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A year after move to the mainland, former William’s Harbour residents reflect

The town of William’s Harbour seen during winter months while it was still settled.
The town of William’s Harbour seen during winter months while it was still settled. - Contributed

CHARLOTTETOWN, N.L. - It has been one year since George Russell hopped on his quad and made a lonely trip down to the power plant in William’s Harbour to permanently turn out the lights.

One year since George’s wife Louise packed up their last few belongings for their move to Charlottetown.

One year since they and the handful of remaining residents of the southern Labrador island community rambled up the gangway of the MV Marine Eagle to make the final three-hour crossing to Port Hope Simpson.

George and Louise and others have been back to William’s Harbour since then. He said it is like going back in time.

“Right now, everything is taken out of it,” he explained. “The contractor come in and took all the poles and took the hydro plant, so it’s right back to first when I moved out there 45 years ago. She’s pretty bare land there now, b’y; she’s back to what it was years and years ago.”

Mostly, they miss the sense of being one big family, Louise said, and the simple lifestyle.

“It was home,” she said. “Whatever I wanted to do, I’d just go and do it on me own. If you want to go berry picking, you just walk down the hill, pick a few berries.

“If you want fish, me and George, just outside from the harbour, there, you jig your fish, you come in, you have your fresh fish.”

When George Russell turned off the power at the hydro plant in William’s Harbour last year, it was a symbolic farewell to the community he called home for over 40 years.
When George Russell turned off the power at the hydro plant in William’s Harbour last year, it was a symbolic farewell to the community he called home for over 40 years.

Now, they have a place in Charlottetown, but their boat is in Port Hope Simpson, which gives them access to the island when they want to go back. George said it’s a big adjustment, particularly the expenses.

“Every time you moves, by gosh, it’s gas, gas, gas,” he said. “Out to William’s Harbour, all we had was an ATV and probably a drum of gas’d last you close to a year.”

There are some positives, though, which is why the aging population decided to take advantage of the Newfoundland and Labrador government’s relocation program in the first place.

“One thing about it, we’re close by a clinic,” George said. “When you need something, it’s nice to be close to a clinic.

“When you’re living in William’s Harbour, you’d see a nurse probably once or twice a year and that’d be it; you have to travel to Port Hope Simpson on a plane or by boat to visit a nurse.”

Abundant firewood is also a plus.

“William’s Harbour, we had to get wood come out on the ferry ’cause there’s no place on the island to cut wood. When the ferry come in the fall, everybody get their firewood come out for the winter.”

And home is still within reach.

“We spent the majority of the summer out there getting our salmon and codfish and berry-picking and what have you,” he said. “Everybody has their own generator, and you have to carry your own water by buckets and that.”

Lisa Dempster — who was the MHA for William’s Harbour when discussion about resettlement started back in 2013, and who still represents the area — said she knows it has been extremely difficult for the community members to relocate, but takes solace in the fact many were able to find new homes in neighbouring communities.

“In William’s Harbour, we were right on the water; it will be nice to be back on the water."

-Rosalind Russell

“It’s a similar lifestyle,” Dempster said. “It’s not home, it’s not where they grew up, but the beauty of it is I just ran into a bunch at the NunatuKavut annual general assembly and said ‘How are you making out, did you make it home this summer?’

“They said, ‘Oh, definitely, got a generator, spent a lot of time out back home getting my fish for the winter, picking my berries.’ So, I was pleased to hear they were able to still do that because I’m sure it was very good for their mental health.”

Rosalind Russell, who ran the store in William’s Harbour, said it’s been a long process.

“We’re not settled in yet,” she said, explaining she and her husband Freeman Russell are staying at their daughter’s apartment in Charlottetown waiting for their home in Port Hope Simpson to be finished. They had some problems with a contractor from the island and now have some local men and their sons working on it. They hope to move in by Christmas.

“In William’s Harbour, we were right on the water; it will be nice to be back on the water,” she said.

“It’s not too bad, I suppose, but it’s not like home."

-Louise Russell

Dempster said there are no other Labrador communities in imminent danger of relocating, but there are communities at risk, particularly Black Tickle, which faces many of the same conditions that preceded William’s Harbour’s demise.

The NunatuKavut Community Council, however, is actively seeking solutions to these issues. It commissioned an energy sustainability study for Black Tickle, Saint Lewis and Norman Bay. A preliminary report from the researchers is currently under review.

Meanwhile, the former residents of William’s Harbour have accepted the decision to leave was necessary and are adjusting.

“It’s not too bad, I suppose, but it’s not like home,” Louise said.

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