Jordan: This one is a story about students who attend Basque Memorial, which is a kindergarten to Grade 12 school located in a little place called Red Bay Labrador. This is a story about those kids, all seven of them, they are the only kids in town. The school they attend has, if necessary, a room for each of them. The town of Red Bay itself is small, and it’s shrinking, and while this story might be on the more extreme edges of the struggle that communities in Newfoundland and Labrador are facing, it is by no means unique in its challenges, but it’s also not without benefits, especially if your kid who enjoys the outdoors enjoys freedom, or if you’re someone who could benefit from some one on one work with the teacher every day, or if you’re a kid who isn’t really picky about their friends because you’re probably only getting one. So what is life like as a kid in a town where there are seven of you? And what is life like for everyone in a town that might or might not be dying but isn’t going to turn into a ghost town without a fight. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings and this is The Big Story. Katie Daubs is a reporter and feature writer at The Star. Hi Katie.
Katie: Hi Jordan.
Jordan: You went out to Red Bay in Labrador, tell me about it.
Katie: It’s a beautiful community. It’s on the southeast coast of Labrador and to get there you have to, well, we flew into Deer Lake, and then we had to drive three hours, three and half hours north to this town called St Barb in Newfoundland, on the North Coast, and then it’s a two hour ferry ride, um, across the Strait of Belle Isle, and when we were there in May, there was still some ice coming down from the Arctic that basically made that ride about three and 1/2 hours because it was impossible for the ferry to get in for a while. All I’m saying is that it’s very far away.
Jordan: It’s remote, yeah.
Katie: It’s remote, and once you get there, across, you land in Quebec, and then it’s an hour north there on the road, and it’s this really rugged part of the Labrador coast. Lots of rocks, lots of hills, a few trees, but mostly it’s quite barren. You can kind of see everything in this town which is the thing that stood out to me the most. You cannot hide from anybody here if you wanted to.
Jordan: How big is the town?
Katie: So it has changed since I started reporting on this story. When I first started making my calls, there were 149 people who lived there. As of this summer, there are 145 and the mayor of Red Bay; It’s so small that she knows every single one of those people, and she knows why they left, he knows all the statistical information she can assign, like a personality to it. So when I did find out, you know we’re down four people, there were a couple of deaths, a couple of people moved away.
Jordan: What drew you to Red Bay?
Katie: It was a story that started a big series on climate change this year, and I was going to Newfoundland to see how a historic site was affected by climate change, and in doing some of that reporting I had learned that this community that I was going to Red Bay that has this great Basque whaling site from the 16th century was; It had some erosion there. So we were going for that reason and as I was talking to the mayor ahead of time, she just told me, you know, about the fact that there were seven kids in the school and right away this was not what the story was about the fact that I was supposed to be writing about but I was really fascinated by this and so I thought, if I have time while I’m there, I’m gonna try and do this. So that’s kind of what drew me to this story but the actual reason for going to Red Bay was a different story altogether.
Jordan: Well, it’s funny cause you mentioned the mayor knows everybody by name, so tell me about all of the kids in Red Bay.
Katie: So unfortunately, when we were there, several of the kids, I think it was two were out of town for a wedding, and I knew this.
Jordan: That’s like almost 33% of the kids.
Katie: Exactly. And it was funny, once I knew this in conversation, I could drop this with other locals like oh, yes, of course, so and so they’re out of town for a wedding is like a currency.
Jordan: Yes, of course. Yeah.
Katie: Yeah, to show that I can kind of fit in, and I know what’s going on. But the seven kids in this school I met three of them, and it was quite by accident. I mean, you can run into these kids at any point really when you’re going around Red Bay. We had seen, um so I was there with a photographer from The Star Richard Loton’s and every day when we were eating our breakfast, we would see these two boys waiting for the bus outside of our window, and so there is a bus that takes the seven kids to school and these two kids were there and we would see them on ATV s after school, kind of had the run of the town. The mayor told us you know, if you want to talk to these kids, there’s this ah, great girl named Tiffany Pie. She’s very smart. We’ll go meet her. So we go to the park to go meet Tiffany and these two kids on ATV’s are there already, so they come in and they talk to us. It was interesting because I’m sure I don’t know about you, but I’ve have a lot of chances to interview kids, and it’s hit and miss right, Um, you never know what you’re going to get, and sometimes people are just shy. These kids were very, I would say, like mature um and I think maybe it’s because they’re surrounded by adults. You have these great conversations about what it’s like to be a kid there, and I just didn’t feel like; I wasn’t pulling teeth, they were happy to talk to me, and I found that really interesting.
Jordan: Well that’s why we wanted to talk to you, too, because when you learned that there’s only seven children in the school from I guess kindergarten to Grade 12, I want to know what that schools like.
Katie: I do, too, and I tried to go; I wanted to go into the school. That was my first instinct.
Jordan: School was not in session?
Katie: No but, when we were there, it was May. So the school was in session, but I got in touch with the school district and they just said, mo, that’s not gonna happen and so I said, that’s fine, I can get why that would be disruptive, especially
Jordan: What’s life like even just for these seven kids, right? Like…
Katie: So it’s funny, a lot of people are fascinated by these people I’ve talked to, and that’s the first question they always ask and the kids that I talked to love it there. They have this freedom, they have this sort of old fashioned childhood that, I mean, is not old fashioned to people who are living in small towns or rural communities where you do have this sort of trust within the community that people are looking out for your kids and you know everybody and you can kind of let your kids go out and play. That’s what this is and these kids, like the two boys were 10 and 11 years old, so that’s really nice. You know, they have each other, they see each other every day, they play PlayStation, Fortnight, the typical things you might do, even in a city. But then, you know, they go berry picking in the summer, and they make jams like to me it just sounded like it was a time warp, in some ways just very quaint. They’re also, there outside all the time, you know, on their ATVs, on their snowmobiles.
Jordan: So how does the town end up with only seven kids? I’m assuming it used to be larger. What happened?
Katie: So it was never a huge community, like many places in Newfoundland and Labrador. Um, it started out; Its history is, um, you know, once the settlers came, it’s a fishing community. So it’s the cod fishery was a big part of the industry there and even before the cod moratorium in 1992, the fishery was on the decline and people wanted better for their kids. Kids were leaving, going to school in St John’s, never coming back, that’s sort of in the story of a lot of towns in Newfoundland and Labrador. I think that population in 1986 was about 350 people. That was the peak, so it’s about half of that now. So a lot of those losses started coming in the late eighties early nineties, and they’ve just not stopped. So it’s just mostly opportunity, there’s no industry to bring people back, although they do have a tourism industry there in the summer, because of that historic site that I was going to visit that provides, you know, some jobs and some businesses but it’s so seasonal.
Jordan: What do the people who live in Red Bay feel about kind of watching their town shrink around them. Are they used to it? Are they just accepting?
Katie: Because I was there talking about climate change, like the historic site for the most part, I only really talked about this issue with the mayor and some of these kids, and the mayor is very much used to this. She knows she’s not in denial at all, she would say to me, you know, we’re an aging community, we’re dying community, but she never could see a point where Red Bay wouldn’t be there, she said uou know, I can’t imagine it and I don’t want to. People love this town, there’s a reason that they lived there. They love you know, the serenity and the ruggedness of it but they are very aware of how isolated it is and how you know the opportunities aren’t there for young people. So it’s something that is part of their life but there, you know, there are a lot of things to be positive about in that community because there is the tourism there and there’s lots of other things going on, but it’s something that I think is in the background of everything, right? Like this place is aging um, and it’s day to day, it’s something that if you’re growing old in Red Bay, you know you have to be very aware of your own health because your health, like the hospital if you’re having chronic issues or anything that would involve surgery, is over Newfoundland. You know there’s a health centre nearby, but you really have to be careful of that, and I think it’s something that the infrastructure concerns are always kind of top of mind for them.
Jordan: Well, what do the kids think of that? So you mentioned you met the two boys, but you also mentioned Tiffany. Who is she?
Katie: So Tiffany is the only 14 year old girl in the community. She was one of two great eight students when I was there, it was the end of the great eight year. Uh, the other grade eight student was at the wedding, just so you know.
Jordan: I hope they’re friends.
Katie: Yeah, they are there, and like she said to me, we are all friends because we have to be. We all get along, she said you know it would be nice to choose your friends, but I can’t and so this is just what it is. Uh, she did tell me, though, like one of her closest friends is her cousin, who’s 21 years old and lives in the town. So that’s quite an age gap of a 14 year old, and a 21 year old. But you know, Tiffany loved it, and I was kind of surprised because I thought, you know, being a teenager in an isolated community, that might be something that would make you think like, oh, I want to be in a city, I want to be near the action, but Tiffany said that she just loved the peace of it. You know, she’s been to bigger places and she said, like, I don’t know if I was in a school with lots of kids like, I wouldn’t get the same sort of feeling that I get in Red Bay. You know, there’s no stress here, and that was a huge thing that they talked about in the school. There’s only seven of them so it’s kind of a collegial sort of atmosphere, like no one has to put up their hand to go to the bathroom.
Jordan: How do they handle that? Like in practice? Do they tell you how it works with, you know, different learning levels, obviously.
Katie: Yeah, so it’s like if you’ve ever been in, like, a split grade class, right? You know, the Grade 4’s, you’re gonna work on this while I teach the Grade 5’s this lesson. It’s like that, but writ large override from, you know, kindergarten to grade eight. So you know, you have to be good at being an independent learner but I also talked to one of the parents who said, you know, her son has really flourished in his environment because it’s like a private school. You’re getting like, one on one, you know, help. But then there’s problems, too, because, you know, if you’re teaching sex education to a great eight student and you’ve got a kindergarten, you know, in the class like, there’s
Jordan: There’s practical problems.
Katie: There’s practical problems, and gym is a problem. Same issue with the age gap. Tiffany told me that when they have gym days or gym classes where they’re going to do something that’s a little more intense, you know, the kindergarten student would go out with a student assistant and just bounce a ball. What one of the moms told me that
Jordan: I kind of want them all to play basketball together, for the record.
Katie: Well it’s really funny, because when I was in the park with them, it’s very cliche but I said, like, you guys don’t even have enough to field a baseball team, right? Because I remember being a kid and, you know, that was the fun part of gym, you go play soccer, baseball, you can easily make two teams. I never; It’s something I just assumed
Jordan: You didn’t even think about it.
Katie: I just assumed every kid had, um and so; and I grew up in a small town, so I get it but nothing like this. This is just a whole other world.
Jordan: What happens when Tiffany finishes Grade 8, and the other Grade 8 too, I guess.
Katie: It’s interesting this has changed since I was there, but when I was there in May, they basically told me that after Grade 8, you can only do your high school courses in Red Bay online through this distance learning course that the school district has. And so you log in and you go to live courses on the Internet. So there’s a teacher there, and you’re kind of plugged in through your computer and you can do this. You go to you know, Red Bay, it’s called Basque Memorial School, and you sit at your computer. So there’s that option or you could move. It actually kind of reminded me of like the Anne of Green Gables books, sort of series where like kids would go away to school, um, you know and leave communities, but that was not something she wanted to do at that point. She said I want to stay in Red Bay.
Jordan: And take the video classes.
Katie: Take the video classes. This is home, I’m gonna do it but since I’ve been there, um, the parent community has kind of come together and said, you know, we think it’s better if our older kids bus over to another community. It’s about an hour down the coast in Lhasa Lou, where there’s a school that has no more kids, maybe like 150 kids, but there’s, like, you know, high school teachers. So we bus three of them down, and that has been approved. So, Red Bay this year in the school, there will be four students, so it’s even fewer
Jordan: Oh cause the other ones are going off to high school.
Katie: The other ones are going off. Yeah, it’s like actually junior high…
Jordan: Are there any babies that are gonna join school?
Katie: Yes. I’ve got it on good authority that there are about seven children in the pipeline, which is huge. I was actually surprised by this, just because…
Jordan: I was not expecting to hear that.
Katie: Yeah. Doubling the the old population, so that’s in the next few years, you know, things could change and I know like in talking with the one parent who kind of spearheaded this plan, she was inspired by the fact that one student had moved away to this other community for high school and, you know, they were hearing about all the opportunity she had. She was playing sports, she was joining academic clubs, you know, she had all these friends and they wanted that for their kids.
Jordan: You mentioned that the mayor can’t imagine there ever not being a Red Bay. Just to ask the question, what happens if it keeps shrinking? Is there a threshold beyond which a town becomes unsustainable? And what happens then?
Katie: Yeah, so I spoke with The Provincial Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment, and they are the department that is in charge of community relocation, and what they do is they wait for a community to come to them and say, we can’t do this anymore, we’re interested in moving and it’s it’s done on a case by case basis. This has been a historic president in Newfoundland, Labrador, just because of the way the community has been scattered. It’s a province that’s been known for fishing, and that was the way that you did it, the economy of scale just made sense to have many people scattered around and have big families, and so much has changed since that was economically feasible. So now it’s this huge problem, and it has been for decades. And to bring your Joey Smallwood was kind of he’s kind of synonymous with this idea of relocation. A lot of it started happening in the fifties and sixties and seventies, and it; I mean even the mayor’s husband in Red Bay is from a relocated community just up the coast. Henley Harbor,
Jordan: Which is now no longer there.
Katie: So it’s interesting. It’s like a ghost town. It’s there, you can leave your buildings and it’s changed. In the past, in the fifties and sixties, people actually would move their homes. So there’s these incredible images in the archives of people putting their homes on like barges and floating them away. Um, you know to move somewhere else, but now the government says, you know, you can keep your home, you can go back, use it as a cabin, but just know that we’re not giving you any services. There’s no roads, you know, there’s no health care, there’s no garbage, there’s no electricity, and you’ll have to
Jordan: You’re living on the land.
Katie: You’re living on the land. So this is, you know, something that’s been going on for decades now. It is a process that has so many hoops to jump through. It takes years. You have to get your community onside, you have to meet a 90% threshold, jump through all these hoops.
Jordan: So what are, if anything, I guess the people in Red Bay doing to ensure that it won’t get to the place where they even have to contemplate that.
Katie: It’s a question of attracting industry, and it’s a question that’s really hard, I think, for them to answer. In talking to the mayor, she said, that’s what we need, but because of the remoteness of that place, it’s hard to attract industry there. It’s something that so many towns are grappling with and some of the geographers I talked to said if we knew this answer, you know we would happily give it out. Immigration is obviously a solution, but I think in the; So the economic region where Red Bay is, it’s called the Labrador Straits. It’s about 1600 people, and as of the last census, one geographer told me there’s about 20 to 30 people there, you know who have come from another country, so it’s not, you know, a booming place for immigration. You know, it’s a hard place to move to, right, because you are so far away and if you’re looking for those supports as a newcomer. You know, you can see why a City would be more attractive. I don’t know. It’s something that I was thinking about this all the time when I was there, because it’s this remarkable landscape, like really nice people, just beautiful place and it reminded me of a kind of, well, we were there when Game of Thrones was ending, and the landscape looks a lot like the north of Game of Thrones. Like you could see it; You know, I was even saying this to the mayor afterwards, being like, you know, I could just see this as like; You could get a film board here. You know, just in my own mind.
Jordan: Medieval period pieces are pretty popular right now.
Katie: They’re very hot right now, but, you know, she just kind of chuckled at me because, you know, I think all these ideas have been looked at probably by people. It’s just there’s so many
Jordan: You’re probably the 41st person to suggest that to the mayor. After seeing Game of Thrones, she’s like, I get it, yeah, we could be.
Katie: Yeah. You went on a hike up that hill. We get it. Okay, so no, it’s; The tourism is a big part of the solution I think, too but it’s so seasonal that it’s a problem.
Jordan: When you were there, because I know you went there to cover climate change and this story clearly made an impression on you, did you think about what your life would be like if you lived there or moving there or any of that?
Katie: Yeah, I think it’s human nature every time you go somewhere to picture yourself there, right? I would love the serenity of it, but I don’t know that, I could live in Red Bay. First off, I wouldn’t be able to probably find work.
Jordan: No local newspaper?
Katie: There are local newspapers for the region so maybe I could, you know, maybe I should move to Red Bay. It was really beautiful, but ah, for me, it’s just so far from everything I know, and it’s so remote that I just think I would bel I think the isolation is kind of appealing in some ways, but also kind of terrifying to me, just being that far away, and also it’s interesting, like all the things that you take for granted, even like Amazon delivery charges to a place like Red Bay are out of control, and like they all, Walmart has like a flat rate delivery fee. So, you know, there are ways to live there in, you know, 2019 that are very; You can get access to a lot of things that you couldn’t you know in earlier generations. But I did love it, like doing the interview, having an interview with the kids in the park that one night I went on the swings with Tiffany, and I just had so much fun, and I kind of felt a bit of freedom that I hadn’t felt, I don’t want to say in years because that sounds very sad, but I just felt very at peace there and I think a lot of people feel that. It’s just whether or not I could make that work long term I’m not sure.
Jordan: Do you know what terrifies me the most about it, because otherwise it actually sounds like an idyllic lifestyle. I don’t think I want to live somewhere where everybody knows who I am.
Katie: This is the thing. Tiffany said to me, you know, news travels fast here. If you screw up, people are gonna know about it. Um, you know, there’s no hiding from things, and yeah, you do have to kind of get along.
Jordan: If you get mad at your friend well that’s your friend.
Katie: I guess you’d have to, you know, make up with your friend pretty quickly because everyone has to come together and help out.
Jordan: Thanks, Katie.
Katie: No problem.
Jordan: Katie Daubs, reporter at the Star. That was the big story. You can find us at thebigstorypodcast.ca. That was our first episode ever on Newfoundland, it’s better late than never. Thanks for your patience. You can also talk to us on Twitter and complain about how late it was @thebigstoryfpn. You can find us at frequencypodcastnetwork.com, where you will also find a growing list of other awesome podcasts we would like you to check out, and you can find all of them wherever you get the podcasts on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, or on Spotify. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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