Places

McCallum, N.L., an outport community caught between staying and going

First settled in the 18th century, McCallum is home to just 45 people and only accessible by boat on the southern coast of Newfoundland

  • Published Oct 10, 2023
  • Updated Dec 12
  • 2,910 words
  • 12 minutes

On the counter of Fudge’s Store on the McCallum waterfront sits one beauty of a scale. It’s high-gloss white with a little rust around the edge of the pan. Over the years, it’s become more than a mere official instrument of Canada’s weights and measures.

A smile peeks from behind Michelle Durnford’s mask as she describes how people used to bring babies to the store to weigh them.

The community of McCallum is accessible only by boat or helicopter.
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She was one of them. On the wall of the store is a photo of her little toddler self sitting beside the Dayton Money Weight, a grin on the face of her father, Howard Fudge, the scale’s (and store’s) original owner.

Brenda Nash, Durnford’s older sister, nods in agreement. “Some people would bring their babies in every month.” Perhaps not exactly by the books, but such is life in McCallum, a community accessible only by boat and home to just 45 people, according to the 2021 census.

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and the ferry will arrive in a few minutes. Nash and Durnford will head down to the wharf with a hand cart to offload cases of dry goods and produce. They’ll joke with the crew, just as someone in their family has done for nearly 60 years.

Storm-lashed by the North Atlantic, Nash and Durnford’s place is often cut off from transportation. Their work is a big part of what keeps the lights on, here, along one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s most isolated stretches of coastline, where — yet again — whole communities are considering whether to leave and how to stay.

The community of McCallum, looking down from the high barrens north of the community. St. Peter’s All Grade school is pictured on the right. Flat land is rare in McCallum, so the school field was built on a platform.
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Though you can stream the latest blockbuster in McCallum, getting here in person is not as easy. From St. John’s, you drive 600 kilometres — a third of that down the only road in or out — to Hermitage and catch the ferry. You hope for a northerly wind because if it comes from the south, you may be reintroduced to your breakfast.  

Soon enough, you pull up to the government wharf. A few dozen bungalows and biscuit box houses cluster around the harbour. There are no cars because there are no roads. The cries of gulls fill your ears.

Fudge’s Store co-owner Michelle Durnford pictured in front of the storyboard telling the history of her family’s store.
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The community was first settled in the 18th century and, at the time of Newfoundland’s first census in 1836, it was home to 63 residents, most of whom worked at the cod and salmon fisheries. It’s had a church and school since the late 1880s.

But a few short years after Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949, then premier Joey Smallwood, elected on a modernization platform, began scrutinizing outports such as McCallum, whose population around this time was just over 80 people. These outports were situated along coastlines, traditionally in places with access to good fishing grounds. But to Smallwood’s government, they seemed scattershot and expensive to provide with services: people would need to leave the outports and move into larger towns for health care and education and look for wage jobs. Thus began a program of moving nearly 30,000 Newfoundlanders out of 300 communities.

In 1969, the town of Pushthrough, a whistle stop east of McCallum, became one of those communities, with households receiving a few thousand dollars to leave. McCallum was also targeted for resettlement. In 1960, economist Robert Wells described the town in three terse lines: “Earnings in this settlement are consistently low, as is the standard of living. According to reports, the living space is severely restricted. In addition, there is the isolation common to the area.”

McCallum refused the package.

For years it seemed the resettlement issue had largely faded away, lingering only in the minds of families, historians and artists. The province seemed to be largely staying out of where islanders should live, allowing demographics and economics to dictate the drift of people in and out of small outports.

That started to change in 2009.

View from the ferry on the approach to the McCallum harbour.
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Just as the citizens of Pushthrough were debating whether to leave in the mid-60s, Howard Fudge began work on a dry goods store in McCallum.

It would become McCallum’s second. The community already had Riggs & Sons but with a young family, Fudge needed a way to stay home from the fishing boats that took him away to Nova Scotia for months at a time.

“I think it started out to be mostly groceries,” Brenda Nash recalls. “Vegetables. And mostly back then it was just bare vegetables: potatoes, turnip, carrot, cabbage and onion. Apples, oranges, bananas, and sometimes grapes. I can remember having apples by the barrel. And I think he used to sell ginger snap cookies. Cream crackers loose from a box.” They branched out into general goods in the ‘70s.

Staying had not been Nash’s plan necessarily. After finishing Grade 10, when her mother was heavily pregnant with Michelle, Nash moved away to finish school in Port aux Basques, 200 kilometres by coastal boat and a world away. It was the first week of September. She landed at 2 a.m., was taken to a boarding house — and didn’t see home again until December.

Monica Kidd’s daughters catching significant hang time jumping into the wind above McCallum
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Nash stayed in Port aux Basques for vocational school, eventually getting a job there as a bookkeeper. When that job ran its course a few years later, she came home to McCallum and met her future husband, Guy, who was teaching at the school. Several cousins were already working for her father at the store by then, so she went to work on an accounting certificate from Memorial University in St. John’s through distance learning.

Durnford never really intended to take over the store either. She finished high school in McCallum in 1993, then moved into St. John’s to go to university. She lived there for several years, earning a degree in psychology and a criminology certificate. The summer she finished, she came home for a rest, went to work in the store and started going out with Deon Durnford from high school. The rest is history.

Howard Fudge taught his daughters endless tricks in the store — how to estimate a pound of bologna, how to cut down a cardboard box to a custom size. Taking over the store from their father happened gradually. Their mother had been after him to retire for some time, but he had built the business with his own hands and leaving was hard.

Nash remembers her father lugging freight up to the hilltop store, sometimes on his back, over ice-covered rocky paths. “I can picture Dad, 1 o’clock in the morning … coming up the road with a case of milk under this arm and a sack of sugar under the other.” They moved to their current waterfront location in 2008.

Howard Fudge passed away in 2018 and after that, the sisters were on their own in the store. In 2022, their mother moved away to be closer to health care. Many people of her generation do this. A nurse practitioner comes to McCallum once a month — “If we’re lucky,” Durnford says. All other times, residents must call in and hope to get a telemedicine appointment; the number is scribbled on a piece of paper tacked to the store’s bulletin board.

Though 16 years separates them, the sisters finish each other’s sentences. Nash’s two kids are in St. John’s; her daughter is an engineer, her son a medical student. Durnford’s son, in Grade 11, is the only school-aged kid in town. Last year Michelle found out at the last minute the school board had no teacher to send, so she had to scramble to figure out how he could do all of his courses online.

And she did. Because they weren’t going anywhere.  

A slipway at high tide in the McCallum harbour, looking back at the government wharf where the ferry docks.
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In 2009, the province introduced another community relocation program. Towns interested in resettlement could apply to the province, and if a cost analysis showed relocation would save money in the long term, and if a strong majority of residents favoured the move, then cheques would be cut. 

The policy has been through several iterations since then. In 2013, the amount paid to those leaving almost tripled, to $270,000 for a household of three or more. In 2016, those who stayed would no longer receive services such as electricity, municipal water, mail, and had to be prepared to live off-grid. The definition of residency was also scrutinized. Then, 2021 saw another change: instead of the 90 per cent majority required to move, the threshold was lowered to 75 per cent.

Since the policy changes in 2021, the province has received inquiries from Wild Cove on the Baie Verte Peninsula, Tilt Cove and and Cottrell’s Cove in Notre Dame Bay, as well as three communities on the south coast: La Poile, and the two communities on either side of McCallum, Gaultois and Francois. Votes were held in 2021 in Francois and in 2023 in Gaultois. Both proposals were defeated. The 2023 vote in Tilt Cove had unanimous support, so the province will now consider their request for support to leave. 

Sisters and business partners Michelle Durnford and Brenda Nash, hustling to offload their freight from the passenger ferry.
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Both born and raised in Francois, Ross and Marie (nee Durnford) Fudge (no relation to the Fudges and Durnfords up the coast) circled each other on how long they would stay. They were involved in everything in Francois. Ross was on the fire brigade, and Marie was with the Anglican Church Women. They were both in the darts league.

Her whole life, Marie swore she’d never leave. But things changed when fishing started going downhill in the ‘90s. If Ross lost his job with the fish-buying company, he’d have to go west and Marie worried they’d never see each other. One day in 2003 she came home from work crying.

“I was done,” Marie says. “I didn’t want to scrimp and save every time you turn around, afraid to spend a dollar because you didn’t know where your next penny was going to come from.” She told her husband she wanted to move to Corner Brook and finish high school. She was 43 years old and Ross was 45. Their son Damian had already moved away and their daughter Alicia was going into Grade 12.

By that time, Ross had made peace with living out his days in Francois. They owed no money on the home they had built themselves. Now they’d have to leave with nothing. His first thought was: God, what am I going to do now? Then: I guess we’ll take a chance. We sure as hell won’t starve.

They left that August. They moved into an apartment next to the plant manager at Barry Seafoods, who offered Ross a job. Twenty years later he still works there, now as a supervisor. Marie and Alicia both finished high school and became nurses.

Marie misses the house they built next to the waterfall in Francois. She misses the front window where she’d sit for hours in the evenings looking out at the Miquelon lighthouse. But while Francois will always be home, they would never go back to live there. They still visit when they can.

The year they left, 11 others went too. Marie understands the resentment the community showed. “Why would you go to St. John’s or Grand Bank or Halifax if you had this?… But when it came our turn, then we saw.”

Blow Me Down, a 390-metre granite face rising out of Devil Bay, between Francois and McCallum.
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Sixty-eight-year-old Ivan Lushman is broad-chested and wears a perpetual smile aboard his 22-foot speedboat, Clearwater. On this July evening he sits with the sun on his face, long shadows creeping across The Friar, an imposing rock wall that overlooks Francois. He met me here today after a two-and-a-half hour run in his boat from Burgeo, where he was born and raised.

Even before Newfoundland joined Confederation, people have needed to leave in order to stay. It’s what Lushman did most of his working days. He’s worked on the water at fishing, and onshore in the fish plant; he’s done carpentry and gone away to Alberta to do seismic work. “We’re all hands on. And that’s for everybody from La Poile, right on down the coast. You had to. There was no other choice.”

Until about 40 years ago, Lushman says, Burgeo was a place very much like Francois, defined by its lack of road access. A coastal boat would bring supplies every Sunday evening (and sometimes Thursday). But even now, with the road and a thousand residents, he says, Burgeo can still feel isolated. The nearest RCMP officer is more than two hours away.

MV Terra Nova, a 30-person passenger and freight ferry, making the run from Gaultois to Hermitage.
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Now that he’s retired, Lushman loves showing the place to people like me. He’s come to know every bay along this coast. “When I go into these places,” Lushman says, “my eyes light up like a little kid’s on Christmas morning… It blows me away, my God.” And more than the beauty, he respects how people lived here. How they continue to live here.

But resignation creeps into his voice when he talks about the future. While inhabiting a particular geography is what allowed communities like Francois and McCallum to evolve into something singular, it is also perhaps their greatest vulnerability. Lushman has watched communities pull stakes and leave — nearby Grand Bruit resettled in 2010 — and there may be  a time when even Burgeo will contemplate relocation.

“Guys go over on lobster plants,” he says, “or going around to apple farms in Annapolis Valley… And most of the women go with their men… Just come home for summer vacation.”

Deatra Walsh knows these stories very well. She studied labour mobility for her PhD in sociology and has been on her own “trajectory through precariousness,” moving for school and work from her hometown of Lewisporte to St. John’s, with stops in New Brunswick, Nunavut, Norway.

“It’s easy to leave,” she says, “and hard to stay.”

Walsh says that in the ‘80s and ‘90s “being from here was the most embarrassing thing you could imagine.” Her father tried to soften her central Newfoundland accent because he didn’t want people to laugh at her.

“That thinking was common…If you wanted to make something of yourself, there was no way you could do it here. We’ve been embedded in a discourse of decline for a long, long time,” she says.

These ongoing resettlement questions trouble her. “We’ve understood ourselves as ‘resilient,’” she says. “But it’s almost like [that resiliency] is wrapped up in a hardship comes from structural inequality… People are resilient only because you’ve made it practically impossible for them to live.”

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“We’re not valuing people and places because they’re aging anyway,” she says. “But what if we went out of our way to support people? Questions about guaranteed basic income and public transit and health care might have different answers… Thinking about who we are right now is really important.”

Lushman knows there’s no getting a community back once it’s gone. Once you lose a few key services — the post office, the ferry, the store — that’s it. Nothing left but bringing in tourists to wring their hands over what once was.

“If Burgeo and Francois close out, just as well put my ashes in a bottle,” he says. “This might be rough, but it’s what I call living. Everybody looks after each other… People from here, if you put them in a city, it’s just like you took them out back and shot them.”

A calm evening in Francois, N.L.
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The fin of a 2-metre sunfish pokes above the water in front of the tender Ivan Lushman tows behind his boat, Clearwater, on the south coast of Newfoundland.
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Back in McCallum, sisters Brenda Nash and Michelle Durnford know very well that running the town’s only store is about looking after each other. There are special requests for Christmas. The workers at the aquaculture site in the next bay often leave early in the morning and will sometimes leave their grocery list with some money stuck in the door.

But it can be hard. Striking a balance between keeping a good selection and selling things before their best-before date is an art. And while there’s always been mail order, there’s never before been a thing like Amazon. Seeing people get their groceries from elsewhere is a struggle, says Durnford. “Dad found that really tough… When you did it for them for years, right?”

The community continues to face several layers of isolation. Everything comes by boat: people, groceries, mail, building supplies, medications, ice to pack the fish. Some even import drinking water. To get to the ferry, goods first have to come down the Bay d’Espoir Highway — the only road in or out. In July 2022, a 5,000-hectare forest fire closed it for more than two weeks.

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to think the fish could come back, or that people could find another way to flourish here with the wants and needs of the 21st century. But as political scientist Isabelle Côté writes, “How can one put a value on non-monetized thing likes the loss of culture and ties to ‘place’?” How do you compensate for the loss of connection?

McCallum asked the province about relocation in 2014; 74 per cent of the town’s residents voted in favour of proceeding with a cost analysis. The majority wasn’t strong enough to trigger the next step, so the query was laid aside. If there is a next time, the vote could go the other way. 

But for as long as they’re here, Nash and Durnford plan to keep their store the heart of McCallum and show us all one way to stay.

*Drone footage by Steve hunt

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