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Board sees impact of Fiona and reconciliation in Western Newfoundland

PWRDF Board members and staff representatives take time off from meetings to tour Port-aux-Basques, NL and learn about Hurricane Fiona impacts.

June 20, 2024

By Suzanne Rumsey

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When Canada’s national housing crisis is in the news the small coastal town of Port aux Basques, Newfoundland isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But almost two years ago, on September 24, 2022, Hurricane Fiona tore through that community of approximately 3,500 residents and destroyed over 130 homes. A further 57 are slated for demolition since, while they are still standing and habitable, they are in the path of the “next big storm.” Because with climate change comes warming oceans and with them, evermore powerful storms.

Meeting in Corner Brook, Newfoundland in the first week of June, the PWRDF Board of Directors and staff travelled south to visit Port aux Basques as well as the community of Burgeo, also on Newfoundland’s south shore.

In Port aux Basques the group toured the town with Mayor Brian Button who described what happened during the storm and showed the now empty shoreline where homes once stood. Back at the St. James Anglican Memorial Hall, the Rev. Jane Allen and a number of women whose homes had been lost shared a lunch with board members and spoke about how the devastation and loss has affected their lives, but also about how family and community have sustained and upheld them.

A recurring refrain in the community prior to Hurricane Fiona making landfall was, “It’s just another storm, and we’ve been through storms before,” said Mayor Button. But warnings from provincial meteorologists pushed the town council to phone, text and go door to door, urging people to leave their homes. As a result, the loss of life was limited to one person. But Mayor Button also said that what was lost was more than physical structures and one life. More than 100 years of family histories and way of life were also lost as homes along the shore were washed away, while trauma and psychosocial needs remain.

Both Mayor Button and the women spoke about the generosity of the response from within and beyond Port aux Basques. The mayor noted that they received more toilet paper than they knew what to do with and surplus clothing was given to the Salvation Army for distribution to other communities. What remains is the lack of housing. The struggle with insurance companies and the government for compensation is for some, ongoing. Rebuilding is slow and some have left the community for good. Those who have stayed and rebuilt have relocated well away from the sea, which is both missed and feared.

As our delegation prepared to leave, we were shown two large, mounted photographs, gifted to the parish. They showed St. James, its lights on, shining brightly above the town; a beacon of hope in the days following the storm, responding to a request of community members needing the assurance that Port aux Basques was still home.

Drummers from Burgeo First Nation celebrated the construction of a new gathering place, with St. John's Anglican Church.
Drummers from Burgeo First Nation celebrated the construction of gazebo at the Gathering Place, with St. John’s the Evangelist Anglican Church.

In Burgeo, a community of approximately 1,100 people, PWRDF board and staff took part in the dedication of the new Community Gathering Place on the site of the former church hall of St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church. The gazebo at the centre of the Gathering Place provided shelter on a rainy day as a group of women drummers from Burgeo First Nation, led by Chief Elaine Ingram, offered The Friendship Song. Bishop John Organ of the Diocese of Western Newfoundland blessed the new space and those gathered to celebrate its opening.

The dedication followed a lunch in the town’s firehall with community members, and a service of thanksgiving. Those offering greetings included Chief Elaine, Mayor Sue Ann Peckford-Spencer, Melissa Mills, the Community Project Facilitator for the South Coast Fjords National Marine Conservation Area and National Park Project, and the Rev. Elsie Rose, of St. John the Evangelist. These organizations, along with the Diocese of Western Newfoundland, the Burgeo Lion’s Club and PWRDF through an Indigenous Responsive Grant, contributed to the realization of the project.

The Community Gathering Place is still under construction. Benches are to be added along with story boards that will tell the history of those who call this place home. They will be in two languages, English and Mi’kmaq for Burgeo is home to a significant and emerging Mi’kmaq population, constituted in 2016 as the Burgeo First Nation. Thus, the Gathering Place is envisioned by Bishop John and all those involved in the project, as a place for reconciliation.

“Growing up, we were taught that there were no ‘Indians’ in Newfoundland,” said a participant at PWRDF’s Mapping Exercise the day before. In 1984, the Conne River First Nation was recognized and brought under the Indian Act. It wasn’t until 2006 however that broader recognition took place. However, of the 110,000 Qalipu (Mi’kmaq) who applied for status in 2006, only 18,000 were recognized.

The Burgeo First Nation women asserted that, although some have received status and others have not, “We know who we are. We know this land is our home.” As a part of claiming their Indigenous identity, the women drummers made the drums they played and the regalia they wore to welcome us. “It’s the beat that makes me feel warm inside,” said one of the drummers. They also praised the community it creates. One woman liked “the way it connects me to my Indigenous heritage.“  

Suzanne Rumsey is PWRDF’s Public Engagement Program Coordinator.