Quebec crab fishers face grim future

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Registered nurse Mary Spingle prepares for an evening service at St. Peter’s church in Old Fort Bay

Blanc-Sablon, Que.
Rev. Douglas Painter is cordial but grim.

A change of plans. “I was hoping to have four days to show you around but I’ve got four, maybe five hours – tops – before I fly out,” the Anglican priest and champion of the cause of the displaced fishers of this most easterly area of Quebec’s Lower North Shore tells a reporter who just got off the plane at Blanc-Sablon airport.

Overnight, Mr. Painter explains, there was an apparent suicide down the coast in remote St. Augustine, a 14-year-old boy found hanged. A pillar of that community, Mr. Bursey, died the same day.

And a few kilometres north of Blanc-Sablon, in southern Labrador, the RCMP have been looking for an unknown motorist who was involved in a hit and run that killed a local teenager.

All this has added to the stresses of the fishery crisis that hit this shore last April when federal Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault imposed a moratorium on the mainstay snow crab fishery.

Now the 6,000 people who inhabit the 15 villages along the Lower North Shore and call themselves the Coasters are in danger of extinction.

“ The Anglican church could break up into 500 pieces over the same-sex marriage issue tomorrow and it would hardly be noticed around here,” says Mr. Painter as he speeds his small red Hyundai south along the winding road to St. Paul’s River.

A mostly Anglican community of 480 and one of three sea-swept villages that make up the English-speaking municipality of Bonne Esperance, St. Paul’s River is home base to Mr. Painter’s sprawling four-point parish of St. Clement’s East, which stretches from Blanc-Sablon to Old Fort Bay by road and on to St. Augustine to where there is no road.

It was their once-lucrative snow crab catches that pulled the surviving fishers and plant workers along this coast through the hard times after the devastating cod moratorium of 1992 displaced about 40,000 fishery workers in Atlantic Canada. Until then, cod fishers tossed the nuisance crabs overboard.

The closure of the crab fishery in what is known as fishing zone 13 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence has put 80 per cent of the residents of St. Paul’s River – the hardest hit community – out of work. Most of the other communities along the coast have come to rely more on seasonal jobs in the hunting and fishing camps of northern Quebec and construction work in the Northern territories for their livelihoods.

“ We just can’t seem to get a break,” says Mr. Painter. His “we” is deliberate.

The 38-year-old transplanted Montrealer – one of the top dart players in the St. Paul’s River league – was appointed rector of St. Clement’s East just a month after his ordination two years ago. The bishop who ordained him, Bruce Stavert of the diocese of Quebec, is a former parish priest of St. Clement’s.

Mr. Painter lives on the coast with his wife Sherry and four young children: Andrew, 11, Cameron, 10, and Liam, 6, and a baby girl, Pippa, born in April.

A proponent of liberation theology, which emerged in Latin America in the mid-’60s denouncing massive poverty and unjust social structures, he has trumpeted the cause of the Coasters from the pulpit, in the media, to anybody who will listen.

He has become one of the most outspoken advocates for a unique rural way of life that is hanging by a thread along this isolated rugged coast, which Jacques Cartier called “the land God gave to Cain.” Mr. Painter says he is concerned about the high rate of drug use on the coast and increasing vandalism over the past year. He is also wary of the stresses the downturn has put on family life. Church attendance is already low.

Mr. Thibault rejected pleas from the Coasters to allow them to fish for crab in fishing zones that have not been closed.

Instead money was provided for training and make-work projects so the displaced fishery workers could qualify for employment insurance benefits for the winter, and the new Quebec government of Jean Charest promised three weeks of aid and agreed to pay the interest on the Coasters’ fishing boat loans.

Last May, the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, the church’s development arm, helped focus attention on the plight of the Coasters with a symbolic $1,000 donation to a disaster relief fund set up by Mr. Painter’s parish to help needy families get by, the first time the PWRDF has responded to a fishery crisis of this kind in Canada.

Donations have also come in from many points in Canada and the United States. One woman mailed in her GST rebate cheque.

Mr. Painter says more often than not he has to seek out needy families and convince them to accept some money from the parish fund.

“ They’re a proud people.”

A forgotten people

Jimmy Keats is one of the lucky ones. He was one of the five displaced crab fishers in the area who won the right in a government lottery to fish for snow crab this year in a sentinel fishery.

But a lump comes up in Mr. Keats’ throat every time he thinks about the night of his good fortune.

“ That night we had the draw my name came out and it should’ve felt good at the time, but there were 35 to 40 other fishermen also looking to go out fishing crab,” says the soft-spoken Mr. Keats, 56, standing next to his 40-metre wooden longliner, the Lenora Kim, tied up just outside his home town of St. Paul’s River.

“ No siree, it was no jackpot,” he intones.

Under the rules of the sentinel crab fishery, which is designed to gather catch information for scientific research into the state of the ailing snow crab stocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Mr. Keats and his crew of four (his three brothers and son) were able to keep 75 per cent of 9,979 kilograms they landed in fishing zone 16A, 450 km away, off the eastern tip of Anticosti Island.

At $5.84 per kilo – ironically one of the best prices for the tasty seafloor crawlers in recent memory – the crew of five each earned about $2,800 after expenses. The income pales in comparison to what they would have earned in past years but will supplement the $10 per hour wages they are making on the make-work projects and give them higher EI benefits this winter.

Both Mr. Keats and his fish plant worker wife, Marlene, members of St. Paul’s church and parents of three grown children, are on projects. He is helping to build boardwalks around St. Paul’s River as part of a town beautification scheme and she is making crafts at the local museum.

The last time Mr. Keats worked on a make-work project was in the early 1960s when the cod fishery in the area failed three years in a row.

Mr. Keats blames the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans for authorizing too many crab licences and too large quotas. He says if and when the cyclic crab stocks rebound, government will have to curb the harvest and diversify the fishery into less utilized species. The only plant now operating on the coast, Blanc Sablon Seafoods, processes scallops, whelk, lumpfish roe, stimson clams and sea urchins. There’s even a market for the lowly and ugly sculpin on dinner plates in Europe.

Mr. Keats nods toward a fortune of hulking longliners resting on blocks on the beach. The fishermen of the Lower North Shore have all their assets tied up in their fishing boats and in some cases have mortgaged their homes to upgrade their boats and fishing gear.

“ If the crab don’t come back the way they used to be, well, me and the wife will get by because we’re coming up on the age to get out of the fishery – we’ll continue on in this retirement village all alone if we have to,” says Mr. Keats.

“ But I pities the younger people with families to support.”

The decision to close the crab fishery in zone 13 came after the catch rate in the waters plummeted by almost 70 per cent since 1985, the result of overfishing and a slower life cycle in the cooler waters.

About 60 fishers from the coastal villages travelled to Sept-Iles, shortly after Mr. Thibault declared a moratorium. They marched on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans offices for two weeks, demanding to be allowed to fish for crab in 16A but their pleas were rejected.

Roy Griffin, 45, and his wife Brenda have been married for 25 years and hope they do not have to leave. “Here I am about to start a computer course that I’ll have no use for when I should be out on the water where I belong,” says Mr. Griffin.

The couple has two grown daughters and their son Phillip is in his last year of high school.

“ I never bothered to take him near the boat,” says Mr. Griffin. “I hope he goes on to get a trade and work here if he can or wherever he can make a good living. I can’t bear the thought of him working on a project for $10 an hour. It’s demeaning.”

Anger and frustration towards the federal and provincial governments often erupts on this coast where community spirit and a simple way of life make up for the isolation and harsh climate.

There is no road link to the rest of Quebec. Highway 138 from Quebec stops at Natashquan, leaving a 450-km gap between there and Old Fort Bay. There is a weekly ferry service from Rimouski but the only way to drive out of here is to take a 90-minute ferry ride to St. Barbe, Nfld.

In the 1800s a wave of immigrants from Newfoundland chased the plentiful cod to the Lower North Shore, outnumbering and assimilating the francophone inhabitants.

“ Nobody around here would complain if we could leave Quebec and join Newfoundland,” says Kimberly Buffit, a supervisor of the projects in St. Paul’s River. “We are the forgotten people of Quebec. Nobody knows where we’re to.”

Ms. Buffit, who has been raising her three young children on her own for several weeks because her husband is working in Nunavut, says make-work projects will not solve the coast’s woes.

“ Tourists aren’t going to come here to see manicured lawns,” she says. “But they’re going up to Labrador – 9,000 tourists visited the Basque whaling site in Red Bay last year but I can count on my fingers and toes how many came up the Lower North Shore.”

Ms. Buffit says the completion of highway 138 – estimated to cost between $350 million and $500 million – is crucial to bringing in tourists and creating industry. She says prime minister-in-waiting Paul Martin recently promised to put the road through but Ms. Buffit is not holding out much hope. Brian Mulroney, who was MP for Manicouagan, which takes in the Lower North Shore, also promised the 138 when he was prime minister.

A study being undertaken by the Quebec government in conjunction with the municipality of Bonne Esperance is looking into developing forest and mining industries in the area. Other endeavours being discussed include harvesting berries and recreating as a tourist destination the tiny fishing village on Boney Island where the cod trap was invented.

But Ms. Buffit says all that may be too late for her family. “I can put up with me and my kids having to live away from my husband and their father for one year – maybe two. But after that I can’t do it. The price my family will pay will be too great.”

Some predict the population of the coast will dwindle to about half in the next decade.

One recent Sunday evening at St. Peter’s church in Old Fort Bay, lay reader Mary Spingle begins the evening prayer service filling in for Mr. Painter, who is out of town.

“ This service might be a short one if m y beeper goes off – real short,” she warns her two parishioners in attendance. It has happened before to Ms. Spingle, also the on-call nurse at the health clinic in St. Paul’s River. Once, she left the congregation hanging in mid-chorus.

Ms. Spingle’s fisher husband has also been away for most of the summer working as a cook in the camps. Still, she would not give up this life.

“ There’s a freedom and a quality of life here that would be hard to find anywhere else. Some people want Douglas (Painter) to tone it down because they feel embarrassed being put in the spotlight, but most people appreciate what he’s doing – fighting for families on this coast to stay together,” says Ms. Spingle.

During the service Ms. Spingle appropriately opens her Bible to the Beatitudes.

“ Blessed are …”

Will Hilliard – wmh@mail.com – is a St. John’s-based journalist.

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