Thursday, August 26, 2010

Outports and Fishing

Outports of Newfoundland are some of the oldest European settlements in Canada, many of them having been established by Portuguese, Spanish, Basque, French and English fishermen and whalers in the 1500s-1800s. Outports were settled where families could get shelter, fresh water and access to the fishing grounds and space to ‘make’ or salt process the fish. When all the existing shore space became allocated, or when more productive fishing grounds became known, some people would move to other areas leading to the high number of small outports spread over the length of shoreline and hundreds of islands of Newfoundland and Labrador. In 1934, more than 1200 outports spread along the coasts of Newfoundland, only 100 of which had populations over 500 people. Several have no roads connecting them to other communities on the mainland and are only accessible by boat or by footpath. 

Intellectually I know that the outport life was very hard and extremely cold but it is also achingly romantic (certainly from my outsiders perspective) as reflected in the many stirring songs and stories. Sadly, with government resettlement programs, the devastating demise of the fishery, and ongoing depopulation as young people move to larger urban centres, the outport is an endangered phenomenon. As we cruised along the South coast we were privileged to see several of these communities in very differing stages and sizes, but all abandoned or with rapidly reducing populations and economic opportunities.

Grand Bruit, located about 40 nautical miles from Port aux Basques, was the first outport that we visited in Newfoundland. Grand Bruit is pronounced locally as 'Grand Brit' but comes originally from the French for 'big noise' due to the enormous waterfall running through its centre. This town has twice been named the tidiest community in Newfoundland since 2000, held its homecoming in 2007 and as of July 11, 2010 has been abandoned. The huge waterfall running through the middle does create a racket of white noise, brightly painted houses cluster together on the hillside and well kept log wharves ring the cove around to a little grave yard with white stones in the meadow on the edge of town. Grand Bruit is not accessible by road and wooden boardwalks and cement sidewalks wind between the houses, creating a charmingly cosy feel. A picture perfect community but absolutely empty of people. The church was open and the guest book full of very emotional entries from the last service on July 11^th . We found the pub, Cramalott Inn, a tiny 1-room building with benches around and a few empty beer bottles lingering. It was so easy to see a group of tipsy comrades sitting around discussing the latest gossip or the last catch and making music and telling tales. In the houses, the curtains still hung, decorations were left, vegetable and flower gardens had been planted this season and peering into one house we saw a pair of eyeglasses left on the kitchen table. But noone around, not a soul to be seen.

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