Traveling in a land where caribou still roam, I was proud to write “Caribou, Maine” as my place of residence in signing the guest books of inns, interpretive centers and historic sites. My affinity with Newfoundland and Labrador did not end there.
Northern people in Canada, as in Maine, possess a rugged independence that equips them to live amidst breathtaking beauty in a landscape many consider harsh. I felt at home on a 10-day journey to the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland and the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence sponsored by the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, which has conducted community-based conservation programs in the region for 50 years.
I was eager to see places I had heard about — perhaps like Mainers visiting Aroostook for the first time — drawn by a fascination with the mystique of a faraway place. I also was interested to see how people were responding to the decline of the fishing industry and the strict limits imposed by the 1992 moratorium on the cod fishery. I had read about the growth of heritage tourism as a new source of revenue and looked forward to learning more.
Our group of 10 traveled in two minivans covering the length of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula — from Gros Morne National Park to St. Anthony and L’ Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site — and, after crossing the Strait of Belle Isle by ferry, the Lower North Shore of Quebec and Labrador — from St. Paul’s River to Battle Harbour. We could feel the sense of loss in communities that once thrived on fishing — loss of a way of life as well as a source of income.
But we also saw how local people are converting a loss into an asset. By preserving and restoring the buildings, artifacts, traditions and skills of the fishing era, residents are not only attracting visitors, but also generating pride in their history and creating a tangible legacy for future generations. They recognize and advertise what is unique in their region, appealing to travelers weary of the sameness in places full of franchises.
We met people in their 30s and 40s who had left the province and returned with new appreciation of their homeland and its history to work in tourism related businesses. We saw children in an interpretation center learning about the natural resources around them.
We stayed in a resort owned by a woman with a history in the fishing industry who foresaw the future and began a new career. We rode on the boat of a man raised in an island outport, who remembers when his community was resettled to the mainland in the 1960s. The son of a mercantile fishery worker, he now owns a charter and tour business, taking visitors to see icebergs, whales and dolphins in the coastal waters, as well as historic sites on the shore.
In Battle Harbour, Labrador, fishermen who had lost their livelihood were trained in restoration carpentry to preserve 14 buildings that now house visitors and exhibits, as well as a church for special events and the general store, now a source of supplies and souvenirs with a dining hall on the second floor. Six years of research and painstaking architectural restoration by the Battle Harbour Historic Trust have ensured that the original 19th and early 20th century fishing settlement remains to commemorate the life and society of the island community that was a commercial center for cod, seal and salmon fisheries. Local residents staff the facilities on the site and respond enthusiastically to visitors’ queries about their lives and their memories of the place many people still call home.
Elsewhere across the province, interpretation centers like those in Conche, Newfoundland, and Middle Bay, Quebec, not only document history in panels and displays, but bring together local children and adults for activities that keep traditional arts, skills and culture alive. In Conche, local women embroidered a 216-foot linen-and-wool tapestry designed by artists from France and Newfoundland to tell the history of the French Shore from prehistoric times through the settlements between 1504 and 1904 of migratory French fishermen, to 2006, when work on the tapestry began. The tapestry has attracted the attention of historians from Europe as well as North America.
The Middle Bay Interpretation Centre focuses on the five cultures of the Lower North Shore (Innu, Inuit, Basque, French and English) drawing participants from both sides of the Quebec-Labrador border for a variety of community based heritage/tourism activities and workshops — from a “Value of Traditions” contest for students and a Heritage Forum for adults, to a “Timeless Traditions Cookbook” and a CD of traditional music. The center facilitated a cultural product development workshop for business owners in southern Labrador and local women operate a cafe in the center that also offers a catering service.
Over and over in our travels, we saw how people with a passion for their homeland and its history are giving it a future. Heritage in Newfoundland and Labrador is not just about the past. It’s no surprise that I felt at home there.