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Day 8: Forteau, Labrador Revitalized Labrador Straits no longer the land that God supposedly forgot


Monday, August 14, 2000

It's been a while -- 466 years, to be precise -- since Jacques Cartier landed on these shores and sneered at his discovery of the land of Cain, a land so barren and rocky that it still struggles every summer to produce a hillside of berries.

"Except at Blanc Sablon, there is nothing but moss and short, stunted shrub," Cartier wrote in 1534, on his first voyage into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. ". . . I am rather inclined to believe that this is the land . . . God gave to Cain. There are people on this coast whose bodies are fairly well formed but they are wild and savage folk."

Eight communities, including Blanc Sablon on the Quebec side, still survive on the Labrador Straits, a region accessible only by ferry from Newfoundland. But they will no longer be accused of being Cain's people, let alone wild and savage folk.

Along this coast's single dead-end road that cuts close around capes, nips through coves and blows across deserted scrub land, there are new vehicles going in both directions, new houses and fish processing sheds going up, and young people going to work. On a coastline where human settlement has been known for 9,000 years, Southern Labrador's exodus is again coming to a crawl.

The revitalization was in full swing at the Labrador Straits' annual Bakeapple Folk Festival over the weekend. In the hockey arena at L'anse au Loup (population: 451), crowds of local fishermen came to eat cod, square dance and put on skits to celebrate a good year, something that has been in scarce supply since the festival started in 1980. High prices for shrimp and crab have brought a burst of prosperity to the isolated straits; the gradual return of cod fishing has also restored scores of jobs in local processing plants.

A decade ago, many outsiders felt Forteau and its neighbouring villages could not ride through the loss of cod fishing, not on a harsh section of the Laurentian Shield where there are about two weeks of sun every summer and rock formations that are older than life on the planet. (It is often called the oldest unchanged region on Earth.) Many people hauled their boats ashore and left as the local economy collapsed with the cod fishing moratorium, but those who remained eventually found new harvests in the sea and started new local industries on land, including one that makes preserves from local cloudberries, the fabled bakeapple. Forteau preserves are now sold in grocery stores across Atlantic Canada.

Despite the area's voracious black flies, there may be more to come. A highway being built from the far end of the community in Red Bay will eventually reach Goose Bay, making these villages a new gateway to Labrador. Few locals fear the traffic that may bring. They just hope outsiders, nearly five centuries on, will stop calling their rugged home the land that God forgot.
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.

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