We’re Not All Outports Here! Exploring Newfoundland and Labrador’s Other “Rurals”

By Deatra Walsh

Ravaged by the end of the cod fishery and left desolate by the exodus of people, both young and old, in search of prosperous opportunities elsewhere, what, if anything, is left to be said about rural Newfoundland?

If I were not a sociologist, I would perhaps be content to leave this statement as is, stinging the tongues of planners, policy makers, academics, and rural people who have “managed” to stay in rural areas. While sensationalism is appealing, rural realities are more complex than a simple assumption of decline.

Ravaged and desolate are certainly not truths for all of rural Newfoundland and Labrador, despite the messages that emerge from urban-centric media sources (for a recent example, see the November 14, 2010, edition of The Globe and Mail featuring an article on Labrador’s Black Tickle). Decline was certainly not the case for the community of Lewisporte, and its rural surround, when I conducted research there in 2008.

“When you think about Lewisporte,” I ask her, the first of 45 women who participated in a comparative research project on the migration biographies of women who stayed, left, returned and moved in to that area, “What do you think about?” I was interested in whether and how these women saw the town, and the area, as a rural place.

“I think …” she begins, “I mean people say Lewisporte is dyin’ – it’s a retirement town – everything like that. But I don’t really see it from that perspective.”

“No?” I question her.

“And probably because I’m not here as, here retired; cause I’m here with a job, and with a young family and we’re quite content.… There are things for us to do, maybe not as much as there would be,” she pauses, “I don’t even think Gander has a whole lot more than we do when it comes to extracurricular you know, besides the swimming pool, that sort of thing. But I would look at Lewisporte as … I think it’s thriving.”

A service community populated by over 3300 people, Lewisporte surrounds a harbour that branches from Notre Dame Bay, which is located off the central north coast of the Island. The Lewisporte Area, as it was called in my research, included the town of Lewisporte and its rural surround of 11 smaller communities and unincorporated areas – all within about 35 km driving distance. Lewisporte is, in turn, about a 60 km drive (35 minutes) from the larger towns of Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor (each with a population of approximately 10,000 people).

In the last decade, Lewisporte has had its share of struggles. The closure of a large warehouse facility in 2007 eliminated 70 full- and part-time jobs in the community. The town has also constantly faced the threat that Marine Atlantic’s ferry service to Labrador will terminate. Despite this, the community has a strong economic development plan that encompasses tourism and service development, particularly for seniors, a strong public service sector (including administrative, health care and education employment) and a large consumer service sector (including a mall, numerous shops, and several chain fast food restaurants) that indeed make it unique in the landscape of Newfoundland’s rural.

The Lewisporte Area, although coastal in location, challenges the assumption that all rural coastal communities in Newfoundland and Labrador are fishing communities. They are not.

The rural-as-fishing-community notion that pervades our understanding of communities outside the “overpass” is akin to the assumption that all rural communities in Canada west of Nova Scotia, for example, are agricultural in nature. Even though the synonymity of rural with any one particular natural resource activity has been challenged in academic literature – and a multitude of “rurals” has been exposed nationally, internationally and in this province (sociologists from MUN have done extensive research in forestry, mining, and service communities) – here, on the eastern edge of the North American continent, the fishery prevails as the image of the rural.

“I don’t mind rural,” my seventh interviewee tells me when I ask her what comes to mind when someone says the word rural to her. “Like, I know this is rural Newfoundland and [rural] is small towns, and they say town by the water and towns that don’t have big industries and stuff like that. But I don’t like it when people say outports.”

“No?” I ask, obviously interested in why she would feel this way.

“No because that’s just – because when somebody from Ontario says, ‘oh you’re from an outport town in Newfoundland,’ then they automatically go to everybody here fishes and everybody here, if they don’t fish, then they’re gone to Alberta and like you’re all walking around with like two teeth in your mouth and rubbers on, and your camouflage vest and stuff. And that’s not us at all and I hate that.”

The outport stigma, as it is attached to a particular image of the make-it-or-break-it rugged, usually male, Newfoundlander who spends more time in the wilderness hunting and fishing than in a dentist’s chair, is problematic. It is problematic for those of us studying the rural and it is, as this interview indicates, problematic for those living in rural areas not characterized by fishing. A larger problem emerges with the outport stigma – beyond the assumption that it is a fishing community in decline. This problem relates to an outmigration narrative (i.e., “if they don’t fish, then they’re gone to Alberta”).

It is a fact that Newfoundland and Labrador has consistently had the highest rates of outmigration in the country. In the 2006 Census, most rural areas in the province decreased in population (through natural population decline and net outmigration). St. John’s and its surrounding communities, on the other hand, experienced population growth.

While going west to Alberta has been touted as “still the best advice” for Newfoundlanders (see The Globe and Mail, March 13, 2002: A7) and westward migration patterns remain (see Second Promised Land by Harry H. Hiller), outmigration is not the only rural population flow, nor is migration out of the province necessarily the norm.

Of the 45 women with whom I spoke, most never moved off the island or out of the province. Often, their migration patterns encompassed one or several moves related to post-secondary education in either St. John’s or Corner Brook. Furthermore, 27 women from the Lewisporte Area who left to work, attend school, or accompany a partner, actually returned; six women from other rural areas in the province moved to the Lewisporte Area and four did not move away. Leaving is not the only rural migration narrative available to us.

A pattern of circular migration (leaving and returning) is, and has been, prevalent in the province; temporary migration is normal, and commuting short and long distances is increasingly part of the lives of rural families, despite their location.

In my research, young educated professional women stayed in, moved to and returned to the Lewisporte Area. Many moved there because they were able to secure work in their fields of employment; several lived in the area and commuted to Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor for work. Others sought employment in the area, as well as the support of their extended families, while their partners commuted to other places in the province or elsewhere in the country for work. These women moved in and back to the area because they had, or were about to have, children. Lewisporte is a community with a history of attracting and maintaining young professionals with families (see Robert Hill’s 1983 report on the Meaning of Work and the Reality of Unemployment in the Newfoundland Context which features Lewisporte as one of its comparative research sites).

Though rural by Statistics Canada’s standards, the Lewisporte Area is not ravaged and desolate. It is not comprised of fishing communities; it does not appear to be in decline and it is home to both in-migrants and return migrants. It is, by all accounts, another “rural” in the province that should be considered when the sweeping messages of fisheries-related decline and subsequent outmigration tend to pervade the province’s “outport” imagination.

Deatra Walsh is a postdoctoral research fellow at York University. In this essay, she draws upon young rural women’s migration biographies to challenge the assumptions that: 1) all of rural Newfoundland and Labrador is in decline, 2) all rural areas in the province are fishery-dependent, and 3) rural outmigration is the only population flow occurring in the province.