21 August 2014

Identity Crisis #nlpoli

Newfoundland is changing, Michael Crummey writes in the Newfoundland nationalists’ newspaper, the Globe and Mail.  House prices are climbing in St. John’s.  There are plenty of expensive restaurants around and people to eat the food and drink the wine sold there.

“But,”  says Crummey,  “while oil execs tuck into their gourmet fish, much of rural Newfoundland is falling deeper into a crisis that began with the cod moratorium in 1992.”

The whole province – Newfoundland and Labrador – is changing.  There is a difference between the changes around the provincial capital and the rest of the province.  Crummey says that a “generation from now,  what it means to be a Newfoundland will be something altogether different” from what he calls the traditional Newfoundland of “isolated, tightly knit communities that relied on the fishery and each other for survival.”

All true stuff.  The place and its people are changing.  The problem with Crummey’s commentary is that he gets his timescales wrong and misidentifies the root of the change and its implications.


Before we get into Crummey’s comments themselves, it is interesting to note the context in which they appeared.  They are in the Globe and Mail.  As such they got lots of notice from Newfoundland and Labrador’s intellectual community, pseudo- and otherwise.  The especially popular among the nationalists, the ones who believe fervently in the view that Newfoundland – note the absence of Labrador – is fish.

If something important gets said about their beloved island, it must be within the pages of the Globe and Mail. Writers like Crummey with something to say about Newfoundland would never think of having their words printed in a local newspaper. None of the people they know would read it.  In the Globe,  it’s bound to get noticed.  And if it deals with the people and their world view,  there are all sorts of knees that in some sort of semi-permanent spasm, ready to jerk in response to a slight, perceived moreso than real, that might appears in the Globe’s pages.

It sounds odd, but it is the world in which these people live.

Crummey’s piece also appeared in two different formats.  The online version had a simple headline:  “What it means to be a Newfoundlander is quickly changing.”

In the print version of the Globe and Mail, Newfoundland nationalists’ newspaper, Michael Crummey’s essay on the looming crisis in Newfoundland’s cultural and political identity is on the front page of the “focus” section, underneath a story about China’s war on terrorism. The photograph shows a Muslim woman, her face and head completely covered save for her eyes, passing beneath a larger-than-life statue of the Great Helmsman.

The headline on the print version is “Where you ‘longs to?” The sub head is also different: “It’s suddenly a have province. But as Novelist Michael Crummey writes, not everyone in Newfoundland and Labrador is on the boom – that may wreak havoc on the locals’ idea of ‘here’”.

The rest of the Crummey story occupies a full page inside the section  opposite a full page commentary on the recent prevalence of psychopaths and sociopaths in American popular culture.  The Crummey article is illustrated with a bucolic Newfoundland scene complete with the saturated colours marketers use these days to show the authentic Newfoundland.


The main problem for Crummey is that what he presents as the authentic Newfoundland is nothing more than a contrivance.  It is a place that never existed. It is as artificial as the  just as the colours in the photograph accompanying his Globe piece.  It is as fake as the pictures of a bunch of row houses in downtown St. John’s of a few years ago, famously photoshopped to look like they never had, ever.  It is as phony as the cruise Crummey was on, hired by the company to interpret for the wealthy foreigners the lives of people who have lived the same isolated existence of the ancestors.  Isolated and just the same as they lived back then complete with the same electricity, indoor plumbing, refrigerators, satellite televisions, computers, Internet connections, and health care.

The fishery and all that went with it last held sway as the undisputed centrepiece of the economy, indeed, the only thing in the economy, in the 80s.

Not the 1980s as Paul Oram might believe.


The 1880s.

Since then, the place of the fishery in the local economy and society dwindled until the point in the more recent past Oram might recall.  The supremacy of the cod largely exists today, as it has for most of the last century, in the priests of the Cult of the Cod. They are tones who contend, as Crummey does. You know them. They are people like Ryan Cleary or Phil Earle or Gus Etchegary.

In their world the cod moratorium was not the logical and responsible action to preserve a species decimated by decades of greed and stupidity by local and foreign fisherman alike  The thought of such a thing makes people like Etchegary hyperventilate if only because he knows first hand the local corporate greed and political stupidity that allowed the company he worked for to destroy the cod stocks. 

So they blame the foreigners for the slaughter of the cod.  They blame the foreigners in Ottawa for the moratorium itself and place it alongside the Great War,  the bankruptcy of the country in 1934, and Confederation conspiracy as another of the Great Evils done to Newfoundland in the last century by foreigners. 

You can see the same trope in the world Crummey describes: all those expensive restaurants are full of foreigners – “oil industry executives” – and not the good, stolid people of Newfoundland.  You can see the Cult of the Cod in Crummey as he describes himself.  The people of Buchans and its mine where Crummey lived carried with them the essence of this bay world of hardy folk and passed it on to him.  And as he sits eating a tony salad in a tony restaurant in town, Crummey wonders how long it might be ‘ere the world of the stout yeoman is gone forever.

The answer is that the world will last as long as people like Crummey wish to imagine it since it is entirely a fabrication of their minds.  It is like the classes on mummering  offered by some enterprising artsy type to the spawn of townie yuppies or whatever the middle class pretentious are called these days.  Lisa Moore wrote of them in 2011 for the folks on the mainland who read something called The Walrus

To Crummey’s credit, though, he is aware that the changes in the province are not the same among the crowd in St. John’s compared to elsewhere.  Moore was not.  Where Moore and Crummey are the same, however, is that they both seem unaware that what they are describing as traditional, i.e. real, Newfoundland is nothing more than what people like Moore and Crummey have appropriated,  adulterated, and now market as authentic. 


The people in the coastal communities visited by Crummey’s cruise ship are very much like the folks on the northeast coast.  Those people live near an ungodly expensive and unearthly retreat for the uber-rich,  built by an ex-pat who has come back to lift her people up with her wealth.  If Crummey wants to know what is happening to the areas of the province that aren’t in ear-shot of Duckworth Street province, he need only look at the cruise or the hotel.  These places have become a sort of free-range Disneyland.

The identity crisis Michael Crummey describes isn’t really one that exists outside the heads of the same people who write this sort of stuff for mainland audiences.  Crummey, Moore, and Greg Malone are all basically the same people doing the same thing.  They produce fiction, confuse it with reality, and get paid by mainlanders who have space to fill in between Peg Wente and a piece on American popular culture. Crummey peddles the myth of the hardy bayman, the bedrock of the nation romantic load of crap. Malone on the other hand views the baymen as little more than inbred idiots, or worse. 

Either way,  the identity is one foisted on one group of people by another.  If those delusions are in danger of disappearing, then all the better we will be for it.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will cope with the world, as it is.  We’ll get to that aspect of Crummey’s piece in another post.



Jerry Bannister said...

Well, I didn't read the story in the Glib when it came out, because I was camping at Gros Morne.

I know nothing about cruise ships, but I know lots about ferry crossings, sans cabin. Of all the people I talked with and saw on Deck 7 of the Highlanders and Blue Puttees, no one seemed the least worried about their identity. The proportion of bumper-stickers, flags, and other types of "proud to be a Newfoundlander" stuff on the trucks and cars was about the same as it's always been. Throughout our trip, I was struck by how uneventful everything seemed: no one wanted to chat about politics; Frank Coleman seemed long forgotten; and I was the only person around who wanted to talk about Muskrat Falls. Everyone seemed comfortable in their own cultural skin, and if had asked them if they knew what it meant to be a Newfoundlander, I doubt if anyone would have taken the question seriously. (I did, however, get trapped in some epic conversations about how hot July had been).

If there is some sort of collective identity crisis going on, it's certainly well hidden on the West Coast of Newfoundland. The only solid fact that my research turned up is that the food at the North Sydney ferry terminal is far worse than the deep-fried offerings at the Port aux Basques terminal. I've never been to Raymond's, so Crummey's cultural references are over my head; but I can vouch for the one-course fish & chips at Port aux Basques, so long as you have ample tartar sauce on hand. There was no in-house sommelier, I'm afraid, but I did sample a nice cold Pepsi from 2014.

Peter said...

I've been to Raymond's. It's excellent, and expensive. Only a very special occasion will lure me back. Opinions expressed by Gerry and Ed here are curious, only in that both seem as determined to stereotype "pseudo-intellectuals" and nationalists as readily as the targets of their derision supposedly spoonfeed a lie to the masses. Culture is a reciprocal phenomenon, nurtured by both myth and reality. It's no different here than anywhere else. I have no issue with wriggling apart fiction and fact, but frankly, methinks thou dost protest too much. BTW we are also in Gros Morne and dined at the fat-fryer-free Java Jacks. The lunch menu is very reasonable.

Ed Hollett said...

No one said anything about lies, Peter.

What I was driving at was that the whole identity issue is one that has been, generally, contrived by people other than the ones supposedly with the identity. People in Quirpon did not come up with the idea that they were the best small boatmen in the world, the bedrock of the secret nation and all that.

The second part is that the idea that the fishery is all there ever was to this Great Secret Nation until the past 20 years is simply not sustainable. The place has been shifting for quite some time, economically, and there is something in this elite/intelligentsia angst we do need to examine. It just isn;t what Crummey thinks it is, in my opinion.

Third, and I think more importantly, the economic shifts are significant and far more complex than "what does we do now dat da fish is gone, b'y."

I am gonna get at that in another post because Crummey is actually onto something there. it might not make a good niovel, but it is far more significant.

I hope he sells a few books, by the way.

Jerry Bannister said...

Thanks for the tip, Peter. I have been to Java Jacks before, but didn't make it this time around. I had my two sons with me, so careful menu/restaurant planning went out the window the minute we hit the road.

"Culture is a reciprocal phenomenon, nurtured by both myth and reality." No argument from me on that point. But I still don't buy the notion of a collective identity crisis.

I don't recall stereotyping "pseudo-intellectuals," or even invoking the term; but if that's what you took away from my rather tongue-in-cheek comment, so be it. There are worse things to be accused of, I suppose.

Ed Hollett said...

You may not have Jerry, but I did. I gather Peter's comment included both of us.