Central Newfoundland: Where are the children going?

In the middle of nowhere, at a Newfoundland Tourist Chalet, we were engaged in conversation by the middle-aged attendant, whose nametag identified her as Rita. She was curious, friendly, and so garrulous that I suspected we were the only people who’d stopped in since she’d opened the place that Sunday morning. She asked the three questions that almost every Newfoundlander asks us: “Where are you from? Is this your first visit to Newfoundland? Are you here on holiday?”

Eventually, the conversation came around to Rita’s children. Her son has graduated from university, but had to move to Halifax for a job. Then she spoke about her daughter, who is in her sixth year of university at St. John’s. The girl hopes to become a teacher in Gander, but such jobs are very hard to come by, and the competition is fierce. “You have to have French,” Rita said, “and music. That’s why it’s taking so long for her to finish.”

That is the story of Newfoundland’s younger generation. The fishing industry collapsed in 1992, and there’s not much else to do here. To get a job, you have to leave. Or, in the case of Rita’s daughter, study for years to land a teaching job in a community with fewer than 10,000 people.

At a restaurant down the road in Grand Falls-Windsor, the waitress asked the usual three questions, surprised that we had no family or other connections to bring us all the way to Newfoundland. When she heard my dad was from Florida, she said her son was at school in Prince Edward Island, studying to be a chef. “When he gets done with school, he wants to work either in Florida or on a cruise ship. We don’t have chefs in Newfoundland. Just cooks.”

Another example of an 18-year-old Newfoundlander who has left the island and probably won’t be returning. His mother has never traveled farther than Ontario; she has no desire to.

Our next stop was the logging exhibit outside Grand Falls, where we hit a treasure trove of information. The guide there was a talkative fellow about my age who answered dozens of questions that Barry and I had saved up. “I talk a lot,” he said. “My friends tell me I have a longer tongue than a fur-lined gaiter,” referring to boots used by lumbermen.

Like many Newfoundlanders, the man was shorter than me, the product of generations of malnutrition. His ancestors had plenty of fish and turnips, but not much else. He’s a third-generation resident of Grand Falls, his family originally from a fishing community on Trinity Bay.

Grand Falls-Windsor is not a dying town; there are jobs there. In the beginning of the 20th century, an English publisher built the largest pulp mill in the world on the falls of the Exploit River, and it’s still in operation.

Talented and articulate, the guide admitted that he could get a better job outside Newfoundland but doesn’t want to. He and his wife have a 7-year-old daughter, and he loves the fact that there is so much open space here. “There are only 500,000 people in Newfoundland, and half of them are over there on the Avalon peninsula,” he told us. He raved about the free land in Newfoundland, “Crown land” where you can hunt, fish, hike, cut wood, or camp. By comparison, he described a hunting trip with relatives in Ontario, where they had to drive “for hours” to find a tiny patch of Crown land. He made me think of a cowboy from the West, unable to fathom life in a city with all the people.

But I wonder about his daughter. What will Newfoundland be like when she grows up? Will she stay or leave?

At our hotel that evening, the clerk was a woman from Ontario who moved to Newfoundland 13 years ago. I expressed my surprise, saying, “That’s different. Mostly we hear of people leaving Newfoundland.” She’d come to tiny Robert’s Arm at age 18 with her parents, who were originally from Newfoundland and who bought a little hotel for their retirement. She met her husband in Robert’s Arm, married and had children. Just a normal family, but a rare one to buck the trend. Adding Newfoundlanders, not taking them away.