Rain fell from a grey sky outside as members of the NDP met with former fish plant workers and residents of Trinity Bay North to discuss job opportunities in Port Union and the surrounding area.
Just over 20 people showed up for the job forum held at the Frank Power Chalet last Friday morning.
Hosting the forum was Lorraine Michael, Provincial New Democratic Party leader and MHA for Signal Hill - Quidi Vidi, John Blackmore, president of Bonavista South NDP association, and Chris Charlton, NDP MP for Hamilton Mountain and opposition NDP critic for human resources and skills development.
While that meeting was being held in Port Union, other members of the NDP federal caucus were in St. John's holding meetings on other issues.
The theme of the meeting was not cut and dried: many different issues were raised surrounding the closure of two fish plants in Port Union.
Blackmore began the meeting with a flashback. In the 1960s, he said, Port Union was one of the best areas for employment in the province.
"If they wanted work, there was work for them."
Flash forward in time since the cod moratorium in 1992, however, and "everyone wants a job and no one has one," he said.
"If we're going to survive then something has to be done," said Blackmore.
The moratorium resulted in about 1,000 workers being laid off from the plant, which was at the time owned and operated by Fishery Products International (FPI), processing cod from the offshore.
The plant reopened a decade ago as Ocean Choice International (OCI) to process shrimp. After Hurricane Igor damaged the plant in 2010, it closed its doors for good in December of last year, putting over 170 people out of work.
Michael said the NDP is not trying to bring any answers to the meeting.
"The answers are with you (the community)," she said.
Michael compared the job situation in Port Union to the decline of the steel industry in Hamilton - Charlton's riding. That industry, that once employed over 11,000 workers, is now down to about 880, she said.
Charlton agreed that job losses are an issue across the nation, calling it "the single most important issue Canadians face is jobs."
Charlton said 1.4 million Canadians are unemployed and in Newfoundland and Labrador alone the unemployment rate is over 11 per cent.
When she's in the House of Commons, Charlton said she hears Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying the country is doing fine and that the EI changes are "improving the system."
But Charlton sees the EI changes as an excuse to bring in more foreign workers, driving down wages so employers can pay less.
Meanwhile, the government is giving tax cuts to corporations and people are being forced to leave their communities to find jobs, she said.
The government doesn't contribute to EI - it's all workers' money, she added.
Furthermore, federal changes to the Canada Pension Plan are making it harder to collect, not easier, said Charlton. The government is treating pensions as earnings, clawing it back by 50 per cent, she said.
"We're going in exactly the wrong direction."
Darryl Johnson, town manager of Trinity Bay North, said the population of Port Union is shrinking. About 45 per cent of the population has moved away since 1992, he said.
Support from the province came in the form of four pamphlets saying, "Here's what my party does," said Johnson.
When the OCI plant closed, Johnson said he requested a meeting with the fisheries minister Darin King, who replied, "What do you want to meet about?"
Johnson said the biggest misconception surrounding the issues of Port Union is that a fish plant closed, but so much more has happened regarding job losses.
Johnson said older workers don't want to move away away to find work and families are being split up.
He said he has brought the issue to Bonavista South MHA Glen Little, who said his government is not in the business of keeping plants open.
"But you should be in the business of keeping towns open," said Johnson.
Johnson said the town has to designate the plant as permanently closed for workers to get any benefits.
"But if the fish comes back, then what? The government will say you're out of the fishery," he said.
Wayne Abbott, from Catalina, summed the situation up in one sentence:
"We were a social experiment since they closed (the plant) in '92."
Brendan Peters, mayor of Trinity Bay North, said the federal government's EI changes are driving people away from the community, but the government continues to ignore workers' concerns.
"That's the government attitude - leave them alone and they'll go away."
Peters asked Charlton if the other provinces are having as much trouble with Ottawa as Newfoundland and Labrador, to which Charlton replied, "All of them, except Alberta."
Jim Dalton, local rep for the Fish Food and Allied Workers (FFAW) in Port Union, said it's not so simple as workers just getting new jobs. Low wages, high cost of rent and travel expenses have to be considered.
"They're saying that the jobs are there, but when you go and look at the jobs it's not feasible."
Dalton said the government is saying people in Port Union don't want to work because they won't take some of the jobs offered to them. He said the reality is that people quit school early to work in the plant during its heyday and they can't all be re-trained.
"Re-training is not going to happen to 170-180 people," said Dalton.
He said while the government may think these workers have the same opportunities as everyone else, the workers can't afford re-training when taxes are increasing and the cost of living is on the rise.
"How high do the taxes go before we can no longer pay them?"
Dalton said sufficient notice was not provided before the plant was closed and workers were left in a bad situation.
Two years later, the government still hasn't made a decision on whether or not the workers will get severance packages, he said.
"(They were) forgotten by the government."
Furthermore, Dalton said the government doesn't understand the shrimp fishery. OCI is shipping industrial shrimp to Iceland for processing when it could be processed in Port Union.
Employers in Iceland are paying higher wages, two to three dollars more an hour, said Dalton. On top of that is the cost of shipping the shrimp and tariffs, he said.
He wonders why, therefore, that same shrimp can't be processed in this province.
Port Union was built on the fishery and there is no other industry to access other than the fishery, said Dalton.
To make matters worse, he said OCI has opened more plants since it closed the Port Union operation and he wants to know why.
"Why is that happening when we're home with no work?"
Still, Dalton is not ready to give up on Port Union.
"Let's see what's wrong with the fishery and let's fix it."
Paddie McCarty, from Houston, Texas, resides in Newfoundland during the summer.
She said she wanted to give her views from the perspective of someone from away.
Newfoundland is ignored, she said. From tourism ads to weather, everything stops at Nova Scotia.
McCarty coaches softball and soccer and said she feels bad for the kids and their future employment opportunities.
"What are they going to do?"
As far as employment goes right now, workers should look into car-pooling to Clarenville and Come By Chance for work, she said. They should also look to jobs in the oil industry.
"That's something that's coming and something they can be trained for."