Present Condition of the People.

  211. Blessed by nature with an abundant fishery, which in many respects is unsurpassed, with an ample timber supply from which to build their houses, boats and fishing stages and provide themselves with fuel, and with at least sufficient land to yield them a modest crop of potatoes and other vegetables, it might be thought that the people of Newfoundland were in a better position than those of many other countries to withstand the ravages of a world-wide depression. Yet the fact remains that her condition is desperate. We propose here to analyse [sic] the causes which have led to the present tragic state of affairs.

Outer Cove Outer 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.
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  212. We have already emphasized the fact that the fishery is the mainstay of the country, and shall develop this at length in the following chapter. We make no apology for doing so, since the policies pursed by successive Governments in recent years have tended to obscure this essential and all important consideration. Even in a country where the total annual yield of the fishery over a long period of years has been remarkably consistent, fishing must always be a precarious occupation. The vagaries of wind and weather, the occurrence of varying ice conditions, the hazards that are associated with life upon the sea, the uncertainty of the bait-supply and the fluctuation of prices, all these must make for good years and bad years; and, although the country as a whole may obtain the same yield from the fishery, the individual fisherman must be liable to changes of fortune. Two requirements are, therefore, essential if a country dependent on its fishery is to prosper, first, that the fishery should so far as possible be conducted on a rational and scientific basis and, secondly, that provision should be made either by individual fishermen, or by their employers, in good years to tide them over the bad seasons which sooner or later overtake them. Neither of these requirements is fulfilled in Newfoundland.

  213. The various modes of fishing in Newfoundland, and the system under which the fishery is conducted, are discussed in Chapter VI. It may be noted here, however, that, from the days when the country first came to be permanently settled until the middle of the nineteenth century, the organisation of the fisheries was largely feudal. The merchants or exporters who established themselves in St. John's and other centres employed a number of fishermen to catch fish for them. These fishermen did not receive wages but were provided by the merchants, in return for their services during the fishing season, with sufficient foodstuffs and other necessaries to maintain themselves and their families in tolerable comfort throughout the year. The merchants were shopkeepers or store-keepers as well as exporters of fish. In addition, the fishermen were supplied by the merchants with such gear, equipment and provisions as might be required to enable them to conduct their fishing operations. It was the practice of each merchant to support his own fishermen in bad times as well as good. Money did not change hands; indeed, it could have been said with truth only a few years ago that there were families in Newfoundland who had never seen money in their lives. Under this system, very similar to the old truck system in England, large fortunes were made by the merchants; the fishermen, though saved from the danger of destitution, were little more than serfs with no hope of becoming independent.

  214. Vicious as was the system, it was not nearly so destructive as that which developed from it. As the population increased, the old feudal practices were gradually modified. The obligation to support the fishermen in bad times, the only virtue of the former system, became the duty not of the merchants but of the State. It was obvious that the fishermen could not conduct the fishery from their own resources, and the custom grew up under which each fishermen went to a merchant in the spring and obtained from him, on credit, supplies of equipment and food to enable him and his family to live, not for the whole year, but during the three or four months of the fishing season. At the end of the season, the fishermen returned to the merchant with his catch of fish, dried and cured, to set off against his account. The price of fish was fixed by the merchants, as also was the price of the provisions, etc., supplied to the fisherman and his family in the spring. In cases where fish was valued according to quality, the quality of the fish tendered by the fisherman was determined by a "culler" or valuer who himself was the employee of the merchant. In good years a balance was left to the fisherman, after deduction of the debt due to the merchant: this balance was paid to him in cash. In bad years the value of the fish tendered to the fisherman was not sufficient to pay for his supplies and he, therefore, remained in debt to the merchant. The balance available to him in good years was often such as to leave him with no margin after he had provided for himself and his family for the rest of the year, and the same process was, therefore, repeated in the following spring. In bad years, there was no balance at all and while in some cases, which were considered specially deserving, merchants continued to make advances to assist a man over the winter, thus adding to the burden of debt to be repaid during the ensuing year, the majority had no recourse to fall back upon and, in default of other employment, were compelled to turn to the Government for relief.

  215. Under this system, which has continued, in spite of criticism and repeated warnings, down to the present day, the merchants were given three chances of making a profit, first on the supplies made to the fisherman in the spring, secondly on the sale of fish to foreign markets, and thirdly on purchases by the fisherman from his earnings of sufficient goods to carry him through the winter. The fishermen, on the other hand, who had never been given a chance of becoming independent, were deprived of the right to look to their merchants for assistance in bad times and were compelled in emergency to seek public charity. True, in good years they now handled cash instead of receiving remuneration in kind, but most of the cash went back again to the merchants in payment for winter supplies, and there was little incentive for saving when it was known that supplies for the fishery of the following year could always be obtained on credit.

  216. The credit system thus came to be accepted as an essential element in the conduct of the fishery. Very few men to-day, even if they were in a position to achieve independence, would dream of outfitting themselves on a cash basis although their supplies would be obtained much more cheaply. The great majority would regard any such procedure as speculating with their own hard-earned money; they would prefer to speculate with the merchants' money and to hoard their own at home or deposit it in a Bank.

  217. The psychological effects of this system on the people are far-reaching. The merchants, instead of being looked on as friends whose co-operation is necessary if the industry is to prosper, are apt to be regarded as enemies whose sole object is to exploit the fisherman for their personal gain. In the absence of mutual confidence between producer and exporter, the industry rests on a basis of distrust and suspicion. It was pointed out in forcible language by Mr. Neilsen, Superintendent of Fisheries, as far back as 1994, that the credit system was an unmitigated evil, breeding dishonesty, extravagance, luxury, carelessness, recklessness regarding the future, want of energy, laziness and dependence among large sections of a naturally well-endowed, hardy and able people.* Mr. Neilsen's conclusion that the gradual suppression of this system, and the rehabilitation of the industry on a cash basis, were essential to the future welfare of the country, has received confirmation from other impartial observers, but forty years have now passed and there has been no change in the credit structure. The tendencies noted by Mr. Neilsen have been allowed to continue unchecked. The merchant accuses the fisherman of dishonesty; the fisherman accuses the merchant of attempting to deprive him of his legitimate earnings. This perpetual struggle between partners in the primary industry of the country, and the unfortunate practices and subterfuges to which it has given rise, have led to the stagnation of the industry and to a blunting of the moral sense which has tended to undermine the character of the people.

  * Annual Report of the Newfoundland Department of Fisheries, 1894, reprinted 1930, p. 46.

Image description updated May, 2004.

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