19 September 2013

Politics and the Ethnic Vote #nlpoli

A few people people in Newfoundland and Labrador are getting agitated about the fact there’s a street in Nova Scotia called Newfie Lane.

For those who may not know, the word “newfie” causes huge problems among Newfoundlanders.  Some – like your humble e-scribbler  - have never heard it used except with some measure of insult attached to it.  It’s the other N-word.

Others don’t mind it so much. The key thing to note here is that being from Newfoundland and all things associated with that are powerful symbols. Place is a big thing here.   Identity is a big thing.  The two go together.

You’ll see a measure of just how sensitive local identity is in the dust-up the other night between two of the candidates in the Liberal leadership contest.  The issue of foreign workers has come up a few times in the leadership ruckus.  The one the other night led to some other comments after the debate and a whole lot of nastiness that won’t really be settled by the apologies and vaguely worded official statement one of the campaigns issued afterward.  The issue will linger below the surface.

The same issue came up in the VOCM debate a few nights earlier, although things were less personal at that point.  The candidates took a question about immigration, future job shortages, and the need to bring in local workers.  Newfoundlanders and Labradorians first a couple of them agreed and the rest nodded more or less in agreement.

In the same debate, someone brought up the number of Labradorians working on Muskrat Falls.  That’s a big issue among Labradorians. Another candidate wanted to create a special section of government specifically to look after issues affecting Labrador.  Another pointed out the provincial government already had that.

Both of those intertwined issues – the number of locals working on a government project – is something the Conservatives tweet and speak about whenever they can.  Muskrat Falls is, after all, one of the largest make-work projects in the history of anywhere on the planet. How many locals get hired is a big political deal.

Of course there’s much more to it than a bunch of unemployed people looking to get a decent jobs.  Lots of the talk about Newfoundlanders or Labradorians first is just another manifestation of the sort of xenophobia that the Conservatives exploited to propel themselves to popular heights after 2003.  They have attacked foreigners.  They accused them of plots and schemes. Danny Williams did it.  Kathy Dunderdale has done repeatedly.  Locals who objected were traitors to their birthplace. 

And in 2007, they introduced a cash program to encourage women in the province to give birth to more children.  It was a classic pro-natalist program that came complete with the reference by the Premier of the day about saving a dying “race”. 

He was dog-whistling, using words that carry meanings most people would miss or ignore, but that would resonate with certain segments of the population.

You can hear a rather curious return to dog-whistling in some recent comments Kathy Dunderdale made to reporters about a call for her resignation.  In some media interviews, she said that telegram editor Russell Wangersky “has never been a friend of the Tory government.”

In her scrum after a speech at an oil and gas trade show, though, Dunderdale used different words to talk about Wangersky before she got to the “Tory government” phrase.  According to Dunderdale, Wangersky has had strong criticism of “this province” since 2003. Then she added that he has been critical of the leadership of the province.  Then she got to the Tory government thing before going on to dispute his criticisms of Muskrat Falls.

Wangersky has been critical of Muskrat Falls.  Lots of people think the project is nutty and they have good reason to doubt Dunderdale’s claims that there are markets in New England waiting for the energy from this province.  The fact she doesn’t have a single confirmed sale for the power outside Newfoundland and Labrador is proof enough Dunderdale is full of crap.

But that’s actually besides the point.  Since 2003, Wangersky hasn’t actually been very critical of the Tories at all except maybe for some disagreements about access to information.  For the most part, Russell Wangersky’s opinion columns have been pretty nice to the Conservatives.  He wrote a lovely political obituary for Dunderdale’s predecessor, for example.

And as for strong criticism of this province, of Newfoundland and Labrador, that is nothing but a despicable lie. Absolutely not, never, ever.  Quite the contrary in fact.

So why would Dunderdale make that comment using those words?  Well, it wasn’t an accident, a slip of the tongue. It wasn’t just that she was really miffed.  What Dunderdale was doing, in her own way, was harking back to the same sort of ethic nationalist rhetoric she and her predecessors have used repeatedly since 2003. She headed back to old programming. 

And in the process, some of the people who heard the reference didn’t miss the fact they already knew:  Wangersky isn’t from here.  He came from Nova Scotia.  He works for a paper owned in Quebec.  Whether it was Ryan Cleary using that sort of biased commentary when he used to run the Spindy or the Old Man living in his paranoid delusional world, it’s all part of the same ethnic nationalist philosophy.

These comments don’t necessarily come from conscious thoughts.  This thinking is so pervasive people often use these coded words without realising what they mean. But the meaning is there and it is real.