6.21.2008

bonavista, second day and night

[Friday, June 20]

After Florence cooked us a full breakfast, including homemade bread and jams, we walked down the street to Ryan Premises, a national historic site. We weren't expecting much, just a town museum and something about the fishing industry, but it turned out to be absolutely fascinating, a must-see if you visit Bonavista.

Ryan Premises is a group of buildings on the harbour, which includes the home of the Ryan family, who owned much of the town, and pretty much owned the fishermen and their families, too. It houses the Bonavista historical society, an collection of artifacts from generations of town families.

The best part of Ryan Premises is an interpretative centre telling the story of the fishing industry in Newfoundland, from its beginning in the 1500s to its demise in the early 1990s. (There's a separate exhibit on sealing.) From it, I gained a much deeper understanding of the history and culture of the province.

The exhibit includes a National Film Board movie called "Taking Stock," about the end of the cod industry (and possibly the end of the northern cod species). It was very moving, and very disturbing. The film takes a strong viewpoint in favour of the "inshore fishermen," which are the people of Bonavista and hundreds of communities like it, whose lives have been bound up in cod fishing for centuries.

The filmmaker compares the destruction of the northern cod stock and its effect on Newfoundlanders to the destruction of the buffalo and its effect on the native peoples of the plains. That's a powerful image, and an apt one. I did realize later that the people of Newfoundland had Canada. For whatever it might have done better, Canada didn't let them just fade away and die.

You know I hate the dilution of language, and I try not to throw around words like tragic and heroic. But if ever there was a tragic story, it's the demise of the northern cod. It is all the more tragic because it was completely preventable, and given what we know about human behaviour, also almost inevitable.

While the movie shows the complexity of blame and responsibility, to my mind this tragedy has some clear villains, too. One species of fish can't be caught twelve months a year, and it can't be caught in massive quantities, hauling in a daily catch as large as most fishermen would see in an entire season. The ocean is not a factory. The cod is not a widget.

The story brings up two themes I've hammered on at wmtc. One, Jared Diamond in Collapse: people thinking they were spending the interest of their environments, when they were actually spending their capital and draining their bank accounts. (In this case, knowingly draining the bank account, because they'd run off with the money while the family stayed behind in poverty.) And two, Michael Pollan on the horrific consequences of trying to apply the principles of mass production to food. Both ideas are brilliantly and tragically illustrated in the complete collapse of a food web and way of life that thrived for 500 years.

After we saw the film, we talked for a while with one of the guides, who grew up in Bonavista. She and her husband - and everyone they knew - worked at the fish processing plant. She told us about her old life - how the increased production from the trawlers brought them a comfort level and prosperity they had never known (who ever heard of middle-class fishermen?), and also how they saw the signs that something was going very wrong, such as the size of the fish getting smaller and smaller.

Then the devastation, the disbelief, the depression, as their entire way of life is made obsolete. Something unthinkable, impossible: the end of commercial cod fishing in Newfoundland.

And then, their options for survival, brought to them by the government. She chose to get more education - none of her family had ever finished high school, and her parents and in-laws had left school to work while still in their single-digits. I could hear this woman had an inner strength and flexibility to persevere against strong odds, and without a lot of support.

She went back to school, then started working for the town museum, at first earning a tiny fraction of her former factory pay. She learned new skills, and worked hard, and eventually landed a highly competitive job with Parks Canada, telling the story of her own culture. It's an excellent job, and she loves it, but unfortunately it is only seasonal (4.5 months out of the year), and she doubts she can advance in the parks service because she doesn't speak French. But she's already done so much - she's transformed herself and her family. I really admire her.

One huge part of the rebirth of a post-fishing Newfoundland is what Allan and I are enjoying right now. I'm told that ten years ago, there was almost no tourism infrastructure here at all. Grants, education programs, and such helped Newfoundlanders build a tourism economy, to share the beauty of their land and culture with us mainlanders.

After the museum, it was back to Marsh's, for more fish and chips (it never ends), then to the Bonavista Lighthouse.

This is a beautiful lighthouse, similar to the one at Cape Spear, but we were there on a special mission. My Newfie-born friend from the War Resisters Campaign - Newfie Campaign Friend, NCF? - sent me there. Her grandmother was born in that lighthouse!

We took a short and very informative tour, and told the tour guides (who are dressed in period costumes) about this connection. They looked it up, and we derived that NCF's grandmother was the youngest child of Nicholas White. Nicholas was the son of Bonavista's very first lighthouse keeper, and took over for his father when he died.

NCF told me to check out the cliffs behind the lighthouse and realize that was this family's backyard. There's a fence there now, of course, but the drop is steep and the rocks are like a dragon's teeth snapping in the air. But they never lost a child over the cliffs, and some lightkeepers' families had as many as 11 children.

Near the lighthouse is a statue of John Cabot (given name Giovanni Caboto!), who may or may not have first touched the New World at Bonavista in 1497. He did "discover" (ahem) this New Found Land, the first toehold of the nascent British Empire, and "legend has it" that was at Cape Bonavista. A replica of his boat, The Matthew, is on display in the town. It also has an interpretative centre, called The Matthew Legacy.

After the lighthouse, we went to Bonavista's little public library. We had been waiting for it to open, as we hadn't had internet access since leaving St. John's. I have no cell phone service either, and I get a little nervous being completely out of touch with our dogsitter. (This comes from one very bad past experience.) I was also anxious to blog, and Allan needed some game information. The library is only open a few hours a day - and not even every day - and there is no other public internet in town.

When the library finally opened, we couldn't do anything but check email. Blogger was blocked! The entire Newfoundland/Labrador Community Access Internet Program cannot access Blogger or any blog created with blogger.

Our hosts had told us that the door would be open all day, and we should feel free to stop in any time and put the kettle on. So we did, and while we were having our tea, we met another guest I'll call Teddy Bear Guy.

Bonavista is celebrating Discovery Days, a local holiday commemorating Cabot's landing. Teddy Bear Guy is performing a children's music event, and whenever he's in, he stays with the Alberts. I don't want to go on about TBG; let's just say "irritating" and leave it at that.

For dinner, we couldn't bear another meal at Marsh's, so we drove out of town a ways and found another little joint, and ate some non-seafood, non-fried food.

Back in Bonavista, we missed the parade that opens the festivities, but settled in at the Orange Hall (like the Legion Hall, but for Orangemen) for some music. Local people drifted in, wearing jackets against the chill, even inside. There were chips and cans of beer or pop for sale, and everyone sat at big folding tables on hard wooden chairs.

The first act was a duo, one man on guitar and one with a concertina, singing Irish or Newfoundland ballads and spinning off reels. They were followed by a man on guitar and harmonica, singing Hank Williams-style country songs, with a few Irish numbers mixed in. We enjoyed them both, but when the next act did a Canadian-style Toby Keith "Canada Is Number One" kind of song, we got ready to leave. They also had a Gordon Lightfoot-influenced folk thing going on, and as you may know, we are not fans of Mr Lightfoot. Besides, it was almost crab time!

Back at the B&B, our crabfest was joined by another couple from Northern Ontario. Albert told the same jokes, Florence walked in at the same time with the same tarts, and I realized we had witnessed an old routine. They seem to love it, and I sincerely hope they do. These folks give so much to their guests, and they could fill their house at twice the rate. In fact, Albert told us that he has never raised the rates in 11 years. They have no employees to pay, they own their home outright, and they live simply but want for nothing. Their daughter is an RCMP officer and their surviving son lives in St. John's. They're a wonderful couple, and I promised I would tell you all about their wonderful home.

That catches us up with last night. Today was fun and accidentally hilarious. I'll write about it tomorrow morning.

1 comment:

redsock said...

a Canadian-style Toby Keith "Canada Is Number One" kind of song

We'll put a toque in your ass, eh?