15 October 2013

How not to promote immigration #nlpoli

The provincial Conservatives currently running the place have finally discovered what pretty well everyone else in government knew 20 years ago.

The population is getting older, on average.   That’s not good for a whole bunch of reasons.

They decided to create something called a population growth strategy, which is supposed to do exactly what it says:  make the number of people in the province get larger.


And there are really a whole lot of other “d’uh” moments when you read their background paper on how to get more people in the province.

People could have more babies.  Pretty simple idea, except that it will take about 20 years or so for this to have any meaningful effect.


Variation:  more births than deaths.

Short-term that makes the numbers look good but if you need workers and taxes,  you still have the same problem as just cranking out more babies.

D’uh number two.

We could hang onto the people we have and lure more of the ex-pats back.

Sounds like a possible idea.  Only problem is that after a decade of the homing pigeon strategy under the Conservatives, people are still leaving in droves.

D’uh number three.

We could attract more people to come here who didn’t have any family connections to Newfoundland and Labrador.

D’uh number four.

All these ideas have one thing in common.  You need a booming economy that produces lots of jobs in order support all those people.

That’s pretty much the Super D’uh of all D’uhs in this exercise.  As SRBP noted last month,  Saskatchewan has been experiencing a huge growth in population thanks to its booming economy.  That stands in stark contrast to Newfoundland and Labrador, where the non-oil economy is doing anything but booming.

All of that is old news for regular SRBP readers. 

But since this population issue isn’t going to go away, let’s just take a closer look at one possible way to make the population grow and see what we can make of it.  Let’s look at the idea of increasing the number of people coming into the province to live.

Newfoundland and Labrador is a place of immigrants.  Increasing the population by inviting more people to come live here makes perfect sense.   After all, there’s not a single person in the province whose people didn’t come here from somewhere else.  Not a single person.  Whether they came on foot across a land bridge a few tens of millennia ago or on a plane last week,  everyone is an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants.

Aside from having a way to make a living, people stayed here after the wave of European immigration started because they found an open society in which they could live, raise a family, make friends, and do all the other things human beings like to do.  That hasn’t always been true, indeed there are some decidedly black spots in our history, but for the most part being an open society is either what we have been or what what we ought to be.

Notice that it isn’t a matter of toleration.

Toleration is a word that suggests a dominant group puts up with a bunch of strangers.

We are talking an open society. 

Totally different concept.

The Conservative Closed Society

All the values that go with being an open society are exactly the opposite of the sort of xenophobia the provincial Conservatives and others like them have been pushing since 2003.  As SRBP put it a while ago, no one
… who genuinely appreciates this place and its people could conflate the world of fog – where Phillips literally came ashore – with the land of fear and insecurity of Williams’ era nationalism. The people who head out into the world, head high, as they have done for centuries and who meet all comers with confidence are not the same ones who see conspiracy and perfidy in every foreign accent.  The people who believe that “we are a dying race” are not the people who looked on a black man and saw nothing but a human being in distress.
Another mark of this move toward a more closed society has been the effort over the past decade to impose an entirely false definition of Newfoundland society as being predominantly Irish. In their first administration after 2003, the Conservatives spent a lot of time signing economic agreements, cultural agreements, and more recently fisheries research deals with Ireland. One of the clearest signs of this celtification movement has been the creation of a permanent exhibit at the provincial museum, that does nothing but support this cultural  fraud.

The latest sign of this same thinking can be found in the English school district and one elementary school in which the children are supposedly learning about “their Irish roots”.  The project – run by a group that grew out of the government celtification movement -  involves twinning a school in Newfoundland with one in Ireland. 

There are a few of problems with this project.  For starters, it is a bit hard to understand how the students are discovering their roots when the odds are that fewer and fewer of them would have Irish ancestors at all.

How Irish they aren’t

In the days of sectarian-based education, St. Matthews’  drew its students from parts of the west end of St. John’s that were predominantly Irish and Roman Catholic.  These days,  the student population is drawn from many cultures and many backgrounds.  It isn’t homogenous in culture anymore. 

These days, the school more accurately reflects the wider society.  Rather than celebrating their own heritage, the students would be likely someone else’s. That would be a good thing, if the school twinning program was part of a broad-based cultural awareness program.

But it isn’t.  The way the program appears to be set up, it looks like part of the effort to promote that false definition that Newfoundland culture is mostly Irish. Are the schools holding comparable events for students of other ethnic backgrounds?  It doesn’t seem so.  

There’s probably no coincidence that the rise of the celtification movement came after the end of sectarian-based education in the province.  Ethnicity and religion have been closely tied in Newfoundland and Labrador.  They were also became an integral part of the political system. 

Religion and Ethnicity

For a number of people in the province, the end of sectarian-based education meant a dramatic political change.  You can get a very good sense of how strong an issue this is if you pick up a copy of Senator Norm Doyle’s recently published collection of reminiscences.  The two referenda that led to the elimination of sectarian education  take up an unusually large chunk of the book.

Doyle misrepresents the constitutional and legal aspects of the issue completely.  He portrays it as a case of a majority vote stripping people of their rights as a minority. What Doyle doesn’t say is that the overwhelming majority of the people  - comprising eight Christian denominations - voted on their own rights.  That’s what the denominational education clause of the Terms of Union actually said. 

Doyle’s argument in favour of publicly-funded, sectarian education is overtly about religion, not culture.   He clearly opposed the lost opportunity for churches to provide religious instruction exclusive to their denomination.  He also believed that, in the absence of strict denominational education, students “would absorb the idea that there were no moral absolutes.” (page 221)

But culture isn’t far removed from the whole discussion of sectarian education in Doyle’s construction, as it wasn't in Newfoundland and Labrador in the old days:
The new system would indeed have new powers.  There would be no more schools teaching Christian principles or creeds.  As a matter of fact,  there would be no obligation on the part of the so-called enlightened system to teach much more about Christianity than it would about the other world religions, whether they were the new Asian religions, or Taoism, or Shamanism, or Confucianism, or Wicca, or New Age.  Christians might very well make up ninety-nine percent [sic] of the Newfoundland population, but [they] would now occupy the same space in our schools as those who barely made it onto the radar screen.
There are any of a number of levels on which that passage pulls your eyebrows toward the ceiling.  Doyle is clearly out of touch with how religious people in the province are these days, for one thing, when he claims that any percentage are Christian in more than name only.  The reference to the “Newfoundland” population is also dated, for another.

What’s striking for our purposes here is the presentation in Doyle’s book of a conflict between the Christian place called Newfoundland - on the one hand -  and all those other religions now moving in and supposedly taking over.   Note that Doyle omits entirely Judaism and Islam.  Instead, he rattles off unspecified “new Asian” religions, Wicca, New Age,  and others who “barely made it on the radar screen”, whatever that means.  His tone is insulting and degrading to anyone who isn't like Norm himself.
The Past, the Present, and the Future

While the provincial government may be talking about a population growth strategy, one of the issues tied up in it is the future of the province and its people.  Economically, modern Newfoundland and Labrador is a far cry from where it was even 20 years ago. The economy is tied intimately to global trade.  Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are different, as well.  They are much more cosmopolitan than they once were.

If the economy expands as many hope, then it is inevitable that we will welcome more immigrants to the province.  As an integral part of economic development, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will have to become more global in their outlook, more comfortable in the world at large.

That is already where the province and its people are, in many respects.  That’s the present.  The future will be even more of it.

What isn’t going to work is the reactionary past that rose to prominence after 2003.  Whether it is the Norm Doyle variety or the fabricated history favoured by Greg Malone and others, neither is a viable let alone desirable course for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in the future.

Manufacturing a local identity is also part of that unworkable approach.  Whatever the people behind the recent twinning at a St. John’s elementary school thought they were doing, it is part of a wider trend of fabricated national identity that we should not encourage.

Newfoundland Nationalism

One of the other issues tied up in the population strategy is the Newfoundland national identity.  Again, nationalism has been an integral part of the post-2003 political scene, including most recently a series of papers and public talks by academics.

One of the reasons why some people have been able to invent a national identity for Newfoundlanders that is Irish suggests strongly that the talk of an existing identity has been so much hot air or at the very least misplaced.  Others, notably history professor Sean Cadigan have argued that Newfoundland nationalism is a construction that some people use to divert attention from other political issues in society.  Well, that might be closer to the truth than some might first allow.


Overton, James. "Towards a critical analysis of neo-nationalism in Newfoundland." Underdevelopment and social movements in Atlantic Canada(1979): 219-49.