Photo Story | Newfoundland and Labrador

Francois, Newfoundland: Small Town, Big Spirit

© Dennis Minty

If you’re lucky enough to travel there, visiting the remote outport of Francois, Newfoundland is a once-in-a-lifetime experience you’ll never forget! Learn more about the real-life effects of the cod moratorium and kick up a jig at a kitchen party. Photographer Dennis Minty shares more in this photo story.
Panorama granite cliffs of Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Just imagine it. Off the port side: towering cliffs of granite, incised by deep fjords pointing north. To starboard: the open sea stretching away more than four thousand kilometres to South America. If you see another boat, you can't help but wonder, “Where did that come from, and where is it going?”

Fishing boat and lighthouse Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

The first thing you’ll notice as you approach Francois by sea is the lighthouse on the western headland, guarding the entrance to the deep, sheltered fjord—or, at least it’s sheltered most of the time.

Fishing boat mist mountains Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

In 2006, 150 kilometre-per-hour winds and a ferocious sea combined in the form of tropical storm Florence. The storm ripped half a home from its mooring and swept it into the sea, just minutes after local residents Liz and Cory Durnford escaped with their two-year-old son, Noah.

Panorama view of Francois Newfoundland from Charlies Head lookout

© Dennis Minty

Within hours, the rest of the town of 150 souls had salvaged what they could and pledged to help them build a new home. When you live in an isolated town on what is arguably Newfoundland’s most isolated coast (some call it “the forgotten coast”), that kind of support is what keeps you going.

Scene of Francois Newfoundland tucked behind headland

© Dennis Minty

Creeping around the headland with its tidy lighthouse and steaming northwest, you’ll spy the colourful little town of Francois nestled at the base of towering hills. The skyline is dominated by the majestic, often cloud-enshrouded Friar, standing at 182 metres from its sea-washed base to its summit. If you did not know the town was there and stumbled across it, it would be a shock to the senses. Your brain would say to itself, “How can this be here?”

Boardwalks through town Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

But here it is—and it has been since the 1700s! Isolation takes on a whole new meaning in Francois (pronounced “Fran-sway” by most locals). Accessible only by boat or helicopter, there is not a car or truck to be seen. If you hear the sound of an engine, it’s likely that of a boat. Even in winter, only well-chosen trails allow snowmobiles to reach higher ground. The town’s cemetery is perched on a terrace above the town reachable by foot and all-terrain vehicle.

Hardware section of local shop Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Wooden and concrete boardwalks knit the town together. Most people walk from home to home, down to the stage (what Newfoundlanders call a working shed, located above the tidal zone), or to the single shop in town. It stocks everything imaginable in cramped aisles and crowded shelves, departmentalized according to use: food, hardware, boat supplies, and so on. It is also the post office and liquor store.

People walking and riding AT Vs through Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

The few land vehicles you see are all ATVs, including one that serves as the fire engine. I once saw a car parked in a front yard, but it was only used for trips away after being loaded on a boat and shipped to the terminus of the nearest road.

Fishing boat sheds and wharves Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

A city-dweller may find it unimaginable how one could survive here. But survive, and even thrive, the locals have for generations. For hundreds of years, life in Francois was based on cod. The town’s fortunes rose and fell with the fish stocks. Unlike the northeast coast of Newfoundland, the south coast remains ice-free, permitting a year-round fishery.

Boardwalk colourful town cliffs Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Determination and persistence allowed livyers (year-round inhabitants) to resist the Smallwood government’s resettlement program of the 1960s, although other outports along this shore, such as Rencontre West, Pushthrough, and Cape La Hune, disappeared during that era.

Fishing boat at sea near Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

The nearby fishing grounds provided well, but selling the catch was another matter. With no fish plant in Francois, boats had to transport their catch to Ramea, more than fifty kilometres to the west. Then in 1982, the Ramea fish plant closed and was replaced by a six-hour journey from Francois to a collector boat.

Fransway mist fishing boat Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

The collapse of the cod stocks and the subsequent moratorium of 1992 utterly changed the lives of all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, but especially those of the 30,000 fishers and their families who depended upon the fishery. It would be a mistake to think of this as the loss of jobs. It was far more than that; it was the loss of a way of living.

Local resident Noah Durnford on his ATV Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Noah Durnford, whose family survived tropical storm Florence in 2006, is one of the town's few young people.

Little fishing towns like Francois were hard hit. In the past decade or two, the population has declined, as young people have moved away to find work in something other than the fishery. In 2020 there were eighty or so residents left, and few of them were young.

Francois Newfoundland waterfalls and hiker

© Dennis Minty

On a visit to Francois, the town’s folk inevitably come out to warmly greet us. That’s just the beginning of an eventful day that can include a wander through town, hikes to Charlie’s Head Lookout and the waterfalls, or, for the most adventurous, a trek to the top of the Friar.

Francois Newfoundland kitchen party

© Dennis Minty

We usually go back to the ship for supper, after which we return to the community hall for treats, drinks, and a dance, otherwise known as a kitchen party—and this one's oversized! I’ve been visiting Francois annually for nearly twenty years and it is always the same.

When we enter the hall, your senses are overcome by the tables laden with molasses cookies, raisin buns, date squares, lemon squares, and fresh home-made bread, plus partridgeberry, blueberry, and bakeapple jams, and more—all prepared in the local kitchens. The room buzzes with chatter between the visitors and the livyers.

Francois Newfoundland kitchen party dancing

© Dennis Minty

Then Darren Durnford, operator of the local hydroelectric plant, takes to the stage and starts getting his gear in order. An electronic one-man band (I posit he is the world’s best), he takes charge of the room. By the end of the second song, about half of the room has been up dancing. By the end of the third, it’s a squeeze to find a place on the dance floor. Everyone has turned into uninhibited teenagers dancing their hearts out!

Dancing at a Francois kitchen party

© Dennis Minty

The music varies from Credence Clearwater Revival to traditional waltzes. A favourite of everyone’s is the foolish Coxie Woxie Dicksie Bird, with the chorus:

“Coxie Woxie, Dixie Bird/Oh I loves ya Coxie Woxie Dixie Bird/He was his daddy’s joy and his momma’s little boy/And they called him Coxie Woxie Dixie Bird”.

Everyone in the room is dancing to the jaunty tune or laughing where they sit. Perhaps they’re not the cleverest lyrics, but they are enduring! All the next day you’ll hear them in the ship’s passageways, stuck like Velcro.

Francois Newfoundland and ship by moonlight

© Dennis Minty

Hours later, tired but several years younger, everyone strolls back through the quiet town in the moonlight to catch a Zodiac back to the ship. Then the ship steams away through the shimmer on black water as the twinkling lights of little Francois shrink and eventually disappear behind the dark granite walls of the fjord.

Hikers at Charlies Head Lookout Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

No one will ever forget their day in Francois. It stimulates the soul and reminds us about what makes us happy, about the difference between wants and needs, about the importance of good neighbours and good stories, about the resilience of sea people, about the incredible beauty of a stark landscape, about the restorative power of music, and about how we can live in such different places and share so much. Who knows—you might even find a bit of yourself that you had forgotten!

Panorama colourful town of Francois Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Perhaps it could be said that Francois represents a condensed version of Newfoundland's culture as a whole: distant from the centre, self-reliant, and hard-working, bound by story, humour, music, and the ever-present sea.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.

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