FOGO ISLAND, NL —
They're outport people with outport ways,
But there's nowhere to use them and now it's too late;
And they curse on the one who uttered the phrase:
Resettlement now while resettlement pays.
In 1967 the people of Fogo Island turned down Premier Joseph R. Smallwood’s offer of resettlement.
While the fishery was failing and merchants had abandoned their businesses, the people stood firm in their resolve to remain put.
Fogo Island Co-operative Society Ltd. general manager Phil Barnes said Smallwood gave the people three choices: they could stay and perish, move with financial help from government, or stay and development.
Fogo Islanders chose the third option, looking to the sea for its future – as had been its past.
“And here we are, 50 years later,” Barnes said of the co-cop’s milestone anniversary it’s been celebrating throughout the year.
The Co-op built its own shipyard and started building long liners. It took over plants that had been abandoned by merchants.
While there have been many struggles over the years, the Co-op has faced those challenges and — according to the Co-op’s website — not only survived but has also thrived.
“When giants in this industry failed, the Fogo Island Co-op remained steadfast, competitive and strong. Still resilient, the co-op continues to adapt and are focused on the future, diversifying within and outside the fishery,” the website notes.
Barnes spoke about the Co-op’s partnership with Zita Cobb’s and the Shorefast Foundation.
“Both our businesses go hand-in-hand. Shorefast and ourselves have formed an economic development partnership with the town — we’re reinventing ourselves,” he said.
The Co-op owns fish plants in Joe Batt’s Arm, Seldom and Fogo.
The plants process numerous species such as snowcrab, shrimp, turbot, cod, sea cucumber, capelin, scallops, herring, mackeral, lumpfish and various flatfish.
Products are also exported to countries all over the world.
One of the most significant challenges leading into the future is one that’s prevalent in many communities, Barnes said, an aging population.
“We are down to about 200 people now employed in our plants and we’ve got another 200 people taking part in the fishery,” Barnes said. “It’s very important to recognize that it’s going to take very skilled labour and the latest technology to run the fish plants of the future.”
There’s no better time to look to the fishery as a career choice than today, Barnes said.
“There is going to be a void in the next eight-10 years... anyone who gets in now is going to have it made... because there will always be a fishery... we have people looking out it now and I think it’s time to get in not to get out,” he said.
Many people have worked hard over the years to make the community-based enterprise a success.
“We have to give credit to our founding fathers who started the Co-op. They gave up a lot of their own time. They saw us through some very difficult times. But they never gave up,” Barnes said.
Well known Fogo Islander Don Best is one of those founding members.
Memorial University honoured Best with an honorary doctor of laws degree in 2011.
Orator Shane O’Dea noted the degree was bestowed upon Best for “sustained and effective leadership of his own community which has served as a model for outport survival.”
“In the 1960s the salt fish industry, the economic mainstay of most outports, was in its last days – and so were those outports, for the government, seeing them as constant and unproductive drawers of funds, had set about consolidating them in the process known as resettlement,” O’Dea had said.
Many capitulated, closed and moved. Fogo Island did not and part of the reason was the resistance of people like Donald Best, he said.
“A fisherman, Best was, for a decade from 1958 to 1967, a member of the town council and its mayor in his last year as councillor. One of the founders of the Fogo Island Improvement Committee he also helped create the Fogo Island Co-operative which today is the largest employer on the island,” O’Dea noted.
When the co-operative was established in 1967 Don Best became a board member and, during his eight years as president, brought it through a very difficult period, O’Dea continued.
When contacted by phone, Best said when the Co-op started up no one ever though it would survive to mark its 50th anniversary.
Best spoke about the time in the ‘60s when Smallwood gave the people the “develop or perish” ultimatum.
“(Smallwood) was trying to get clear of all the small outport communities. We got together with him. He told us that we had to develop or perish. It wasn’t easy. It was a hard fight,” Best recalled.
“Joey was going to put us somewhere off the island... It was an inshore fishery. And wherever we went... we couldn’t go fishing... there were no long liners. It was strictly the inshore fishery... we never had the means to get back to our fishing grounds,” Best recalled of what would happen if their families were resettled.
The founding meeting of the Fogo Island Co-op was held in December 1967, Best said.
“We met 40 times the first year. Some meetings might only be a half hour. Some would be four or five hours,” he said.
The Fogo Island Development Association sponsored the Co-op, he said.
“It wasn’t easy... everybody wasn’t of the one mind. We had lots of arguments, but we did it,” Best said.
The Town of Fogo Island Mayor Wayne Collins is well familiar with the Co-op. A retired fisherman, he’s been involved with the enterprise for almost four decades.
Collins recalled, as a young boy 40 years ago, riding to and from the fish plant on his bicycle looking for a few hours work.
“And here I am now, the latter years, seeing the diversification that’s gone on through the years. It’s easy to follow and monitor because I was an employee for a number of years, and a fisherman for a number of years. So, I can relate to it very easily,” he said.
The Co-op’s success is the dedication of its members, Collins said.
There were times, he said, when members could have sold their products elsewhere for a better price.
However, at the end of the day, he said, there were a number of factors to take into consideration for supporting the Fogo Island Co-op.
“It was our own business. We’d contributed to it for a number of years. We always wanted to continue to make sure it was successful,” he said.
You can launch a house easy and tow it away,
But the home doesn't move, it continues to stay;
And the dollars you make sure they'll keep you alive,
But they won't soothe the heart and they can't ease the mind.
Don Best is now 85. When it comes to Smallwood’s plan, his mind is as sharp today as it was half-a-century ago.
“Joey had one thing in mind: Get us off (Fogo Island). It was his way or no way... other places he went to got resettled... I don’t know if we were too pigheaded or too stubborn. But we wouldn’t move.”
And no one is more proud of his people than Best.
The Co-op's Board of Director is comprised of 11 directors. Eight are fishers and three are plant workers.
Perry Collins, President
Mary Flynn, Vice-President
George Jacobs Jr., Secretary
George Jacobs, Jr.