15 June 2020

Racism in Newfoundland and Labrador #nlpoli

An expression of power and privilege
Some people in Newfoundland and Labrador are talking about racism.

This is good.

Unfortunately, they are talking about racism somewhere else.

This is bad.

And, they aren’t really talking about racism with the intent to do something about.  They are talking about something completely superficial and meaningless.

That’s worse because nothing will change in Newfoundland and Labrador, where racism is so commonplace that most people don’t even realize it.

You can see how disconnected the racism conversation in Newfoundland and Labrador from the local reality by the talk of tearing down a statue to an obscure Portuguese explorer who may or may not have taken 57 slaves from somewhere in North America to Portugal.

If you are looking at that and scratching your head a bit, well, you should.

We know very little about Gaspar Corte Real.  On his one voyage early in the 16th century, Corte Real led a voyage of three ships, only two of which made it back to Portugal after stopping *somewhere* along the coast of northeastern North America. The one with Corte Real on board disappeared.

And everything about him disappeared into the ocean, had the Portuguese government not resurrected him and embellished his story as part of a campaign in the 1960s to win some support for Portugal at time when its dictatorial government was involved in human rights abuses and a bloody colonial war in Africa.

As part of the campaign, the Portuguese government gave the provincial government in Newfoundland and Labrador a statue, which has stood, entirely invisible since 1965. 

Flip ahead to 2017, when, in the midst of a national flurry of stories about statues somewhere else, a report for the Telegram looked around to see if there were any dubious statues that could hauled down here.  It was the ultimate local angle approach to a national and international story since pretty much everything in the story is unsourced. 

The claim about 57 slaves in the story comes with no attribution or source and the source cited in the Wikipedia entry on Corte Real gives the Telegram story as the source.  The number is absurdly precisely, given the fact there is very little known about the guy.  But in all likelihood, Corte Real did what pretty well every European explorer did at the time.  He landed, captured some locals, and brought them back to his country.  Doesn’t make it right by any measure but that really isn’t the point.

Three years after *that* story, the statue has come back into view as a result of a local demonstration inspired by events in the United States.  Even after the Telegram story, an astonishing number of people – including many who supported the local demonstration – did not have a clue who Gaspar Corte Real was.

They just want to haul down the statue.

But what does that have to do with racism in Newfoundland and Labrador?  Well, nothing at all.  The statue isn’t there to praise slavery and racism.  That’s what the controversial American statues are all about. Edward Colson, whose statue wound up in Bristol harbour last week, made his fortune in the European slave trade.  He was English.  Bristol was his home port, and well, you can see a direct line.

But Corte Real?

There isn’t a line.

There isn’t anything.

The people fired up about Gaspar Corte Real are not really interested in doing anything about racism in Newfoundland and Labrador.  They are just sending a message about themselves.  The statue it isn’t about history, it is about today and about consciously avoiding any concrete action to acknowledge racism in Newfoundland and Labrador.

An empty gesture is easy.  It requires no effort.

But the thing is, many of the folks ready to pull the statue down, were alive in 2007.  That’s the year that they and their neighbours elected a government with one of the largest majorities in the province’s history.  A part of the platform was a policy to give women $1,000 for every bay they bore, along with another hundred bucks a month for the first year of the baby’s life.

This was an answer – supposedly – to the province’s declining population.  It looked an awful lot like the sort of pro-natal policies in nationalist and ultranationalist countries around the globe.  And just so no one could misunderstand what it was about, the Premier even made that plain at the news conference when he made the campaign commitment.

“We cannot be a dying race.”

Not a single reporter asked what race the Premier meant.

Not a columnist nor editorialist asked the question.

A couple of reporters dismissed your humble e-scribbler’s efforts to ask the question with the admonition that “we all know what he meant” or words to that effect.

Truth is, people *did* know what he meant and they were just fine with that move as part of a larger effort to create a closed society defined along what one throne speech referred to as a nation made up of many nations.

Sounds wonderful but when you live in a province in which 96% of the population is made up of locally born descendants of Europeans from the British Isles, the dying race in the 2007 policy wasn’t anyone with dark skin. The reference to nations looks suspiciously like someone substituted the word nation for what people used to call race.

Even then, though, there as something that was about dividing people according to their ethnicity. Sectarian education, and the associated division of government spoils, and electoral districts, along religious lines also paralleled a division between ethnicities:  English and Irish chiefly.  So, the attention paid to European ethnicity after 2003 – the celebration of “Irishness” is part of that - harkens back to the old days.

Separating people into groups and discriminating among them on that basis is an essential feature of political culture in Newfoundland and Labrador because it is an essential feature of the society and culture in the province.  The signs of it may be less formal, less obvious today than it was 20 years ago but the signs are there is you understand what you are looking at.

The whole thing is built around definitions of us and them, of defining who is the same and who is other.  We do that effortlessly internally in the same way we do it externally as well.  After 2003, we had a litany of stories about foreigners who were supposedly trying to rip us off.  Federal Liberals in Ottawa, mainland companies like Abitibi or ExxonMobil, and - at the zenith in 2009 – the vast and nefarious “Quebec” conspiracy to shag us at every turn.  “Their” agents were everywhere.

This tendency lives with us today.  The ban on travel during the pandemic reeks of xenophobia.  Those who are not from here come off as filthy (disease-carriers) who cannot be trusted to follow the rules. The government announced the policy after lurid tales of tourists surfaced from Bonavista.

“I met a couple from Nova Scotia,” the mayor of Bonavista told CBC.  “I also met a couple from Quebec. I've seen some of the American licence plates — I have yet to speak to any of them in person but we do see them around and we see them going to the drive-thru that's still operational, we see them going to the coffee shops, as well as some of the local grocery stores.”

“If you come from away, stay away,” the province’s health minister said.

If that filthy, untrustworthy outsider tone wasn’t clear when the government first announced it, then the exemption policy on 05 May certainly rang the gong.  People who could get in were some version of locals. It was a call to tell what Danny Williams once called homing pigeons that they could come back.  But the others were barred, even if they owned property here and even if there was a constitutional guarantee that as Canadians, they had a right to move about the country

These are all old subjects for regular readers of these e-scribbles. Other people's bigotry and prejudice and racism turn up frequently in 15 years of posts. Very little has changed.  So commonplace are racial slurs that a young man from the west coast recently noted on Twitter that he had used an ethnic slur to describe himself, without realizing it was a slur.  A young woman on Twitter, self-identified as Indigenous, did not bat an eyelid as she attributed attitudes and beliefs to someone else based solely on her perception of the other person’s race. Or consider the dispute between the Innu and the NunatuKavut people, that includes arguments that are based on race and racial purity.  

Racism is so common an element in local culture that the recent stories about anti-black racism are hardly astonishing.   What is remarkable, though, is the intensity with which some people carry on about an irrelevant statue.  

The reason is simple to understand, of course.  It is like the plastic bag ban. The largest source of plastics pollution in the province is from plastic fishing gear.  No one would lift a finger to deal with it, though, because to do so would challenge a large and influential part of the economy and society. It would take work. So folks settled for a meaningless display, satisfied their consciences, and went on to other things.

Getting rid of a statue no one knew anything about and cared even less for allows the people who want to trash it to signal their virtue as they do nothing to address the problem of racism in the province.  It is an expression of power and privilege.  In its own way, the statue crowd are as plain a reminder of who has power in the province and who doesn’t and that is what will make ridding Newfoundland and Labrador of racism such a long and difficult struggle.