Rural Depopulation

Out-migration has become a fact of life in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. For almost every year since Confederation, the number of people leaving rural communities has far exceeded the number of those moving in. Most migrants are young adults and families with young children who move to urban centres in search of jobs or for better access to education, health care and other services. Those who remain are aging and there are often not enough year-round residents to support the maintenance of schools, churches, medical clinics, shopping centres, and other facilities residents of larger towns and cities often take for granted.

Fogo, NL, 2006
Fogo, NL, 2006
Like many Newfoundland and Labrador fishing communities, Fogo experienced dramatic population loss after the 1992 cod moratorium. Its population dropped from 1,030 in 1991 to 748 in 2006.
Photo by Jody Cairns. Reproduced by permission of Jody Cairns. © 2008.

Although out-migration has long been a reality in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, it intensified during the 1990s after the collapse of the cod fishery deprived most small villages of their economic base. Between 1991 and 2001, the province's population dropped by 10 per cent – mostly due to the large-scale relocation of outport residents to other provinces and countries. Today, much uncertainty surrounds the future of rural settlements. Although tourism and small business will allow some communities to survive and even flourish, it is likely that others will eventually cease to exist.

Migration Before Confederation

Emigration from rural areas is not a recent development in Newfoundland and Labrador, nor is it unique to this province. For centuries, local people have migrated to other areas in search of work and natural resources or to satisfy a wide range of personal needs and ambitions. Seasonal migration was a routine part of life for many early settlers, who fished from coastal communities during the summer and then moved inland to harvest wood or trap furs during the fall and winter. As pressure on fishing grounds increased, some families established new coastal villages to exploit fish there, while the development of mining and forestry industries drew people away from outport communities to larger industrial towns like Stephenville, Corner Brook, and Buchans.

Before 1949, it was common for Newfoundland and Labrador people to move to the United States (particularly Boston) or Canada for seasonal or year-round work, while post-Confederation emigration was primarily to Canadian cities. Thousands of people also left rural communities during the Second World War to work at American and Canadian military bases at St. John's, Gander, and other large centres. Many women married foreign military personnel stationed here and subsequently moved to Canada or the United States with their husbands.

When Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949, more than half of the province's population lived in hundreds of small communities scattered along thousands of miles of coastline. Most households relied on the fishery as a main source of income, and supplemented earnings by growing vegetables, raising livestock, picking berries, and chopping firewood. Heavy reliance on the fishery, however, placed many communities at risk – a bad fishing season or decreased demand for saltfish on the international market could cause widespread poverty. As a result, there was much economic hardship in outport communities, which encouraged regular migration to larger centres for employment.

Modernization and Industrialization

After Confederation, the Smallwood government hoped to curb out-migration by developing land-based resources – forests, minerals, and hydro power – and by establishing a variety of smaller industries across the province, including a cement plant at Corner Brook and a rubber-boot factory at Holyrood. Instead of finding ways to develop rural economies, the government encouraged people to move into growth centres under its controversial resettlement and centralization programs.

Between 1954 and 1975, about 24,000 people abandoned more than 315 rural villages to live in large centralized communities. Although settlers expected to find employment at the mills, factories and other businesses created under Smallwood's industrialization policy, most ventures failed to generate much in the way of jobs or revenue. With unemployment no less a problem after resettlement than it was before, many rural people returned to the fishery.

Pushthrough, ca. 1900
Pushthrough, ca. 1900
Pushthrough is a small fishing community on Newfoundland's south coast.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Archives and Special Collections (Coll. 137 21.07.001), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.

The fishery, however, was undergoing drastic changes as a result of the government's modernization policy. As a result, the traditional family-based saltfishery became increasingly marginalized by an industrialized frozen fishery in which workers caught fish in large offshore trawlers and processed the catch at fish plants. Similarly, the province's logging and agriculture industries also became increasingly industrialized after Confederation, which in turn made it more difficult for rural residents to augment their earnings through supplementary farming and woodcutting.

The shift toward a year-round, cash-based, industrial fishery helped marginalize the subsistence lifestyle once prevalent in many rural areas. Families stopped growing vegetables, making their own clothes, and engaging in other unpaid activities that previously supplemented fishing incomes. This was underscored by new government legislation in the 1980s making it more difficult to keep cows, chicken and other livestock. Although easy access to cash and the Canadian social security net increased the quality of life in many outports, it also made residents increasingly dependent on a single industry – the fishery – for survival.

Cod Moratorium

Advances in fish-harvesting and processing technologies during the late 20th century allowed fishers to harvest unprecedented amounts of groundfish from inshore and offshore waters. Government regulations protecting cod stocks, however, were ineffective against the industry's ability to harvest them. As catch rates climbed, the fish stocks dwindled and finally collapsed in the 1990s. The federal government imposed a moratorium on the commercial Northern cod fishery in 1992, ending a 500-year-old industry.

The impact on rural Newfoundland and Labrador was devastating. Fish plants closed, boats remained docked, and 30,000 people were suddenly out of work. No other industries or businesses existed in rural communities to absorb the unemployed and thousands of people moved away to find work. Between 1991 and 2001, the population of rural Newfoundland and Labrador dropped from 264,023 to 216,734 – a loss of about 18 per cent. In contrast, the province's urban communities experienced a net loss of about 9,000 people during the same time period, while the population of rural Canada dropped by about 0.5 percent.

Bonne Bay, 2006
Bonne Bay, 2006
Bonne Bay is on Newfoundland's west coast and encompasses several outport communities.
Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of Image Services, Marketing and Communications, Memorial University of Newfoundland. © 2008.

Alongside high unemployment rates, other factors contributed to the depopulation of rural communities. North American entertainment and consumer products became more widespread after Confederation and helped change rural values and attitudes. Young people could suddenly compare their own living conditions with what they saw on American television shows or read in magazines and newspapers. Some felt their communities could not offer the variety of services and opportunities available in urban centres and decided to move away. Families with young children also moved to larger centres to have better access to educational, medical, and other facilities.

Compounding the continued problem of out-migration, particularly among young adults and families with young children, is a declining birthrate common to many Canadian communities. While natural population growth due to new births often compensated for out-migration in the past, this is no longer the case as parents are choosing to have fewer children than ever before. Although people also move into rural communities every year, their numbers are far below those who leave. The lower birth rate and decreased immigration, combined with the general tendency of young people to move away, has left many of the province's rural communities with an aging and a shrinking population.

Today, much uncertainty surrounds the future of rural Newfoundland and Labrador. The moratorium is still in place and it is unknown when or if the cod stocks will rebound. The growth of a shellfish industry has created work for some displaced workers, while tourism and small businesses have generated employment in other sectors. Nothing, however, has been able to curb the flow of people from small communities to St. John's, Alberta, and elsewhere or to sustain as many rural people as the centuries-old cod fishery once did.

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