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10 Worst Places to Live in Canada: Part 8, St. John’s, Newfoundland

3 January 2013

St. John’s, Newfoundland has gotten a bad rap over the past 20 years. Once known as the lifeline of Canada’s fishing industry, the cod fisheries all closed in the early 1990s, and this had a devastating effect on the city of St. John’s, and the rest of Newfoundland. To put it in perspective just how hard it was for this province to close all of its fisheries, it’s said that it would be the equivalent of every manufacturing plant in Ontario closing its doors. But, just like so many of our other “worst cities,” looking at the city of St. John’s now, you can clearly see that this is also a story of hope, and not necessarily sticking with a label just because it was slapped on you.

It was in 1992 that the federal government placed a moratorium on the cod fisheries in the Atlantic, and this was the worst economic time seen by the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and by the residents of St. John’s. The moratorium was placed because there simply weren’t enough fish caught in the 1980s, and the government was concerned about a dwindling supply in the Atlantic Ocean. This, after generations of it being said there was so much cod in the ocean you could leave your boat in the middle of it and walk to the shore on their backs.

This was not only dangerous to the incomes of those trying to live in St. John’s and the surrounding area, but their actual lives, too. After the moratorium was imposed, and then again in 2003 when a final moratorium was passed effecting the remaining fisheries, fishermen started to go outside of the boundary line where the moratorium was not in place. Unfortunately, this far out to sea and in boats that were too small or under-equipped to handle such activities, many fishermen lost their own lives and those of crew members. All in an effort to get more fish and feed their families.

This time period, between 1992 and 2004 was one of the toughest for St. John’s. They were losing their incomes, they were losing their lives, and it seemed, they were just losing overall. But now, in the past decade or so, St. John’s and the rest of the province have found a way to turn things around and not settle for the forceful blow they were dealt.

It didn’t take long for residents of St. John’s and Newfoundland to figure out that there was more prosperity in the ocean than just fish – and that the new prosperity lay mostly in gas and oil. The resources that lie beneath the ocean floor, rather than swimming above it. For the past decade, this has become a huge industry for Newfoundland, and residents of St. John’s largely fill up the rigs and docks set in the middle of the ocean, pumping up the resources that lie below.

Newfoundland is now the biggest expediter of oil and gas in all of Canada, even bigger than Alberta. While the Western province is responsible for about 30 per cent of all of Canada’s oil and gas production, Newfoundland can now boast that they are responsible for 40 per cent of it. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that Newfoundland’s energy industry can go under and the rest of Canada won’t feel the aftershocks of it.

In addition to searching underneath those murky waters, fishermen have also pounced on other opportunities lying within the Atlantic Ocean. While cod may no longer be an option, there has been an abundance of shellfish – namely crab and shrimp – in these waters, also over just the last ten years. Not only do these fish make up for what the abyss the cod industry left behind, but this type of fish is also more expensive, and more profitable to catch and sell.

“We are seeing prosperity the likes of which we haven’t seen in my lifetime,” says Denis Mahoney, a chartered accountant and vice chair of the St. John’s Board of Trade. “People are optimistic about the future. Kids going through schools are feeling like there’s a future here. That’s what’s changed.”

But it’s more than just attitudes. Things have changed, especially in St. John’s.

The average household income is now $54,940, right on par with the national average of $58,360 and definitely more than what’s being seen in the rest of the province, where average household income is $46,290.

The city also boasts a low unemployment rate. In St. John’s that number sits at around 7.7 per cent, which is much lower than the provincial average of 12.3 per cent, and even lower than most other parts of Canada (such as Toronto, where the unemployment rate is 8.4 per cent.)

But St. John’s is about to go through tough times once again. This year, two out of three of their floating oil platforms are set to come in for servicing this year – keeping them out of commission, and out of revenues, for a quarter of the year. While it won’t have the devastating effect that closing the cod fisheries did, it’s certainly something that’s going to be felt after St. John’s was just getting back on their feet.

But this servicing of oil platforms isn’t why St. John’s makes it to the top of our worst places to live list. In fact, the only reason this city appears is the weather!

Yes, St. John’s, Newfoundland has the harshest, coldest, wettest weather of any other Canadian city. Snow, snow, and snow with a little bit of ice is what you’ll get here in the winter months. And those months usually extend from October until May. Yes, St. John’s regularly gets snow in May, although it’s typically no more than a centimetre or two. Still, they get snow in May, which may be more than what some Canadians bargained for. When the sun does come out, you still won’t get the blazing heat of Ontario summers. In August, it’s known to only go up to about 15 degrees Celsius, which is still pretty cool when compared to the +30 degrees Celsius seen at the same time in many other parts of the country.

It’s unfortunate that something as incidental as weather could land a city on a “worst places to live” list. But considering all that St. John’s has gone through in the past two decades, and all they  have overcome, we’re thinking they’ll take their weather and be happy with it. All while counting all that revenue from the offshore drilling and oil platforms.

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