09 June 2020

Mimicry and Pantomime #nlpoli

A couple of thousand people turned out in St. John’s on Saturday for a rally organized by a new group calling itself Black Lives Matter NL.  They listened to speeches, raised their fists, and did all the things one would expect at a rally to draw attention to anti-black racism in Newfoundland and Labrador.

There is anti-black racism in Newfoundland and Labrador, as much as people want to turn a blind eye to it.  Many of the people on the receiving end of the racist behaviour came here when the economy was booming.  The racism  - petty, vicious, ugly - was there if you wanted to see it.  And now that the economy is not booming, racists are expressing themselves more aggressively.

There was nothing particularly remarkable about the weekend protest except that it took the murder of yet another black man by police in the United States followed by two weeks of growing protests across the United States to spark anyone locally to notice what is and has been a problem here for some time.

There have been some brief flurries of public comment about racism here recently, but what makes this weekend’s demo rather unusual is that it took such overwhelming events in a completely different culture and country over two full weeks to spark a bit of stirring locally.

Not an issue, say some most likely since it was all for the good.  Well yes, it is good to see issues of race and racism raised in Newfoundland and Labrador.  And were this the only example of a local action spurred by international events, then we might well just ignore.

Except that it isn’t one, odd example.

This past weekend, some activists, mostly white ones, picked up another of the American cries, this one to “defund” the police and redirect the money to social services.  Do it here too, some people said online because – simplistically – police in Canada had killed black people or Indigenous people.

A class action suit in Newfoundland and Labrador by Indigenous people who were abused in residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador before Confederation came after a similar suit in Canada, a national investigation, and an apology from the federal government. The two systems were completely different in purpose and operation, but everyone involved in the lawsuit treated them as if they were identical.

A couple of years ago, as Americans started pulling down statues to prominent figures from the Confederacy, some people looked around in Newfoundland and Labrador to see if there were statues of racists to pull down. Someone noticed a statue of an early Portuguese explorer, a gift in 1965 from the Portuguese government to a place and a people with whom Portuguese had long connections. He took local Indigenous people as slaves some said, although as one historian noted there isn’t really much evidence that was true.  Haul it down, some others said, although no one has done it yet.

CBC’s Ted Blades invited three local women to come to the studio on International Women’s Day a couple of years ago and discuss where women stood in Newfoundland and Labrador society.  The three women that Ted invited were community leaders by any reasonable definition of the term although they would not necessarily have been household names for everyone in every town and cove across the province.

What was most interesting about the interview was that they talked very little about Newfoundland and Labrador.  When asked about how she became active in women’s issues, one of the guests talked about events in the United States.  In fact, a couple of them spent a lot of time talking about the United States, Donald Trump, and Me Too.

And when they finally did get around to the province in which they lived, there was nothing wrong apparently.  Everything for women was peachy.  They did discuss the accusations in the House of Assembly at the time, but that conversation came at the end of the interview, not the beginning. 

In general, there was nothing either of the women had to offer about what was happening in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Two of the three used the United States as their point of reference to the extent that it was bordering on the bizarre. They knew or or cared very little for what was happening in Newfoundland and Labrador.  Middle class, well-educated women essentially disconnected from the place in which they lived.

A few years ago, some people thought that opioids were the most important drug-addiction topic in Newfoundland and Labrador. They chose it because the story was on the front page of the Globe and Mail.  It affected primarily British Columbia and Ontario and was never a significant policy problem in Newfoundland and Labrador the way they were elsewhere.  But that was the issue they focused on.

Regular readers will know the long-standing joke around these parts that the Globe was the newspaper of record for Newfoundland nationalists.  But the Globe is more than that.  It is the newspaper that the urban middle class, the local people who want to fancy themselves and want to be seen as informed opinion-leaders in Newfoundland and Labrador look to as their benchmark. Talking about what was in the Globe is, as much as anything else, a sign of status or of belonging. 

But it goes beyond that in Newfoundland and Labrador. So many things are only real in Newfoundland and Labrador if the Toronto newspaper pronounces on it.

Think, for example, of the attention paid to a second-rate columnist who not once but twice baited the province’s opinion elite into giving her airtime.  She did it once by making derogatory comments about the province and then by not making the comments.  The first one might have been an accident but the second was calculated.  And the local elites, primarily in the news media this time, took the bait she dangled, and knowingly swallowed the hook all the way down to their small intestines.

The tendency to mimic external political movements or take cues to action from external events reflects a curious characteristic of political culture in Newfoundland and Labrador.  The examples here are a few and range from the trivial – Peg Wente - to far more serious and significant ones like the residential schools settlement or the fight against racism.

Mimicry reflects not merely a fundamental disconnection between political and social elites in St. John’s on the one hand and the province and its people on the other but also the fundamental disinterest  by the local elites in them.  

After all, if anyone were genuinely interested in addressing racism in the society, they could not organize a demonstration based solely on external events when there have been more than enough *local* indicators of the need for action.

Even if you allow that the external events were just a convenient trigger, it is unfathomable that the organizers of the weekend anti-racism event ignored the largest group of people of colour in the province.  It’s not like Indigenous people have no unaddressed grievances or no longer endure casual racism in the province.

Anyone genuinely interested in combatting racism in Newfoundland and Labrador, then would not focus on actions that are, at best, weak symbolic gestures.  In the United Kingdom last weekend, protestors tossed the statue of a notorious slave trader into the harbour.  Towns and states in southern American states erected Confederate statues as a political message to black people seeking equal rights in the years after the Civil War.  Removing statues in both these cases reflect a demonstrable connection between modern political views and events of the past that took place in those communities.

But in Newfoundland and Labrador, the Gaspar Corte Real statue came to public attention because someone with very little knowledge of local history and politics tried to find a local example of the American type of statues.  In itself, that demonstrates not only the general ignorance involved in the exercise but its superficial, and ultimately, transient nature.

Defunding police imports a policy idea from another place without any regard for the very different situations in the United States and Canada. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the police are not lavishly funded at the expense of help for the mentally ill and the poor. 

We need to fund many social services and supports better than we do.  But the money for that would better come from other sources, like ending the tuition freeze at Memorial University or eliminating other transfers to the urban  well-to-do who are – in case you forgot  – the social and political elites taking their cue from elsewhere about what is important in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Racism *is* an issue in Newfoundland and Labrador that we must address.  There *is* a need for better supports for the poor, the mentally ill and others in society.  And there are other issues that we do not even talk about because social and political elites tend to look elsewhere, particularly to the United States, to determine what is important and how we should respond.

This mimicry – and particularly the disconnection and disinterest underneath it – have costly consequences.  Importing social and culturally inappropriate policies or substituting stunts for substantive action harm the communities in which we live.  They distract us from what is actually going on.  

If you do not think this is real, consider how much of the response to COVID-19 was based on news reports from CNN and other American media that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians watch with a passionate intensity. We do not want to wind up like the Americans.  And so we have been locked down far longer than necessary, cut off from needed health care, and with an economy that will continue to struggle to recover.