Where is this ‘Atlantic Canada’? Part 1

Read Part 0

“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.

newfoundland

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.

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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.

Adaptations: Artistic Fraud’s production of “The Colony of Unrequited Dreams”

Recently, I was lucky enough to see Artistic Fraud’s production of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, adapted by Robert Chafe, on the second night of its four-performance maiden voyage. One scene near the end sticks in my mind. The whole Smallwood clan has gathered around the radio to hear the results of the first 1948 referendum regarding Newfoundland’s political future – Charlie, the grousing blustery alcoholic father, Minnie May, the high-strung mother down to her last nerve, Clara, the quiet and conventional wife, and the man himself, Joseph R. alias Joey, leader of the Confederate forces, our protagonist.

The scene opens with a radio announcer reading the referendum results: it’s a win for a return to self-governance, with 45% of the vote, but Confederation with Canada polls higher than expected, at 41%. The continuation of ‘Commission of Government,’ the strange dictatorial colonial interregnum that has administered Newfoundland since 1934, finishes a distant third, with 14% of the vote. As no ballot option received more than 50% of the vote, this means a second, run-off referendum is in the works, between the two most popular options – and it will be this second referendum that seals Newfoundland’s fate and delivers it to Canada as a tenth province in 1949.

It’s a proud night of triumph for Joey. Confederation has performed better than expected, and Joey anticipates that the supporters of continued colonial rule will be unlikely to switch to pro-independence – he knows that he’s going to win the second referendum. But the scene soon devolves into shouting, curses, recriminations, as Joey’s father, Charlie Smallwood – a man who, earlier in the play, bitterly instructed Joey to “love a woman, not a country” because “a country can’t love you back” – now patriotically accuses his son of selling both his soul and his homeland for a bit of political gain and Canadian coin.

The ensuing fight is fierce, probably the most heated and angry scene in the play. I read it as a symbolic representation of the very real family-destroying arguments that ripped through Newfoundland in the later years of the 1940s, as the issue of independence versus confederation divided families and communities – a trauma that still echoes today, not so many years after.

The night I saw the play, at every thunderous peak of rage, many in the audience laughed, as if the bitter schism being played out for us was a Codco skit.

Continue reading

L’ancienne capitale française

In 2013, I wrote an essay for the Newfoundland Quarterly about how my hometown of Placentia, the French capital of Newfoundland from 1660 to 1713, has a French history rather than a French heritage — that the town today likes to pretend it has some special Frenchness, but that this claim is false and has been since the mid-18th century. I meditate on what our imagined Frenchness means,  how it figures into our sense of identity as Placentia-people (Placentians?), and why we vigorously maintain this imaginary French heritage when all the facts are aligned against its existence.

Le Gaboteur, the French-language newspaper for Terre Neuve et Labrador, took note of my essay and recently asked if they could translate it and publish that translation. Of course I instantly said yes — it’s thrilling when someone does something creative with a text I’ve produced, and I consider translation to be a creative act. Also, I’m very pleased that my ideas will have a second jog around the block, as it were, and that they will be read by people who have a significant interest in the stakes of my essay.

The translation was completed last week, and it appeared today in the most recent edition of Le Gaboteur. If you have (or get) an online subscription, you can read it here. If you live in a part of Terre Neuve et Labrador where Le Gaboteur circulates, you can pick up the November 24 issue and turn to pages 9 and 10.

July 1

This is adapted from something I wrote on facebook seven (!!!) years ago. 

July 1 is usually a day of conflicted feelings and conflicted identity for me. July 1 is Canada Day, but it’s also Memorial Day in Newfoundland, a day to remember Newfoundland’s war dead in general, World War I in particular, and the slaughter of Beaumont Hamel in 1916 most specifically. This is complicated not just because of the disharmonious combination of emotions — celebration and commemoration — but because the Newfoundlanders who died in the First World War were not Canadians. They were not fighting for Canada. When the media covers Memorial Day, this fact is often left out, or only hinted at. But I think it’s at the heart of why July 1 is such a strange and difficult day for me.

Most of the time I have a pretty reasonable internal compromise regarding my sense of national identity. I’m an nth-generation Newfoundlander who also happens to be a first-generation Canadian. Because of Newfoundland’s odd political history, I’m the first person in my direct family line to be born in Canada, even though my family has lived in Newfoundland for at least 200 years before my birth. My parents did not come to Canada as children; Canada came to them.

As an uncritical youngster, I was full of overwhelming but mostly formless Canadian pride. I chalk this up to successful federalist propaganda, itself a response to the surge in Québec separatism in the 80s and 90s. There was a frantic edge to the flag-waving of the early 90’s, as if Canada was Tinkerbell and this was the bit at the end of Peter Pan where we all have to applaud to save her life.

Newfoundland patriotism? The attitude I received during childhood was that Newfoundland meant backwards, wrong, ignorant, poor — something to be ashamed of. Though it was never put so bluntly, the message was loud and clear: If I wanted to be anything more than the stereotype of the ignorant and lazy welfare bum, I would have to excise Newfoundland from my identity and become, essentially, exactly the same as people from the Canadian heartland. Good kids didn’t talk ‘like that’ (with a Newfoundland accent). Good kids loved Canada. Good kids aspired to a particular WASP-y Southern Ontario ideal which, we understood, was Canada. I was a good kid.

As I grew older, I became curious about my own place and my own people, so incredibly different from that Canadian ideal. I felt alienated from my own culture and I wanted to reverse that. I didn’t have much by the way of dialect, but I tried to hold on to what had survived. In the last year of my undergraduate degree, I started to study Newfoundland history and learned that we had once been a country  — well, mostly. For a while, at least, we had the same legal status within the British Empire that Canada had. I learned how Newfoundland once had passports, Prime Ministers, currency, stamps, and so on. These were facts that, incredibly, had been omitted from all my public schooling. It was as if, when we joined Canada, everything from before that date was erased and replaced by Canadian history. I knew who Sir John A. Macdonald was, but I had never heard of Sir Robert Bond. I knew who Louis Riel was, but not William Coaker.

This isn’t to say joining Canada was a bad thing, on the balance. The quality of life in Newfoundland took an enormous leap forward during our first twenty years as part of Canada. The fact that I am as educated and as healthy as I am is largely due to the advantages I have had as a Canadian. It would be ungracious to pretend otherwise. It is, literally, a privilege to be born in Canada.

If Newfoundland had gone it alone, we might have been an incredibly prosperous small nation, with all of our resource revenue for ourselves, or we might be a destitute, illiterate, malnourished micronation that never fully escaped the 19th century. Or we might be somewhere between the two. Or we might be something else, something I haven’t considered or imagined. It’s impossible to say what might have been.

Harold Horwood, a controversial Newfoundland writer most prominent in the 1960s and 70s, had an interesting theory. Horwood’s idea runs like this: it took the peril of cultural destruction that came with our joining Canada to make Newfoundlanders aware of ourselves as a unique culture. The perceived erosion of our culture by Canadian cultural imperialism is what prompted cultural nationalism in 1970s Newfoundland, just as American cultural imperialism prompted Canadian cultural nationalism during the same period.

But cultural nationalism isn’t satisfying to me. It’s reactive. It shuts down diversity and possibility.

Today is Canada Day. On July 1 1867, Canada was formed. Newfoundland didn’t show up to the party until 82 years later, on April 1 — rather, 11:59 pm March 31, in consideration of what else April 1 is.

Today is also Memorial Day in Newfoundland. On July 1, 1916, the Battle of Beaumont Hamel nearly wiped out the Newfoundland Regiment, later called the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the only regiment to be awarded the appellation ‘royal’ during the course of World War I.

A shell explodes at Beaumont Hamel, July 1, 1916. Source:  http://www.therooms.ca/regiment/part2_the_battle_of_the_somme_part1.asp

A shell explodes at Beaumont Hamel, July 1, 1916. Source: http://www.therooms.ca/regiment/

More than 800 Newfoundlanders were sent over the top that morning; the next morning, only 110 were alive, and only 68 of them were able to answer roll call. For a nation of barely 250,000, this was a huge one-day loss. To put it in proportion, it would be like 89,000 young Canadians being killed in a single hour of senseless carnage, today. But July 1 was merely the bloodiest day of a very bloody war. When even a single human death is an inconceivable thing, it feels brutal to deal in numbers of these magnitude. While casualty rates for Newfoundlanders were comparable to rates for Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders, Newfoundland’s tiny population magnified the social cost. Joan Sullivan’s non-fiction book In the Field is an account of how delicate the social ecosystem of a small Newfoundland outport can be; how the death of just a few young men — or even a single one, in the case Sullivan investigates — can disrupt a fragile community’s chain of existence, leading to its eventual destruction. In World War I, Newfoundland lost a significant part of a generation of political leaders, thinkers, businessmen, writers, inventors, innovators. Due to the tiny size of the then-country’s population, these were often irreplaceable losses.

Newfoundland also went deeply into debt to finance its efforts in World War I, and the fact that this debt was never forgiven has often been held up as one reason why the Dominion suffered an economic collapse in the early 1930s, surrendering its self-rule to the very British government it had gone so deeply into debt to defend — something that sticks in the craw of many Newfoundland nationalists still.

unveiling national war memorial, st john's

Unveiling of the National War Memorial in St. John’s, July 1, 1924. Source: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/greatwar/

So, since World War I, July 1 has been a day of great mourning and deep significance in Newfoundland, entirely divorced from the Canada Day celebrations in what, until 1949, was the next country over.

But now we are Canadians, too. We have been for more than sixty years. I am a Canadian as well as a Newfoundlander, and usually I can be both without too much trouble. But July 1, for the reasons given above, is a day when that compromise feels uncomfortable.

I find inappropriate many of the patriotic displays associated with Canada Day. July 1 sees like a day when we are encouraged to rally around cliché, natural symbols and animals that most Canadians (some of the most urbanized people on the globe) have little knowledge of, and bits of culture filched, expropriated, appropriate from the land’s original inhabitants, who continue to be subject to abuse and discrimination, and whose land is still under illegal occupation.

So how can one celebrate Canada Day? To be Canadian is to be local. Canada is not a monolith. Canadians are not one people. Canada is not two solitudes; we are not one English people and one French people. Canadians come from anywhere and everywhere. Canada is not even a nation, in some senses of the word. It has always been a composite, comprised of countless disparate fragments. Any attempt to create a united identity for Canada that moves away from that fact is immediately an ethical failure.

I am not patriotic. Canada has a violent, bloody history that often gets forgotten. It is an ongoing colonial project and its body count is still rising. However, it is also good to consider the positive aspects of this improbable, imperfect political entity. It is (usually, mostly) a society of tolerance in a world that is mostly cruel and unwelcoming. My current member of the provincial parliament, here in Toronto, demonstrated something rare this morning: a patriotic tweet from a politician that didn’t feel like empty pandering. He wrote:

Canada Day. A celebration of our diverse folks, ideas & geography! Our nation of people from every corner of the Earth! Pluralism & hope. – Glen Murray, Toronto Centre MPP

So, that brings me back to my childhood, watching the 1995 Québec referendum. Is Québec a nation? Of course. So is Newfoundland. So are the Cree. So are the Métis. So are the Acadians. So are the Inuit. So is WASP-y Southern Ontario. These nations have different levels of recognition, different levels of prestige, sometimes wield power against one another. But the watchwords are “pluralism and hope,” and something so difficult as an effective pluralism won’t ever be achieved without hope and optimism. We are countless nations within a political compromise, pursuing a common good as best we can. Canada is that compromise. I think the most Canadian thing a person can do is to respect that Canada is not a single nation, is far more than two solitudes. July 1 is a day to honour differences and the framework that allows difference to exist.

So, perhaps ironically, the best way I can celebrate Canada Day is by honouring Memorial Day instead. Which is, as always, what I will end up doing.

FREE NFLD

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.

FREE NFLD

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!

*

free nfld 5 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.

*

free nfld bestSometimes, 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.

*

freenfld 1

“I’LL TAKE 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.

*

free nfld 3It’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?

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“WHY”

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.