THE NEWFOUNDLAND QUARTERLY :: ONLINE EXCLUSIVES
Online Exclusive for #431 (a)
On February 12, 2009, the pulp and paper mill in Grand Falls-Windsor, owned by Quebec based AbitibiBowater, ceased its operations, putting its 450 employees out of work. The 750 people directly or indirectly employed by the mill now wonder what will happen next.
The departure of the main source of employment, the closure of an industry, can destabilize a town. Less than fifty years ago, the closure of the Bell Island iron ore mines led to a mass emigration not only from the close-knit Newfoundland community, but outside the province and beyond.
Iron ore mining began on Bell Island in 1895. By 1923, Bell Island was the second largest populated centre in Newfoundland. By 1961, Bell Island was a prosperous community with a vigorous population of 12,281. In many respects Bell Island mirrored Newfoundland's own economic situation, an island surrounded by water relying on one source of employment to take care of the vast majority of workers and their families.
Yet if cod seemed an unalterable resource, as vast as the depths, the supply of iron was inevitably limited. The miners and their families all knew that one day the mine would be worked out of existence. In June, 1966, that day arrived. The mines of Bell Island closed permanently. It is impossible to describe the feeling of loss that the people experienced as they walked out of the mines for the last time. Yet it is easy to guess the questions they asked themselves: What I do from here? Where will I live? What about my family?
The answers all seemed to demand a move.
Many of the residents traveled to the province of Ontario, more specifically to the town of Cambridge, where they set up a small Newfoundland community within the lonely vastness of a province that would not or could not understand their unique customs and way of life. The new immigrants found that they had to re-invent themselves and form a new nucleus where they could comfortably live. A store dedicated to the importation of Newfoundland goods opened to supply the demands of the throng of new residents. Bingo halls filled with small tables of displaced Bell Islanders as they used the forum to discuss the events of the week and share news from home. It was a hard and demanding challenge for the transplanted but somehow they managed to make the best of it and thrive. They created a new, figurative island that represented their lifestyle in a world surrounded by a concrete sea of mainland Canada.
This was a boon for the Province of Ontario, who had new workers and a larger population, but Bell Island never recovered.
In 2008, the population of Bell Island was approximately 2,400, almost 10,000 fewer than when the mines were operational in 1961. Presently there are few reasons to live on Bell Island apart from nostalgia. There are hardly any jobs, save for some small stores and government positions in the postal service and hospital. The iron ore mine is now a tourist attraction.
The similarities between Grand Falls and Bell Island are striking. Both of the towns were company towns, both towns relied heavily on one natural resource for its existence, and both towns were filled with people who knew that if the company were to leave they would be out of a job immediately.
Another resemblance between the two communities is that outside investors ran the show, and outsiders tend to look toward the profit margins on an economic forecast rather than the heart and soul of those who work for them.
The one thing that stands in the favour of history not repeating itself in the case of Grand Falls-Windsor is the fact that the forest industry, unlike iron ore mining, relies on a renewable resource. One day the mill or another one like it may reopen and the town will once again thrum to the humming of a working paper mill. Until that time the historic cycle of exodus does not show any signs of stopping.
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