Bell Island, Newfoundland
The Place Where
In June 2018, my family and I went to Bell Island, Newfoundland for vacation. We were drawn to the island because my sister-in-law grew up there. Going into the vacation my mindset was simple, I was going to learn more about the east coast culture and understand some more about my sister-in-law. I assumed I was descending on a small town, much like many others in Canada, but perhaps it would have a bit of a “Newfie” twist. Boy, was I mistaken.
I quickly learned how unique this community really is.
This island is rich in Iron Ore and from 1895 to 1966, it was a thriving community because of the availability of this commodity and the ability to mine it. At the height of their success, the population was 12,281 (in 1961). According to the 2016 census, Bell Island consisted of 322 people. A drastic comparison to its once booming and growing community. But please don’t underestimate this tiny community. The spirit and hospitality of the people is just astounding. I highly recommend the visit to explore the rich history of the geography and its people. From the No. 2 Mine tour (do this, there is so much to learn here in such a unique experience that I could not express on here how amazed I was), to the island ghost stories, to sunken treasure and the WWII connections are just a drop in the bucket. The people are traditional storytellers who strive to keep their heritage alive. You will learn first hand from the people, you just need to ask them.
When mining technologies improved, it became too expensive for companies to mine from Bell Island. Money talks and the major players follow the money. Bell Island was no longer considered desirable, even though the land continues to be rich in Iron Ore…trust me it’s even in the water! As the mining business left, so did the people. Now people tend to move away year after year and the population continues to dwindle down. This was actually the topic of the TV episode “Still Standing” with Jonny Harris. The major trend I have recognized is that kids grow up on the island, and they are infused with an understanding of how to treat people well and to preserve their culture. When they reach the age of where they need to make a living, they quickly learn they have to leave the island to get an education or to find work. Many settle in Cambridge, ON and then grow their families until they are stable enough to move back (the dream is always to move back). Then the cycle starts over again. So what you end up with, is a strange cross section, in which few young adults exist on the Island. The problem is this trend continues to devolve the population and doesn’t allow for enough creative thinking to bring prosperity back to the island. I also have thoughts and ideas on this, but this is not the space for it! :)
From my outsider view as a CFA (yes, a “Come From Away”), I found it tragic to really see the past prosperity of the Island and to see how far it has fallen. As past public servant, I suppose I assumed that Bell Island would be much like the rest of my perception of Newfoundland. It was the place where we had many fishermen on EI, and I was expecting low socioeconomic status and warm hearts. I was right, but not how I thought. I am from the GTA and my sister-in-law warned me “Sarah, this place is really small”. I thought, it can’t be worse than the small town my mother grew up in Eastern Ontario, or the small island my father grew up on in the West Indies. I was wrong. It was not about the size, it IS about the isolation. I like being a little off the beaten path, it’s the reason I left Toronto, but this was on a different scale than I was prepared for. I was disgusted with the lack of resources provided by our Canadian government. I felt these people were being treated almost as second-class citizens. It enraged me as counsellor and warrior of social justice because similar issues in Canada continue to anger me, like the lack of potable water on reserves and the marginalizing of various groups including the indigenous. The people of Bell Island continue to struggle with a ferry system that is inconsistent at best, with laws and regulations that constantly change and are exhausting to keep up with. A lack of suitable health care to access, with a large percentage of elderly residents. Lastly, that individuals need to buy their water or access the community well to obtain drinkable water. Water from a well I happily drank from, but was also unwell from while there. In my conversations with Bell Islanders, I was welcomed as an outsider with open arms, but I was also curious and asked questions. No one would gripe or complain but they told me they had difficulty getting jobs even off the island or in the province’s capital because no one would hire someone with an address from the island. Nor could they afford to move there to get started. It is a perplexing situation that got under my skin as a Canadian. I was compelled to do something.
The Purpose of this Gallery?
All of this ranting has led to one major point: I’m hosting this gallery to give back. I have some talent in Photography. I don’t think I’m the best photographer and I know I have a lot to learn. However, this is one of the gifts I have to offer and if I can use it to help these people to preserve their heritage, then I will. I have a lot of other creative ideas about how to support this island but this is a first step. So please, consider a visit to Bell Island, a donation, to learn more about this beautiful place and its people, or contact me if you have interest in buying any of my files or to have customized print made. I aim to make no profit from this endeavour, just to recoup my costs of the prints made and to give all proceeds to initiatives on the island.