Hope springs eternal in Black Tickle
June 2nd, 2021
BY RICHARD LEWIS
Its human nature to keep on hoping, even if at times it seems like all the odds are stacked against you.
The odds have been stacked against the Southern Inuit community of Black Tickle for almost 30 years now, since the cod moratorium was announced in 1992. The moratorium instantly eliminated the livelihood of about 30,000 people across the province, and crushed the economic backbone of Black Tickle.
At the height of the cod fishery, Black Tickle was a booming community of about 3000 during the fishing season. Since the moratorium, there’s been a steady decline in population – most recent estimates put the number at 82 residents – and with the residents have gone businesses, services, and, for some, any hope of a rebound. It’s been a vicious snowball effect that with each departure has become harder and harder to stop, or even slow down.
The challenges faced by the community and its residents have been well documented by everyone from The Globe and Mail (twice), to CTV, to CBC. One look at the article titles tells you about all you need to know. A Town on Death Row. Dark clouds roll in over Black Tickle. Fuel shortage could mean deadly winter.
While these articles are mostly well-written and based on facts, the underlying negative tone has contributed to a public perception of the community that has made efforts to slow down the economic downturn an uphill battle to say the least.
Close to Home
This narrative even influenced my own thinking when presented with the prospect of working with the community to help stimulate its economy. Despite growing up just 100 kilometers away in the community of Cartwright and knowing many residents personally, I was hesitant at first to take on the project because of the challenges the community has faced and my own fear of failure. I quickly realized, however, that despite the challenges this is exactly the type of project I envisioned when launching Indigrow.
Of course, having ties to the community – my Mother also grew up in the neighboring fishing community of Batteau – meant there was at least some level of emotion that played a factor in this decision. But beyond family ties, the people of Black Tickle are among the most genuinely caring and friendly people you’ll meet anywhere. As well, the remaining residents possess many desirable traits that I seek in clients: passion, dedication, resilience, they’re fiercely proud, and, yes, a little bit stubborn.
Before we even received the green light on the project, I was already more than a little emotionally invested. After all, it’s easy to care and root for an underdog and Black Tickle is exactly that.
Black Tickle Strong
The Black Tickle Strong project is the latest in a number of initiatives spearheaded by the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) in an effort to support its most vulnerable communities. The goals of the project are to explore options to stimulate the local economy by adding employment while also improving the well-being and standard of living of its residents.
At the start of the project, I was uncertain of how the community would respond. We don’t need your help was one of many responses I played in my head before making that first contact with Joe Keefe, Chairperson of the Local Service District. But I couldn’t have been more wrong, and as I made the calls to other community leaders I was surprised that the conversations were rife with excitement, optimism, and hope.
I know now that I was severely underestimating the resilience, dedication, and fight of the eighty or so residents that remain. These are the same people that have stayed with no gas or heating oil available in the community, with major food and heat security challenges, and in many cases with a lack of running water and sewer.
On the Ground
After some initial groundwork and virtual meetings with community leaders, I spent the week of May 17th in Black Tickle. Getting into the community was extremely important and provided insight into the challenges faced by residents that would not have been possible otherwise.
Among them, I could not confirm a flight in or out because the only way is via a medical flight that understandably has to take medical passengers first. I then had to pay over $150 in overweight fees in part because there are limited groceries available and I had to take enough food for 10 days in case of flight delays. Once there, meeting space with internet wasn’t available so we hosted the workshops in the living room of the house provided by NCC. I also had to get someone to haul water while there so I could shower, wash clothes and dishes. I’m not highlighting these challenges to complain – I can genuinely say I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Black Tickle and can not wait to get back – but to help you understand the challenges I faced as a visitor, which don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the challenges faced by residents.
Our approach to economic development for Black Tickle is two-fold. Firstly, we want to gain a better understanding of our internal and external environment: the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the community. We then explore how to leverage community strengths to realize opportunities and mitigate threats, and which weaknesses need to be addressed to realize opportunities and to mitigate threats. Trust me when I say that this sounds much easier than it is. It requires an honest assessment of the current state of the community, and to do this effectively requires difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations.
Secondly, we want to equip a group of community leaders with the skills and knowledge to action economic development initiatives. This will be realized through development and delivery of a series of community development workshops, among them are Community Governance, Community Leadership, Leadership Skills Development, Building Partnerships, and Project Management. While Indigrow will be available to assist the group as needed over the coming months, the goal is to build capacity within the community and get them pulling in the same direction for the benefit of the community as a whole.
The analogy I used was that of a good hockey team. Think Toronto Maple Leafs of the regular season, not playoffs (sorry, I couldn’t resist) – we need to be greater as a team than the sum of our parts. A community the size of Black Tickle is essentially like a big family, and anyone with a large family will tell you how difficult it can be to get everyone on the same page. In theory the size of the community itself should be one of Black Tickle’s biggest strengths, but in reality it was a weakness that needed to be addressed if we are to take the next step.
While there is still much work to be done, the engagement of residents to date has been nothing short of incredible and a testament to the passion they have for their community.
The First (Big) Step
The NunatuKavut Community Council has been instrumental to the very survival of Black Tickle over the past several years, committing hundreds of thousands of dollars to various community initiatives including this very project.
NCC is also spearheading the development of a gas and fuel social enterprise in the community which will provide residents with consistent access to gas and diesel for the first time since 2017. Indigrow is developing the business operations plan for the gas and convenience store, and there are still hurdles to clear but all parties are optimistic that a fall opening will be possible.
For Black Tickle, this is more than just a matter of convenience. A reliable source of fuel and gas means being able to travel by snowmobile to cut firewood to heat their homes, or to heat their homes directly with heating oil if they so choose. It means being able to go out on the land to hunt and fish to feed their families. It means not having to worry about where you’re going to get the money to stock up on gas and fuel in the fall to get you through the long, harsh winters.
With the gas and fuel station will come a couple of full-time, seasonal positions. But the value to the community as a morale boost – and hopefully a launching point for future development – is far more valuable than the jobs themselves. For the first time in 30 years there will be a service brought back to the community.
Hello, Old Friend
To the surprise of many, cod has returned to Black Tickle. According to the Labrador Fisherman’s Union Shrimp Company, over 850,000 pounds were landed in the community in 2020 and they expect that to rise to over 1 million pounds this year.
While this is still a stewardship fishery designed to allow individual license holders to test their beliefs in the cod stock, 14 people held seasonal employment dockside offloading cod and a half dozen others are harvesting up to 100,000 pounds per season. As a result of the cod boom, the annual Community Employment Project (known locally as the ‘make work project’) budget was reduced by 75% last year and was its lowest in over a decade. Even with a new cod processing facility opening in Mary’s Harbour this year, there is reason to believe the potential exists for more seasonal positions in the cod fishery.
In addition to positions for residents, the return of cod stocks has meant dozens of harvesters and their families flock to Black Tickle and surrounding fishing communities in August and September, bringing with them a spinoff boost to the local economy which plays a pivotal role in the viability of the gas and fuel social enterprise.
While early efforts will be focused on the gas/fuel station and the return of cod, many other opportunities were identified to explore for future development.
Most intriguing, at least from an economic development perspective, is a potential mine development near the community. It is still in the prospecting phase but drilling samples have returned positive results and further drilling is planned for this summer. A second prospecting group out of Quebec spent time in the region last summer and interestingly has purchased a house in the community. Mining is something to keep an eye on, and should one ever get to development it would change the future of Black Tickle almost overnight. Of course, mining is a complex issue in and of itself but the potential from an economic development perspective is promising.
Other opportunities in the parking lot for future exploration include bakeapples (everyone knows Black Tickle has the best bakeapples), a commercial greenhouse development, SmartICE, Black Tickle’s unique access to icebergs (iceberg water is a hot commodity), and several others.
Strong Black Tickle
Early in the week, our discussions mostly centered around challenges faced by the community over the past 30 years. Transportation infrastructure and frustration with the ‘boat plane’ was a common theme, as was fuel and gas, among many others.
But as the week went on, more and more we discussed the unique and exciting opportunities Black Tickle has in front of it and how, in some ways, the community has never been positioned better for success – in large part due to the work, capacity and desire of NCC to make a difference in its most vulnerable communities.
We started to envision the opening of the gas and fuel station this fall, the addition of a handful of seasonal jobs in the rebounding cod fishery, and the potential development of a mine a few years down the road. For the first time, the future of Black Tickle was referenced in a positive light.
There’s a saying that hope is the last thing ever lost. But with a well-equipped leadership team in the community now working together to develop meaningful opportunities, there is reason to believe that, for the first time in a long time, there’s more than just hope for Black Tickle.
We admire your work. It is exactly what is needed. Wealth is between our ears (our minds) and we can liberate ourselves by using our minds, courage, skills, and persistence. You have shown up at the perfect time in Labrador and indigenous history.