Feature Story

The Rock in a Hard Place

A very real conversation with (mostly) millennial Newfoundland about the future of Canada's strangest, stormiest, screwiest province.

A very real conversation with (mostly) millennial Newfoundland and Labrador about the future of Canada’s strangest, stormiest, screwiest province

by Drew Brown
Photos by Bojan Fürst
Illustrations by Mike Feehan


You can help ensure a future for independent east-coast journalism and storytelling by subscribing to The Deep. Thanks for reading.


P

essimism is a proud pastime in Newfoundland and Labrador. As its nickname suggests, The Rock can be a very hard place, and every Newfoundlander has asked if they can envision a future here, clinging to the cliffs above a cold sea and the barren earth. Stewing over that question has been a centrepiece of public life since European settlement.

But lately the question has taken on new urgency. Things feel especially grim. By 2014, the province had blown its short-lived oil prosperity with little to show for it, and the government is now haunted by the spectre of insolvency, and paralyzed in the face of a looming demographic crisis. After 10 years of oil-fuelled growth, the province’s sparsely dispersed population, the oldest and among the least-healthy in Canada, began last year to decline (again). The province is expected to lose 40,000 people in the next 20 years, with population declines between 20 and 40 percent in rural areas. (There are parallels to the decline of rural communities in the Maritimes, but Newfoundland and Labrador’s dire economic and demographic straits are far starker.)

In his final article for St. John’s The Telegram, before returning to his hometown of Toronto last November, longtime provincial politics correspondent James McLeod sketched a first draft of Newfoundland and Labrador’s obituary:

[I]t is in the economic self-interest of every man, woman, and child in this province to do the same thing I’m doing: pack up and move away. […] That’s the honest, painful reality, and denial masquerading as optimism won’t do anything to make things better.

Coming from a self-professed “turncoat Torontonian,” this missive went over locally like a lead balloon. You could feel the despair settle over the province with the early winter snow. Is the province really going broke? Are we drifting towards the second collapse of the Newfoundland State in less than a hundred years? Should we all just pack it in? As one of the people McLeod describes as “rooted to the place as a tuckamore tree,” I wracked my brain about this for months.

Leaving Newfoundland and Labrador is not the end of the world. I’ve left and returned before, and if I hadn’t, I would never appreciate my home for what it is: a magical, maddening community nestled where God first cleft the waters from the earth. I have caught the heat of the sun off the cold Atlantic waters and reeled fish with my grandfather’s ghost. For all its flaws and frustrations and Sisyphean shortcomings, Newfoundland is a treasure of the world.

So what can we do to make Newfoundland and Labrador work? For a province so profoundly self-obsessed, we rarely have much public “real talk” about the challenges and struggles of living here. So The Deep assembled a group of smart and interesting young Newfoundlanders whom I knew would pull no punches in tackling the question: should we stay, or should we go?

The following has been edited for brevity, clarity, chronology, and coherence.

THE NEWFOUNDLANDERS

Drew Brown is a journalist from St. John’s by way of Grand Falls-Windsor. After pursuing a PhD in political science at the University of Alberta, he returned with his fiancée in 2016, because it was easier to be broke newlyweds at home than stranded in Alberta.

Megan Gail Coles is the executive director of local arts and culture magazine, Riddle Fence [disclosure: Drew Brown sits on the magazine’s board]. Splitting her time between St. John’s and her hometown, Savage Cove, she lives a life divided between rural and urban, and the resource industry and the arts sector.

Michael Collins is a personal trainer in Toronto. Originally from Placentia, he grew up determined to remain there, but one day on Lemarchant Road in St. John’s, suddenly realized he was happier in Toronto—a revelation that felt like both a betrayal and a liberating acceptance of self.

Emily Deming is a journalist in St. John’s. She grew up in California, and had no connection to Newfoundland and Labrador until moving here for an oil-industry job. She fell in love with the place immediately.

Sheldon Pardy is a lifelong fish harvester from Musgrave Harbour. Beyond brief stints in the capital, he’s been fishing with his father all his life.

Ed Riche is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter who has been satirizing Newfoundland and Labrador for decades. Born in Botwood, he now lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The only panelist over 40, he’s happy to be our “go-to geezer.”

Ashley Ruby grew up in Seal Cove. After years of being stymied in attempts to start a farm, she’s accepted her fate as an academic.

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i.

Hasn’t The World Ended Here Before?

Drew

When I was thinking about coming here with the question of Newfoundland’s future, immediately I remembered, the world has ended here before: 1992 and the cod moratorium  and we already had the whole “well, that’s it, let’s wrap it up.”

Michael

There have been a series of apocalypses.

Ed

You know, what we’re in now is the cod moratorium. The moratorium said, “Here’s the end of the narrative for rural Newfoundland. It’s over.” Rather than addressing that, the shellfish fisheries came in and paid bigger money. But it was a temporary thing. There was remittance work from Alberta, too. That delayed, until later, the true meaning of the moratorium, which was the end of the 17th-century Newfoundland way of life. The end of the seemingly-inexhaustible cod stocks in near waters. The end of the reason anyone had ever come here in the first place.

Meg

Our entire settler existence here has been very dependant on this mentality whereby you take what you can, as fast as you can, and abandon the lot if it all burns down. That is still how we conduct ourselves in the world. You can’t plan if you consider abandoning ship every single day.

Ashley

I actually thought about this the other day, like, “What is really keeping me here?” And it’s how much I love my culture. This is my community, if I go anywhere else I don’t fit in. I fit in here. But also I feel I can never fully be a part of “the culture” here.

Ed

Yeah. You know, I only heard this story recently: My mother’s family were from Brighton, Notre Dame Bay, and they were getting sheet music mailed in from New York, and they were all big readers, and they all became really high-achieving people.

One day my aunt was moving to a smaller place, so I was getting the family pump organ. She said the fact that our family were reading books and playing Ira Gershwin’s latest on the piano, this was all a big secret. Because then people would say, “What, do you think you’re better than us?”

Drew

Yeah, the lobster-pot theory .

Ashley

Yeah, the first night I was here, someone told me about the lobsters in the pot: “They’re gonna yank you down if you do alright.”

Ashley

The “come from away” experience can be even stranger when you are a Newfoundlander, and you come from a rural area, and a very traditional family, and you grew up with the boiled potatoes and carrots every Sunday or whatever. And you come out of that and maybe you wanna be a little different.

I grew up and went on to be an arts major, and I’m vegan, and I listen to anything other than Bud Davidge, and sometimes I can feel like a CFA in my own family.

Meg

I don’t think even people inside of those communities, in traditional families, always feel included. Acknowledging that will go a long way for an open and honest dialogue around who we are. And I think we are in “the culture” now. It’s not my father’s culture, but “the culture” did not stop because of the cod moratorium. I’m still here, I’m alive, and we are having Newfoundland and Labrador culture right now.

Michael

There are two ideas of Newfoundland. One of them is that there’s this nostalgic pure thing that happened somewhere in the past, that people want to preserve, or bring back. And then there’s the idea of a living culture that grows and evolves with each generation. You want to honour your heritage, and preserve things that are worth preserving. But you don’t want to freeze-dry it.

Emily

And that hanging on. I went to consult at The Rooms about future projects. They were saying, “We really want to do more live cultural activities here so that when people come through it’s a more active place.” Basically, the forward-thinking thing they wanted was to have live music. And it was all very specific “Newfoundland Music.”

Meg

Diddily-dee, you mean.

Emily

Fiddily-diddily, yeah. And that’s great. But that is not the current music culture that’s happening right now. It reminded me of when I lived in New Orleans. In New Orleans you had the same thing but it’s confined to Bourbon Street. You walk out and there’s just like piped-out music of New Orleans jazz coming out of everything. And then you leave that neighbourhood and find amazing things that are related to New Orleans jazz, and that have sprung from it, but that are really different.

If you want a vibrant tourism industry, that’s what gives it to you. People will come back more than once, because people will know that they can come back and experience new things and experience an actual living culture as opposed to seeing a different person playing the same thing on the same fiddle in the same room.

This is the problem with cultural policy here. In choosing to use the resources allocated for arts and culture to highlight this one type of music, they were quashing a lot of the new modes of expression. There’s tons of interesting music developing around the island. Lots of it has roots in trad, but lots of it does not. We have a culture of art and innovation in our population, but we sell a static picture of our culture.

Ashley

The things that are “different” in Newfoundland, as in not the stereotypical, pre-moratorium Newfoundland culture, have their own communities. And if you ever want to break into them, you just can’t. If I went to a klezmer show in St. John’s, it’s all the music-school students, and they’re all a community, and I’m just there. They don’t want to be friends.

Emily

If you don’t mind embarrassing yourself it’s easy. You literally just go, and you stick your hand out, “Hi! my name is so-and-so! Who are you?” and you look like a total jerk.

But that’s the bonus of coming from away. It’s easy, you can just make a fool of yourself. But if you’re already here, that’s really hard. Causing disruption in a really traditional society is even more difficult.

Drew

Also, the province has always operated on a shame-based system of social cohesion.

Emily

This is really something that I’m only starting now to understand, that even the people who aren’t Catholic live in a Catholic, shame-based society.

Drew

I grew up Anglican but I still have the Catholic conscience. I grew up in Grand Falls, which is the buckle of the Newfoundland Bible belt. There was a Pentecostal church built on a hill in Windsor so that all over my end of town you could see this giant glowing cross at night.

So a friend of mine, God bless him, he got into some trouble with drugs in his 20s. So he went home to his parents’ Pentecostal church and got cleaned up. Which is great. But now he’s, like, making videos talking about how you should come to his church because God rewards the righteous, and He’ll put money in your bank account and stuff.

Ashley

Prosperity Gospel!

Drew

Yeah. We’ll just collectively come to Jesus and He’ll deliver $15 billion into the provincial treasury.

Ashley

That’s literally our province’s motto: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God.”

Emily

I didn’t know that!

Drew

I think about it a lot. This is a Christian settler society, so there’s the literal intended sense of “go to church, read the Bible, obey the priest.” But I always like to think about it as, actually, you may only be able to live here if you’ve already found the thing that sustains you through whatever life throws at you. You need to have that thing figured already. Otherwise the wind will just blow you away.

Michael

I really like that second reading.

Drew

Yeah, well. Me too.

ii.

Who’s Running This Place?

Meg

I think addressing hypermasculinity in Newfoundland would go a long way to securing a successful future. We romanticize a time when men ruled the province, and the resource-based labour industry whereby men basically made every single decision.

Drew

The longing for back in the day when “real men” ruled the island, well, they didn’t rule it particularly well. Consider the three gentlemen here on the wall of this political science seminar room. [ED: the spare room at Memorial University where this conversation took place.] William Carson : yes, thank you for getting us a new appointed government. Joseph Smallwood : I don’t even know where to start with that guy. And William Whiteway : Mr. Railway.

I guess it comes back to a kind of perverse masculinity.

Emily

That’s the thing about the political culture here. You either love Danny Williams , or whoever, because you love Newfoundland, or you don’t, and you’re allying yourself with the mainland. The people I know here are so smart, and they’re so good at seeing grey areas, but then somehow it all just falls apart when you have to make any sort of political decision. There are no subtleties.

Meg

We have a really ingrained paternalism whereby you never, ever speak back to father. Danny Williams acting like our great father.

Emily

Is that from the merchant history?

Ashley

It’s tangled up in religion, too. For a long time if you were Anglican you voted one way, if you were Catholic you voted the other way.

Michael

So you’re also arguing against the Big Father.

Emily

Yet correct me if I’m wrong, but what was so amazing to me culturally here, in a really positive way, was that after the Mount Cashel scandal people abandoned the church in a way that they did not in other places.

Drew

It depends on the denomination we’re talking about.

Meg

Regarding what Emily said about our relationship to a political figure like Danny Williams. Danny Williams is just an example. You could use Brian Tobin or Joey Smallwood or whomever. We do not allow for nuance in our relationships to our political leaders. We have a very for-or-against mentality when we approach our politics. In fact, we have a mentality sometimes that goes so far as to be whether or not you engage at all.

Like, it’s very common where I’m from, for people to half-boastfully say, “Oh, I don’t go in for that politics stuff. I don’t even pay attention. I don’t even watch the news.” As if this is something that is somehow a positive reflection of how their disengagement makes them a really laid-back human being.

Obviously I take issue with that and it starts rackets when I go home, because it is the most luxurious and irresponsible behaviour I can think of as a Newfoundlander, to have a lack of political engagement and sophistication.

Drew

A lot of people are trying to make things work better than they currently do. The problem is that we don’t have the collective capacity to do that. For me many of these problems go back to the fact that the legislature is a piece of shit. And it’s always been a piece of shit. And now we have a premier-centred government without a premier, for all intents and purposes.

Sheldon

Provincial politics feels like it’s out of your hands. You get to vote once every four years and then you lets the crowd in St. John’s tell you what’s going to happen. If your school’s going to close, or if your clinic’s going to close, or your library. It seems like there’s only four or five people doing anything anyway. We elected buddy from Greenspond, Derrick Bragg. I don’t think I’ve heard talk of him since he got in office. I’m sure if I called and I needed something he’d get back to me. But he’s a backbencher. It’s the same old boy’s club that the PCs had.

Drew

That’s the thing with the PCs and Liberals. I mean, the NDP is surprisingly…

Sheldon

I don’t think the NDP will ever resonate outside the overpass .

Drew

No, I don’t think so either. It seems like people here have completely given up on the party system.

Sheldon

There are 40 people in the House, and you got to have a party system? I can understand if you got 200 or 300 people in a legislature, but 40? You tell me they can’t sit down in a room and actually discuss stuff?

Drew

It was never set up properly in the first place. I was talking to a friend the other day, he asked, “How did Smallwood become the premier?” Well, there was an inaugural provincial election at the end of May 1949, but Smallwood was appointed interim premier in April, just after Confederation. The Canadian government decided that as a reward for bringing Newfoundland into Canada, Smallwood would get to be premier.

So in the backrooms, the federal Liberal party and the British authorities just gave this guy omnipotent power, basically, this pig farmer from Gander, failed businessman. Like, “Cool, you’re the premier now. Set up the province.” He just reset the same political machinery that had collapsed in 1934, and he went into the province’s first election already able to hand out federal patronage.

Smallwood had no interest in setting up the state to function like a robust democracy, and neither has anyone since. We have no mechanisms for different people with innovative ideas to actually use a representative system of government.

Ashley

Exactly! Yes! The government is like the priestly class. They have to have all the information and we’re not allowed to touch it because we can’t comprehend it.

Emily

I will say this: there was a change in the city. People got frustrated with the fact that nobody could start a small business. Nobody not already connected couldn’t move forward. So there was a big change in city hall.

Ed

It was the most stunning electoral result of any kind I’ve ever seen in my 55 years in Canada or Newfoundland, or anywhere. They rejected an old guard almost completely. And those people, those activists, those energized young people in the municipal sphere, are abandoning party politics.

Meg

We look to other nations for guidance, but we never look to nations that we have anything in common with. There are nations self-governing in a more responsible manner. Geographically and economically, we’re much more similar to Scandinavian countries than we are to the United States, or England, or even other parts of Canada. We have very different challenges and we have very different skills. So why are we constantly modeling ourselves after places that we have absolutely no connection to?

Drew

There’s a tendency to come to Newfoundland and apply ideas about how the world should work, and how Newfoundland should work, rather than the other way around. Like: what is the landscape like? What can you grow here? What sort of life can you make based on what we have here?

It’s a rare few who have tried to do it on those terms. It’s always been: here’s this rock and we will have all these grand visions for it. That has always blown up in our faces. It’s the worst way to approach anything, but particularly here, where the land itself seems to resist domestication.

Meg

It’s like what Emily was saying about not looking around us and seeing what we have and dealing with that, but wanting something from elsewhere for some reason.

I ask my grandmother all the time, what happened to the first oak table set you owned? And she said, well, we got this when these other chrome table sets came in. When we got access to the Sears catalogue we threw all the wood furniture in the stove, because what was new was better.

And then, very quickly we realized that it wasn’t. That it wasn’t actually as sturdy or better than the oak table set. But then the oak table set has been burnt, and we had such guilt, such feelings of wastefulness around it, that we didn’t want to admit that the thing that we had done was the wrong thing until many years later.

Emily

Oh my God, that’s so sad.

Meg

It is sad. Just because you made a mistake doesn’t mean you gotta live your whole life on that rickety shit chrome table.


You can help ensure a future for independent east-coast journalism and storytelling by subscribing to The Deep. Thanks for reading.


iii.

What’s an Outport Worth?

Michael

Placentia was in terrible shape when I was a child. In ’96, they announced they were going to build the smelter for the Voisey’s Bay mine in Argentia, down the road. When they were making the announcement they stopped school, and we all gathered to watch it.

I was 13 or 14, and even then, I had been really sad. It felt like my town was dying, and that maybe in a generation or two there would be no reason left to live in Placentia. So when the smelter was announced, I was really happy: “Oh good, there’s a reason for people to live here again!” I remember that day horns started honking outside, and people going “Woo!” because our town was saved. And then they didn’t build it in Argentia. They dragged their heels, and eventually it was built in Long Harbour.

But I also thought, even then: people are going nuts with joy about putting this big poisonous industrial thing next door. And it really felt like that was the dichotomy I was being forced into.

Emily

I mean, keeping rural areas alive…you know, things change.

Michael

That’s where I’ve arrived in my 30s.

Emily

Communities move around. Humanity has moved from continent to continent. It spreads out, contracts, expands. We automatically assume it’s a bad thing, but it might have to happen.

Michael

“Every little outport must be preserved!”

Emily

Or, “They should all go away because they’re killing the economy.”

Diversity strengthens economies, and it strengthens societies. And “rural” isn’t just one thing, each of these rural communities is different, and that adds so much diversity versus the one urban centre. But it doesn’t strengthen Newfoundland as a whole if you have all these outports, and they’re just there existing, and you don’t have connections going back and forth between them and the provincial centre.

Ed

The measure of all this is Bell Island . It’s a mining town that’s been closed down for a long time. It has no narrative. It has no future. And people feel entitled to live there and get services for no reason. No one is driving them off Bell Island, but we have to be in a place where we say, “It’s on you.” The ferry doesn’t go from Portugal Cove to Bell Island. It’s got to go from Bell Island to Portugal Cove.

That’s the way rural Newfoundland has to think. St. Brendan’s, by all means, stay, thrive, do whatever you want, go wild, have a festival, but imagine and do something..

Emily

The urban-rural divide is massive here because there’s one urban centre and everything else is rural. And this is the smallest town I’ve ever lived in my life, so I don’t know how urban you can even call St. John’s, but everyone in St. John’s is looking at rural Newfoundland as a set of numbers. “There’s only 50 people there and they spend this much money!”

Drew

The discussion around resettlement is probably a lot different around the Bay than it is in Town .

Sheldon

It’s very real for people like in Change Islands and St Brendan’s. I can’t imagine what they feel like when they read the news. You can understand the calls that Paddy Daly gets, hey? It can easily put you on the defensive.

Drew

Well, now they’ve got to justify their whole existence. And if you’re only measuring in terms of basic profitability, most of the island doesn’t make sense, to be honest.

Ed

A balance sheet isn’t just the payments to the bank. It’s also the assets on the other side. The place is so vast, and so unexplored and unexploited that there’ll always be something. It seems to me the bankruptcy thing is just one way of looking at the problem.

Drew

Bankruptcy is one way of looking at the problem, and it seems to be heavily pressed by a certain segment of the St. John’s population, i.e. the Board of Trade and the Employers’ Council. Just think about the Abacus poll that came out on February 8. The people hyping the poll are saying, ‘The poll is clear! Newfoundlanders will accept strong medicine and drastic solutions!” Which is always code for demolish the outports and cut everyone’s pension. The only voices you hear are the people who want to burn the place to the ground.

Ed

That Board of Trade is maybe the last hysterical vestige of a merchant class. They’re not the new tech people , not the people opening the Port Rexton Brewery. They’re a bunch of old coots who can’t see there’s another way forward.

Emily

So they view it as a zero-sum game. “There’s a pot of money and we have to spread it out.” As opposed to thinking, well, “If people spread out and start to build other centres, even though they’re diffuse and little, maybe it will grow.” If you have a small population and you get one or two small successful businesses, that makes a huge difference in a really rural area.

Ed

Look at Woody Point . It’s on a smaller scale. It’s not Fogo Island , and it’s not Bonavista. But one cornerstone event starts, the Literary Festival, then there’s Gros Morne Summer Music, and now the town has all these amenities. It’s a beautiful place to go in the summer, and it’s full. Every restaurant is full; every room is gone.

Drew

I would say the province’s inertia here is deep-rooted, though. Since Confederation certainly, but even going back before, the view that everything moves and develops in one direction, that’s baked into the way Newfoundland operates. There’s an assumption that everyone will move into bigger towns, and from there to bigger cities. The system is not designed to work the other way.

Michael

I moved back to Placentia, my hometown, after my master’s degree. It’s got a population of 3,500, which is fairly large for a Newfoundland town, but certainly still rural. I was lucky because there was a part-time contract at the local library, and I was eligible because I ticked all the correct demographic boxes. But it was only six months, and I had to live with my mom and dad. It didn’t pay very well, but I tried really, really hard. There were a few other energetic young people in the community, and we organized arts nights where we’d have poetry readings and art displays. We really tried to get things going in Placentia. And I got wore out.

I don’t think it was at all possible, in rural Newfoundland, for me to be a happy, adult gay man without a partner. If I were straight, there would have been a small dating pool; I would have had some sense of opportunity. But it was like, if I’m going to stay here, I’m absolutely going to have to shut down this aspect of my life. I will not be able to be a sexual being.

Emily

Could you be open there about yourself?

Michael

Oh, yeah. I could absolutely be. But there are absolutely no other communities of any great size around. I don’t want anything I’m saying to come across as mean or bad. Because I love Placentia. I felt I couldn’t have a happy full-time life there. But I love my hometown, and I want it to do well.

Emily

Is that a Newfoundland thing or a rural thing?

Michael

It’s a rural thing I’m sure. For a lot of people who are different in a very small sort of way, you do feel like you’re on a rail that’s leading you towards a million-plus city. Or if not a million-plus city, then something like it. If I’m in Iceland, I’m going to live in Reykjavik because where else would I have other gay people that I could be with, you know?

Ed

The level of connectivity society has is brand new, right. So as it becomes increasingly impossible for young people to live in incredibly expensive cities like Toronto, and they can work from anywhere, they’ll be looking for a different kind of life. The only hitch is breeding.

iv.

Are There Any Adults in the Room?

Michael

There are two words I’m surprised we haven’t mentioned yet. Can you guess?

Drew

No.

Michael

Muskrat Falls?

Ashley

No. Don’t do it.

Michael

I’m so sorry!

Ashley

I don’t want talk about it!

Drew

So this is my feeling on Muskrat Falls : I never thought Muskrat Falls, as presented by the Kathy Dunderdale government, was a particularly good idea. Not that I’ll ever say I fully understood everything involved when it first got underway. Then again, apparently nobody else did either. I thought, it can’t be that bad; everybody involved is an adult. There was no way it could be as catastrophically bad as some people were saying. And then it turned that no, actually, there were no adults in the room. Nobody actually knew what they were doing

Emily

I don’t know the genesis of it. What do you mean, nobody understood it?

Drew

Basically, there were two camps: the government and all the groups that supported the government’s proposal, and then there were the groups that had done independent studies and still had concerns. The Joint Federal-Provincial Environmental Review Panel and the Public Utilities Board raised some flags, and there were a couple other analysts that had looked at it and concluded that there were issues.

Meg

And the Indigenous groups in Labrador.

Drew

Sorry, this is my settler privilege showing. There were also the Indigenous people that actually lived in the area saying, “Please don’t dam this and poison us . That would be bad.” So, there are all these things in play. And every time someone would raise an issue, the provincial government would basically say, “No, you guys are idiots. Our experts are right.”

Emily

So, I talked to someone who had an idea for fixing this, and she said, “We need to get rid of Muskrat Falls, so just give Labrador to Quebec.”

Meg

We can’t give Labrador to anyone else. We give Labrador their independence or they stay with Newfoundland. The people of Labrador should be given the opportunity to determine their own future. It’s not for the government of Newfoundland and Labrador to be like, “Here, Quebec, you can have them finally.”

And Labrador is not one specific group of people, either. We have three very different cultural groups: the southern settlers and interior settler group, primarily of European descent, and then we have the Inuit, and we have the Innu. And they have very different priorities for how Labrador evolves.

Ed

And the most pointed and conscientious discussion about local politics here in Happy Valley-Goose Bay is coming from young Indigenous people. That’s a hopeful sign.

Drew

The consciousness-raising coming out of Labrador has been incredible. Since I came back in 2016, I have noticed Labradorians and Indigenous peoples in Labrador are now part of the provincial conversation in a way that I’ve never seen before.

Ed

I think too, what’s going on in Newfoundland society is we’re having to create meaning in a different way. Indigenous peoples have had to do this already. Look at the Nunatsiavut Inuit government. They’re still struggling in some ways, but they have really figured something out. When they get resources, they pool them. It’s very forward-thinking and community-based.

There’s a really large Filipino community here too. They have brought so much to the place. And they love it here. They love the weather! You ask them how they find it and they go, “Whew, it’s great! It’s not 39 degrees and 98 percent humidity all the time!”

Culturally, they fit right in. They’re very like Newfoundlanders, you know, they’re very chatty and friendly. So… if you can’t see a bright future for them in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, I don’t know what to tell you.

Sheldon

I’ve lived in Musgrave Harbour forever and I’m only finally just starting to take an interest in the town. And it kind of seems like a lot of people are starting to change now. I mean, the fire brigade has joined like an extra 15 people this year alone. It’s like the younger people are finally starting to take notice.

Drew

Yeah. That’s one ray of hope I’ve noticed. It seems to be, lots of people are actually taking an interest, saying “Let’s do stuff in the community.” I don’t know what your municipal politics were like in the last election.

Sheldon

Oh, there was actually a change here for once. We’ve had the same mayor since I was a kid. And the entire council besides one person got shipped out last time.

Drew

So there’s some optimism in the town of Musgrave Harbour. What about the fishery?

Sheldon

It’s not good. We’ve already been butchered. Our shrimp quota’s been cut down by 80 percent in the last few years, and our crab has been taking a beating for years before that. We got two licenses now in crab, and it’s still not worth nothing, dick-all. It’s gone past the point where even the old man says, “We should have sold this five years ago and got the money value for it.” He could have retired. All the old fellers could have.

We used to only fish two things: shrimp and crab. Now we got to fish everything we got a license for, just to make ends meet. But now we got the labour dispute in the fishery. I don’t know, I gets all pissed off with it to be honest with you.

It’s desperation. The south coast fishermen, they got absolutely nothing left. I don’t know how they’re staying at it. I don’t know what they do. And when you get frustrated… you know what I mean? The union is not great at communicating. That’s the thing that makes it so frustrating. The FFAW is not innocent in all of this either,

Drew

Flawed institutions with flawed people, but it’s not necessarily a conspiracy to rob fish harvesters.

Sheldon

Communication is the biggest problem the FFAW has had. And that’s what happens, you gotta take your frustration out on someone.

We’ve been taking it out on DFO since I’ve been at it. They don’t listen. This year is the first year they’ve had meetings with fishermen, Dad says, since he started. Forty years!

Drew

You can’t ignore fishermen. Especially when shit’s bad. Like you say, it’s the lifeblood.

v.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams

Drew

You know, I sort of blame Geoff Stirling for all this.

Michael

I’m glad he got in under the wire.

Emily

Yeah, if we can find someone to blame in the last 10 minutes, I think we’re gold.

Drew

Okay, I will now give you my theory of how Geoff Stirling secretly won the Confederation referendum. Stirling was part of the Economic Union movement during the Confederation referenda. He wanted us to join America, but it never panned out. He said whatever, fine, people want to watch American TV, I’ll set up a TV station that plays American content. So when they brought all the Canadian content rules in in the ’70s, he said “Fine, we’ll just be a 24-hour station, and I’ll fill the quota by talking into the camera about aliens for six hours every day.” Which is exactly what happened, and it’s why NTV is the wonderful way that it is.

But basically the guy spends decades effectively circumventing cultural protection laws as Newfoundland is transitioning out of its past, at a time when cultural mores and aspirations were still changing rapidly. I’m being glib here. It’s not all Stirling’s fault, obviously. But we started to dream…

Emily

Yeah, but why would it be different dreaming about Canadian content? At least American content was entertaining.

Meg

But Canadian content has not had an opportunity to be explored in the same manner. We are dreaming American dreams. We should be dreaming Newfoundland and Labrador dreams, whatever those are.

Emily

But it shouldn’t just be not-American, or not-Canadian.

Ed

This is what I would say the case is with Newfoundland. Newfoundland now has to struggle to make its economy both gainful and meaningful. What parts of rural Newfoundland survive are those places that can come up with a new narrative now, like the Bonavista peninsula. Bonavista was derelict. It was totally without hope. It had no prospects. And now, literally, the smallest amount, the tiniest amount of initiative by a few people, and all of a sudden you get to a tipping point.

Drew

What was it that actually kicked Bonavista off? Was it an angel investor?

Ed

Yes, it was an angel investor. But I think the Bonavista peninsula was saved by Donna Butt and Trinity. She was bringing a small group of very young people out there to work every summer. And again I think, people can imagine different things. And the people that are starting and doing all the interesting things on the Bonavista peninsula are very young.

Drew

One thing that always struck me about the Bonavista Renaissance stories is that they involve so many young people. It does seem more possible now to imagine a future in rural Newfoundland than at any other time in my life.

Ashley

I just wanna say something on that now. We love to be miserable so much, and it’s like, when someone comes in from away, it’s like “Oh come in now, I shows ya how wonderful it is here, come ‘ere, come ‘ere.” And it’s like, I dunno, we’re so insecure, and we want everyone to think that we’re so happy and so inviting and so friendly…

Bojan Fürst [ED:  our photographer]

But I don’t see that! I love the fact that people will invite you to their house, interrogate you for an hour, and once they know who you are, they tell you the dirt! It’s great!

Emily

Look. I don’t know if people think this is true or not, but there are special things about this place. That you either know growing up, which is why people are so loyal to it, or feel bad not being loyal to it. Or like me: I’ve never had a love at first sight with a person, but when you talk to the taxi driver for three minutes, and you’re driving through town, it’s different. I’ve been to a lot of places. This is just, it’s just a different, special place.

It’s also got this thing—and I couldn’t put my finger on it for awhile—until I realized that I’d been here for months and nobody asked me what I did for a living. That does not happen in other places in North America. It just simply does not.

And I’m worried that if you fix a lot of things, then you also might break that—I just don’t want this to be like other places!

Sheldon

I try to stay optimistic about it too, hey?

Drew

Well that’s all you can do, right?

Sheldon

Yeah, that’s what I keep telling myself. But that’s it, hey b’y. Dassit. That should be the slogan of Newfoundland.

Drew

It’d be much more fitting than the Bible quote.


Credits

Words – Drew Brown

Drew Brown is a writer and PhD dropout living in St. John’s. He appears regularly in VICE Canada and occasionally at CBC, Atlantic BusinessNewfoundland Quarterly, and The Independent. He was voted 2017’s Best Local Journalist by readers of The Overcast, a sure sign of the island’s impending doom.

Original Photos – Bojan Fürst

Bojan Fürst is a photographer, geographer, and broadcaster originally from Croatia, but now calling St. John’s and Newfoundland home. If he is not out on the streets making photographs, he is probably hiding in his darkroom.

Original Illustrations – Mike Feehan

Mike Feehan is a Newfoundland-based illustrator, comic book and storyboard artist.

Edited by Matthew Halliday

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