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Newfoundland and Labrador's forced resettlement a historic injustice, brothers say

Pushthrough, a tiny town on the province’s southwest coast, in the early 1960s. The community was resettled in 1969, with its residents relocating mainly to Fortune, Hermitage, Milltown and Gaultois.
Pushthrough, a tiny town on the province’s southwest coast, in the early 1960s. The community was resettled in 1969, with its residents relocating mainly to Fortune, Hermitage, Milltown and Gaultois. - Submitted

Apology, compensation should be offered to families affected by forced relocation

Two brothers who were caught up in the resettlement of Newfoundland communities from the 1950s through to the 1970s say it is time the federal and provincial governments apologized for the hardship caused to so many families during those years, and provide compensation for the trauma so many experienced at the time.

And if no apology comes, the brothers say they will gauge interest in a class-action lawsuit.

Hayward Blake and his brother Raymond and their family were resettled to Hermitage from the tiny community of Pushthrough on the island’s southwest coast in 1969. Hayward was 13 and Raymond was 10 at the time.

There were four other siblings in the family, and their mother was widowed.

Hayward is now an educator who lives in Harbour Grace, but is currently at Memorial University. Raymond is a professor of history and the department head at the University of Regina. The brothers have gotten together in Newfoundland over the years researching resettlement, poring over documents in the archives and discussing the impact that resettlement had, not only on their own family, but on thousands of others.

An article they co-authored — which also appears in today’s Telegram, on page A8 — will be sent to Premier Dwight Ball and to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the hope it will start a dialogue about some form of redress for those affected by resettlement.

The timing is right for a discussion about the past resettlement program, they say, as resettlement is again being raised as one way to help solve the province’s dire economic outlook. Also, in recent years in Canada, there have been a number of official apologies and redress made for historical injustices.

“When you see the apologies coming because of an injustice that has been committed by governments, then we feel that, in this province, resettlement was one of those occurrences that happened that had a profound effect on people, certainly very negative in the beginning,” Hayward said.

“At the time when people were resettled the effect it must have had on them had to be tremendous. And we need to open a dialogue on that.

“We are doing it because somebody needs to identify that resettlement wasn’t all romanticism. It’s not all the flavour for folk songs and theatre, but there were real lives, real people impacted very negatively by the almost callous actions of the government of the day. They sat in offices in St. John’s and made decisions that affected the lives of people, but took no ownership of those decisions. They made decisions in the absence of people’s feelings and needs and wants and desires. So, it was like a cold kind of decision that, ‘OK, we’ll initiate a resettlement program. We’ll move as many people as we can out of those small communities and the more communities we can close, the better, and we will all be better for it.’ And I don’t think we were all better for it, especially in the short term.”

The idea of centralization/resettlement of many isolated communities scattered along Newfoundland’s coasts was seen in the early 1950s as a way to save rural Newfoundland by moving people to what were referred to as “growth centres.”

It was believed that this would allow the government to provide more and better public services such as education, health care, roads and electricity.

It was also expected that the move would create more employment opportunities outside of the fishery, or in spinoff industries, which meant a stronger and more modern fishing industry for those remaining in it. The government at the time figured it would result in rural areas becoming stronger and more prosperous.

While that may have looked good on paper, the reality was a different story for those who lived it, the Blake brothers say.

Once the decision was made to move a community and the “very inadequate” funding was provided to each family in order to move and find a new home in another community, that was it — the government was gone.

There were no supports, no process, no checking back to see how it was going.

Some examples, the brothers noted, were that children moved from one- or two-room schools in their communities to big schools without any documentation arriving with them or without any counselling or support. They were often bullied and treated as outsiders, which led to schoolyard fights and teasing.

Seniors who had spent a lifetime in their communities felt lost and many never adjusted. Many families couldn’t find proper, affordable housing or afford to complete houses they built, and “lived in the shell of the house.”

Others were victimized, both by having possessions they had to leave behind in their own communities stolen or vandalized, and by what they felt were bumped-up prices of land or homes being offered in the new community. Older children of working age often had to go to work to help pay for a new home.

“We are trying to understand the social, personal and economic lives of those people who moved,” Raymond said. “Humans have a great capacity to rebuild, be resilient and recover and move on, and deal with whatever life throws them, but I think those resettled people did it in isolation. And we don’t know how harmful that was to marriages, or to people’s well-being, their mental state, or their ability to earn an income. No one has really investigated this.

“We think about our grandmother who lived with us after we moved. She never got over it. And so what we are saying is that things were done, probably by people who had the right intentions, but there were no supports. Today if you have a child moving from one school to another, there are all sorts of documents sent. I think we just showed up in the new school the following September. There were no grades, transcripts, no immunization records … nothing.”

The brothers say people will always argue whether resettlement was a good thing or a bad thing, and that the approximately 1,300 communities around the province could not all have survived. But, they add, the government washed its hands of it once the papers were signed.

“Our grandmother was one the people in Pushthrough who signed the petition with an X,” Hayward said. “Can you imagine civil servants coming out and sitting down with her, and talking to her about manpower training grants, land development, townsites. She had never been out of Pushthrough. She just went with the flow because there was great respect for authority. They wouldn’t question the man in the suit who comes in off the steamer and stays in the local merchant’s house, and who comes around and tells you everyone is moving and the place is going to disappear.

“I think it’s important to recognize that the state at the time, the province, had a responsibility to those people to ensure that the transition from one community to another was done in a way that respected people, that supported people, but the province — other than throwing in an inadequate amount of financial resources — said, ‘You are on your own, good luck, have a good life.’

“I’m not saying there should have been an army of psychologists, I’m saying there should have been a process. Is the financial amount adequate? What do these school-age children need? How will the seniors cope? It was lacking in so many ways and on so many levels, and we think that needs to be redressed.”

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