Back Home on the Rock

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Fogo Island holds a number of delights — and some odd surprises.

We’d flown and driven to the northeast coast of Newfoundland for an end-of- summer holiday weekend. From there, it was a 45-minute ferry ride from the mainland to the island. A friendly local invited my husband and I on to the bridge to see the Captain steer the 65-car, multi-ton ship across the water. When the captain invited me to “take the wheel for a bit,” I did, assuming that bit would be for a couple of minutes.

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I was very wrong. In mouth-gaping disbelief, I proceeded to dock the ship on my own.  The captain, standing by but not reaching to relieve me of the task, mouthed, “MORE starboard! Faster! That’s it. Steady now — it’s backing itself in.”

“No kidding” was my retort, gushed with considerable relief and equal pride. And that was just the start to the weekend.

The Fogo Island Inn, closer to England than to Toronto, is the five-star hotel that’s also a community centre, a library, cinema, gym and conference centre. The Inn brings together Fogo locals (there are 2,700 of them) and the dusting of the ultra rich who can afford the $550 – $1,000 per night rates at the Inn (all meals included). It is the perfect place to go storm watching in November when the weather blows in from the Atlantic, and a lovely counterpoint to the Wickininish Inn which also offers luxury storm-watching in Tofino, 7,500 km due west on Vancouver Island.

A local girl, Zita Cobb, made wealthy in the high tech fiber-optic business in the 90s, cashed out in 2001 before turning 45. She sailed the world for awhile and eventually brought her money and business smarts home in an effort to help revitalize her birthplace. Young people have been leaving Newfoundland for decades. On Fogo the hardscrabble existence of cod fishing, based on barter and owing the merchants for a bare subsistence, was both labour-intensive and dangerous. That and the decline in cod fishing had pulled successive generations off the island to the western oil patch, the offshore oil rigs, and the construction crews of urban Ontario.

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Zita knew all this. She herself had responded to the siren call of an out of province university degree and proficiency in high tech. But it was her uncle Art’s death that brought her home to relive the values of her people, their rooted-ness in family tradition, loyalty and story. She and her brother had established scholarships for young, smart Fogoans to go to university, but one woman pointedly told her that yes it was fine what she was doing, but couldn’t she see that she was helping them leave.

“You seem smart enough” the woman had said. “Can’t you figure out a way to bring them home?”

And that is what she has been doing, establishing Shorefast, a charitable foundation that focuses on several things. The first is the world-class hotel at the end of the world, a blend of the old ways of knowing in a contemporary setting. It is a starkly modern take on the old fishing stage — a stilted wood shack perched on rocks, leaning into the wind, the first point of docking for the cod-laden boats. When the hotel opened in May of this year, its deed was turned over free and clear to the foundation.

Today, the foundation employs 65 islanders to service the inn but as we were to discover, it does much more than that. Zita is clear on one thing. If you are to stay the same, you have to change. Meaning that without a vital fishery, there is no story to share on Fogo. But that alone isn’t enough. Without the young people coming or staying home there is no way forward. Without entrepreneurial ideas and new starts, there is no change and no regeneration.

One of the most successful global models of urban revitalization involves artist communities that spring up in derelict neighborhoods because of cheap rent. They become homing grounds and gradually the supports that service them – the cafes, grocery stores, night-clubs and restaurants — emerge. That is what Shorefast is committed to regenerating on Fogo with its arts program initiatives. A new state of the art theatre resuscitates a retooled church. Artists’ studios sprinkle the landscape beside island villages and their from-outer-space architecture both arrests the eye and somehow maintains harmony with the ruggedness of the place.

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Shorefast also engages the services of community hosts, old-timers who have time to spare as most are retired and are by definition full of island lore and ready to spin a good yarn.

Marie Payne met her husband in Toronto when she was in her early twenties. Like her, he was Fogo-born, and it may have been as a result of their sharing between them twenty-five siblings that they didn’t really meet ‘til they were away. They came home and have never left again. Aubrey Payne has been a part of the Fogo Island Co-op through its history.

In the sixties, when Premier Joey Smallwood began to close the outports and move the villagers into urban centres, Fogo islanders rallied and established their own ship-building and production co-op. Even the genesis of the co-op had its roots in a unique collaboration in the early 60s between a Memorial University professor and the NFB that became as a series of TV documentaries on how communities with common problems can create common solutions – like how to keep fishing. Back then, there was barely a road connecting the tiny Fogo outports on the island. Those films and how they got made –quickly labeled The Fogo Process — are still emulated around the world by communities who need to take common action.

Even when the moratorium on cod fishing was declared in the 90s, the co-op simply moved over to catching shrimp and crab. The fisheries survived; the youth kept leaving.

Aubrey knows the cod stock is returning but he also knows that fishing for cod is way more arduous an undertaking than for shrimp. So he has another idea for the innkeeper, Zita Cobb. It is an experiment in a catch and release experience for visitors, and together Aubrey and Zita are working on a plan.

Another community host who put us in her car and guided us around the island is Helen who came home to Fogo after retiring as a teacher. She splits her time between working in the art gallery in another converted church in the town of Fogo and being a community host. That is when she is not out meandering. She considers herself a child of the ‘process’ and she enthuses about the benefits that came out of it for the islanders. A new high school was opened plunk in the middle of the island, where the RCMP and volunteer fire department are as well. It’s called Centre because no one could agree on a suitable name on this divot of rock whose communities are marked by such names as Joe Batt’s Arm, Seldom and Tilting.

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For Helen, the high school was the most critical change on the island in bringing Catholic and Protestant kids together. The geographical isolation of the villages was matched by the insularity of its four Christian sects. Helen herself was eight years old before she ever journeyed the eight miles down the road to Joe Batts Arm. She chats as she shows us the sights and the trailheads and suddenly, ahead on the road, there’s a caribou. Running down the road with hind legs flailing and a magnificent rack of horns on his head, he eventually descends into a roadside bog. We are ecstatic with the sighting, though the island does boast a herd of about 500 caribou. And Helen can also boast about another Fogo sighting these days — the new daycare, also a Shorefast micro loan initiative. As she says it’s a joy to hear the sounds of children laughing on the island again.

The next day we hike some of the most beautiful trails anywhere, and while we’re out we devour, then pick a litre of blueberries (the chef at the Inn vacuum-packs them for us to bring home). That night after dinner, we listen to Newfoundland fishing songs sung by the old-timers, and then at breakfast the next morning, we watch in wonder as a hundred or more dolphins leap and dive across the harbour.

But mostly we listen, to the stories told with such pride about place and roots and values, and above all, about coming home.


Dr. Jean Marmoreo, 70, is a Toronto physician, writer, adventurer and athlete. She placed first among women aged 70-74 moments before the fabled marathon was rocked by tragedy as multiple bombs exploded near the finish line. Read her account of the experience in “I Was There: Beyond the Bombs of Boston.”