Doris Tucker, 71, is in a tight spot. She’s caught between hopes of continuing to live in her hometown, and the reality, seen by many other residents, that the aging community of Little Bay Islands has no long-term future.
“My main goal is to stay here as long as I can,” she said.
Located in Notre Dame Bay, with fewer than 100 year-round residents, Little Bay Islands’ prospects have been murky ever since Cold North Seafoods made a request last spring to transfer its crab licence from Little Bay Islands to a plant in St. Joseph’s.
The province's Fish Processing Licensing Board later declined that request in a decision also accepted by Fisheries Minister Clyde Jackman. But now the plant is in need of a new operator.
Last week, Deputy Mayor Jim Forward told the local Transcontinental newspaper, The Nor’wester, that the plant’s owner was going to drain the pressure vessels. Much of the equipment inside the plant had already been removed.
With the community’s lone major employer potentially closing its doors for good, what hope remains for an aging population with few resources at its disposal?
That question was considered during an information session on the provincial government’s relocation policy, held June 22 and attended by a representative of the Department of Municipal Affairs.
Coun. Dennis Budgell set the wheels in motion for the meeting after gauging interest from more than half the island’s residents. He had initially asked council to arrange for the meeting, but it elected not to get involved.
George Tucker, a retiree born and raised in Little Bay Islands, used to work at the fish plant. He told The Telegram he would like to receive a buyout from the provincial government because of a lack of services available to residents.
“You have to leave the island to go for groceries or whatever else you need,” he said, adding he believes the vast majority of the town’s residents are interested in resettling.
Morris Rector operated a store in the community for more than two years, but lack of business forced him to close it in 2009.
“When we came here, it worked out quite well, but then as people started to move away, we had to close the store because there weren’t enough people here to keep it going,” said Rector, a retired Canadian Forces member who moved to Little Bay Islands in 2006.
He said he believes the fish plant’s troubles, combined with the advanced age of residents, makes resettlement inevitable, whether it happens this year or the next.
“I feel sorry for the people who have lived here all their lives,” he said. “It must be hard on them having to think of relocating.”
The 2006 Census found the median age in Little Bay Islands was 53.4 years old, more than 10 years higher than the provincial average of 41.7. There are almost no school-age children left on Little Bay Islands.
The small population and aging demographics of the community forced the fish plant to rely on workers from off the island for close to half of its seasonal workforce.
With advanced age comes greater demand for health care. A 45-minute ferry ride and 20-minute drive to get to the Green Bay Medical Clinic in Springdale means there’s no immediate health care access.
The ferry makes three to five runs each day from Little Bay Islands to Shoal Arm, depending on the time of year.
“You don’t know when you’re going to get sick,” said Tucker.
Despite the ominous signs pointing to resettlement, Mayor Perry Locke said there are still options to keep the community going.
“We’re looking at different options as a council,” he said. “Right now, the town has no part in this resettlement plan.”
As a municipality, the mayor said, Little Bay Islands is in good financial shape and has solid infrastructure.
While Locke questions whether the numbers are there to make resettlement a reality, he said council would have no choice but to go along with the public’s verdict.
A vote on whether to resettle will require 90 per cent approval from residents.
Locke, who has a permanent job on the island, said some plant workers looking for other employment opportunities could be retrained through government programs.
If there is hope for a future, Doris Tucker believes tourism is where the community needs to focus. It hosts an annual Traditional Songwriters Festival in August, with this year’s event featuring Fergus O’Byrne and Jim Payne and the group Siochana.
“I think our future is in tourism,” she said, noting the community has attracted seasonal residents in recent years.
Little Bay Islands is a beautiful community to live in, says Rector, and that will make it harder for people to think of leaving.
“They’re a little leery because there’s no place on earth like this.”
A survey will take place in the weeks to come, likely followed by an offer from the province on which residents will vote.
—With files from The Nor’wester