Nova Scotia

I used to judge people who chose to leave Newfoundland for work. Then I had to leave, too

This First Person column is written by Lindsey Harrington, a Nova Scotian with roots in Newfoundland. For more information about the CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

In the fall of 2016, I forced the trunk of my rust-encrusted hatchback closed. The dishes rattled and the garbage bags of bedding shifted. Anything that couldn’t fit — like the kitchen table from my childhood — was sold off on Kijiji to pay for gas. Hopefully, my sold-off possessions would find a better home than I could provide. 

Surveying my St. John’s neighbourhood for the last time, I sighed. I had sneered as my high school classmates disappeared, heading west for jobs in the oilsands, and turned up my nose when my siblings left Newfoundland for employment in Nova Scotia. I considered them turncoats and traitors, lily-livered and weak. Leaving was a choice — one I would never make, I hadn’t hesitated to tell them. But now my turn had come. 

My dream had been to move back to the Burin Peninsula, the rural region of Newfoundland where I grew up. There, I would live in a saltbox house by the ocean with some ruggedly handsome man and a fancy government job that put my MBA to use. We would live a life right out of a tourism commercial: clothes flapping on the line, grass rustling in the cool breeze and whales breaching out of the blue-wave backdrop. Instead, I was single, unemployed and moving to the mainland to live in my younger brother’s basement in Halifax — not exactly what my 30s were supposed to look like. 

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Newfoundland is a mythical and storied place with icebergs, fog and jellybean houses. A Broadway musical was written about the island’s hospitality. Newfoundlanders are proud of their reputation and have a fierce love for the beautiful island that has shaped them. 

Yet, thanks to a boom-and-bust natural resource-based economy, we have a history of leaving. The cod moratorium and the subsequent layoffs are the most well-known examples of this, but they are far from the only ones. In the 1920s, Newfoundlanders left in droves to build skyscrapers in New York, earning the nickname “the Fish Gang.” In the 1960s, many sought better lives in Ontario’s manufacturing sector. In the 1990s, it was the Alberta oilsands that captured Newfoundland’s collective imagination with their hefty paycheques.

 Economically motivated outmigration is a cornerstone of Newfoundland’s past, present and likely its future, but to me, it looked like the easy way out. The folks who left lacked vision, I thought, and if we rolled up our sleeves and applied some Newfie ingenuity, we could create the opportunities we needed out of the frigid Atlantic air. And Newfoundland was worth fighting for.

WATCH | N.L. prepares for another economic transition: 

Memories of cod: N.L. braces for pivot away from oil

Thirty years ago Newfoundland and Labrador’s cod industry collapsed, devastating the local economy. Now, the clock is ticking down on the province’s offshore oil industry.

I dedicated the early part of my career, in the mid-2000s, to helping reverse the tides of migration. As long as Newfoundlanders have been leaving, the government has tried to find ways to encourage them to stay, and this work became my specialty, although it wasn’t steady employment.

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As an employee of a regional economic development board, I researched ways of building local industries and businesses. I left just before its funding was pulled and the board folded. Then, as an employee of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Innovation, Trade and Rural Development, I travelled to every nook and cranny of the island, seeking the stories of people who had found a way to “make a go of it” at home and sharing those stories with rural students. I made presentations and created classroom resources to encourage them to envision their future in N.L. 

Harrington is pictured in St. Anthony, N.L., during a work trip in 2012 when she was hired by the Department of Innovation, Trade and Rural Development to find stories of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who stayed in the province for work. (Submitted by Lindsey Harrington)

When I got laid off from that program (which was later shut down to save money), I found a part-time contract touting the many petroleum-related careers young people could pursue in N.L. to stay close to home. I supplemented that contract with several others and travelled the province visiting high schools for a few more years. But when the last contract ended, it seemed the jig was up. 

I scoured the job boards for anything tangentially related to my skills. I applied for dozens of jobs on the island for a pay cut and less complex work but I didn’t even land an interview. It didn’t make any sense. I had done everything I was told to do. I studied business instead of English in university to improve my employment prospects. I got good grades and had excellent work experience along with glowing references. Yet I still wound up unemployed. 

As my savings dwindled, I did something I never thought I would — I looked elsewhere. I cast a Canada-wide net and took the first position offered to me: a job with the Nova Scotia government in Halifax. It was time to break up with Newfoundland.

Luckily, when I arrived in Halifax in 2016, my family was kind enough to never say “I told you so” or to throw my old opinions back in my face. They didn’t even seem to expect an apology, which was good because I was too bitter and dejected to muster one. My brother and his partner brewed extra coffee in the mornings and invited me to join them for supper. Instead, I bought lattes I couldn’t afford and made noodle stir-fry for one before slinking down to the basement, determined to hold tight to some scrap of my independence.

I felt lonely navigating a strange city full of strange people after 10 years in St John’s, where even a quick trip to the grocery store meant running into acquaintances. To give myself something to do and have somewhere to go, I joined a rec dodgeball league. Every night on my lumpy mattress, I swiped through Bumble and searched real estate listings, seeking some semblance of home, romance and friendship to soothe my sense of failure. Returning to the place that rejected me was out of the question. It was a reminder of my shortcomings and salt in my wounded pride. If I went for a quick weekend visit, I would tout Nova Scotia’s superiority — the better weather, amenities, events and activities that I had access to that weren’t available on the island. It was like trying to make an ex-lover jealous. 

Several smiling people sit in a long boat on a lake.
Harrington, bottom left, joined the Dartmouth Dragon Boat Association. (Submitted by Lindsey Harrington)

My heart wasn’t in it at first, but over time,  Nova Scotia grew on me. I joined a dragon boat paddling team and spent evenings with 20 of my new closest friends. Our blades sank into the brilliant blue water in unison as we pulled, moving the boat forward. When I cycled across the Macdonald bridge on my way to work, the ocean stretched to either side and the cityscape of Halifax rose before me. I pedalled toward it, tendrils of hair sticking out from underneath my helmet, flapping in the wind like clothes hung on a line. 

I’m baffled and grateful for this new life, even if it’s different from the one I had imagined. Seven years on, I still work in the same role I moved here for — perhaps recovering from the stress and economic uncertainty of my early career and subsequent move. I bought a grey bungalow in a quiet area of Dartmouth and married a Bluenoser.

My views on outmigration are no longer black and white. They’re technicoloured and nuanced — like those famous tourism ads. I haven’t failed Newfoundland, but it also hasn’t failed me. I’ve simply joined an age-old tradition, and like my forefathers, I can hold the island in my heart, while relaxing into my new home, a place that was able to choose me back. 

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