The Challenge of Change: Fogo Island, Newfoundland

By Joan Walters

Fogo Island was the subject of a National Film Board project in the late 1960’s called Challenge for Change. The program used documentary films to highlight social problems unfamiliar to most Canadians at the time, in the hope that this national exposure would activate change both within and outside of the communities. Against the background of Canada’s buoyant mood during Expo 67, the program provided a stark contrast to the glossy Expo67 image that evoked self-congratulatory pride and promoted international celebrity for Canadians at the time.

Fogo Island was a remote fishing outpost off the northwest coast of Newfoundland that suffered from the cataclysmic change in the cod fishing economy and various government policies that sought to remove islanders from an area they had inhabited for hundreds of years. The inhabitants resisted, but by the late sixties, population had dwindled and the few remaining families were struggling. The Challenge for Change program produced a series of short documentary films focusing on life on the island and the strong attachment the remaining inhabitants had to the place.

One of the displaced residents was Zita Cobb, who left the island with her family at 13 years old and relocated to Gander. A local success story, she eventually moved to Ottawa and became a multi millionaire owner of a high tech fibre optics company. After making her fortune and travelling the world she was drawn back to the island with renewed appreciation for its strong “sense of place”. Almost fifty years after the original Challenge for Change began, she returned to Fogo to start her own program for change, a program which just came to fruition in 2012.

The project includes an upscale hotel, designed to attract visitors who would not normally visit Fogo. Exclusive and remote, it is not easily accessible to tourists without the means to fly into the small private airport or willing travel long distances by car and ferry from other centres in Newfoundland. It features unique architecture and is the base for an artists-in-residence program that attracts international artists to work in one of the five specially designed artists’ cottages interspersed among the hotel property. The architecture and other visual elements of the whole property, as well as the activities available for quests, are designed to promote the sense of place that is unique to the island and island life. A Newfoundland architect based in Denmark was selected to fuse the local vernacular architecture and design with contemporary forms to create a unique expression of the beauty and function of the fishing village. Designers used the local craftspeople to create modern interpretations of the furniture, quilts, rugs and fixtures produced by the local population to provide comfort and beauty in a stark and impoverished environment. There is no attempt to create a replica of a fishing village. The goal was to create a new artistic form based on and produced by the local populations and their way of life. The arts are an important aspect of the revitalization of the island, drawing attention to the beauty and authenticity of the island and its people. The hotel staff are locals who understand hospitality but otherwise would have to leave the island for employment. The management company, Shorefast, originated by Zita Cobb and her brother, has been turned over to the island to provide economic development opportunities that are locally based. Future profits are to be shared locally.

One of the key purposes of the project is to promote economic development based on tourism of a sort that will enhance rather than desecrate the local environment and culture- as is happening increasingly in so many parts of the world. Attracting wealthy policy and decision makers from around the world is an important aim. The project attempts to demonstrate that tourism can have positive local benefits without damaging the local environment and culture. The visitors are encouraged to spent time like the inhabitants of the island itself. Fishing, hiking, interacting with the locals, “turning off and tuning out” are the only choices. A film theatre with showings of the Challenge for Change series and a recent film about the inn, Strange and Familiar: The Architecture of Fogo Island, and an excellent library with books on everything local, donated by Leslie Harris, former president of Memorial University, and talks by local experts are provided on an ongoing basis. There are few restaurants and other urban facilities on the island, nothing but vast expanses of ocean, quiet opportunities for contemplation and getting away. The hotel provides excellent cuisine based on locally sourced and imaginatively prepared ingredients. Guests’ cars are prohibited on the hotel grounds in order to preserve the peace and tranquility of the natural setting.

It’s a creative and innovative project which required 25 million dollars and the strong vision of an outstanding innovator. It has the potential to revitalize the island, but more important, to provide a model for many other remote communities to preserve their sense of place while providing ongoing economic development for residents. The Canadian north is one example of a developing area that could benefit from this experiment before it falls victim to cruise ship tourism.
Of course there are the critics. The locals from the island appreciate the economic boost that it provides. Local B&B’s, few in number, are pleased with the increased numbers of less well healed tourists (like us); but they fail to appreciate the “experimental” art, architecture and design that attracts them. The hotel architecture resembles a large white ship or an iceberg. The design is sparse and functional, but some locals and tourists expect a $2000 a night hotel to be more “luxurious”. The minimally furnished rooms and brightly coloured hand-made quilts and rugs may appear too ordinary to locals who have by necessity lived with these humble but beautiful objects for generations. Even the paint colours and patterned wallpaper have been replicated from the old remnants found in delapitated and abandoned houses. But some locals wonder why she is ”wasting” her money on this. A few from neighbouring islands even refused to visit, though island residents appreciated their free night’s stay provided to all when the hotel first opened. As often happens, the greatest challengers of change are those who tend to benefit most from it.

Our visit to Fogo following the Atlantic Charter meeting in St John’s allowed us to have a firsthand view of the project in its early stages of implementation. The physical setting and the architecture it inspires is best appreciated in person. The documentary film about the project, Strange and Familiar: The Architecture of Fogo Island, provides an inspiring introduction to the area and the project but the awe inspiring natural and designed place and space has to be experienced. Zita Cobb’s project is a developing story that deserves the attention of anyone interested in the preservation of Canada natural and cultural heritage.