Identity is what humankind strives for. It is easy to be given an identity, but it isn’t always easy to find one’s own. With culture and society going through demanding changes and transitions, identities shift, requiring people to reevaluate and adapt. This can cause major human tragedies, such as war, rebellion, discrimination, and mass immigration. There is a corner of Canada, however, that has morphed and altered its state in order to survive.
Fogo is a small island of less than 100 square miles that lies on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Its harsh climate and limited resources have led to an identity crisis over the past century. Famous for its fishing trade and reliant on the sea’s resources, Fogo has been home to thousands of fisher people for centuries. Europeans have visited the area to fish for cod since the 16th century, but the first settlers did not do so until the 18th century, when fishermen from England and Ireland settled in Fogo to benefit from its abundant fish and untouched nature.
Since then, the history and culture of Fogo has been centred around the fishing industry. The local shores offered an abundance of cod, and the selling of dried cod led to a booming industry through the late 19th century and majority of the 20th. This was jeopardized by the Second World War and the postwar years. With the revival of Newfoundland’s economy after World War Two, the British were keen to cut their ties with the area and make Newfoundland part of the Canadian
Confederation. This was officially declared in 1949; Newfoundland and Labrador has been a province of Canada ever since.
After the implementation of the new government system in the area, and with the increased availability of modern amenities—like electricity and running water—the Canadian authorities and provincial government were forced to offer these services to the people of Fogo. The location of the island meant the installation of these services was an expensive undertaking. The authorities declared the people of Fogo should be relocated. This was successfully resisted by the islanders of Fogo throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, but in 1967 the fishing industry hit rock bottom and many islanders had to rely on welfare support.
This predicament inspired what is now called The Fogo Process; a series of 27 short films commissioned by Challenge for Change, a film project established by the National Film Board of Canada. These films documented the unique identity of the island and its peoples, and helped to save the community and preserve the identity of the island.
The cod industry continued to suffer through the latter stages of the 20th century, but the fishing industry was rescued by a shift to catching shrimp and crab. This has proven to be a successful transition and has allowed many fisher people to continue the traditions of an island reliant on the ocean that surrounds it.