Matthew Derek holds memories of his hometown of Gaultois, N.L., close to his heart.
Around Christmas time, the community would come alive with decorations, the light bouncing off the water.
“It was gorgeous,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview Thursday.
When Derek attended university, he moved to St. John’s and eventually found jobs in the automotive and tourism industries. His parents still live in the remote town he describes as a traditional Newfoundland village.
“Now, when I go home, just vacant properties, the town’s dark, and that really breaks my heart,” he said.
Gaultois is located on Long Island, one of Newfoundland’s rural islands off the southern coast. Ferry, helicopter or personal watercraft are the only ways to access the community.
Gaultois is at an important juncture in its history: some residents have signalled to the provincial government for the Community Relocation program.
The controversial program asks residents to vote on whether they would relocate if the government provided compensation. Historically the program needed more than 90 per cent of the residents to vote in favour of relocation.
Derek recalls in the 2010s a vote for relocation occurred, but not enough residents wanted to leave. This year, the government lowered the threshold to 75 per cent.
A preliminary vote this month saw more than 75 per cent of the eligible respondents wanting to relocate. An official vote has not yet taken place.
Derek recalls growing up in a friendly and welcoming community, but with the looming threat of relocation, he says the town is divided now.
“It’s a shame,” he said. “Since the initial vote of expression of interest…the general mood, (it’s like) a grey cloud hovering over our heads.”
According to Statistics Canada’s 2021 Census, 100 people are living in the former fishing village.
Jane Pitfield, the owner of the Gaultois Inn, told CTV’s Your Morning she is disappointed there are no solutions to save the town.
“I think that the government is showing absolutely no creativity,” she said Thursday. “I think that it is a drastic measure.”
Hydro will be cut off if resettlement is achieved and ferry access will cease. Pitfield believes there could be business opportunities if the province invested in the community.
Pitfield splits her time between Gaultois and Pontiac, Que., where she is currently a Pontiac Regional County Warden.
“This particular outport is unique, it’s historic, and it’s probably one of the most beautiful,” Pitfield said of Gaultois. “It is a mountainous island in the heart of the fjords.”
She says the island’s worth keeping accessible.
“There are (tourists) looking for unique places where they can engage with Newfoundlanders and that’s not in St. John’s,” she said. “To completely close it up just because they (the province) don’t want to pay ferry service anymore, I think is wrong.”
Pitfield said she is putting out feelers in Quebec, for opportunities to grow the Gaultois economy and attract young families.
Derek believes boosting tourism could help build the community up again.
“If anything, it would be nice to see more government investment in smaller towns, particularly in poor communities,” he said. “Tourism is not going to (singlehandedly) save our small towns, but it’s where we can capture the most business potential.”
Pitfield says relocation is such an emotional topic, some residents have decided to stay on the island no matter what the government does, with plans to live off-grid using solar electricity and their own boats for transportation.
“There’s a song that says you can take the boy out of the port, but never take the port out of the boy,” Pitfield said.
With files from the Canadian Press