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 admiration.

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.
Larger Version (44 kb)
Tess Cove

  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.



Partnered Projects Government and Politics - Table of Contents Site Map Search Heritage Web Site Home