New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair likely never imagined that an insult he threw at a couple of Parti Quebecois politicians in the Quebec National Assembly 20 years ago would come back to haunt him 2015.
Liberal candidate Nick Whalen likely never imagined that reminding Mulcair of the word he used – “Newfie” - would rob Mulcair of whatever coverage he’d hoped to get out of his campaign stop in St. John’s.
But it did.
Then the controversy over Mulcair’s remarks carried on for another two days as New Democrats whined and complained about the whole issue. That only served to keep it going.
And to make sure the story didn’t die, two national pieces - Colby Cosh (National Post) and Evan Dyer (CBC) – weighed in. Cosh and Dyer picked up on the context of the original comment and that’s where things stared to get really interesting.
Cosh does a fine job of recounting what happened in 1996:
During the debate Mulcair charged Quebec separatists with having lost two referendums but saying, “That doesn’t count, but when we do win, then it will count.” Parti Quebecois MNA Léandre Dion piped up, saying “They are following the Newfoundland example.” Mulcair rejoined with “It’s true that it’s pretty Newfie, your business. You’re correct to say it like that.”
The point Mulcair was trying to make, according to Cosh was that “Newfoundlanders let themselves be procedurally swindled in 1948, the old-model Mulcair seems to have been saying; Canada will not let itself be taken for the same ride by Quebec.”
Cosh says that plenty “of Newfoundlanders will, I think, testify that this view of history is accurate, and that it does not reflect well on their forefathers, who were led down a garden path to economic dependence by Smallwood. “ He says the referenda in 1948 were “heavily gamed” meaning, in effect that they were rigged.
Dyer does the same thing a couple of days later but on a slightly different tack. He quotes Cosh and then carries the discussion along a bit farther. Dyer recites the anti-Confederate catechism. The whole thing was rigged. “Many Newfoundlanders know” the truth, according
“The cause of Confederation was defeated in the first vote, 45 per cent to 41 per cent. Britain's Whitehall mandarins, who designed the process in consultation with Joey Smallwood and the Canadian government, were determined to achieve the result they wanted.”
None of what Dyer wrote is true, of course. He appears to draw his entire account of what happened between 1947 and 1949 from Greg Malone’s recent book, Don’t tell the Newfoundlanders. Dyer calls it well researched although, again, he has it wrong.
History written by a comedian
Reviewer after reviewer has noted that Malone’s book is very poorly researched. One of the reviewers who criticises Malone is former Premier Brian Peckford whose own book from the 1980s Dyer cites. Had Dyer done a little checking he might have found that out. Peckford’s review notes Malone’s problems aren’t confined to his account of the 1940s. He makes ridiculous - and completely unsubstantiated - claims about the 1980s and about the more recent past.
Malone started out believing in a conspiracy and set about to prove it. Not surprisingly, Malone found what he went looking for. And equally unsurprisingly, Malone ignored anything that contradicts his pre-determined conclusion.
As historian Peter Neary demonstrated in his seminal work Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, the British put the question of Newfoundland’s future to the country in a pair of referenda. The first had three options: Confederation, Responsible Government, and a continuation of the Commission. Responsible Government received a plurality, as Dyer notes. But the British had already decided before the first vote to hold a second vote in the event neither of the three options achieved a majority of votes.
There simply is no evidence to support Malone’s claim that the British burned the real ballots and reported a false results. A few people have claimed this over the years. None have found any evidence. There is even a decent little movie based on the story but it is, like the movie, a work of fiction.
Dyer and Cosh would have done well to read historian Jeff Webb’s 1998 article on the Confederation conspiracy arguments. He summarises them accurately and demolishes them all. Had the British planned to rig the ballots notes Webb, they went at it in a very odd way. They had a contingency prepared in the event that Newfoundland and Labradorians voted for a return to Responsible Government within the British Empire.
What’s more striking than anything about both these national columns is the ease with which they accept the central argument of Malone’s book, apparently without understanding its full implications.. Dyer gave it in modified form but the structure is unmistakeable from the standard Confederation conspiracy arguments. Confederation was the result of a plot, Dyer says, by “Britain's Whitehall mandarins, who designed the process in consultation with Joey Smallwood and the Canadian government.”
Part of the process, the selection of delegates to the convention, included the requirement that delegates live in the districts they represented. This robbed the convention of many “qualified candidates”, Malone argues. That is code for people from St. John’s who, in the years before 1934, routinely ran as a parachute candidates in districts around the island. The result was that the conspirators were able to hoodwink the baymen into voting for Confederation in the classic anti-Confederate formulation
People in Labrador could not vote, incidentally. The first time the people of that part of the province held the franchise was in the vote for the National Convention and in the two referenda. .
That’s the element missing from Dyer’s version: the ignorant baymen. This is the same element that factored in so many presentations made to the Amulree commission by the people who had put the country up on the rocks in the first place. The people of the country, that is the people not from the business class or their supporters, were incapable to running their own affairs according to people like Sir Edgar Bowring. Fifteen years later, those same people would blame the baymen for Confederation and a half century later their progeny would keep the same bigoted argument alive..
Baymen were the original version of the Newfies. And that is the way that this entire discussion comes back to the point at which it started. The ethnic stereotype on which Mulcair relied is, by only minor evolution, the one that Malone relied upon. It is the thread of ignorance that runs through them both.
The New Democrats and the Nationalists
There is no small irony that the modern federal New Democratic Party is built on an alliance in Quebec with former supporters of the Bloc Quebecois. Nor is there any small irony that Malone is a New Democratic Party supporter just like Ryan Cleary, another proponent of the Confederation conspiracy. Ordinarily, Cleary, the self-described Fighting Newfoundlander would be beside himself condemning a mainlander who had dared to use the word Newfie to describe the people from this province. Last weekend, Cleary said that Mulcair’s comments were old news and we should all forget them.
Last week, what Cleary did have time for, though, was to set himself up as the judge of what he called “patriotism.” In a debate with Liberal candidate Seamus O”Regan, Cleary pronounced that he was satisfied that O’Regan - who grew up in Labrador - was “a good Newfoundlander.”
Later in the debate, Cleary changed his mind. He accused O”Regan of having spent too much time living on the mainland. By implication, O”Regan was not a “good Newfoundlander.” He had gone over to the enemy, implicitly. In Cleary’s simplistic construction, which is the same simplistic contention of Malone and others often described as “nationalists”, mainlanders exploit Newfoundland as they have done since the conspiracy in the 1940s. “Patriots” fight against mainlanders, as Cleary will quickly tell you he supposedly does..
Some people contend that Cleary’s attack on O’Regan violated Cleary’s earlier comment that he did not wish to make the debate that night into a personal one. The truth is that Cleary was merely saying at that point what he had been thinking all along. If he had not been thinking in such personal terms, if he did not assess the world in an “our ethnic group” versus “their ethnic group” fashion, then Cleary would not have needed to pronounce his satisfaction with O’Regan’s supposed patriotism.
The hypocrisy in all of this is breathtaking. After all, one cannot credibly reject the bigotry inherent in the word “Newfie” on the one hand and, on the other hand, embrace the same bigotry - albeit in reverse – that is at the heart of the “good Newfoundlander” or “good patriot” labels. The two are inextricably linked.
Yet that hypocrisy has played a dominant role in provincial politics over the past decade. There is no accident that Cleary, for example, carries on about being the fighting Newfoundlander. He is setting himself up, even if only in his own mind, as the heir of the other fighting Newfoundlander of recent times.
Cleary spent a lot of time in the debate with O’Regan reciting prepared lines. He recited the lines on NDP policy written for him by the NDP staffers in Ottawa. There is no shortage of hypocrisy here. And when he wasn’t reciting those lines, Cleary was pushing his own.
“I think my strength is the fact that I feel my finger on the pulse,” said Cleary after the debate. “I feel connected to Newfoundland and Labrador. I don't know if that's necessarily his strength.”
Live and breath the province. Finger on the pulse. It sounds so close to what another politician said: “I think I represent, in my heart and soul, the hearts and souls of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.” Danny Williams said that in 2007 in an effort to explain to a national audience why he was supposedly so popular. That was the same year Williams set up a program to boost the population. The government would pay women a cash bounty for every child they delivered. “We cannot be a dying race,” he told reporters at the time.
Williams too engaged in hunts for traitors and Quislings. He found foreign enemies everywhere, especially in Quebec. Conspiracies are everywhere. Investors should come to Newfoundland and Labrador, Williams claimed in 2006, because Quebec was politically unstable. look at the two referenda they’d had to try and leave Canada. When some politicians in Quebec thought the comment insulting, Williams – like Mulcair a decade earlier – apologised if those people found the truth to be an insult.
The hypocrisy abounds for both Cleary and Williams, just as there is no accident that Cleary and Williams so sound much alike. The one is the clone of the other. What they share is an abiding love of the identity politics that has grown popular in the province since the 1970s. In a completely unexpected fashion, that is the swamp into which Thomas Mulcair inadvertently waded, pineapple crush in hand.
Unpacking the rat’s nest
There are a great many things to unpack from this week in Canadian politics, as played out primarily in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The most obvious is that we cannot allow ethnic bigotry to form the basis of national policy, as it has to one degree or another since perhaps the 1970s. That is when the identity politics currently expounded in Newfoundland and Labrador by people like Cleary and Malone first blossomed.
At the heart of that form of identity politics is the word Newfie. The essence of the word Newfie, the thing that makes it the other N-word, is way of thinking that is destructive. Whether it is in the townie versus baymen version, the Newfoundland victim versus Canadian exploiter version or in the Quebec versus Newfoundland version or even the Newfoundlander versus Labradorian one, we are engaging in a way of thinking that is not only utterly false but corrosive to our politics and our morality.
One cannot understand what actually happened in the 1940s by thinking in these terms. One cannot correctly identify current problems in the early part of this century by thinking in those terms. If we cannot understand our problems, then we cannot find solutions to them. One excellent example of this can be found in the energy policy of the current administration. It is founded on the belief a false conflict, a false conspiracy and that belief has driven the provincial government to an energy project that may prove financially ruinous to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The second most obvious point is the one offered by Cosh, Dyer, and Mulcair. Clearly, Canadians do not understand one of the seminal events in our national history in the 20th century. They have been duped. In the case of Cosh and Dyer, they have been taken in by nonsense merely because it was peddled by a celebrity in a book marketed very aggressively by a national publisher. They are not alone there hundreds of thousands of other Canadians who have been suckered.
The third point is that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are not merely telling these stories to themselves. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians ought to be aware of the wider implication to discussions such as the one about Confederation. The stories we tell ourselves are ones we also tell to others. People from outside Newfoundland did not invent the idea of Newfies by themselves. They found the seeds of it in the derogatory comments about baymen from people like Edgar Bowering in the 1930s or, more recently, from people like the anti-Confederates.
There are others. We must be careful to appreciate the extent to which the so-called nationalist position – Newfoundlander versus mainlander – masks an internal cleavage between those with power and those without it inside the province.
Those who seek to gain more from the federal government ostensibly for the benefit of the province as a whole province are the same ones who refuse to address demands from the within the province to address genuine grievance or inequity between, for example, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians or, to use a cruder term, townies versus baymen.
Those who demand greater control of the fishery, for example do not intended to let people in the fishery have more to say about their industry than they currently have.. They wish to bring power from Ottawa politicians and bureaucrats and give it to local politicians and bureaucrats. The net result, pardon the pun, would not necessarily be better for the people in the industry. Indeed, as the recent CETA talks have shown, the local politicians and bureaucrats may be completely unable to manage the fishery properly..
We should be aware, as well, that any supposed resurgence of traditional culture in the province, such as mummering, may be nothing more than the appropriation of practices from one social group by another, dominant one. In the process, cultural practices may be cleansed of their underlying meaning or reduced to a caricature.
They is transmogrified, in other words. They go from being a genuine part of a living culture to sterile invention. Malone’s book is a perfect example. The townie actor transforms actual events into cheap fiction and claims it is authentic. In the end it is no more genuine than the understanding a great many people in the country have of how Newfoundland and Labrador came to be part of Canada.