Newfoundland cod, community gardens, and our fading social memory

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By Roderick Benns

Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Advocate. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, he has written several books including Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.

The fisheries is still a genuine way of life, socially and economically. Photo: Roderick Benns.

A stinging, light rain is in the air in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland. The fishing trawler edges to the dock and there is a bustle of activity. One man is below deck organizing the day’s catch while another man, above, eases a basket of cod from the belly of the boat. Two other men are on the dock, swapping stories. I’m there, too, out of place and taking some photos at their invitation.

Here in one of the oldest communities in all of North America, just four miles away from Cape Spear, I am in awe of this traditional way of life.

Ron is 63 and it’s clear the northeastern Atlantic winds have shaped every line in his face. Pete is 49, sporting a caterpillar mustache and prescription sunglasses. A cigarette hangs out of his mouth and he laughs easily. “The Ontario supermarkets don’t sell them fresh like this, b’y,” Ron says with a laugh.

The fisheries on our east coast represent a genuine way of life, socially and economically, albeit for less people. They haven’t forgotten how to survive in their traditional ways.

What about us, here in rural Ontario? How many of us in Kawartha Lakes still have the skill or inclination to grow a vegetable garden? How many of still have the social memory, passed down generation after generation, to learn how to preserve food over the long winters?

For Ron and Pete in Petty Harbour it was corporations that nearly put them under. Great multinational fish companies, working every day of the year, dragging unforgiving nets through the ocean and enveloping every living creature in their way.

Corporations play a role here, too, in a different way. They have taught us that our food comes from Aisle 3 or 7 and that our vast supply chains, connected by millions of trucks, will bring it conveniently to us. While that is reality for the vast majority of us, it’s great to see more community gardens here. Perhaps our inclination to be more in touch with our roots, literally, will manifest again for more of us. Perhaps one day we will slow down once again and remember how food is created.

The last basket of cod is off the boat now and I suggest to Ron and Pete it must be great to know the food they’re eating was just caught that morning. Pete nods vigorously and drags hard on his cigarette. “It’s the only thing safe to eat as far I’m concerned — what we can catch out there,” he says, nodding into the deep Atlantic. “I eat this cod every day of my God-damned life. Had it yesterday for lunch and dinner and I’ll do the same today.”

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