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
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, 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.
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.
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