Newfoundland town awaits vote on accepting relocation deal

Video: Ross Lord visits a tiny Newfoundland community that is awaiting a vote that would see their village disappear.

Newfoundland’s Little Bay Islands is a community that is so gorgeous it makes you wonder why anyone would want to leave.

But if you look past the postcard-worthy scenery, you’ll start to see clues that people have indeed left and those that remain in the idyllic community may soon depart as well.

The general store has been abandoned, the playground is empty and so are the school hallways.

And with the fish processing plant closing, there’s no real future for the two students that remain at that school.

“When I came here to teach in 1981, we had 128 kids in the school,” former teacher Jerry Weir told Global News. “Right now, there are two.”

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Weir taught at the school for 30 years. He was born and raised in the community, too.

“As you celebrated the accomplishments of your young people, and they’re moving on to do bigger and better things for themselves… it also meant that it was the death coming of your community,” he said.

READ MORE: Newfoundland town copes as men head west for bigger pay

The average age of residents now is about 67 years old.

With just 72 people living in the village, Little Bay Islands is faced with becoming not more than a page in a Newfoundland history book.

The provincial government has offered the remaining residents — there were once 800 people residing there — as much as $270,000, per family, to pick up and move, leaving the nearly two-century-old down to just fade away.

That sounds like a lot of money, but the government stands to save $30 million if the settlement is approved. Most of that will come from shutting down the ferry that runs to the nearest mainland port in the north coast town of Springdale.

The province subsidizes 98 per cent of the ferry’s operational costs, which works out to $2.8 million annually and it was just replaced in 2011 at a cost of $28 million.

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The community — made up of five islands, including its namesake Little Bay Island — is going to vote in the coming months on whether they’ll take the relocation money and pack up their lives and go.

“It’s time to get out of here and go to a bigger community where you can get to a hospital if you need to or whatever you need to do, right,” Little Bay Islands councillor Dennis Budgell told Global News.

“[There’s] not one thing here in the world, not an item. There’s no work… you gotta do something.”

The debate over relocation has caused a rift among residents, with many of those that live there full-time wanting to accept the deal and summer residents who want to stay but don’t have a say in the matter.

Those that go will get money to pack up and move on. Those that choose to stay will be without any of the few services they currently have, such as water and electricity.

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Newfoundland’s resettlement policy began in 1975 and, according to a National Post report in February, more than 300 faltering communities and settlements have vanished.

Perry Locke was mayor of Little Bay Islands when the issue of relocation was first voted on in 2011,  when only 60 per cent of the town voted in favour.

It takes 90 per cent approval for relocation to happen.

“Just tripling the money alone should tell you how badly they want you out of these communities,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Newfoundland and Labrador government increased the amount it would offer families to relocate — from $100,000 per family to $270,000.

Locke  said  he resigned from the mayor’s office because of the pressure the he felt from community members after talk of relocation began.

“[It] kinda makes you feel like a prisoner in your own community. You feel isolated. I’ve had people say, ‘turn around and let me see if you still have the target on your back,'” he said. “It’s that part of this process I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

He actually has one of the few jobs in the community, running the government-subsidized power plant.

Although there are residents that feel the resettlement deal is fair, Locke said the plan isn’t perfect. He said the policy doesn’t provide help for workers to find employment elsewhere.

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Bed and breakfast owner Sharlene Hinz would have to leave behind her business, which she started after moving to Little Bay Islands from B.C. 10 years ago.

She said there are definite benefits to accepting the deal and leaving — such as access to doctors and services — but it would be hard for many to let go of their shared history.

“Are they gonna scatter and then be alone,” Hinz said. “At least here, even if they’re alone in their own homes, they’re not alone.”

And once everyone’s gone, there won’t be much of an opportunity to come back. The ferry will stop running, the water will be turned off and Little Bay Islands will go dark.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Perry Locke was “a part of the move to encourage relocation.” He was mayor in 2011 when the community held a vote. Locke clarified he was not a part of the move to encourage relocation.