Toronto, Canada
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Perched along Canada's windswept North Atlantic coast, the town of Little Bay Islands - population 51 - is a picturesque collection of brightly-painted fishing houses and narrow streets.

But on 31st December, the island town will shut down permanently under a government mandate following an overwhelming vote by residents, the provincial minister responsible for relocations said.

Little Bay Islands1

Michael Parsons watches the sunrise from Back Beach, Little Bay Islands, in Canada on 2nd November, 2019. PICTURE: Handout from Michael Parsons.

Today, residents in the tight-knit community are packing their belongings into U-Haul trucks and making the final preparations to shutter their homes, one long-time resident said.

Ferry services to the rest of Newfoundland and Labrador province, phone connections and electricity will stop at the end of the year.

"Being on an island off the coast of an island, there is some draw. It's hard to articulate."

- Little Bay Islands resident Michael Parsons.

Similar scenes – albeit with less immediacy – are playing out globally as billions of people move from rural areas into cities, according to UN data.

While such moves often make economic sense, culture, community ties, and a sense of place can be lost along the way, said 53-year-old Michael Parsons, who grew up in Little Bay Islands and doesn't want to leave.

"Being on an island off the coast of an island, there is some draw. It's hard to articulate," Parsons told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

"The beauty of the landscape; your connection with the ocean. I have travelled extensively and I have never felt pure contentment and peace as I have here. Every house is feet away from the ocean."

A decline in the fishing catch, the town's economic lifeblood, coupled with an aging population and the high cost of maintaining infrastructure in the remote settlement prompted residents to vote in favour of moving, said Jeff Webb, a history professor at Memorial University in the provincial capital, St John's.

Ecological changes, "perhaps climate change induced" and declining catches linked to overfishing underpin the community's need to move, he added.

"This not a Newfoundland particular thing; this is something happening throughout the world," Webb told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Many small communities no longer have an economic imperative to exist."

The Newfoundland and Labrador Government has provided $C8.7 million in financial assistance to permanent residents for the relocation, the province's Minister of Municipal Affairs and Environment said via email.

"The relocation of Little Bay Islands will result in savings to government of approximately $C20 million over 20 years," Minister Derrick Bragg told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Little Bay Islands2

View of Campbell’s Point taken from the Pole Hill at Little Bay Islands, Canada, on 18th November. PICTURE: Handout by Michael Parsons

Operating the ferry and maintaining public services in such a remote region are expensive.

The provincial government said it did not have data on how many other towns might have to move under similar circumstances. The national government referred requests for comment to provincial authorities.

Much of the financial assistance will be used for residents to rebuild their lives somewhere else, said Parsons, who worked as a software engineer in other parts of Canada before returning to the island.

While most people are packing up, generally to move to homes in other larger towns in the province, Parsons and his wife Georgina are staying put.

They purchased a skidoo to navigate the snowy terrain and have six deep freezers full of meat and fish, along with dried foods to last them through the winter months, he said.

He said they also invested about $C50,000 in a solar power system for their home, a propane stove, septic system, backup power generators, a satellite internet connection and "all the things you need to be off the grid on a remote island in the North Atlantic".

They plan to enjoy the solitude, go for winter hikes and read plenty of e-books when the bay is frozen over, he added.

"Depending on weather conditions during the winter, we will make periodic trips across the bay. If my wife gets cabin fever, she might make a trip to visit her friends," he laughed.

Despite the lack of services, however, several seasonal residents plan to return to Little Bay Islands during the summer, the minister said.

Other residents, and the municipal council, declined to talk about the relocation which has drawn international media attention.

"The council decided right from the beginning we wouldn't be doing interviews or talking on the matter," a spokesperson for the municipality told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, before hanging up.

The voicemail from Aunt Edna's Boarding House B&B, the main accommodation on the island, said it was booked for the rest of the season and its managers did not respond to requests for comment.

"It's bitter sweet. Even the people who voted to leave, they look at it as 'I would have to leave anyways in a few years and it's a good opportunity to get some government help to do that,'" Parsons said.

"It's heartbreaking for people to pack up and leave the only home they've ever known."