What follows is a personal essay I wrote more than a year ago now. I shopped it around to a few places, but it failed to find a home. I’m putting it up here as it’s partly a news item, covering some events from the fall of 2012, so if it sits much longer it’ll be too stale to do much of anything with.
I spotted it on the side of a trash can on Yonge Street, Toronto, midnight on Halloween, a night for mischief, a night when the boundaries between worlds are supposed to be thinner. FREE NFLD.
I stopped and said “hold on.” My friend, a thirty-something fellow of good Ontario upbringing, stopped and turned.
“Free Newfoundland,” I said, pointing at the trashcan. I was delighted and I wanted him to share my delight. He didn’t understand why this small, crude graffiti, this Sharpie scrawl, should cause me joy, though. In fact, he seemed a little offended.
“We’ve spent so much money on you. You’re not going anywhere. We own you now.” That’s more or less what he said.
“You can marry a trophy wife, but that doesn’t mean you own her!” My hasty, awkward response. I let it go. We walked on for the moment.
At that point I’d been living in Toronto for three years, but the place never felt more alien to me than it did when I spotted that graffiti. I’d never felt so dépaysé—so outside of my country. That little eight-letter scrawl, F-R-E-E N-F-L-D, it was like a secret message. It was a piece of enchanted writing, enchanted so only some folk can read it. Don’t you get it? I wanted to ask my walking companion. The homeland is speaking to me! Via a trashcan on Yonge street! On Halloween night! A message from the other side! Some half-forgotten ember in me flared to life, if briefly.
FREE NFLD. I have a shirt from Living Planet, an independent clothing and design shop in downtown St. John’s, that says the same thing. I don’t wear it much up here in Ontario, though. Sometimes I break it out when I want to be a bit of an arse (on the first day of a Canadian literature class, for example). Other times I wear it when it’s entirely appropriate (attending a public lecture on Newfoundland English, say). Most of the time, though, I wear it when I’m homesick. It’s a solace, a comfort, a signifier small and strange, special to me.
“Free NFLD?” a clerk in a bookstore once asked, spotting my shirt. “Free it from what?”
I couldn’t think of a way to answer her. “You know.” But she didn’t know, and I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t say “free it from you,” because it’s more than that (and less than that). Besides, she seemed nice. It was like the shirt slightly wounded her, and I felt a little bad about that. It was like her thought was: why would you want to be free?
Many people in Ontario don’t know that Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada before 1949. Many of them don’t know that Newfoundland used to be more-or-less an independent nation (as independent as Canada was at the time). Many of them, to my shock, don’t even know that Newfoundland is an island—and that’s fact #1 about Newfoundland. They don’t know that you can only get there by boat or by plane. If they do know that, they sometimes think the ferry only takes half an hour, or maybe an hour. I tell them the length of the Cape Breton–Argentia crossing (14 hours, not counting boarding and disembarking) and they don’t believe me. I tell them it’s about the same distance as the crow flies from Toronto to St. John’s as it is from Toronto to Cuba. That Moncton NB is only half-way to my home-town.
Quick: which is further south? Victoria BC or St. John’s NL? It’s St. John’s, but you couldn’t tell it from looking at most maps of Canada. We’re so deep into the margins that they squish us up into the corner.
They aren’t used to thinking about how we (do or don’t) fit in.
Sometimes, here in Ontario, I get this question. Well, this observation; it only feels like a question because I feel like some response is expected: “You’re from Newfoundland. But you don’t have an accent.”
“And why do you think that is?”
This tends to bring the conversation up short. Like it has never occurred to them that, if you want to be taken seriously outside of Newfoundland, you have to learn how to shed your accent at strategic moments—or, worse, you had it trained out of you at an age too young to even understand what you were being robbed of.
I do have an accent, though. Sometimes it is very thick. But it usually hides when I’m on the mainland. I don’t want it to. The fact that it disappears against my bidding makes me wonder if some shame about my heritage is still lurking in my subconscious. But if I consciously coax it out, if I put it on, it feels like cheating. It’s hammy, over the top, fake. Faking it makes me feel more estranged, not less. I shouldn’t have to fake it.
FREE NFLD. I’ve always liked the grammatical ambiguity of the phrase. It’s not a sentence, like Vive le Québec Libre! You could read ‘free’ as an adjective, not a verb. It could be a descriptive statement, not an imperative command. It could mean “Newfoundland is free,” not “Newfoundland is in need of freeing.”
That’s a tough sell, though. I’m sure most people intend FREE NFLD as an anti-Canada sentiment, if maybe a half-hearted one, if maybe not one to be taken too seriously. More an uncomfortable shrug against the steady and pervasive soft weight of cultural homogeneity than a proper political agitation. To me, though, it’s a reminder of how arbitrary it is that Newfoundland is now a part of Canada.
I never understand Canadians who get up in arms at the idea of Newfoundland leaving Canada, as if this would deeply damage the Canadian national fabric. Do these people think Canada was incomplete, a flawed and partial entity, prior to 1949? That was the line the mainland papers took, back when Newfoundland joined. There were many editorials written to that effect. It was depicted as a “finally, the country is complete! The dream of the Fathers of Confederation has been realized!” moment. It was an expression of manifest destiny. Newfoundland always belonged to Canada, even if Newfoundlanders didn’t know it, even if some of them refused to accept it.
But you know, if our joining up was so important, why isn’t April 1 a national holiday in Canada? They could call it National Unity Day or something like that. The Day of Doneness. But April 1 is not recognized at all, not even as a fake holiday that no one gets off from work. It’s not worth a mention on the calendars.
It’d probably be difficult to keep a lid on the damnable Newfie jokes, though, even if the anniversary was officially moved, like the moment of union itself, from April Fools to the final infinitesimal moment between March 31 and April 1.
As November progressed I started seeing more and more of them. FREE NFLDs in downtown Toronto. Written on doorframes, on walls, in corners and alleyways. The city was alive with reminders. “Don’t forget! Newfoundlanders are all around you!
The press back home picked up on the rash of FREE NFLDs in Toronto. There was a story in St. John’s largest and most important daily paper, The Telegram, about it. They interviewed a woman from Stephenville who now lives in my neighbourhood of Toronto. She had the same surprised and happy reaction I did when she first spotted the FREE NFLDs. We’re everywhere up here, she said. We’re taking the place over. Tongue in cheek. This sort of Newfoundland nationalism is a nationalism that hurts no one, makes no uncomfortable claims, has no violence or threat behind it. Sure, we can take over Toronto, and be mistaken for Ontarians after we do it. Like the poet Agnes Walsh wrote, in her poem “The Time That Passes”: we “can get jobs on the mainland / or at radio stations / our voices do sound so homogenous now.”
My father has told me about the Newfoundland clubs that used to exist all over the mainland, clubs where expatriot Newfoundlanders could congregate. Back when a majority of Newfoundland-Canadians were made, by act of legislation, rather than born, like my generation was. These Newfoundland clubs would create a piece of Newfoundland in a room far from the island. They acted as unofficial embassies of a non-nation.
Do we have that now? So many of my friends—young, intelligent, ambitious people—have left Newfoundland, and most have landed up here in Toronto. I go to a party in Roncesvalles, a hip west-end neighbourhood of Toronto, and the room is full of us. Our accents come out. No coaxing, no faking. We create Newfoundland for each other. To comfort each other. We confound the few mainlanders in attendance, make cultural references they have no way of being familiar with, jokes they have no way of getting. It is a little cruel, but having to abandon our homeland to have a career is also a little cruel.
It’s getting colder outside. I attend the launch of Greg Malone’s new book Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders. The book alleges that Confederation in 1949 was a con job, a dirty deal between London and Ottawa. The launch is in a bar on College Street, in Toronto’s Little Portugal district.
(The Portuguese White Fleet in St. John’s Harbour. My father, a pharmacist on Water Street, his first job. Selling the just-landed Portuguese sailors—so polite, my father says; so likeable—soap, aftershave, contraceptives. For use in that order, I imagine. The long, quiet connections between our nations, Portugal and Newfoundland. And now here we both are on College Street).
The rash of FREE NFLD graffiti in Toronto’s downtown core has continued. I’ve counted fifteen examples of it, from Bloor to College, from Bay to Jarvis. Who are they for? What are they saying?
Greg Malone, ranting about how our nation was taken away from us via years of secret negotiations, backroom power-plays. The right of national self-determination for the world was agreed upon when Churchill and Roosevelt met in secret shortly after the start of World War II, in the labyrinthine waters of our own Placentia Bay. Less than a decade later the right of national self-determination was ironically suspended in Newfoundland’s case. The referenda were a sham, he says. He’s got the documents to prove it, he says. This stuff will make any Newfoundlanders’ blood boil, he says. Our nation was taken from us, he says.
Exhilarated, I write a facebook status about it. “Be careful,” a friend comments. “Malone isn’t a historian.”
Greg Malone? “He basically found evidence for what our dads always told us,” another Newfoundland-to-Toronto transplant says to me, at the launch itself.
“Yes, but I like having all of my teeth and a University education,” I respond. It’s my dumb, sideways way of saying I like the material benefits of being a Canadian. I like the social welfare and the prosperity. (Yet here both of us are in Toronto, me in academia and my friend in publishing, because such careers are very scarce at home). “But maybe I’d have them anyway?” My teeth and my diplomas, I mean.
Let’s say it’s true. Let’s say Greg Malone is totally correct, that Newfoundland has had a gross injustice perpetrated against it. Lead astray in the dense fog of the global post-World War II shakedown, lost amongst the de-colonial/re-colonial realignment of the world. It’s much more difficult to rally and rail against this muddle of events, where no shots were fired, no dissidents imprisoned, where the so-called victims now enjoy an extremely high level of freedom and prosperity.
But, again, let’s say it’s true. What then? What is the next course of action? Do we sue Westminster and Ottawa? Do we campaign for separation? Do we ask for an official apology? Do we ask for a nice-but-meaningless declaration of nation-within-a-nation status? What about all the Newfoundlanders who consider themselves Canadians now? The youngest people born in pre-Confederation Newfoundland will start to collect their old age pensions soon. There are still people living who once held Newfoundland passports, but this won’t be true for much longer.
All this just brings it back to the bookstore clerk who asked me about my shirt. FREE NFLD. Free it from what? If FREE NFLD is a call to action, what is it asking us to do?
December 2012. I took a camera with me when I left the house. The more FREE NFLDs that appeared around Yonge and Wellesley, the more I grew afraid for their survival. I wanted to document them before they were wiped clean.
Maybe my fears weren’t well-founded. Only Newfoundland-based media had reported on the graffiti. Toronto-based alternative urban news outlets like Spacing and The Torontoist either didn’t know or didn’t care. This made me wonder: who is the intended audience for these FREE NFLDs? From my first sighting, back on Halloween night, I thought it was immediately clear. It was like the secret codes hobos would scratch on fence-posts, signs meant for other hobos, signs understood by other hobos. FREE NFLD is a signal left by a diasporic Newfoundlander, meant for other diasporic Newfoundlanders, something only ‘we’ will notice, a complicated signal that only ‘we’ will comprehend. A reminder that there are a lot of us walking around Toronto, that we can pass unnoticed but still carry within us the seeds of an irreconcilable otherness. A reminder that we are members of a secret, second nation, or an un-nation, maybe. A balm to the homesick and the despairing: you’re still one of us, and there is still an ‘us’ to be one of.
But maybe the intent was more like the original FREE NFLD, a famous piece of graffiti in downtown St. John’s, a six-foot silhouette of the island with the slogan in ragged red across it. It’s been gone for a decade now. I always understood that particular FREE NFLD as an earnest, genuine protest, part of the cultural nationalism of the 1970s. Maybe these smaller, hastier, cruder FREE NFLDs are meant to smack ignorant, complacent Toronto in its face, to get its attention. To make people who’ve never thought of Newfoundland and its claim to difference actually think of it for once in their lives. This unknown someone, writing FREE NFLD again and again, in the heart of empire, reminding the colonizer of the people they’ve colonized?
And there it is, behind it all: the old, original FREE NFLD. Pre–t-shirt sloganization. Before you could buy it and wear it. The big colourful mural on the steps at the east end of George Street in St. John’s. On a wall in a basement in rural Southeast Placentia there’s a picture of me next to it. It was taken shortly before the paint became too faded to see, before it was erased. I’m sixteen in the photo. Scrawny, hair too long. Behind me is the Great Northern Peninsula. The Burin, the Bonavista. The Avalon. All of the peninsulas like so many grasping arms, reaching out. And then there are Placentia, Trinity, Conception, Fortune, the rest of our countless bays, themselves curling, carving, reaching into.
A decade left to this younger self before he leaves for Toronto. FREE NFLD. Yes, I look fairly free.