By James McLeod — TC Media
ST. JOHN’S — Adjusted for inflation, in 1963, the provincial government would pay you $4,609 for resettlement; today, they’ll pay you $270,000 to move — a whopping 5,758 per cent increase over the span of five decades.
PhD political science student and humour writer Drew Brown ran the numbers recently for an article in the Scope alternative monthly magazine.
Brown said the numbers point to a low-key push to get people to leave remote communities across the province.
“Things are certainly different in Newfoundland now than they were in the Smallwood era,” Brown said. “But I don’t know, I still think there’s more going on than that. I think it’s a subtle shift in government policy to maybe encourage the process to happen a bit more — y’know, save money on ferries, save money on health care, transportation, infrastructure, all that stuff.”
But at the same time, he said, people need to be careful not to pass judgment on resettlement unless you’re one of the people making the decision to resettle.
“It’s one thing for an academic like myself, living in a city, to bloviate about the evils of resettlement. It’s another thing for the people actually living there,” Brown said. “(But) I think there is a danger that we could just rationalize rural Newfoundland to death.”
Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy made cuts nearly across the board in the 2013 budget, but the government actually increased the funding for resettlement, from $100,000 per household to $270,000.
Communities must vote 90 per cent in favour or resettlement for it to be considered, and the government needs to do a detailed study to determine that relocating a community will actually save money over 20 years.
“The province is not promoting relocation — not by a long shot. That is a hard decision. It has to be a long, drawn-out decision from the residents’ point of view,” Municipal Affairs Minister Kevin O’Brien said. “I don’t think we’re going to see any community relocate tomorrow morning.”
O’Brien said the increased money is just a reflection of where the province’s economy is at right now.
“Housing values have gone dramatically up over the last number of years,” he said. “I remember buying my first home in Gander for $14,000. You wouldn’t be able to buy my home in Gander right now for probably a little over $500,000.”
Memorial University economist Wade Locke said the $170,000 increase to resettlement payments is a sign of the changing economy.
“Houses have doubled since 2006. I mean, that’s a fact,” he said. “Yes, it’s a reflection of the changing economic circumstances, and the cost to resettle and re-establish your life.”
Locke said from an economic point of view, it’s really up to the people in communities to weigh the factors, and decide whether it’s in their best interest to move. He said it’s tempting for society to dictate that people should live in small rural communities, but that runs the risk of being too paternal.
“St. John’s can say, ‘You shouldn’t give up your rural identity for a measly few shekels,’” he said. “(But) if these are fully informed decisions, I don’t see a bad thing here.”
Brown essentially agreed with that sentiment, but said today’s resettlement is a lot closer to the Smallwood-era relocation efforts than a lot of people realize — although there aren’t any houses floating across bays anymore.
“It was never a forced resettlement plan,” Brown said. “If you actually go back and look at, I think, the original resettlement program from 1954 to 1965, I think you actually needed 95 per cent voting approval in communities to resettle.”
Brown said historically, there were definitely strong-arm tactics from government officials, merchants and local priests, but it wasn’t forced.
What’s more, he said, the reasons for resettlement are unchanged.
“I’d imagine the rationale for resettlement has stayed roughly the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago, which is always sort of to just make it easier to administer people living in the province,” Brown said. “It’s easier for government to take care of stuff.”