
of timber-lands with the result that the inhabitants are compelled to seek their
fuel at a considerable distance from their homes.
205. Employment in the off-season
is available for a small minority of the fishermen with the companies operating the
Paper Mills at Grand Falls and Corner Brook. The cutting of the annual timber supply
for the Mills usually takes place in the fall of the year and comprises some 3,000 men
for two months. The hauling of wood to suitable points on the river is normally
undertaken in January when there has been a sufficient fall of snow to make the
undertaking feasible: about 1,800 men are employed for a month in this operation.
Finally, in the spring, the logs are "driven" or floated down the rivers; this gives
employment to about 1,000 men for a month. It is the practice of the two companies
to let out contracts for these operations: the contractors in turn enter into
sub-contracts with individual workers, who pay at a fixed rate for their living
expenses. There is no doubt that in the past these operations in the woods have
proved of considerable benefit to numbers of fishermen in that they have been given
a welcome opportunity to supplement their earnings from the fishery. Recently,
however, the price of paper has been so low that, even though the Mill at Grand
Falls has continued to work at full time, the rates paid by contractors to workers
in the company's woods have yielded the latter but a small return, while at Corner
Brook, where the Mill has been working only four days a week, the reduction in the
rates payable has been felt all the more severely because of the simultaneous
reduction in the amount of cutting required. A further point is that the prospect
of regular employment in the woods for at any rate four months in the year has
induced many men to become woodsmen rather than fishermen, and to specialise in
the former rather than to combine the two occupations. Now, when it is not possible
to make a living out of operations in the woods alone, they would wish to turn again
to the fishery; but they find it difficult, if not impossible, to do so since they are
now without a boat or the necessary gear.
206. There are also a
number of small saw-mills round the coast in which local fishermen may perhaps
obtain employment in the off season.* But, apart from the operations of the
two Paper Companies, the only important source of winter employment is the
iron-ore mine at Bell Island, where in normal times 2,200 men are engaged.
Here again, however, the men so employed have been apt to neglect the fishery,
and, now that half the mine is closed and the other half is only working two
days a week, they find themselves in a position of great difficulty. A number
of men have also found seasonal employment in the past in Canada and the United
States, principally as miners in Cape Breton and as mechanics and skilled
artisans in Boston and other cities. The Newfoundlander is noted for adaptability:
he can set his hand to anything and usually does well abroad. Opportunities
are now, however, restricted and many men formerly resident in the United States
and Canada have been forced to return to Newfoundland. These are without
occupation and for the most part form a charge on public funds.
207. The depression has,
therefore, had a two-fold effect. Emigration has been checked, and there is
now little prospect of employment abroad, permanent or seasonal; the care of
the surplus population which cannot be absorbed locally has thus fallen on the
Government at the time when it is least able to support such a charge. The
maintenance of returning emigrants (about 1,000) has added to this burden and,
what is still more serious, the country has been deprived to a large extent of
the benefit of the remittances (about $1,000,000 a year) which those abroad were
in the habit of sending to their relatives in Newfoundland. This combination of
circumstances, and the reduced employment now afforded by the Bell Island mine,
have had a particularly serious effect in Conception Bay which was formerly the
most flourishing district in the Island.
208. Usually of good physique,
the Newfoundlander is hardy and long-lived. His tastes are simple and he is
content to live plainly. Though readily adapting himself to conditions in the
crowded cities of the North American continent, he treasures highly the
comparative freedom and independence which he enjoys in his own country.
Each man is quite capable of building his house; the sea supplies him with
food, both to eat and to sell; his little plot of land provides him with vegetables;
the countryside each summer is alive with wild fruit; and an occasional rabbit or
duck adds variety to his fare. He pays no local rates or taxes for there is no
local authority or direct Government tax; as a rule he pays no rent for he
generally owns his own house and a plot of land. Taxation is indirect and he
prides himself on being free from petty exactions; money is scarce; and he would
indeed prefer a crippling tariff to the painful necessity of parting with
hard-earned money in direct taxation, even if this meant that he would obtain
his supplies at a cheaper rate. Provided that the fishing season is good and
he can obtain a reasonable price for his catch, he is content, in essentials,
to continue in the ways of his fathers.
209. The people generally
are easy-going and law-abiding. Apart from minor offences [sic], there is
little crime. Essentially individualists, they are ready to help each other
in times of distress; but, in general, there is a marked absence of any
community spirit. Intensely patriotic, they lose no opportunity of demonstrating
their loyalty and devotion to the Throne and to the Empire; the remarkable
contribution made by Newfoundland in the Great War is a matter of history.
The affection and admiration with which the Mother Country is universally
regarded were brought home to us with peculiar force during the course of
our stay in the Island.
210. Shrewd and suspicious
in their business dealings, the people exhibit a child-like simplicity when
confronted with matters outside their own immediate horizon. This simplicity
political candidates have not been slow to exploit. There is no system of
compulsory education, but the majority have received an elementary education in
the schools, provided, with the aid of a State subsidy, by the various Churches.
Illiteracy, which at the beginning of the century was a serious menace, has now
been reduced to small proportions. Notwithstanding these efforts by the Churches,
the people have remained unprogressive. Outside St. John's, newspapers have a
very limited circulation, in consequence of the difficulties of distribution,
and there are no public libraries even in St. John's. In other respects, the
character of the people varies in different parts of the Island. In some parts,
owing to the unfortunate conditions in which they are accustomed, they are
improvident and happy-go-lucky, inclining to take the line of least resistance
and to wait for "something to turn up," which is a common expression among them.
In other parts, owing to the example, perhaps, of some leading personality or to
an inherited doggedness that refuses to admit defeat, they exhibit a perseverance
and resourcefulness that compels admiration. But, generally speaking, the vis
inertiae is strong in both St. John's and in the outports. Three years of
adversity have sapped physical stamina and moral courage, and circumstances
have been too strong for many who would have tided over a shorter period. Yet,
in spite of the pitiable condition to which they have now been reduced, there is
no doubt that the people of Newfoundland are potentially fine material of which
any country in the world would be proud.
* See Chapter VII, paragraph 432.
See Chapter VII, paragraph 439.
Image description updated May, 2004.