Last ferry to Big Noise

Published on July 24, 2010

“I lived here for 28 years and really loved living here,” said Cynthia Billard, the last woman in Grand Bruit. “But the time has come.”

Sitting at the top of the falls on the colourfully called “Liar’s Bench” — a place for old men and exaggerated tales — I  look out over Grand Bruit’s idyllic cove while listening to the reminiscences of Joe Billard, and Cynthia and her husband Clyde, the village’s last three residents.

Divided in two by the falls for which it is named, the “Big Noise” comes from the 15-metre plunge of freshwater into salt — a jarring contrast to the quaintness of the village.

There are colourful clapboard houses ringing the cove in a haphazard semi-circle, an immaculate white church spire scraping the sky at the top of the falls, and a horseshoe shaped footpath running from one concrete pier up over the falls and down to the other pier. A sign  greets visitors at the pier in this car-free outport, proclaiming Grand Bruit as the winner of Newfoundland’s Tidy Towns contest. It alludes to what is blindingly obvious at first glance: Grand Bruit is beautiful.

Just by chance

I had gotten on the last ferry out to Grand Bruit (pronounced “Gran Britt” by the locals) purely by chance on July 7.

My July road trip had led me to Port aux Basques where I’d been informed by the friendly people at the tourist information desk that if I wanted, I’d have one last opportunity to get out to the picturesque little town before it died.

Getting off the ferry, I expected a livelier scene, maybe a place to buy a postcard, have a beer and chat with the locals.

Instead I met a place struggling to breathe inhabited by three remaining residents busy with the task of shutting down their lives. They were uninterested in the pity and morbid curiosity of tourists.

I had been under the impression — based on other instances of resettlement in other parts of the country — that Grand Bruit’s demise was caused by cruel, heartless bureaucrats immune to the charms of yesteryear, and hell-bent onto pushing modernity on the populace.

That wasn’t the case. The Newfoundland government, after Joey Smallwood’s traumatic forced resettlements of the 1950s and 1960s, operates on a strict, no forced resettlement policy. It was the people of Grand Bruit who decided to end it.

Once the community went from 27 full-time residents to around 18 in 2007 —”What’s 27 people?” Cynthia Billard says. “A small apartment building.” — Grand Bruit decided to end itself. The town held a vote, and with only one lone soul unable to imagine life anywhere else, they began the process of peacefully erasing their town from the map. They asked the government to help them shut it down and end the life of a community that had been suffering for years.

It was euthanized.

Households were given roughly $90,000 to move with.

I asked Joe and Clyde Billard, as we looked out over the empty harbour, where they would go with their government money.

Joe, seemingly confident that life would move along just fine, said he’d head over to Burgeo, a community of a couple of thousand people, three hours east by boat along the coast.

I shifted the question over to Clyde. He said he didn’t know where he’d go.

“Will you stay in Newfoundland?” I asked.

He looked down before responding with a terse, “I don’t know.”

I sat there for a few more minutes, suddenly feeling like a guy standing on the edge of the highway taking pictures of a car wreck.

I shouldn’t be here, I thought. The man doesn’t want to talk, he just wants to wrap up his things and let his town die in peace.

Next generation gone

As the sun set, I waited for the ferry on the wharf with Joe, Cynthia and Clyde in what must have once been a comforting, thrice-weekly ritual.

“You always hear people complaining about teenagers causing trouble and doing bad things,” said Cynthia.

“But when you come down to it, when you lose your kids, you lose your community.”

There’s nothing in Grand Bruit for the next generation.

After teens finished high school in nearby Port aux Basques, it made no sense to move back to a jobless community.

Cynthia’s and Clyde’s daughter was raised in Grand Bruit, and now works at a Subway outlet in Port aux Basques.

Waves goodbye

The ferry pulled up a half an hour late to the dock. For the last time, Joe stood on the pier and accepted the thick coil of rope and wrapped it around a steel pylon, securing the boat.

There was no cargo and no passengers other than me.

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"But when you come down to it, when you lose your kids, you lose your community.” Cynthia Billard

Waving goodbye to the last Grand Bruiters, I paid my $3.75 and sat down.

I arrived in La Poile, a rough-and-tumble fishing village full of beat up shacks, fish carcases and piles of gear, around 10:30 p.m.

At first glance, there was little comparison between Grand Bruit’s idyllic cove and gritty La Poile.

But as I disembarked and strolled around the town, I came to appreciate its rough-around-the-edges charm.

Grand Bruit may be tidy and postcard pretty, La Poile is alive, with 100 citizens calling it home.

I saw children playing in the streets and heard playful jeers as they raced off on ATVs.

Both La Poile and Grand Bruit are bar-less. Instead, the villages have little shacks that serve as bring-your-own-booze hangouts.

Grand Bruit’s Cramalot Inn was understandably quiet when I passed by, only a six-pack of beer and a couple of empties serving as  reminders of happier times, but in La Poile I found a lively little plywood shack on wooden pylons in the water.

There, surprisingly, were five young men hanging out in a shed with walls adorned with autographed pictures of strippers, and surrounded by freezers full of frozen cod and cases of beer.

I explained that I’d just been to Grand Bruit. They nodded sagely as I told them how sad it was to see the community die. I remarked on the vibrancy of La Poile and said I hoped it would remain lively for years to come.

The consensus wasn’t optimistic.

Every one of the boys in the Party Shack was back in La Poile on vacation. Most worked out west in the oil patch, some on Great Lakes freighters, and there was nothing for them back home.

“What are we supposed to do here? Bring back a city girl to La Poile? Not gonna happen,” one guy said.

“Ten, 15 years — tops,” added another, “and then La Poile is as dead as all the others.”

All the others — a list of euthanized towns: Petites, Muddy Hole, Rencontre West, Grand Bruit. Their dots erased from the map. Victims of a collapsed fishery and changing demographics.

We drank until the early hours of the morning, shifting the conversation from the morbid to the inane as the beers emptied, until finally I crashed on the floor of the ferry terminal maintenance building and was woken up by the tooting of a horn.

Time to go.

Collective wisdom gone

No more fish, no more kids, no more community.

Whatever collective wisdom the village of Grand Bruit had amassed is forever gone, dispersed into surrounding towns and diluted in a whirlwind of cars and fast-food.

And while Grand Bruit the ghost town will be a mysterious, charmingly creepy attraction for years and years to come, open to sea kayakers and intrepid explorers, it’s dead.

La Poile, meanwhile, is still here, for now.

See it while you can.

And bring a six-pack.

Liam Dougherty is a creative writing graduate of Concordia University who grew up in Montreal.