Labrador and Newfoundland

Here in Toronto I’m sometimes asked questions like “what’s the deal with Labrador?”

What’s the deal with Labrador? I have a variety of potential answers, but all of them are unsatisfying in their way.

– “You know Trinidad and Tobago? It’s Tobago.” (Problem: not fully accurate, plus questioner must have a good knowledge of Caribbean geography).

– “Newfoundland is Denmark, Labrador is Greenland.” (Problem: not the most accurate comparison; for one, Denmark is too far away from Greenland. Also, questioner must know that Denmark owns Greenland).

– “It’s the mainland portion of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador; Newfoundland is the island portion. One province, two territories.” (Problem: while technically correct, this does not explain what Labrador’s ‘deal’ is, nor the relationship between the two territories, nor why I specify that my work is technically about Newfoundland rather than about Newfoundland and Labrador).

– “The twin planets Romulus and Remus” (Problem: must be a Star Trek nerd to comprehend).

– “Well, Newfoundland owns it, basically. It’s more or less a colony of Newfoundland.” (Problem: while evocative and not totally wrong, it lacks a certain technical precision and indulges a certain small hyperbole).

– “How Newfoundland is to Canada? That’s how Labrador is to Newfoundland.” (This is the best answer I’ve come up with yet, but it still doesn’t quite do the trick).

1534 map of the Labrador coast (http://www.heritage.nf.ca)

1534 map of the Labrador coast (http://www.heritage.nf.ca)

What I am trying to say with all of the above is this: Labrador is geographically, culturally, and historically distinct from Newfoundland, but Newfoundland controls it and derives wealth from it. Urban development and power (economic, political) are concentrated on the island (mostly in St John’s and around Conception Bay), and only a fraction of the wealth derived from Labrador’s resources actually stays in Labrador. Labrador’s population is tiny — about 27,000, a little more than 5% of the province’s total — so it wields very little power in the provincial parliament, just as the province’s 7 MPs can do little in a Canadian parliament of 308 (soon to be 338) members. Further, almost a third of the population of Labrador is First Nation, Métis, or Inuit, many times higher than the proportion of the island. In certain lights, it’s very difficult to think of Labrador as anything but a deeply colonized territory.

The official name of the province was changed, in 2001, to Newfoundland and Labrador. Folks (especially politicians) will call themselves by some variant of the gangly phrase “Newfoundlander and Labradorian.” This might be intended to convince Labradorians that they are equal partners in the enterprise that is our province, but it always strikes me as poorly considered at best (especially considering how unequal Labrador is in many other ways, and how, to many Newfoundlanders, Labrador’s resources seem more valuable than Labrador’s people).

Why is “Newfoundlander and Labradorian” poorly considered? I’m a Newfoundlander. I’m from the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. I can’t call myself a “Newfoundlander and Labradorian” because it would be lying. I am not a Labradorian, but that phrase suggests I am. I have never even been to Labrador, and I acknowledge that Labrador has a history, culture, and landscape that’s distinct from Newfoundland’s. Being part of the same polity doesn’t mean being a single, unitary people. It would be like someone with deep roots in Normandy claiming to be Corsican – or Alice Munro claiming to be a Newfoundlander. To pretend that islanders like myself are “Newfoundlanders and Labradorians” because the province has a double-barrelled name feels like a rhetorical attempt to justify the colonial relationship that exists between the two parts, to Labrador’s detriment.

This becomes obvious if you pay attention to those same politicians who might claim to be a “Newfoundlander and Labradorian.” A minute later, they’re liable to say something like “our island home” or “our island province.” Newfoundlanders are island people; that turn of phrase comes very naturally to the tongue. But it only reveals the lie that is “Newfoundlanders and Labradorians” — we are not a single, unitary people. Worse, a Newfoundlander claiming to be a “Newfoundlander and Labradorian” erases prima facie the idea that a Labradorian might exist, and that a Labradorian might have different thoughts, interests, priorities, and cultural contexts than a Newfoundlander would.

But this is a literary blog, and the question, for me, has to be: are Labrador texts and Newfoundland texts of the same family, or are Labrador texts of their own genus, with their own concerns, animated by their own context and history? It’s difficult to say, in part because it’s difficult to access many Labrador texts. The literary productions from our province that garner the most attention tend to deal with Newfoundland, not with Labrador — but I’d argue that Labrador texts do indeed form a distinct category.

Innu traders at Davis Inlet, Labrador, 1903

Innu traders at Davis Inlet, Labrador, 1903 (http://www.heritage.nf.ca)

So what are the big, high-profile Labrador books? Only a few come to mind quickly. Kathleen Winter’s Annabel is a Labradorian novel, one that attends to the distinction between Labrador and Newfoundland. John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids is set in a post-apocalyptic world where Labrador has become a centre for surviving human civilization, but it was written by British man who probably chose Labrador as a setting simply because it was remote and Arctic, a place more likely than most to escape man-made global catastrophe. It’s difficult to build a bridge between Wyndham’s hyper-religious post-apocalyptic eugenicists (and their fertile farmlands) and Labrador as it currently exists.

Michael Crummey’s Hard Light has some poems set on the Labrador coast, where the speaker’s (and the author’s) father travelled to fish in summertime as a boy and a young man, but the nature of that relationship with Labrador as a place exemplifies the typical Newfoundland relationship with Labrador: a temporary site of resource extraction rather than a place of permanent habitation. Here, Labrador is a place without its own permanent or distinct habitus, a great and temporary outdoor factory rather than a fully formed and permanent societyIn the poems that make up Hard Light, the speaker’s memories of summers spent fishing on the Labrador shed light on his Newfoundland heritage.

There are other Labradorian texts, like Robin McGrath’s Livyer’s World (another speculative fiction about a futuristic post-apocalyptic Labrador – hmmm), or John Steffler’s The Afterlife of George Cartwright, and every former High School student of a certain age suffered through The Lure of the Labrador Wild (although its attitude toward Labrador is that it’s the last blank on the map, a terra nullius waiting for the discovering white man – it engages with Labrador as supposedly empty and inhospitable wilderness, not as a society with a history and a culture). To my mind, a study of Labrador literature, as a literature distinct from Newfoundland literature, is well overdue.

Newfoundland literature and Labrador literature can be uncomfortably jostled together, but it feels unsatisfying, a compromise made due to political and academic realities. It’s difficult enough to get people talking and thinking about Newfoundland literature as distinct from Canadian literature; tell the world that, oh yes, there’s also Labrador literature, and it’s different from Newfoundland literature in important ways, which is itself different from Canadian literature . . . .? You’ll recall how I opened this post. In my experience, many, perhaps most, Canadians don’t even really grasp the nature of the relationship between Labrador and Newfoundland.

Besides, there are only a few platforms dedicated to the production and the discussion of Newfoundland literature and literary culture, and such platforms are under threat by new economic and political supposed-realities. So it also seems ethical for Newfoundland literary studies to offer a home and a voice to Labrador literary studies. But I do think, even then, it’s important to remember that they are not the same thing.

EDIT: In an altogether fitting (though embarrassing for me!) error, I completely neglected to mention Them Days, a publication focused on Labrador heritage and culture that has been going strong for almost 40 years. It only goes to show how easy it is for Newfoundlanders to make mistakes and oversights with regards to Labrador!

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