26 January 2005

Of cliches, stereotypes and the Accord

Online at Macleans this week, you won't find the feature article on Newfoundland and Labrador, but you will find a column by Macleans editor Anthony Wilson-Smith. It's titled Beyond the old cliches.

Wilson-Smith notes, and I whole-heartedly agree, that "[t]he clicheés, in short, of Newfoundland as a poverty stricken, hardscrabble place from which all the best people rush to escape are now well past their expiry dates." Anyone who has been around this place over the past 20 years can't help but notice the changes, especially in St. John's. But the changes, economic, social and attitudinal, are also found in most of the major centres across the island and in Labrador.

A good sign that the cliches are stale is the reaction to Mary Walsh's latest television comedy. Back in the Codco days, the days of the infamous "newfie" joke books, the sort of stereotypes of Newfoundlanders seen in the Hatching pilot - hard-drinking to be sure, but variously scheming or lazy - were commonplace. They became, for the artistically challenged, a sort of low-rent local Punch and Judy show, filled with stock types to be trotted out for easy laughs. The humour was in their outrageous accents and for local audiences, there were "inside" jokes that only some would get. To make the entire spectacle of the 70s and 80s Newfoundland "nationalism" complete, at social gatherings, someone would inevitably don rain gear, and wield a codfish and rum bottle, like orb and sceptre, to bestow honorary "Newfie" status on mainlanders during "screech-in" ceremonies. The provincial government, under Brian Peckford, used to print up elaborate certificates for these little minstrel shows and give them a semi-official blessing in the process.

I may be exaggerating just a bit, but to be honest, as someone who grew up in that period in the 70s, I resented greatly what amounted to rendering down the varied local cultures across the province to a series of caricatures. To add to the injury, the caricatures were generated by townies, inevitably not by the people being parodied. Newfoundland and being a Newfoundlander was limited to what was presented by these Professional Baymen, with their "Lard t'underin' Dynamite" accent and colloquialisms buried behind a tongue-defying local "dialect".

What it seems many people have missed is that the place has changed. For most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, their pride and self-respect is not found in these overt and exaggerated displays of their unique dialect. It is in the individual and collective successes. It comes from rejecting the sort of make-work schemes and grandiose megaproject failures of the old days in favour of sound planning and good financial management of government other provinces might envy.

Those who view the Accord money as our "last chance" are just bringing back yet another old cliche from Peckford and the League of Professional Newfoundlanders. Paul Wells tossed that "last chance" one at me, and as I said to him, if extra oil money really is our "last chance", then boys, it's just as well we plan to shut the place down now. The "last chancers" have given up on Newfoundland and Labrador. They have a cliche of the place locked in their heads and, like Peckford [circa 1979], they likely plan to spend the extra oil money on propping up their out-of-touch vision of our province and its people. They likely will wind up subsidizing industrial development ideas that make no economic sense, like the Stunnel - like we have done before - or otherwise fritter away a windfall. In the meantime, substantive changes to the fishery, encouraging new industries, decentralizing government and fostering individual initiative and entrepreneurship will all be ignored. Those are the things that would actually give this place a secure future, and ensure that there is never a "last chance" when it comes to make Newfoundland and Labrador a prosperous place.

In that sense, Wilson-Smith's view of Danny Williams is part of a cliche. Williams is supposedly fighting to preserve rural Newfoundland and Labrador. Wilson-Smith claims that "what's really at issue is the survival of rural Newfoundland, which is 'the crucible and cradle of its poetry, its songs, its stories, its tragedies, its passions, its beauties.' " The second part of the quote, about poetry and such, is from Richard Gwyn.

This cliche, that "rural" Newfoundland is the heart of the place is completely false; it is no more true than the idea that the Professional Bayman of the 1970s represented a genuine Newfoundlander. It may fit conveniently with some people's image of the place but it neither represents a deeper truth, as some cliches do, nor does it represent the face of this place now or in the future. It is, at best, one aspect of Newfoundland and Labrador but rural, i.e. cod fishing, is no more the defining characteristic of who "we" are than "wheat" or "oil" or "maple syrup" defines some part of the country. It is significant, it may even be a major part, but it is not all.

In a broader sense, the discussion over the Atlantic Accord has become little more than a series of old sayings. Premier Williams repeats the "masters of our destiny" line from Peckford or the "Newfoundlanders as victims" theme. The Premier becomes the latest embodiment of yet another cliche, "the fighting Newfoundlander". He trots out the Upper Churchill, yet again. His interview with Macleans last year was, as I have written elsewhere, something that could have been written from some reporters 1970s notebooks.

What gets lost in the process is a great deal, not the least of which is the substance embodied in the Premier personally and in the Blue Print. It is that loss, it is that sense that the Premier is reduced or is being reduced to a caricature of someone else, that fuels my own personal disappointment at the current Accord dispute.

There is so much more to my Newfoundland and Labrador than any cliche could ever express.

There is so much greater potential here, in the people and in the place itself, than is embodied in the stereotypes on which much public comment has been based, and to which we have been limited.