An Outpouring of Oil Lifts Canada's Poorest Province

Oil is slowly transforming Newfoundland from the Appalachia of Canada to a North American copy of oil-rich Norway.

Oil platforms 200 miles offshore - closer to Ireland than to Chicago - are bringing hope to a place where the main industry, fishing, was severely restricted by the government in the early 1990s. The reason: the cod and other species disappeared from overfishing.

Now, oil has started flowing, leaving two faces of Newfoundland: the poverty of the fishing ports, and the new money of the big city.

"Newfoundland's economy will turn around sooner than people think," says Doug May, an economist at Memorial University in the provincial capital, St. John's.

"There are a lot of things at work here, from oil to people leaving the province. The economy is growing while the population is shrinking," he adds.

Mr. May says 22,000 people a year are leaving Newfoundland while 9,000 to 11,000 return.

Many of these people are coming home to retire, others are coming back to work.

One of them is Wayne Walters, son of a Newfoundland sea captain who headed to western Canada to work in the Alberta oil fields after earning his degree in geology from Memorial University.

Now he's back in Newfoundland, working three weeks on and three weeks off on the huge Hibernia oil platform.

"My father worked to send me to university so I wouldn't go to sea, and now look where I am," laughs Mr. Walters.

But it is far different work, running a drilling platform bristling with technology and with more than 200 people on board. Walters takes home more than $100,000 a year and is the prosperous face of the new Newfoundland.

Open the phone book in the capital city of St. John's and you'll see more listings for companies involved in the Internet than for those in the fishing business. The prosperity is starting to show in the big city. The harbor is crowded with cargo ships, the restaurants on trendy George Street are jammed on a Saturday night.

About 100 miles down the coast lies the town of Trepassey. In contrast to St. John's, there is little work here. The population has gone from 1,500 to 900 in the four years since the fish processing plant closed. It used to employ 350 people. Others worked on the deep-sea trawlers or small inshore boats that fished the cod almost to extinction.

"There aren't enough men here to make up an over-35 hockey team," says Aloysius Dean in the local hockey arena, where rival teams from the nearby towns of Portugal's Cove and Cape Race skate their way to a 4-4 tie.

His son, Devon, will play in the next game. And all four of his sons will lead a different life than the young people from past generations.

"One boy has gone to Alberta, another is in computer college in St. John's, Devon is at auto body school, and the other is a carpenter in St. John's," says Mr. Dean. "Anyone who stays here for the fishery isn't going to have much of a future."

Dean spent 15 years working on fishing trawlers off of Newfoundland's coast. Now he commutes more than 2,000 miles to work on a supply ship in the North Sea.

"It's eight weeks on and eight weeks off. I leave tomorrow for Britain," he says.

Dean thinks the fishing shutdown has a positive side, forcing him and his family to find other work. It also has young people staying in school.

"The dropout rate at the local high school used to be close to 30 percent," says Mary Walsh, who was the guidance counselor here but now works in St. John's. "The children would leave in grade nine or 10 to work in the fish plant. Now they know they have to stay in school."

Not everyone thinks technology and oil will replace fish.

"The fishery is the only thing that is going to revive the economy of Newfoundland," says Keith Halleran of Trepassey, as we walk through the plant which is now starting to fall apart. "What good is it for me to go back and finish high school? It's the fishery I know."

Mr. Halleran was once the mayor of Trepassey, but now he is away much of the time, teaching people the fishing business on a six month tour in South Africa, or spending weeks away fishing for shellfish off the coast of Labrador.

He longs for the days when he could walk from his house to the local dock to fish in his own small boat or in the deep sea trawlers that supplied the now derelict plant. But it looks as if that may never happen. While there will always be some fishing here, the oil industry is offering the most promise to build prosperity in Newfoundland.

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