By Chris Brookes, Jamie Lewis and Berni Stapleton
They Let Down Baskets refers to the density of the schools of fish as seen by such early explorers as John Cabot when they tried to explain to doubtful merchants back in Europe the ease with which the fishery could be prosecuted in the New Found Land. For most of the following 500 years a good living could be extracted from the sea, some years better, some years worse, but at no time in those years was the ocean swept bare. That took place in the last 25 or 30 years. A few years ago a scientist stated that “we now have the technology to catch the last fish in the ocean … and I’m very much afraid that we will.”
“The Moratorium” are two words which in Newfoundland and Labrador have taken on a meaning all their own. People who once earned a good living and enjoyed a hazardous, though rewarding, lifestyle have been reduced to living on a series of retraining grants and make-work programs. Where once there was pride of accomplishment, there is a sense of loss and shame. Many people have been given the dubious choice of whether to eke out an existance at the poverty level in Newfoundland and Labrador, or move to Ontario or Alberta to eke out a living at a higher level of income support, with a correspondingly higher cost of living.
Three creative Newfoundlanders, without collaboration, set out to document the personal devastation brought about through the failure of the Newfoundland cod fishery. Berni Stapleton kept a journal of her experiences and the reactions of the fisher people of Newfoundland and Labrador to A Tidy Package, a two-woman play written and performed by Berni and Ami House. Jamie Lewis spent several years travelling among the fishers of the province, in their homes, on their boats, talking around the stagehead, documenting the close of the fishery on film. Chris Brookes prepared two half-hour documentaries for CBC radio, recording the hope and despair, the rage and frustration of a once productive people caught up in something much bigger than themselves.