Larry Hann’s life as a bus tour operator in St John’s today is worlds apart from the life he knew as a boy, growing up in Cape Freels, about halfway between Twillingate and Bonavista, on the north-east coast of Newfoundland. Here Larry talks about life in a traditional Newfoundland fishing outport community, in the 1950s. And he describes the heart-wrenching experience of leaving behind everything he knew, in the 1960s, during Resettlement—when people living in smaller and struggling outports took cash incentives from the province to leave behind their homes and communities and move to “growth centres,” where better job prospects were promised but not necessarily delivered.
What are your earliest childhood memories of growing up as the son of a fourth-generation fisher in Cape Freels?
My dad went out onto the ocean, caught the fish and brought it to shore. As a little boy I would place the cod up on the table. And then an older brother would cut the throat and slit it down. And then he would pass it over to my mom. She would crack the head off it and pick the liver out to make cod liver oil. With the head off, my dad would take the bone out, and then he would light-salt the fish. It would be in salt for three or four weeks or more, and then my mum and us boys would take that fish and wash it and lay it on the flake to dry.
Did you want to grow up to be a fisher like your dad?
Well, at that time my dad, like other fishermen, struggled to make a living. The merchants were cheating them—the fisherman was always kept in debt to the merchant. So my dad said to me and my brothers: ‘I want you boys to go to school and get a real job.’ I listened to my dad, and I went to school in Cape Freels—in a one-room school. And then I went to Saint John’s and finished my high school education.
And that was when your parents were resettled on the mainland?
Yes. The resettlement came in the 1960s. Joseph Smallwood, our Premier, saw that the fishery was not doing well, because of foreign overfishing. So he went to the small communities and said, ‘If the majority of you want to move to a larger community, we will give each of you $2,000. But after you move, you can’t go back no more.’
My dad never saw $2,000 in his lifetime. So it was the same as if he’d been offered $2 million. He jumped for it, and we went to St John’s.
So your whole community left at around the same time?
What was that like?
I went to St John’s at about 15 years old, and they went to a lot of other places. Some of my friends I never saw again. The day we left, it was not a good feeling. It hurt, because you play with your friends every day and then they’re suddenly all gone from you. That’s a hard punch.
When I go back there I reminisce about being a boy growing up in Cape Freels. The houses are mostly empty now, or they fell apart, or they were torn down.
How did your parents handle the move?
Mom accepted it pretty well, ‘cause when she was very young, about 15 or 16, she went to Halifax to work, and later St John’s. She was used to the city. But when my dad got to St John’s, he struggled. He got depressed, because he couldn’t find a job. Remember, he had no education.
What was most difficult for your dad?
It was all he knew how to do. You took him away from that… well… he never recovered. He died at a very early age. At 61.
That was one thing about the government’s resettlement program: You’re asking someone 55 years of age to go to school and learn new skills, but that person can’t even write his own name.
Once people from the outports realized that Smallwood had given them a bad deal, how did they react?
Outport Newfoundlanders believed that Joey Smallwood was God when he gave them the money, and they thought he could do no wrong. But after they went to Saint John’s and moved around, they really could see what he was. People cursed on Joey Smallwood after resettlement. Then after 20-plus years as Premier, he got voted out.
What could you buy with $2,000 in the early 1960s? Could you buy a house in St John’s?
No. When you went to St John’s you had to pay rent. The money lasted just a few months.
How did your mom and dad pay for things after their money ran out?
My mom worked in a store and she worked at the Grace hospital. My mom had a Grade 8 education, and she was pretty knowledgeable. My dad might occasionally get temporary work… then laid off… temporary work… then laid off…
So what did your dad do during the day, when he was out of work?
You know, not a lot. He’d be in the chair meditating, thinking about Cape Freels, most of the time. Stressed himself out. He was a very unhappy man.
Did he talk about what he was going through?
He’d say to my mom: ‘Lucy, I want to go back to Cape Freels.’ And mom would say, ‘Arthur, you can’t go back there. You took the money.’ Then he’d say, “But I want to go back there. I’ll give the government back the $2,000.”
You have to understand, that’s where he was born; that’s where he was raised; that’s where his roots were. His mom and his dad were buried there; he had property there. Dad wanted to go back to Cape Freels, despite the hardship. He wanted to fish.
(Photos: Rick O'Brien)