Zita’s missionary zeal

Posted on October 24, 2013 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 1 Comment

Since 2005, the Shorefast Foundation has invested $63.5 million in an ambitious social experiment. Its purpose? To reverse Fogo Islandʼs 50-year trend of increasing unemployment and declining population. Now, almost a decade later, itʼs an apt time to ask if this impressive investment has made a difference. Or, does the Islandʼs future continue to look much like its past?

Looking for the surest, fastest way to get a rise out of millionaire philanthropist Zita Cobb? Suggest that the death and decline of rural places are the natural order of things. Tell this loyal daughter of Joe Batt’s Arm (pop. 700) that progress is rightly built on the ashes of her forefathers, that isolated places with dwindling populations and traditional resource-based economies should actually be encouraged to go gently into their good night. Then suggest she has wasted more than $63 million ($41 million of it from her own bank account) on a fruitless attempt to preserve an over-romanticized version of Fogo Island’s past. Tell her she would have been better served by giving each of the island’s residents an equal share of the money so they could find their own merry way in the world. Go ahead. Tell her. I dare you.

I dared. Not quite so boldly perhaps, but my message was the same: why bother trying to prop up a flagging economy? An economy which, for the better part of five decades, has been in steady decline – on an isolated island which Cobb herself describes as “far away from far away.”

In other words, why is Fogo Island worth saving? If, indeed, it can be saved.

To the uninitiated, Fogo Island – not to be confused with Fogo which, along with Joe Batt’s Arm, are two of 11 communities on the island – is the biggest of the dozens, if not hundreds, of islands which orbit Canada’s easternmost province. You can fly there, if you have access to a plane small enough to land on the 914-metre (3,000-foot) airstrip. Or you can drive to the town of Farewell (about an hour north of the international airport in Gander, Newfoundland) for a 45-minute ferry ride. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a boat, you can arrive in your own good time.

Regardless of how you arrive, when you do ultimately get there, don’t bother searching for McDonald’s or Tim Horton’s, movie cinemas or large supermarkets. They and their detritus are deliciously absent from the pristine landscape. Indeed, the closest relatives to franchise retailers are the liquor agency, Scotiabank and a unique-to-Newfoundland department store chain called Riff’s. Refreshingly, Fogo Island is an anachronism of locally-flavoured small businesses like Nicole’s Café, Growler’s Ice Cream and the whimsically-named This &That Store. You’ll find churches and graveyards in abundance, with many communities hosting up to three variations of the various faiths found on the island: Anglican, Roman Catholic, United, Pentecostal and Gospel Hall. You’ll see fishing sheds (called stages) leaning out over the water on deceptively fragile-looking wooden stilts. And you’ll discover Brimstone Head, one of the four corners of the world according to the Flat Earth Society.

Four hundred per cent larger than Manhattan, Fogo Island is home to an estimated 2,500 year-round residents (Manhattan has more than 640 times that number). To put it in perspective, there are 27,442 people per square kilometre in Manhattan; 11 for the same area in Fogo Island.

It wasn’t always so sparse. At least 5,200 people lived on the island in its heyday and 1,200 children filled the local all-grade school. Few hands were idle and obesity was an unheard-of phenomenon: virtually everyone was employed by the fishery, either rowing out to sea in their small wooden punts or gutting and drying fish onshore. They also hunted and farmed, cut wood, picked berries, sewed quilts and made furniture. Children freely roamed the harbours, skipping across ice pans for fun in the winter, swimming the freshwater ponds in summer.

The old timers say that a rising tide lifts all boats. And for hundreds of years, the fishery carried the economy of Fogo Island, much as it did for most Atlantic communities. Until the time came when the fishery failed and fishermen, including Zita Cobb’s father, burned their boats. The tide had rolled out, stranding many former fishers onshore. Thousands of abandoned people felt they had no choice but to move on. Cobb did too… for a time.

Expectations were not high for the first half of our four-night excursion to Fogo Island. Excepting the serviced camp sites in the Brimstone Head RV park, my photographer husband and I were staying at the cheapest accommodations to be had in the area: $70 a night, Wi-Fi and breakfast included.

Though there was availability for our entire stay at the newly-opened Fogo Island Inn, two nights had just about maxed out the budget (our 425 sq. ft. Lighthouse Suite costs $1,425 a night in high season). But 48 hours wasn’t enough time to capture the story I wanted to tell, so the hunt was on for more economical lodging.

I called every accommodation listed on the town’s website, but it was the weekend of the Punt Race, an annual event comprised of two-person crews rowing shallow, handcrafted wooden boats across 11 kilometres (seven miles) of open ocean. The popular competition meant this was one of the busiest weeks of the year for tourism. No one in the communities of Fogo, Joe Batt’s Arm or Tilting had a room available for July 18 and 19. Then a friend told me about Marshall and Chrissie Oake, proprietors of Brimstone Head B&B/Efficiency Unit. It was the least expensive B&B on the Island … located in the heart of Fogo … and they still had a room available.

Expectations were low indeed.

She describes her life in ebbs and flows, articulating the push and pull of place. At five she was a tuberculosis refugee, sent to a sanatorium for a year, exiled from her father, mother and six brothers. Understandably, lonely kindergarten Zita couldn’t wait to go home. Later, as a teenager living “abroad” in Ottawa, O.N., she tried to hide her island roots from her more cosmopolitan university peers. She’d learned to be embarrassed about growing up without electricity or running water. Until, that is, the death of a beloved relative – Uncle Art – reminded her, with a vengeance, of whence she came. From then on, she says, Fogo Island was her secret weapon. It was transformed from millstone to anchor, fortifying her throughout a dizzyingly successful global career: number crunching, first for the oil and gas industry, and later for high tech firm JDS Fitel; then becoming senior vice president of strategy for fibre optics innovator JDS Uniphase. When she retired in 2001, Zita Cobb was in her early 40s, with reportedly hundreds of millions of dollars to her name (some sources estimate as much as $800 million). She sailed her yacht around the world for a time, but her internal compass would be satisfied with only one destination: home.

"What will it take to keep the young crowd here? We need everything they have in St. John's." - Tom Gill, supervisor, Fogo Island Co-op
“What will it take to keep the young crowd here? We need everything they have in St. John’s.” – Tom Gill, supervisor, Fogo Island Co-op
Not only did she return to Fogo Island, but – displaying a trait common among well-to-do businesspeople in Atlantic Canada – Cobb felt a responsibility to “give back” to her community. With that in mind, she and her brother established a scholarship program so that the latest generation of Fogo Islanders would have access to the global opportunities offered by higher education.

Imagine how surprised they must have been when their well-intentioned benevolence was criticized. Severely. Cobb recalls how, during a public review of the scholarship program, one woman took her to task for paying the island’s children to leave. “Can’t you do something that will give them a reason to stay?”

Could she? If anyone could, it was Zita Cobb – a master strategist with more than 20 years’ experience helping to grow international empires.

But should she? That’s the real question.

One response to “Zita’s missionary zeal”

  1. My parents left Newfoundland when I was 2 years old. My Dad worked in the mines in Buchans and left to go to Toronto, as he was not happy as a Miner. He went back to school (4 children at the time) and became an Engineer. He always pined for his home in Fortune Harbour I can therefore relate to Zita’s desire to go home and her desire to keep Fogo Island from extinction. My daughter and I are here in Twillingate for a year and visited Joe Batts Arm. We had full intention of visiting the Inn. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic & the closure of the Inn, we were unable. As Zita’s intentions are positive, unless things change, her dreams may be unavoidable. I do hope this great Fogo Inn will not be in vain. Good Luck Zita. It is indeed worth the dream. P.S. I saw the video of your life & loved it.

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