The town of Seldom (pop. 444) hangs at the bottom of Fogo Island, off the northeast of Newfoundland. Before the nomadic French fishermen arrived in the 16th century, Beothuk Indians lived throughout Newfoundland (they became extinct in 1820). Following the French were waves of Europeans, mostly English and Irish, and it is their descendents who live in towns such as Seldom, Little Seldom, Tilting (home to what might be North America’s oldest Irish cemetery) and Joe Batt’s Arm. To get to Fogo, you take the ferry 45 minutes from Farewell, Newfoundland.
Seldom is as small as a village can be and still be called a village. At a barbecue last Father’s Day, the community hall was filled with women, children and the odd man. I was told all the fathers were away fishing or out west in the Alberta oilfields.
It was in Seldom that I met a woman, Ivy, who moved as a child from another nearby island. She is just one of thousands of people who moved admit government resettlement programmes. I visited Seldom last June and made my way over to Ivy’s house to ask her about the experience. —Craille Maguire Gillies, London
Ivy greeted me warmly, and led me into her small, dark house. She had a short, broad body and a grandmotherly hospitality. Her husband, Aaron, was eating a bowl of soup at the kitchen table when I arrived and looked up to greet us hello.
Ivy led us through the kitchen and dining room to a sunken living room with a large window overlooking the street. Aaron’s electric guitar was propped in the corner, and pictures of their grandchildren decorated the mantel.
She disappeared into the back of the house and returned a few minutes later with a folder of newspaper clippings and old photos. She sunk beside me on a flowery velour sofa and leafed through playbills for the theatre group Aaron performed with. Such folders are stowed in closets and spare bedrooms throughout Newfoundland. They have stories from local newspapers about reunions at abandoned communities and anniversaries. Newfoundlanders are a population of archivists, a people who do not forget their history.
Ivy’s family moved from Indian Islands not far from Seldom, in the late fifties when she was fourteen. “Hindian H’islands”, she said, with an accent that sounded like she was from Ireland by way of Alabama.
Every year, more people moved to the much larger Fogo Island to set up new fishing premises. By the time Ivy’s family towed its home across the water there were only nine students in the school. “You see this,” she said, flipping to a page with a photo of the harbour at Indian Islands. The photo was in Uprooted People, a book of local history by her cousin. It was taken in 1988 at the thirtieth anniversary of resettlement, when one thousand people returned – far more than had ever lived there at one time. “We had a service at the war memorial,” Ivy said, leaning forward on the sofa, “and this is where the boats came in. Oh, it was a wonderful time,” she said.
Aaron sat on the steps to the living room. He was recovering from a knee replacement three weeks earlier, and he occasionally he rubbed his swollen right knee. He pulled himself up two steps on his good leg, to retrieve an acoustic guitar from the dining room. When he returned, he sat down, guitar on knee, and fiddled with the strings. Every now and then he interjected to give an extra detail or finish Ivy’s thought.
"Do you want something to eat?” Ivy asked.
“A cup of tea? Some supper,” said Aaron.
“You can have some tea, have some soup,” said Ivy.
(Later, after inhaling an inferior burger from a takeout restaurant attached to a convenience store, I regretted begging off the meal.)
Ivy’s family was one of the last to leave Indian Islands. “We didn’t want to go,” she said, “but we didn’t have a choice. Now for me, I was fourteen, it was exciting. But many years later I looked back and realised that I never saw my friends ever again. They went all over.”
“To Lewisporte, Clarenville, all over,” Aaron said.
Ivy’s mother ran a general store on Indian Islands, and she tried to start another in Seldom, but it didn’t work out. “It killed my mother,” she said of the move. “Not right away, but she was never the same.” Aaron nodded in agreement. This was something I heard a few people say—their parents were never the same again.
Aaron tuned his guitar while Ivy talked. “Well, I’ve lived here for fifty years,” she said, “but when it comes to my childhood, the home that I think of would be Indian Islands. But we’ve been married forty-four years, so this is my home. But the memories are still there.” This ambivalence was common among the people I met.
She thought for a moment. “So home is here, but home is there … home is not there for me anymore.”
Aaron had continued to finger the strings on his acoustic guitar, and he began to play Outport People, a folk song from the 1970s. It was a time many musicians reflected, often with bitterness toward the government, on the resettlement programme.
“They’re outport people with outport ways/ But there’s nowhere to use them and now it’s too late,” he sang with a strong, clear voice. “And they curse on the one who uttered the phrase/ Resettlement now while resettlement pays.”