Oration honouring Donald Elijah Best
To stand on the shores of Fogo and look due north is to look into the unknown for there is, in essence, nothing between you and Greenland's high arctic.
Fogo, as adherents of the Flat Earth Society know, is an end of the world. The waves that beat upon its shore rise in the coldest north and carry with them the great bergs of summer.
This is no place for the fainthearted nor for those not of steady mind. Distant, isolated it may have been yet it was always the resort of the resourceful: of the Beothuk for bird or seal; of the English pushing against the outer reaches of the French Shore. First occupied in the early 18th century, Fogo, despite the collapse of various fisheries, has been sustained through the 19th and 20th centuries by the will of its people – a steady and determined a group as one is likely to find in Newfoundland.
In Newfoundland the word "shore" is a word with two meanings. It can mean that point upon which we land, upon which we land to make fish, upon which we land to live. It can also mean that great piece of timber which holds up a structure whether it be a stage, a store or a house.
It is in the latter sense that I would speak of Donald Best for he has been, for the last half century, one of the strongest, best-footed shores of Fogo Island. And to underline that sense of permanence, of commitment to place, he lives where his great-great grandfather first set up premises in 1838, at Pilley's Point on Fogo's southside.
At a time when the failure of resource-based industries threatens the survival of whole regions of Newfoundland and Labrador it is worth recalling earlier responses to such threats.
In the 1960s the salt fish industry, the economic mainstay of most outports, was in its last days – and so were those outports, for the government, seeing them as constant and unproductive drawers of funds, had set about consolidating them in the process known as resettlement.
Many capitulated, closed and moved. Fogo did not and part of the reason was the resistance of people like Donald Best.
A fisherman, Best was, for a decade from 1958 to 1967, a member of the town council and its mayor in his last year as councillor. One of the founders of the Fogo Island Improvement Committee he also helped create the Fogo Island Co-operative which today is the largest employer on the island.
When the co-operative was established in 1967 Don Best became a board member and, during his eight years as president, brought it through a very difficult period.
In the early days Best also worked with Memorial's Extension Services not only to establish the co-operative but also to assist the National Film Board on their world-renowned community development work now known as the Fogo Process.
Recognizing the role that the past can play in the future of small communities, he has of recent years been involved in building preservation – in the preservation of his own fishing premises and of the Anglican Church.
But he is also involved in the modern side of Fogo as a board member of Shorefast Foundation, that organization which is introducing a new perspective on development as well as architecture to the island's landscape.
So chancellor, we need no further argument, our course is set down in that remarkable eighteenth century navigational aid, Wadham's Song: "So nor-nor'west you are to steer/till Brimstone Head doth appear,/ Which over Pilley's point you'll see, Don Best is the man for we.// When Pilley's Point you are abreast,/ starboard haul, and steer sou'-sou'west/ Till Pilley's Point covers Syme's Stage;/ then you are clear, I will engage".
Chancellor, we are clear and so, for his sustained and effective leadership of his own community which has served as a model for outport survival, I present to you for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, Donald Elijah Best.