CHAPTER V.--THE PRESENT STATE OF THE ISLAND.

Present Condition of the People. (continued)

  222. As a result of three successive seasons in which the fishery yielded no return, the winter of 1932-33 found the people living in conditions of great hardship and distress. Privation was general, clothing could not be replenished, credit was restricted, and hardly anywhere did the standard rise above a bare subsistence. Lack of nourishing food was undermining their health and stamina; cases of beri-beri, a disease caused by inferior diet, and of malnutrition were gradually increasing, and were to be found in numerous settlements; the general attitude of the people was one of bewilderment and hopelessness.

  223. In the circumstances, it was clear, when we arrived in the Island, that the prospect of a fourth bad season in succession could only be viewed with the most serious misgiving. Not only were the fishermen in dire straits, but the merchants had also suffered heavy losses. Newfoundland had, in fact, been brought to the edge of a financial precipice, and it was impossible to escape the conclusion that a further season in which the fishery was conducted at a loss might lead to a general collapse of the social fabric. These were, however, factors which led us to hope that the fishery of 1933 might at least show a better return to the fisherman than the fisheries of the three preceding years. Moreover, the Island had started the year well in that the annual seal fishery had been successful. A good seal fishery has two effects, material and psychological. From the material standpoint, some hundreds of fishermen realise earnings enabling them to make much needed purchases and to free themselves, at least temporarily, from the crippling effects of poverty. The circulation of the money thus made available brings immediate benefits alike to the large merchant and the small shopkeeper and improves the fisherman's prospects of securing at a reasonable figure his seasonal outfit for the main fisheries. There is a saying in the Island that a good seal fishery means a good cod fishery, and to the direct benefits received from the former must be added the psychological effects of a general restoration of confidence which act like a tonic on the whole community.

  224. There was, therefore, some reason to hope, in the spring of 1933, that the bottom of the depression had been reached, so far as Newfoundland was concerned; that the downward trend of prices had been checked; and that, given a normal catch of fish and favourable weather for curing, the people might find themselves in improved circumstances at the end of the season. Moreover, the Government was making a special effort to stimulate the fishery, to educate the fishermen to the requirements of foreign markets and to encourage closer co-operation amongst the merchants with a view to the establishment of an economic system of marketing. The Government was also endeavouring to bring home to the people the imperative necessity that they should take such steps as might be within their power, such as the intensive cultivation of their farms and gardens, to supplement their resources and to provide themselves with enough to carry them through the ensuing winter on the conclusion of the fishing season. The evidence submitted to us showed that the people were responding to this appeal.

Collins Bay Collins Bay, Burin, 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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  225. By the end of June, however, when we had concluded our hearings, there was general agreement amongst the merchants that the market prospects for cod-fish were even less promising than they had been in the corresponding period of the previous year. Against this consideration had to be set the rise in the value of sterling. Since Newfoundland fish is sold almost entirely in sterling, the depreciation of sterling as compared with the Canadian dollar, which is the currency in operation in Newfoundland, had been equivalent to an added fall of 20 per cent. in the price of fish. The approximation of the Canadian dollar to parity with sterling was thus calculated to be of considerable benefit to the Newfoundland exporter and therefore, it was hoped, to the fisherman. Thus, on balance, it still seemed likely that the latter would obtain at least a better return from the fishery of 1933 than from that of the previous year.

  226. Unfortunately, we now find that the hopes held out earlier in the year are not likely to be fulfilled. For while the improved sterling exchange has enabled merchants to offer higher prices to the fishermen, the shore-fishery, which is responsible for the great bulk of Newfoundland's annual catch, has unaccountably failed over almost the whole length of the east coast, from Cape Bauld to Cape Race, on which nearly three-quarters of the people live. The failure of the shore-fishery to this extent is almost without precedent; and the effects of this cruel blow have been intensified by the virtual failure, through lack of bait, of the fishery usually conducted in the fall. These successive disasters have left hundreds of fishermen on the east coast without means, in debt to the merchants, and with no reserve for the winter other than the small quantity of vegetables they have been able to grow in their allotments. In other parts of the Island shore-fishermen have been able to benefit both from higher prices and from the favourable weather which has resulted in an improved cure; but the failure of the fall fishery has to some extent offset their increased earnings, and it is to be feared that only in few localities will they be able to liquidate their debts to the merchants and provide themselves with necessaries for the winter. The fishery on the Banks has been successful, but the prices ruling for Labrador fish, while yielding an improved return to the average fisherman, will not, it is feared, give him a sufficient margin to carry him and his family through the winter without assistance. Taking the Island as a whole, there is no doubt that, in these circumstances, the next six months will be months of intense hardship and privation. The progressive effect of such conditions on a people already tried to breaking-point, under-nourished, without adequate clothing and easy victims to disease, cannot but arouse the most serious apprehension.

Image description updated May, 2004.



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