FORTUNE, Newfoundland-a visit to eastern Canada can be an object lesson in politics and the assumptions we bring to them.

When the Canadian federal government, after years of failed efforts to manage the nation’s magnificent stocks of cod on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, finally closed down the fishery in the 1980s, outports like Fortune were left with nothing. This is a tiny community, one of hundreds that dot Newfoundland’s convoluted coast, and its economy had been based on the cod and little else.

For centuries, fishermen had ventured out of Fortune and other tiny harbors – some of them not well protected from the sea-to fish. They fished from schooners on the banks; they fished from dories they launched from the shore; they and their families dried and salted the cod for sale into a global market. First caught by secretive Portuguese fishermen, cod from what today is Atlantic Canada became a staple commodity in Europe in the late Middle Ages, and by the 20th century it had fed-at one time or another-much of the world.

It was a combination of this global market and new technologies, of course, which led to the downfall of the cod fishery and the fishermen it supported. High-tech fleets, many from foreign countries, decimated stocks in then-international waters, prompting Canadian regulators to extend their jurisdiction to 200 miles and close the fishery.

The results were a political firestorm-why hadn’t the government anticipated the collapse and prevented it? -followed by efforts to make up for the debacle by investing in the former fishing communities. These initiatives-public investments in wharves, breakwaters, dredging, roads and other on-shore improvements, tourism, alternative fisheries-have kept many tiny villages, Fortune included, afloat. The investments haven’t been without controversy: successive governments have insisted that some particularly isolated towns be abandoned, for example, and many residents were encouraged to move to other parts of Canada.

But in Fortune today, evidence of government support is all around you in the form of a stone breakwater, well-maintained piers, wharves and floats, a large building with showers and laundry maintained by a government-sponsored harbor authority, a processing plant, a large boatyard and boat storage facility, a tourist information center and other amenities. And don’t forget that all Canadians benefit from a national health insurance system.

The investments have yielded some return: it’s still possible to live here and fish for a living; there’s still a fishing fleet in Fortune that goes out for snow crabs and other species that have partially replaced the cod; there is hope, at least, that the cod stocks will one day recover. And the presence of a fishing fleet and a working waterfront, albeit underutilized at this point, have doubtless played a role in bringing tourists to the area. (One other attraction: a unique geological site on the coast to the south where some of the world’s oldest fossils can be seen. An “ecological reserve” protects the site and there’s a small museum at the visitors’ center to educate the tourists.)

For a visitor from the United States, where public investments in working waterfronts (and troubled industries like fishing) are the exception rather than the rule, a walk around Fortune’s tidy docks and buildings prompts a few questions. Why sink taxpayer dollars in such improvements? Isn’t it socialism, welfare? Wouldn’t these people be better off pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps?

The answers, it seems to this coastal traveler who will attest to the shoddy condition of waterfronts up and down the East Coast of the United States, are simpler than you’d think. Of course it’s “socialism” -but what does that worn-out term mean these days? Over the past year our own government has bailed out car companies, banks and insurance companies that were sinking; it has invested billions in “stimulus” projects largely benefiting paving contractors; why not help small communities whose basic resource is gone because the government couldn’t protect it? As for bootstraps, the mere fact that the fishermen of Fortune are still willing to venture out at all, even if it’s for snow crabs rather than cod, suggests there’s plenty of initiative left here. “Socialism” isn’t going to kill initiative in Canada any more than it is in the United States, and it’s time to move past the labels to approaches that work.

Indeed, a visit to a remote outport gets you thinking about politics and the assumptions we bring to them.

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.