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Migration a part of life in Newfoundland diocese

By André Forget on February, 03 2015


Migration is part of the cultural memory in Newfoundland, says Rev. Jonathan Rowe, curate at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

It is known colloquially as “the turnaround.”

Every few weeks, thousands of Newfoundlanders make the long commute to northern Alberta to work in the oil industry. They stay there for a “shift” of two to four weeks, and return to their families on their weeks off.

Since the collapse of the cod fishery in 1992, Newfoundlanders have had to be creative in finding work if they want to continue to live on the island. The province registered an unemployment rate of 11 per cent last year, and in 2008 there were around 20,000 Newfoundlanders working in Alberta alone. The turnaround has funnelled money from the oil sands back to the island and allowed many families to continue living there.

But it has not been without its costs, and both rural and urban clergy in the diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador are aware of the impact it has on families and individuals. “The younger families don’t seem to mind,” said the Rev. Dianna Fry, a priest in the parish of the Holy Spirit in the western end of the diocese “I suppose because they are young. But they also find it difficult in that the mother is alone with the children for three, four weeks at a time. They feel like a single parent sometimes.”

The Rev. Jonathan Rowe, curate at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s, has noticed this problem as well. “It can have negative effects on people’s families. I think that it’s a whole lot more of a challenge than most people might like.”    

However, this kind of seasonal, migratory lifestyle is not new in that part of the world, he said. “It’s not a long time ago in the Newfoundland cultural memory when this happened anyway, because men went away to fish on the Labrador coast, or they went off on the seal hunt, and they could be gone for stretches at a time.”

But Rowe does believe it is harder now than in previous eras. “Fifty years ago, if Dad had to go and work, well, things were pretty much the same whether he was home or not,” he said. “But kids now have to be in after-school programs and things like that because Mom is working.”

The church has largely responded to this situation through pastoral ministry. There are other reasons, however, that the turnaround may not be a long-term solution. Dropping oil prices have been cause for concern among some in the province. Lower prices would not only affect the province’s offshore drilling operations, it could potentially put Newfoundlanders working the turnaround out of a job. According to news reports, some oil companies have already started laying off workers.

But it isn’t just the turnaround that leads to disruptions in family and community life. Long daily commutes have become common on the Avalon Peninsula in Eastern Newfoundland, and many people who live in small outports are driving to St. John’s for work. The Rev. William Strong, rector of the parish of Upper Island Cove, said that a significant number of his parishioners are professionals who drive the 100-odd kilometres one-way to the city every day. Many of Fry’s parishioners make a similar commute. 

This transient lifestyle limits the freedom of some Newfoundland Anglicans to participate in parish life.

While some of the larger parishes, like Strong’s, have managed to maintain a vital ministry in their communities, smaller, more geographically spread out multi-point parishes have greater difficulty doing this. 

Fry believes the church must make itself more flexible to respond to these changes in the lifestyle of its members. “We need to somehow be able to find out what the needs of these families are and meet them,” she said, “whether it be a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and not necessarily a Sunday.”

She herself has started to spend more time with parishioners in the evenings, when they are home from work, rather than trying to keep a regular nine-to-five schedule.

The Labrador region of the diocese has to deal with a lot of transience as well, but there the problem is the opposite—many come to work in the hydroelectric or mining industries, and leave when they reach retirement age.

“Our church family never stays the same,” says Nellie Thomas, the territorial archdeacon for the archdeaconry of Labrador. “People mostly when they retire move away, either back to their own homes or to some community where they feel they want to retire.” 

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By André Forget| February, 03 2015
Categories:  News|National News

About the Author

André Forget

André Forget

André Forget joined the Anglican Journal in 2014 as staff writer and social media lead. He also serves as managing editor of Whether Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The Dalhousie Review, The Winnipeg Review, and the Town Crier.

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