05 August 2013

On bigotry and prejudice #nlpoli

The Telegram editorial last Friday offered a few comments on some recent examples of nasty words tossed at people not from one place or another.

One was a letter that turned up in the Calgary Sun complaining about all the Newfs in western Canada.  Another was the number of people telling local political gadfly Brad Cabana that he should frig back off to western Canada where he came from, or words to that effect.

The editorial noted that these expressions of what the editorialist called bigotry, are different when they come from prominent people compared to “ordinary” people because the “ordinary”  idiots are everywhere.

Every now and then, writes the editorialist, it is useful to “out” the bigots and the racists and give them the “scorn and derision” they deserve.  Otherwise, the editorialist wrote with a tip of the hat to none other than Bill “pimple on the arse” Rowe, we shouldn’t pay any attention to that stuff.

Now if one  read only that editorial, one might cluck approvingly on it and then go on contended that one was with the righteous among us.  But if you knew some context for all this, you would quickly recognise the editorial for the tripe it is.

The Erstwhile Heart and Soul of the Heart and Soul of Newfoundland and Labrador

Let us start first of all with the Cabana episode.  Some people criticised him for being not from here.  Remember that in 2011 - not much more than two years ago  - Brad Cabana wanted to lead the provincial Conservative Party.  The reason he gave was simple:
"I consider Danny Williams to be the father of modern Newfoundland and Labrador, but what I think I can do is take that battle to the next level, likely involving, you know, Ottawa and Quebec City," Cabana told reporters outside the PC party's headquarters.
The Conservative Party’s political success over the the past decade was built on relentlessly whistling to the dogs of bigotry. It started in 2001 with a recitation of all the old tales of victimisation and a few new new ones about supposed federal “manipulation” on the Upper Churchill.  It carried on through attacks on traitors and quislings, “we can’t be a dying race”,  and the omnipresent “Quebec” as the root of all external evil. 

Never mind that so much of the “Quebec” boogeyman is a post-1976 political invention.  Never mind either that in its most recent version,  the claims are often simply not true:  “Quebec” did not block any demand to wheel electricity through the province to market.  There’s not a shred of evidence it happened no matter how often provincial cabinet ministers claim it. 

To see how deeply ingrained the “Quebec” demon is in the public imagination, just note the ease with which politicians, their supporters, and even media commentators like Russell Wangersky and Bob Wakeham pick up the lines and repeat them without question.  Some  invent secret conspiracies. So commonplace are many of these stories in our culture that people react to them instinctively.  They may even be aware of the conditioned response the words trigger.  That doesn’t matter. They still react as they have done in the past.

Coded Language

In other instances, the origin of the prejudice is lost under the sands of time and layers of habit and custom.  Most don’t realise the bigoted roots of what they say.

Take, for example, Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s recent comments about Newfoundland “owning” Labrador.  In all likelihood, she spoke about Labrador in a way she has heard since childhood.  Dunderdale meant no more offense in that than when people talk of traveling from St. John’s to Corner Brook as being across the province.  That’s just the words they have always heard and used, unaware of the meaning behind it.

They don’t realise it goes back to the pre-Confederation, pre-1934 time when the island was the entire country and Labrador was its remote colony full of only half-breeds and Eskimos, to use distasteful words from the past.  For all the time that has passed and the perceptions that have matured, Labrador can still be reduced by some to little more than a possession, not an integral part of the province.  Except for the fact Labrador brings billions to the public treasury, the same sort of people would sell it off as easily today as they tried to in the 1920s to cover off the massive public debt.

There is a difference, we should note, between the way some people talk about Newfoundland “owning” Labrador and Clyde Wells’ comments in the early 1990s that Labrador nothing more than one part of the whole province.  The context of the discussion back then was the complaint from some people in Labrador that there wasn’t a specific Labrador minister in cabinet.  There wasn’t, Wells said, any more than there was anyone else tasked with representing one bit or another of the the province.  That was how cabinet had swelled to 20-odd. After 1989,  every minister was supposed to represent the whole province equally.

But that is an aside since the difference is fairly obvious between the view that the province is a whole comprising Newfoundland and Labrador and the one that places emphasis on the island as being the heart and soul of the lost country, with Labrador as a possession to exploited for the benefit of the islanders.

Not Fit for It:  the Gospel According to St. Jim, as told by the Disciple Greg

Engrained bigotry and prejudice can also be of one part of the province against another, like the old townie-bayman division.  You can see that old chestnut clearly in the anti-Confederate gospel written down by Greg Malone.  According to Malone, the untrustworthy British set up the National Convention election such that delegates had to live in the district they represented.  One of the benefits of this, of course, was that for the first time in history, Labradorians as a whole got the vote.  That doesn't matter to Malone.  This residency requirement was an injustice, according to Malone, since it meant that many of the best and brightest of the country could not get a seat in the convention.  Best and brightest?  People living in St. John’s, he meant. 

Malone recites the anti-Confederate orthodoxy as he learned it at the feet of its chief prophet.  But there is no mistaking the prejudice inherent in it, any more than you can miss the prejudice in some of the reasons given by the country’s best and brightest for giving up democracy in the first place:
“The average person here is such that we ought never to have had self-government; we are not fit for it.”
That was the view of no less a person than the country’s former High Commissioner to London, Sir Edgar Bowring, as told to the Amulree Commission in 1933.  By average person, Bowering was not referring to the business owners and their lawyers who had – for example – abolished income tax in the 1920s because they didn’t want to pay it but maintained tariffs and duties to protect their manufacturing interests. No, Bowring was referring to the people others might call the “ordinary” people whose prejudice and bigotry ought to be “outed” periodically.  The old habits of thought die a hard death.

There won’t be enough of “us” to take all the jobs

Bigotry and prejudice come in coded language,  words whose intended meaning are known and understood only by certain people.   Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this is in the recent talk of jobs. The provincial government released a report a couple of years ago that said the provincial economy would produce upwards of 70,000 job vacancies in this province in the next decade.

The Conservatives introduced a private member’s resolution in the House of Assembly in  May 2012 to support some of their initiatives to promote training so people could take advantage of those job opportunities. 

The Conservatives selected Mount Pearl South backbencher Paul Lane to sponsor the motion and to speak to it.  Note part of what Lane said about the opportunities in front of us:
Should sanctioning occur on Muskrat Falls in the fall, we know that there is going to be a great boom and a great need for skilled trades; this motion is just basically strengthening our resolve to ensure that we are ready as a Province to meet those needs so that we can ensure employment for our people, that we can keep our young people home here in Newfoundland and Labrador; not only keep our people home, but bring our young people back home, young people who have had to leave over the years in search of work, to have the opportunity to be able to actually bring those people back home to Newfoundland and Labrador where they belong with their families, Mr. Speaker. [emphasis added]
That’s much the same as the comments the Telegram attributed to cabinet minister Darin King when he released the jobs report the summer before the debate:
King said the key to coping with the coming labour shortage will involve a combination of ideas. Such [sic] as encouraging older workers to stay in the workforce longer or start second careers, giving expatriate residents incentives to work in their home province, attracting newcomers from other provinces and immigration. [emphasis added]
And King had a variation on the theme during the debate in the House:
We want to target individuals coming out of high school and looking to choose a career that is going to land them a great income, that is going to allow them to settle back and live at home, in any part of the Province they choose; hopefully rural Newfoundland and Labrador, Mr. Speaker, because it is a great life out there, contrary to what you hear here sometimes. We recognize that, but we also recognize that we have other challenges.
You see the message.  The 70,000 jobs were a chance for more of “our people” to come home where they ought to be.  King does mention attracting immigrants, but that isn’t what the politicians focused most of their attention on.  Right after crowing about the glory times, they talked about the need to get older workers already in the province – locals –  to keep working and on having people who’d moved away come “home”.  Better that “we” have the jobs than “them”, whoever they are.  Those locals, no one should forget,  are overwhelmingly white and of English and Irish descent.

Does anyone remember the Homing Pigeon policy and tour?    How about the talk of foreign workers taking jobs in the food service industry?  Heard any complaints about that?  They are all part of the
same idea.

A Fitting End

Call it karma
Call it irony, even if it isn’t really ironic.

Call it just desserts.

There’s no denying the immense humour in the fact that Brad Cabana, once the self-proclaimed heir to the throne of the “proud, strong, and” determinedly xenophobic provincial Conservatives, now finds himself on the receiving end of the sorts of anti-outsider tirades the Conservatives thrive on. Cabana has been hoist by his own petard, in a way, and that is always fitting.

What is not right, in light of all this, is the Telegram editorialist’s conclusion that we ought to simply turn a blind eye to bigots since they are always going to be around.  Nor is it sensible to treat the prominent differently from the rest.

It is certainly wrong to treat one group of prominent people who say bigoted things – note the Telegram editorial’s choices – from others just because one lot are outsiders and the other lot are some of “us”.  When we tolerate – or worse still endorse – the prejudiced views of prominent individuals we make our world safe for the “ordinary” bigots not merely to think those thoughts but voice them and act on them as well.  The two are connected.  Their views come out of the same old beliefs, the same attitudes. Prejudice knows no boundaries. To turn a blind eye to the one within our own community is to sanction the other.

In the same way,  we cannot fight the sort of prejudice and bigotry inherent in comments like the one in the letter to a Calgary newspaper by returning it in kind.  Both are born of ignorance. Both are born of fear.

Ignorance and fear cannot be the basis for a healthy life for any of us individually just as they cannot be the foundation of a healthy society.   In Newfoundland and Labrador,  we cannot allow ignorance and fear of the sort we have seen over the past decade to continue. Their offspring – prejudice and bigotry – will only continue to bring the sort of economic, political, and social havoc they have already wrought.