Anyone who has visited will tell you that Fogo Island is a magical place. A remote island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, Fogo is full of caribou, the carnivorous pitcher plant and at the right time of the year, icebergs. Hit hard by the cod moratorium, islanders are trying to rebuild their community through investing in the arts and tourism. Much of the island’s revitalization can be traced back to the Fogo Island Inn, a world-class hotel founded by in 2013. Many citizens of Fogo Island can trace their family history back to the same communities for hundreds of years. We spoke to the people of Fogo to learn what it is about this island that captures people’s hearts and makes them settle in for the long haul.
The corner of Fogo Island that outsiders are most familiar with is the Fogo Island Inn. After earning millions in the tech industry, Zita Cobb came home to Fogo Island to found the Shorefast Foundation and the Fogo Island Inn. As a social entreprise, all profits from the inn are invested back into the community.
Like many people on Fogo, Rex Brown is a jack of all trades. He works at the Fogo Island Inn as the doorman and keeper of the dogs and he also restores traditional windows, using the technique his father taught him.
“Before Zita started this project, we kind of took where we lived for granted. With all the tourists coming here, loving the place and not wanting to leave… You kind of look at in a different perspective and say ‘it’s decent here’”.
The tourists are indeed coming to Fogo Island. Art residencies have sprung up across the island. Even Gwyneth Paltrow has made the trek out, posting an Instagram of one of the artist studios calling it ‘#heaven’.
Diane Davis is one of many people who live on the island seasonally. In her life back home in Gander, Nfld., she inspired one of the characters in the musical Come From Away. When flights were diverted to Gander on Sept. 11, 2001, she stayed at her school for 72 hours straight, helping anyone who was stranded get what they needed.
Evidently a giving person, on Fogo Island, Diane found somewhere to take time to herself. “I didn’t realize I was going to teach for 30 years to buy a bungalow with no running water, but apparently it was my dream,” Diane says with a smile.
Ashley Hunt moved from St. John’s to Fogo Island after she got a job opportunity at the Fogo Island Inn. The pace of the island suits her. “There’s no rush to get anywhere. It’s 20 miles an hour and you’re supposed to just soak it up.”
Many islanders agree that Fogo would not be as prosperous as it is now without the Fogo Process. In the 1960s, there were no roads on the island. The 10 communities located there rarely interacted with one another. They were offered money to resettle by the government. Each community was debating resettlement, but they weren’t talking to each other. So, the National Film Board of Canada started filming the communities’ meetings and showing them to one another. This sparked connections between towns that had never existed before. The final decision was not to resettle.
Nadine Decker is a sixth-generation Fogo Islander. She moved away from Fogo Island for 10 years, but when she came back for work she decided to settle back in her hometown. She purchased a 19th century home and turned it into a bed and breakfast. Nadine is one of the many people on Fogo Island who has taken advantage of the new tourism industry, but she says the island would be nothing without fishing.
“At the end of the day, if we don’t have a sustainable fishery here, we have other legs to stand on, but they’re just tricycle wheels… We were settled hundreds of years ago for a reason. It was always fish.”
Lorne Hewitt was born and raised on Fogo Island. As a fisherman, he’s faced some economic struggle with declining fish, crab and shrimp populations. He is trying to join the Coast Guard, but is concerned that it would take him away from his three kids for months at a time.
Despite the struggles, he says he would never want to leave Fogo Island. He loves it because “There’s freedom. You can do what you like.”
Jake Decker just finished grade 12, having grown up his whole life on Fogo Island. He is working at the local museum for the summer and will be starting a new chapter of his life at Memorial University this fall. We asked him if he plans to come back home after university.
“I’d always come back. To retire, I’d probably move back to the island. My mom’s from a big family and they’re up in Alberta, Toronto, B.C… When they come home, we’ll be at my Nan’s on the back patio overlooking the water and all they want to say is they want to come home. It’s in their blood really.”
Fogo Island is unique in many ways. When so many outport fishing villages across Newfoundland chose to resettle and leave their way of life, Fogo Island proudly stayed. Speaking with the locals, it’s clear that two forces have inspired islanders to stay for generations and generations – the sense of community and the beautiful landscape. And neither of those are going to disappear anytime soon.