Communities cope as workers figure out post-fishery futures

Daniel MacEachern
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Final in a three-part series

Father Steve Courtney of Marystown is used to hearing the worries and fears of his parishioners - but since the announcement of the closure of the fish processing plant, he said, he doesn't know how to comfort them.

"Economically, it's been a huge blow," said the parish priest at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church. "That's had some social effects. We've noticed that there has been an increase in the use of our food banks. Just last weekend, the Burin North Ministerial Association, with (radio station) CHCM, and all the denominations of this area, we gave out in excess of 300 food hampers. Now, not all of them are related directly to the closure of the fish plant, but there are some people that would be involved in that."

Courtney said a common worry he hears from his parishioners is that they don't have the same money to spend on Christmas this year.

"I had one parishioner say, 'Father, once, in my family, we gave gifts to the nephews and nieces and everybody, but we just can't do that this year.' That was a big thing for her, that she couldn't participate in a tradition that's gone on for years. So it's been hard that way."

Workers in Port Union had a little hope their plant would reopen, said Port Union town manager Darryl Johnson.

Any doubts that it would have had more to do with a reduction in shrimp quotas than damage done by hurricane Igor, he said.

"With the reduction in quotas, that's what we think played the most part in not being able to open the plant. There's replacement value in the insurance, so if you build it back and the quota was there, then we were confident the plant was going to reopen," he said.

For many, even Ocean Choice's announcement of the closure hasn't been accepted, he said. While some of the 170 laid-off workers are retraining for new careers or moving out of town for work, most are still hoping the locks will come off the Port Union plant.

The older workers especially - and in the fishery's aging workforce, the majority are older workers - are having difficulty figuring out what to do to bridge the few years they had left before retirement.

"The majority is still hanging around with the hope that that place is going to open. A lot of people are asking, 'What are we going to do?' So when this adjustment program comes out, it's got to be catered to these people, because we've got an older workforce. I'd say 90 per cent of the people are 55 and older."

Courtney said the plant workers he talks to are worried because working at the fish plant is all they know.

"They've worked at this their lifetime, 20, 30, 40 years. This is their identity. And to have people say, 'Where do we go from here? I'm 50, 60 years old. I left high school to come work in the fish plant. What am I going to retrain for? I'm not going out to Alberta at this stage of my life.' It's more than a job. It was their identity, a big part of their life."

In a broader sense, though, said Courtney, the loss of the fish plant leaves a hole in the identity of a community - much like the province as a whole - defined by its fishing long before the plant was built by Fishery Products International in the late '60s. When current owners Ocean Choice made the announcement of the closure earlier this month, it meant 240 jobs were gone, but that was just a fraction of the plant at its peak. By the mid-'80s, there were more than a thousand people employed at the plant.

"As a town, to say that there's no fish plant in Marystown? 'Fish plant' and 'Marystown' were two terms that went together," said Courtney. "The Marystown fish plant was, if not the biggest, certainly one of the biggest fish plants in the province, particularly in the heyday of the groundfishery."

Trinity Bay North Mayor Brendan Peters said workers aren't looking for government handouts, but substantial employment.

"They don't want this top-up thing. They want something more meaningful than make-work programs. That's what I get from them," he said.

Compounding stress among laid-off workers is the plan put forth by Ocean Choice - currently awaiting a response from Fisheries and Aquaculture Minister Darin King - that would see investment in nearby Fortune, which the company says would mean 110 year-round jobs. And while the Fish Food and Allied Workers' union, which represents Ocean Choice workers, continues to fight to keep the plant open, workers resent what they see as an attempt to pit the communities against each other.

"I've had many people say they feel it's one town against the other," Courtney said. "As far as I'm concerned, the local people weren't consulted enough during this whole process. Because they know the fishery too. It's not just the government. It's not just the plant owners. These people know it as well, and people have told me that there's enough fish in the water to have employment here in Marystown and in Fortune, particularly in the yellowtail, flatfish fishery, that there's definitely enough for both plants."

Ian Edwards, the chairman of the Burin Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, knows what it's like to feel conflicted. Ocean Choice is a member of the chamber, along with many of the area businesses expecting to feel the effects of the loss of purchasing power. But the chamber also represents the Fortune area, which expects to benefit if Ocean Choice makes its promised investment there.

"The loss of 240 jobs, times whatever they get paid in the fish plant, that's a lot of revenue or income that's not going to be flowing into this area," he said, "and it's really an unfortunate time of year when it occurred. ... It's a very, very emotional subject here on the peninsula, because the way in which this is unfolding is more or less putting one community against the other community. It puts business in an awkward spot."

Right now, said Edwards, the closure means people spending less on Christmas gifts. But the effects will be mean more than fewer stocking stuffers, he said.

"Next year, it'll probably manifest itself into people who were planning a new car purchase, or a new house, or a cottage - those things will be put on the back burner, and that's where the trickle effect will be felt."

Edwards hasn't heard any reports from members yet that spending is down dramatically, but he said it's still relatively soon after the announcement.

But right in the same building as the chamber office on Ville Marie Drive is Marystown Burin Employment Services, which has seen an immediate effect from the closure. A table set up in the office's entrance is collecting food for a local food bank, with a sign attached that reads: "Please give as this is a time of great need."

Lenora Slaney, the employment office's program manager, says she can't release exact figures, but said the closure started a trickle of Ocean Choice workers seeking help that has steadily grown, with more than 30 former plant workers making applications in the past week. Until the official announcement of the closure, she said, workers had expected they would be returning to work at some point.

"They were hanging on to hope and assuming that the plant was going to reopen," she said. "A lot of the people in this area are seasonally attached anyway when it comes to the plant. So now all of a sudden the seasonal employment is not there and they have nothing, so they have to look for a different career."

That's where Slaney's employment services office in Marystown comes in, with assessments of workers' qualifications and experience, with retraining, with job-creation partnerships, with job-search assistance.

"Some of them do have transferable skills that they can bring with them, but the majority of them either require training or some kind of wage subsidy," she said.

Father Courtney says even though workers have been staggered, they're not knocked out.

"The people, they're still hopeful a solution can be found. Plain and simple, these people just want to go to work like they did for the last 20, 30, 40 years," he said. But he's still having a hard time providing counsel for people who feel cut loose from their work and their identity.

"Right now, I don't have answers for them," he said.

The church, through its family aid committee, has helped parishioners pay their bills to keep the lights on and the water flowing, which helps address some of the immediate financial problems, if not their broader concerns.

"Really, I just offer a listening ear to some of them, to have their say." Twitter: TelegramDaniel


Organizations: Port Union, Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, Burin North Ministerial Association Fishery Products International Allied Workers Burin Peninsula Chamber of Commerce Marystown Burin Employment Services

Geographic location: Marystown, Alberta, Trinity Bay North

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Recent comments

  • times changing
    December 27, 2011 - 03:28

    The fishery of today and likely of tomorrow is different than the fishery of many years ago.This is true of many industries.Fisherpeople need to recognise this and get on with their lives.They need to do what many other Newfoundlanders have to do and move to where the work is.They should no longer look to the taxpayer to bail out an industry that has way too much overcapacity.

  • times changing
    December 27, 2011 - 03:18

    The fishery of today and likely of tomorrow is different than many years ago.This is no different than many other industries.It is now time for these workers to get on with their lives.Do what is necessary as so many other Newfoundlanders have had to do.Move away and get a job or retrain for a job,Just do not sit around asking tax payers to continue to bail out an industry which has way too much overcapacity.

  • Casey
    December 24, 2011 - 14:49

    It really is sad to see what has happened to NL's fishery.To get other opinions check out the link below.