The Shrinking Town
By KEVIN COX
Wednesday, March 13, 2002
TREPASSEY, NFLD. -- In the silent darkness outside his grocery store in Trepassey, Nfld., Tom Sutton sees what has happened to rural Newfoundland over the past decade.
"In the nighttime you can look out the window for an hour and you won't see a car go by," he says.
The seaside road he scans was once known for its traffic jams as he and more than 500 workers travelled to and from work at the local fish plant. After the cod and flounder stocks were depleted, the plant closed a decade ago.
Mr. Sutton misses the sense of community at the fish plant that disappeared when the equipment was shipped out to Tanzania in 1995. Nearly half of Trepassey's population also left, many of them heading to a meat-packing plant in Brooks, Alta., or to construction projects in Ontario and B.C.
The shrinking status of Trepassey was confirmed by the release of yesterday's census: The town's population has dropped 18 per cent since 1996 to 889 residents. In 1991 -- the year the fish plant closed -- 1,375 people lived there.
Similar stories of outmigration dot the rural Newfoundland landscape as communities search for a future without fish. The province's population plummeted 7 per cent over the past five years to 513,000, the largest single drop in the province's history.
The economic decline in natural-resource-based rural regions and the trend toward smaller families in Atlantic Canada is blamed for the 1.2-per-cent drop in the population of New Brunswick to 729,000 over the past five years.
Nova Scotia's population fell for the first time in the history of the census, but only by 0.1 per cent, to 909,000. Tiny Prince Edward Island was the only province to show growth, with a 0.5-per-cent increase to 135,294 residents.
But the statistics do not show the anxious struggle for survival that is going on in rural Newfoundland as communities try to look ahead without thousands of fishermen and plant workers who once supported everything from science fairs to minor hockey programs.
Economic-development officials and municipal politicians in Trepassey say they are having some success in attracting employers and thousands of tourists to the area. But the signs of shrinkage are everywhere in the scenic coastal community 145 kilometres south of St. John's.
There are six pupils in the kindergarten class at Holy Redeemer elementary school. The school will close at the end of this year and about 100 students will be moved to the local high school.
Those who graduate from high school will be quick to seek out more education or jobs far from the rocks of Trepassey. "At one time the dropout rate here was 50 per cent; now it's almost zero," Jerome Devereaux said as children walked past his motel after the lunch hour.
"The young people come home at Christmas and they talk about their education and jobs, but nobody is staying home any more."
The local arena is struggling to break even with a declining number of minor-hockey players and not enough young men left to form a recreational league. Beside the arena, a pub where players used to toast their successes is boarded up; it is slated for demolition this year. Many houses with splendid ocean views that would be worth well in excess of $100,000 in places such as Chester or Mahone Bay, N.S., stand empty.
But in the midst of the gloomy indicators, the town that was founded more than four centuries ago refuses to die.
Mr. Sutton, a former engineer at the Trepassey fish plant, said a lot of people couldn't afford to leave the homes they built in the town where they were born. Others refused to admit that the fish plant, which provided them with incomes well above the Newfoundland average, would never reopen. That hope was dashed in 1995, when the equipment was stripped and shipped out.
Attempts to diversify the economy have produced about 30 new jobs as a window manufacturer, a maker of marine-lighting equipment and a water-bottling plant set up shop in Trepassey.
But things aren't happening fast enough for Gordon O'Neill, a 29-year-old Trepassey resident who plans to start a course at Memorial University of Newfoundland that could lead to work in the offshore oil industry. He went to Alberta a few years ago but returned home after six months, rejecting the big sky for the big sea.
"I love the water and everything around here. It's home." But he doesn't want to stay in Trepassey now: "There isn't any work here. I'd be working now if there was."