Where is this ‘Atlantic Canada’? Part 3

In part one of this series of posts, I gave the context for ‘Atlantic Canada,’ explaining how it’s a top-down bureaucratic invention based on accommodating the new province within an existing federalist hierarchy economic development, not on any sense of cultural or historical commonality among the supposed ‘Atlantic’ co-regionalists. In part two, I read a number of texts in the supposed Atlantic Canadian literary tradition to see if a sense of Atlantic literary regionalism emerged from them. My conclusion: it did not. In this final part, I’ll suggest some ways forward – if Atlantic Canadian literary regionalism is a non-starter, then what are some alternate conceptualizations that might prove fruitful?

It is clear that an unexamined/uncritical use of Atlantic Canada as literary region persists in some quarters, out of inertia, laziness, or ignorance. But those who do critical work on the region (or “region”) are aware of its discontinuities and incoherences. Most of them consistently flag “Atlantic Canada” as a problematic term of limited use. So why does the term, and the idea that there is something unifying and homogenous about Canada’s ‘East Coast,’ persist?

Patriotic Roots T-Shirt, posted to twitter by @kayler

Patriotic Roots T-Shirt, posted to twitter by @kayler

Partly, in the rest of Canada, it is because “Atlantic Canada” is a fantasy space where European settlement is thought to be genuine, deep and well-rooted. The idea of the Atlantic region fulfills for many the unspoken fantasy of a white homeland on the North American continent. Complication and deconstruction of “Atlantic Canada” are unnecessary and unwelcome. The imagined homogeneity of the region is key to these passively racist fantasies. In such fantasies, Atlantic Canada is the region that gives Canada legitimacy; it is the region through which Britain and Ireland became Canada – are continually becoming Canada. Put simply: in settler-colonialist Canada, it is in the interests of the hegemon to maintain discrete and simplistic regionalisms. Atlantic Canada serves a specific function in the ideological machinery of the Canadian state as a colony eager to clothe itself in signifiers of legitimacy.

There is also the harsh truth that academics are grant-applicants. It may be easier to receive a grant if one talks of “Atlantic Canada.” Certainly it may be easier to publish a book with “Atlantic Canada” in the title, as opposed to, say, “Cape Breton” – there is a larger market. Similarly, an undergraduate class on Newfoundland literature is less likely to be approved than an undergraduate class on Atlantic literature. Both the Maritimes and Newfoundland have a more copious literary production than many would expect, but the perception might persist that, say, Newfoundland literature might prove too ‘small’ or ‘narrow’ a textual corpus to support a great number and diversity of scholars.

Herb Wyile, in Anne of Tim Horton’s, repeatedly stresses that Newfoundland is a special case, unlike the Maritime provinces in many important ways; yet the subtitle of his book includes the phrase “Atlantic Canadian Literature,” giving a tacit endorsement, re-inscribing the idea of Atlantic Canada as literary region. Wyile is reading through the lens of globalization and the movement and structures of capital (hence his title – although I will add: growing up in Newfoundland’s southwest Avalon in the 1990s and early 00s, the nearest Tim Horton’s was 90 minutes’ drive away). “Atlantic Canada” makes a certain sense through the lens of globalization, because it has been hailed into being by economic development policies, and is subjected to national and global forces through that appellation.

Wyile and Jennifer Bowering Delisle, author of The Newfoundland Diaspora, have written the two most important critical treatments of Atlantic Canadian literary regionalism in recent years. Their monographs suggest, respectively, two routes of departure. In many fields, regionalism has undergone a shift away from delineating, describing, and policing the boundaries of ethno-national structures. It now concerns itself with paths and networks which affiliate a diversity of cultures and histories – “the Mediterranean” is one such ‘collection of paths,’ for example. “The Atlantic” is another. This departs from the model of region as an Andersonian imagined commonality/history. Instead, this model describes distinct and distinctive networks of interactions and exchanges – cultural, commercial, industrial, political, military.

This is the way forward suggested by Wyile’s book, with its critical preoccupation with globalization and networks of economic exchange (and exploitation). Wyile acknowledges that Newfoundland has deep, fundamental historical and cultural differences from the other Atlantic Provinces, and that the Maritimes themselves do not particularly cohere, either. It is Atlantic Canada’s place as part of a globalized, corporatized network of exchange that characterizes the region for Wyile.

Although global capital may treat the four provinces in a similar fashion, I still do not see strong evidence in the region’s literary production of an intra-regional network of exchanges – if anything, intra-regional paths are less trod in a globalized Atlantic Canada; the network is post-regional. I would contend that Newfoundland had more to do with Cape Breton 100 years ago than it does now.

In The Newfoundland Diaspora, Jennifer Bowering Delisle does not read her chosen texts through a regional lens at all. She makes the bold claim that Newfoundlanders comprise a diasporic community within Canada. This allows us to consider new alignments within Canada – perhaps Newfoundland has more to do with Alberta than it does with New Brunswick. Perhaps Newfoundlanders carry their Newfoundland-ness with them regardless of geographic location.

But there is a more daring argument hinted at in Bowering Delisle’s book. Newfoundlanders can be read, in their literature, as always already diasporic, even when they are in Newfoundland, because the distant homeland is an historical entity, chronologically distant rather than (or in addition to) physical distant, known only in the imagination, reconstructed from narrative but never experienced first-hand. If this is the case, geographic region becomes less of an issue, and the Newfoundland subject becomes transnational and transhistorical – leaving region behind, while maintaining a sense of imagined commonality – Newfoundland is then a potential model of a post-regional community.

I would like to gently put forward new imaginative groupings that might provide startling and strange new readings, further deconstructing the concept of region, and the role of regions as load-bearing pillars in the structure of the Canadian state. I would like to encourage unexpected new groupings. This has begun to happen this century, with a few writers (Lisa Moore and Edward Riche among them) exploring the idea of aligning Newfoundland not with the Maritimes, not with Ireland or Great Britain, but with Iceland, a psychic shadow-twin for Newfoundland. Neither cultural commonality nor shared history nor trade nor political affiliation ground this linkage – it is a kind of surprise, an exciting and fruitful comparison because so unexpected and so contrary to the rigid delineations of geopolitical thought. Might a playful geographic queer reading practice be possible, where discontinuous non-synchronous regions are constructed along new lines of affiliation that are not necessarily bound by physical space? What might that look like?


Where is this ‘Atlantic Canada’? Part 2

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Read Part 1

In yesterday’s post, I gave a brief sketch of the history of Atlantic Canada as a concept. I explained how it was a political and economic creation of 1949, weakly grouping together the Maritime provinces, Newfoundland, and Labrador, three regions with distinct histories and cultural contexts. I concluded by suggesting that literature is a good place to look for evidence of a deeper regionalism, one based on a sense of regional commonality – and that, in the case of Atlantic Canada, the literature suggests the region does not cohere — it does not exist. Newfoundland, in its literature, tends to imagine itself as a partly digested foreign kernel, distinct from the rest of Canada, defined by its unalterably not-Canada history and by its physical discontinuity with the outside world – its island-ness. Meanwhile, Maritime literature, when it thinks of Newfoundland at all, tends to imagine it as distant, unfamiliar, ‘other.’

Today, I’ll take a brief tour through a variety of examples that prove my point, before concluding with some suggestions as to where Atlantic literary regionalism can go from here.

Hugh McLennan’s first published novel, 1941’s Barometer Rising, demonstrates how the Maritimes perceived Newfoundland as ‘other’ just before they were joined under the umbrella term ‘Atlantic Canada.’ McLennan was born and raised in Nova Scotia (partly in Cape Breton); Barometer Rising is a creative and intellectual engagement with the idea of Canada eight years before ‘Canada’ included Newfoundland and Labrador. It is a novel very much invested in nation-building, very easily read as an allegory. McLennan positions an emergent Canada between the colonial Scylla and Charybdis of the US and the UK, exhibiting the promise of a hybrid vigor.

Newfoundland does not occupy much space in the text – but it does appear, and not in a way that supports the logic of Newfoundland as a ‘natural’ extension of the Maritime region. Early in the text, when character and setting is being established, we learn that the well-off Wain family employees Sadie, “our indispensable Newfoundland maid” – a diasporic Newfoundlander. She only makes a few appearances, mostly in the establishing section of the novel. She is firmly coded as ‘ethnic’ or ‘other,’ a comically subordinate subject. She speaks in an over-the-top Stage Oirish dialect, dropping haitches all over: “Ho, Miss Penny! . . . Mr Halfred, ‘e do heat something terrible!” Unorthodox spelling and grammar record her dialect phonetically. As numerous sociolinguists have pointed out, English orthography already bears little resemblance to the sound of words. Phonetic renditions of dialect reliably indicate who the text wishes to single out as ‘other’, usually for reasons of race, ethnicity, class, or some combination of such qualities.

In depicting Sadie, McLennan borrows clichés and tropes of the Irish servant in the English household. When we first see Sadie, she is caught napping in the kitchen, like the lazy or shiftless stock Irish servant of the English canon. In a novel as deeply symbolic as Barometer Rising, it is easy to read Newfoundland through Sadie as Ireland to Canada’s England, unmistakably ‘other,’ a source for ‘indispensible maids’ who express unsophisticated thoughts in comical accents.

Contemporary Newfoundland is obsessed with imagining the pre-Confederation period, the period in which Barometer Rising is set. When reading Wayne Johnston’s works in The Newfoundland Diaspora, Jennifer Bowering Delisle makes a strong case that Newfoundland’s recent foreign past is a wellspring of renewal for Newfoundland’s sense of difference from the rest of Canada. Newfoundland’s idea that it was its own country, not too long ago, is for many the guarantor of its status as a distinct society within Canada. Newfoundland’s history is typically overwritten by Canada’s history – “our” first Prime Minister, we Newfoundland schoolchildren learn, was John A. MacDonald; Newfoundland Prime Ministers like Philip Little and Robert Bond are erased from the public’s imagination.

This prompts a vigorous writing-back among Newfoundland writers who continually re-tell and reference Newfoundland’s unCanadian past, keeping the kernel of Newfoundland’s foreign identity undigested. As Cecily Devereux puts it, when introducing Wayne Johnston, Newfoundland is “characterized simultaneously in terms of what has been lost and of what remains always there, internalized or incorporated at the level of memory” (The Old Lost Land of Newfoundland).  “When it came time to sing the Ode [to Newfoundland,” Johnston says, in the lecture that follows, “all the grownups were teary-eyed, almost happily, it seemed, as if to reminisce about the loss of one’s country was something they revelled in and looked forward to.”

The necessity of engaging with Newfoundland’s recent foreign past underpins and infiltrates even such unlikely ‘cosmopolitan/global’ texts as Lisa Moore’s Alligator or Michael Winter’s The Architects are Here, both of which repeatedly remind readers that Newfoundland, not so long ago, was foreign to Canada, and that parts of it remember that foreignness, cling to it, renew it via narrative.

English Canada had split its government and its economic heart between cities, and so had the French. Nothing grand could happen, no flagrant tragedy, no dictator or revolution because the power was in Ottawa and Quebec City, while the business and culture were in Toronto and Montreal. But St John’s possessed both, and St John’s looked at Newfoundland as its country. (Michael Winter, The Architects are Here)

She wanted Newfoudland before Confederation because what kind of people were they? She remembers her mother’s housekeeper tearing the skin off rabbits in the kitchen sink. . . . She could not put into words about how she’d captured the history of Newfoundland in this film, new because she was inventing it. . . . (Lisa Moore, Alligator)

The feeling that Newfoundland somehow remains foreign within Canada turns up reliably in post-1949 Maritime literature – even in Cape Breton, the northern tip of Nova Scotia, physically and culturally most proximate to Newfoundland, with a strong history of Newfoundland diaspora. Newfoundland is imagined not as a sibling or cousin but as a proximate stranger, a place with some sense of Important Difference.  Unlike most of his work, Alistair MacLeod’s story “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” is not set in Cape Breton. It is set in a Newfoundland outport contemporary to the date of publication (1974). It is almost shocking in its romantic treatment of the setting. The folk realism of MacLeod’s Cape Breton gives way to a depiction of a mist-shrouded Newfoundland of supremely superstitious folk where houses do not have telephones and children are so pure and free from the taint of mainstream North American consumerist culture that they do not know ‘freezee pops’ and other junk foods (a personal note: even the smallest outport had a store that sold processed mass-marketed treats; my father drove a Pepsi truck on the Cape Shore in the very early 1960s).

In other of MacLeod’s stories, ones set in Cape Breton, Newfoundlanders remain a tribe apart. They are like the Cape Bretoners, in that they are globetrotting labourers, but their relationship to tradition and home lacks the ambivalence and complexity accorded to MacLeod’s Cape Breton subjects. Newfoundlanders pass through Cape Breton on their way home, strange and singleminded as salmon returning to a spawning ground, clearly set apart from their Maritime cousins, despite any shared qualitites.

Other Newfoundland texts, like many written by Wayne Johnston, or Trudy Morgan Cole’s By the Rivers of Brooklyn, make two moves which further undermine a sense of Atlantic regional affinity. They imagine pre-Confederation Newfoundland as an un-Canadian island turned in on itself, but they also imagine that Newfoundland’s primary external relationship is with New York and New England, further stressing Newfoundland’s ambivalent relationship with Canada, leapfrogging the Maritime provinces as a kind of fly-over (or ‘sail-past’) country in the bargain.

Newfoundlanders work on high steel, building New York’s skyscrapers. They rent apartments in Brooklyn’s Little Newfoundland neighbourhood (which actually did exist), or they sleep on benches in Central Park if down on their luck. They stay with sisters and cousins when they first arrive; they run into people they know from home while walking the busy streets.

Maritime literature also reinforces that region’s ties to the northeastern US. Texts like Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on your Knees likewise orients its affiliation not to Upper and Lower Canada, but to New England and New York. But, while fictional Newfoundlanders find other Newfoundlanders in New York, and fictional Maritimers find other Maritimers, the paths of Maritimes and Newfoundlanders never cross in these textual representations. In none of these texts does a diasporic Cape Bretoner bump into a diasporic Newfoundlander on the busy streets of Manhattan and experience the immediate recognition and fellow-feeling of exiles who come from the same place – the fellow-feeling of subjects sharing a diasporic identity. If such encounters were to exist, it would strongly suggest a sense of commonality that pertains when all other structures are inaccessible or have failed – Hillier and Conrad’s definition of regionalism, given in part one of this series of posts. But, in my experience, such encounters do not exist in the literature. In New York and New England, the Newfoundland diaspora and the Maritime diaspora are distinct.

In the next entry, I’ll examine a few critical attempts to deal with this failure of Atlantic Canada to cohere as a literry region, and I’ll suggest some possibilities for ways forward and next moves.

Continue to Part Three

Where is this ‘Atlantic Canada’? Part 1

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“Growing up in small town Ontario, I was only dimly aware of the ‘Maritimes’ and ‘Atlantic Canada’ and what little I knew of these terms and regions reflected well-worn stereotypes. For me, the Maritimes and Atlantic Canada were synonymous with each other. . .”

Corey Slumkoski begins Inventing Atlantic Canada by reporting his childhood biases regarding Canada’s four easternmost provinces. Slumkoski is hardly alone: here is a recent map taken from an Alberta-based tour company’s brochure, advertising a package tour of Newfoundland. They have taken the island of Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) and placed Newfoundland towns and attractions on it.


This made it through several layers of proof-reading to publication. The map went viral in Newfoundland corners of social media in May 2015. The company issued an apology, speaking of their “passion” for Newfoundland. They published a corrected map – except, this time, they made a classic error. The Newfoundland capital, St. John’s, is labelled as Saint John, the city in New Brunswick, a 1,706 km drive away.


To complete the hat trick, the Metro newspaper reported on this snafu with the headline MARITIMES MAP MIX-UP, when Newfoundland is emphatically NOT one of the Maritime provinces – and that is the point. In the broader Canadian imaginary, the four easternmost provinces are so similar as to be more or less interchangeable.

In Anne of Tim Hortons: Globlization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature, Herb Wyile describes both the negative and positive aspect of this general Canadian view of Atlantic Canada: culturally homogenous, lazy and ungrateful recipients of welfare and transfer payments, a parochial drain on the rest of the country, but also a bucolic touristic playground, good humoured hard-drinkers with charmingly quaint folkways, accents reminiscent of the British Isles, a site (or even THE site) of “pre-modern” authenticity for Canada’s settler society.

So what’s the difference? The Maritimes are the trio of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. The first two are founding members of the Canadian confederation. PEI joined six years later, in 1873. Atlantic Canada includes Newfoundland and Labrador, two politically linked but distinct landmasses, physically discontinuous from the Maritimes and from each other. Newfoundland and Labrador only joined Canada in 1949. It was a contentious and deeply ambivalent decision. Newfoundland had been a quasi-nation within the British Empire for several generations beforehand – a status equal to Canada’s own at the time (Prime Ministers, passports, stamps, banknotes, the lot).

Newfoundland and the Maritimes diverged well before Confederation, though. Robert Finlow argues in favour of an Atlantic Canadian regionalism, writing of “similarities among these provinces”, including “a population with fewer recent immigrants, mostly old-stock British and Acadian, with First Nations and African-Canadian minorities” – but this argument defeats itself with its own example. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were shaped immensely by New England planters and by Loyalists arriving after the American Revolution. Neither group settled in Newfoundland. Newfoundland’s settlement drew overwhelmingly from the area around Waterford in Ireland and from Devon, Dorset, and Somerset in the southwest of England, a pattern of European settlement more distinctive and limited than anywhere else in North America – including the Maritime provinces. Finlow is right that Acadian and African Canadian communities make important contributions to the story of the Maritimes, but this is less the case in Newfoundland. Lebanese and Chinese Newfoundlanders, though, are important minority communities making cultural contributions reaching back well into the 19th century – yet they often go unacknowledged and unheard when Atlantic Canada is taken as a whole, because they are not afforded a place in the common racial algebra of the supposedly homogenous region.

One important note: Labrador will not enter into my discussion, although it may be the final nail in Atlantic Canada’s coffin (if Newfoundland doesn’t ‘fit,’ Labrador really doesn’t fit). My reasons are similar to Jennifer Bowering Delisle’s when she omits Labrador from her book The Newfoundland Diaspora:

“[Labrador] constitutes a separate literary culture with unique issues and concerns, which merits its own critical study. To include Labrador in my study would be to draw a literary community along provincial political lines rather than cultural ones, which is a move I want to oppose rather than support.”

I, too, want to oppose such a move. “Atlantic Canada” as literary region is also an attempt to draw a literary community along provincial political lines rather than cultural ones.

Atlantic Canada was invented as a political region in 1949, intended to be a single federal unit. As Slumkoski explains, Atlantic Canada is inextricably related, ontologically, to the Maritimes, despite the differences between Newfoundland, Labrador, and the three Maritime provinces. Term 29 of the Newfoundland Act, the legislation that made Newfoundland (and Labrador) part of Canada, “reveal[s] that . . . [Ottawa] saw Newfoundland as an extension of the Maritime Provinces; it was the Maritime provincial average – not the Canadian one – that would be the new province’s benchmark for economic and social development.”

In one legislative stroke, Atlantic Canada is both created and locked into a permanently disadvantaged place in the legislative structure of federalism: the goal is to make the poorer, less developed, marginalized Atlantic Provinces equal to each other, not equal to the rest of Canada. Atlantic Canada was thus legally united at the moment of its creation through its structurally disadvantaged position within federalism.

Further, Atlantic Canada seems to have been devised as a purely economic and political region, not a cultural one. Slumkoski notes that “little was done following Confederation to link Newfoundland and the Maritimes as a cultural region or to foster cultural ties between the two jurisdictions. . . . thus it fell to Term 29 to bind the new region.”

A parody created by twitter user @ficklesonance

A parody created by twitter user @ficklesonance

Is this sufficient? Historians James Hillier and Margaret Conrad suggest it is not. They make a case for region as concept, along the lines of Benedict Anderson’s theory that nations emerge through repeated expressions of an imagined sense of commonality — the ‘imagined community’ of Anderson’s famous book. They argue that ‘region’ is defined by some sense of commonality by those who claim it: “While the Atlantic Canada ‘region’ can be easily found on a map, ‘regionalism’ implies a political stance, a consciousness of shared outlook that can be summoned up when other structures – familial, communal, provincial, national, global – fail.”

Literature is a good place to look for expressions of such regional identity – literary texts express ideas about place and culture, and in that way they can be used to ‘map’ the boundaries between places and between groups. Texts from the four Atlantic provinces provide little evidence for the existence of an Atlantic regionalism with the qualities Hillier and Conrad use to define regionalism. The four provinces share some characteristics, but their literary production does not suggest a sense of enduring commonality. In its literature, Newfoundland tends to imagine itself as a partly digested foreign kernel, distinct from the rest of Canada, defined by its unalterably not-Canada history and by its physical discontinuity with Canada – its island-ness. Meanwhile, Maritime literature, when it thinks of Newfoundland at all, tends to imagine it as distant, unfamiliar, ‘other.’

In the next installment of this three-part entry, I’ll look just at how literature from both Newfoundland and the Maritimes imagines (or fails to imagine) Atlantic Canada.

Continue to Part Two


Where is this ‘Atlantic Canada’, part 0

Last weekend I gave a paper at a panel on rethinking regionalisms in Canadian literature¹. Three proper blog posts adapted from that paper will follow. But first, an anecdote:

The concept of region has been given a very hard time in the panel and through the question and answer period. A question is asked wherein suburbs of Vancouver are described and characterized without being named. A panelist (not me) nods in recognition and interjects “Surrey.” The question-asker brightens up and enthusiastically goes “yeah yeah!” They have hailed each other as co-regionalists; they have recognized knowledge of a region as a mutual bond and it pleased them to do it. It made them a little excited, a little happy. This is the affect of regionalism in action.

But if anyone recognized what had happened, no one said anything about it. I didn’t even realize the signifiance of the moment until my husband, Chris Piuma, pointed it out to me after the fact.

I tell this story because I don’t want to forget that moment. I want it to stand as evidence that region is still in play even when we think we’re past it. It runs deep and its actions are subtle.

Continue to Part One

¹For the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) at Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Ottawa. Here’s the program.