Where is this ‘Atlantic Canada’? Part 2

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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

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