TAGS: How did it come to this?
by Don Cayo


The 1930s were as rough down East as anywhere. And the 1920s, which were boom times everywhere else, were even worse.

Yet at the height of the Great Depression, well into their second decade of deprivation, the good folk of Newfoundland — not even a part of Canada at that time — sent tons of salt cod to feed farm families out West. Never mind that few Prairie housewives knew how to cook it. Or that, badly prepared, it’s about as chewy as an old boot, and only half so digestible. It was what they had, and they gave it.

Ray Guy, a St. John’s writer, grew up in what we’d now call poverty in a Newfoundland outport. He tells of the women of the place who used to knit mittens and other nice things to send abroad. Never mind that most everyone who was poorer than rural Newfoundlanders lived somewhere hot.

Fast forward to two weeks ago. You saw the images. Angry outporters spewed their rage at Ottawa’s stingy gift of a few hundred millions for Son of TAGS — the thinly disguised welfare program for people who used to catch and cut cod.

What happened? How did a once-proud people come to this?

Well, the revolution in resource harvesting may be no more profound here than in your back yard, but it is manifest quite differently — at least in the fishery. While employment on farms, in forests, even in mines has spiraled downward for years, the curve in the fishery was up, up, up. By the time the cod vanished in 1991, nearly twice as many people were working on boats or in plants as 25 or 30 years before.

But these were phony jobs. Some of the fishermen made good money, but others — and nearly all the plant workers — could not make ends meet without pogey. Thousands played “Lotto 10-42” — the annual cycle of 10 weeks work followed by 42 on UI.

Meanwhile, a never-ending supply of subsidies built more and bigger boats and plants. The result of that was absurd over-capacity — enough technology to kill the last fish in the water. And the result of that, coupled with climate change and a plague of scarcely-hunted seals, is no more cod.

So it’s not just the kind of job losses that have hit other resource industries these last few decades. It’s this and more, all compressed into one terrible day when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans did what it had to do. It beached the boats. It shuttered the plants. It declared a cod moratorium.

The dearth of cod affects more than Newfoundland, of course. It’s serious for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and parts of Quebec. But in Newfoundland, with two-thirds of the East Coast’s cod fishermen and plant workers, it’s a disaster.

Yet it would be wrong to think Newfoundland has no prospects. Offshore oil is real, and it’s big; Labrador nickel and hydro power may yet provide a lot of jobs.

Even aspects of the Newfoundland fishery hold promise. Shrimp, with few cod left to eat them, are burgeoning — and so is the business of catching them. A lot of former cod fishermen now haul in big money with shrimp. And there are shore jobs to process them. The problem — and it’s a serious one for those on TAGS — is that the processing is high-tech and efficient; there aren’t nearly as many jobs as displaced workers.

The original TAGS was premised on the foolhardy belief that it was just a matter of a little time until the cod came back. The new version, much more sensibly, comes with a caveat — a blunt warning that they won’t, at least not for a long time. Certainly no one sitting idle on shore can look forward to their old job coming back.

Most of the people who can jump gracefully to a new industry already have, but new-age jobs aren’t going to be there for all. Geography makes it tough for many — with Labrador, the province is nearly as big as Manitoba or Saskatchewan — and so does lack of skill. It never took much education catch or cut fish, so retraining for sophisticated new jobs — even if there were enough to go around — is a long shot. And lip service to training in the original TAGS was little more than a sick joke.

Only two “easy” answers come to mind. One, seemingly favored by the federal government and the thousands of outport people who’ve already fled for points West, is massive depopulation. The other, seemingly favored by Premier Brian Tobin and those angry protesters, is continued — perhaps perpetual — dependence. Some choice.

So expect to see more images of protesters, their anger masking their fear. When the $730 million for Son of TAGS — the third “final” offer from Ottawa this decade — runs out, expect Mr. Tobin et al to lobby and bluster and cajole for a Grandson of TAGS. This is a real disaster, the fruits of bad public policies of the past. And today’s public policies hold no seeds of a happy solution.