Nursing a community at the Bonne Bay Cottage Hospital

Written by Josh Smee, (WeavEast Fellow Newfoundland and Labrador)

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Is there a space in the social innovation ecosystem for a ghost or two? If there is, I know just the spirit. On the West Coast of Newfoundland in the town of Norris Point, nestled in Gros Morne National Park, there are a few ghosts who’ve had a front-row seat for a fascinating experiment in community-building.

That experiment is happening in the old Bonne Bay Cottage Hospital (now renamed the Julia Ann Walsh Heritage Center). Opened in 1940 as part of a network of “Cottage Hospitals” that brought health services to many of Newfoundland and Labrador’s isolated outport communities, the Bonne Bay Cottage Hospital was at the heart of life in Norris Point and the other communities nestled around Bonne Bay (which sits in the centre of what is now Gros Morne) for more than 60 years, closing only in 2001 (as) when a new Health Centre opened down the road.

After the end of its life as a hospital, a question hung in the air: what could happen to this landmark, and to the green spaces and gardens around it? It turns out the answer is “a lot”. 18 years on, the building remains at the heart of the community.

Thanks to tenacious work in the community, ownership of the facility was transferred to the Bonne Bay Cottage Hospital Heritage Corporation, a nonprofit created to support the adaptive reuse of the space. Since then, it has become home to a community radio station, a library, a community garden, an (youth) international backpackers hostel, a cottage hospital museum room, a physiotherapy clinic and other health services, to the arts, and to community gatherings of all shapes and sizes. It’s a unique space where tourists from around the world share the hallways with local residents who still rely on services being offered there. The money they bring in helps keep the place running, and the huge mix of uses means there’s always something happening.

There is a thriving community around Bonne Bay, one that integrates new arrivals and longtime residents far more smoothly than many others. A big part of that integration happens thanks to what’s happening in the old hospital. It’s only fitting that it was at a conference within these walls that NLers got their first introduction to the work of WeavEast.

“We really enjoyed hosting our first annual Cottage Conference. The gathering of so many great minds and passionate community developers was inspiring. The old hospital (and its ghosts) are happy when people stay there and share ideas and cook in the kitchens, and especially when children and seniors are welcomed and included. The children played and created artwork while the adults talked. We believe in the power of collective impact to innovate change for a better future for our communities” says Joanie Cranston, who has spearheaded the redevelopment of the space.

This is a great example of an important kind of Atlantic Canadian story – the use of a physical space to catalyze a change in how a community works. In Norris Point, it has helped strengthen many of the intangible ties that hold a community together. When people hear their friend on the local radio station, or bump into their neighbour in the library when heading in for a physio session, they’re weaving their own community closer together, and that has an impact. This isn’t by any means a perfect story. Making these projects work remains a challenge from a business model perspective. How can we begin a conversation about investing in community cohesion? This might be a place to start.

Anyhow, back to the ghosts. If you ever have a chance to visit the old Cottage Hospital, you’ll see that much of the old equipment is still there - a few wards look like the doctors just stepped out for a coffee. There are plenty of stories about ghosts; the first time I spent a night at the hostel there it was a cold November night and I was alone in the building, and I do think I met a few of them. I’m sure they’re pleased to have so much company these days!