Chapter 3 – Research Setting

In the early 1970’s travelers who arrived in St. John’s by plane were greeted at the airport’s exit by a sign that said, “Welcome to St. John’s.  Capital City of Britain’s Oldest Colony.”

I had been raised in a culture whose national myth celebrated independence from Britain and at the time it struck me as odd that someone would find being colonized a source of pride and something of value to promote to visitors.

Over time I came to the realization that being Britain’s oldest colony was only a source of pride for some Newfoundlanders, including obviously, the public officials who made decisions about and financed tourism promotions.  Over time I also came to the realization that like much tourism promotion, the welcoming sign’s oldest colony claim was an exaggeration.

Sir John Chadwick, the British bureaucrat assigned to assist the pre-Confederation Newfoundland National Convention of 1946-1948 described the oldest colony claim as a “latter-day Imperial myth” (Chadwick 1967:1) and “quite false (ibid:5).   Chadwick contends that a century and a half after Sir Humphry Gilbert’s 1583 arrival in Newfoundland the island had a population of less than 2,000 people and had failed the “doctrine of effective occupation” (ibid:6) test necessary to be recognized as a colony.

The British bureaucrat also observed that by the time the American colonies won their war of independence in the 18th century the population of Newfoundland was “wretched in the extreme” (ibid:16) and another century and a half later fishermen still lived on “the borderlines of subsistence” (ibid:155) and the “edge of starvation” (ibid:161).


Poverty and Exploitation

Chadwick is not the only observer to comment on Newfoundland’s history as one of poverty and exploitation.  Sir John Hope Simpson and his spouse Quita, or Lady Hope Simpson, made similar observations.  In 1934 Sir John Hope Simpson arrived in Newfoundland as Britain’s representative on the Commission of Government that administered Newfoundland affairs following the suspension of the elected legislature.  In personal letters to their family in Britain Sir John and Lady Hope Simpson described the poverty on the island as “appalling” (Neary 1996:36).  They described St. John’s as a “squalid town” (ibid:33) and its inhabitants as “poor creatures living. . . in shacks without doors or heating” (ibid:41).  They described the village of Grey River on the southwest coast as “a dismal place” (ibid:155) and the village of Cape La Hune as “a most miserable place – so poor – so wretched.  The children ran away like little wild animals & hid at our approaches” (ibid:158).

In comparing the clothing of children in Newfoundland to the clothing of children in China, Lady Hope Simpson wrote, “I have never seen such patched clothing except in China & there the patching was so neat; here it seem as tho’ they had not even decent needles & thread & the patches are of all sorts of stuff & patterns” (ibid:195).  Commenting on the status and role of women in Newfoundland she wrote, “The laws here are made by men for the men.  The women are of no account – nothing but drudges & child bearers” (ibid:204).

“This is a dreadful country economically” Sir John Hope Simpson wrote, “The woodsmen and the fishermen are unorganized and are in fact serfs.  For 300 years they have been existing, and the major part of their earnings have gone to create about 300 wealthy families” (ibid:125).  “Conditions” he wrote, “are really medieval & it is doing the Middle Ages a wrong probably to say so” (ibid:220) and in a reference to one of the more notorious chapters in colonial history Hope Simpson wrote, “It is the Congo over again” (ibid:53 ).

It was not only the appearance of forced labour in the 1930s that merited comparing Newfoundland to colonial Africa.  There was also the matter of infant mortality.  In 1935 the Commission of Government reported that the infant mortality rate was 103 deaths per 1,000 (Chadwick 1967:226).  In 2011 that rate would place Newfoundland 180th in the United Nations ranking of infant mortality in 197 countries just behind Mozambique and Zambia and ahead of Guinea and Malawi (UN World Population Prospects: 2011 revision ).  It is little wonder one commentator described Newfoundland as an “imperial slum” (Duley 1949:2).

One could argue that Sir John and Lady Hope Simpson looked upon Newfoundlanders from a privileged position which skewed their view.  That argument would be more persuasive if not for the abundance of other observers reaching the same conclusions about what was almost exclusively a fishing economy. For example, the 19th century reality about which there is no disagreement is, as Harris notes, that the fishery was “the sole reason for any settlement at all” (Harris 2008:36).

Kurlansky concurs with Harris noting “The entire Newfoundland economy was based on Europeans arriving, catching fish for a few months, and taking their fish back to Europe” (Kurlansky 1997:73).  Story, also concurring with Harris, observes that during the 19th century “all the communities of Newfoundland were alike in their dependence, direct or indirect, on the fisheries” (Halpert and Story 1990:29).

Just as there is agreement that the fishery was the sole reason for European settlement on the island there is agreement that Newfoundland’s history was, as Donna Davis observes, a “chronicle of the continued impoverishment of fisher families” (Davis 1989:65).

Support for Davis comes from several sources.  Byron notes that “from the earliest days of the fishery the specter of starvation loomed in lean seasons” (Byron 2003:4).  The specter of starvation in outport communities was also noted by Palmer and Pomianek who wrote that “during the long winter months following Christmas, often the only thing that stood between a family and starvation was the generosity of neighbors” (Palmer and Pomianek 2007:295).

Accompanying impoverishment was illiteracy.  Firestone quotes from an 1850’s missionary’s letter reporting that in Savage Cove, a settlement of 16 on the Northern Peninsula, “There is not one of this large family who knows a letter of the alphabet: (Firestone 1967:31).  Similarly, Faris quotes an Anglican cleric who described Cat Harbour, a settlement of 285 people on what is known as the Straight Shore on the island’s northeast coast, in the 1840’s as a place where “no one could read sufficiently well to conduct a religious service” (Faris 1973:13).  Faris also suggests the 19th century Newfoundland judge turned historian, D.W. Prowse (2002) could have been writing about Cat Harbour when he referred to fishermen who “had never seen money from their birth to their grave, they were in debt to the merchants all their lives long . . .even to this day” (ibid:15).

Sir John Hope Simpson described the economic condition of Newfoundland in the 1930’s as a “nightmare” (Neary 1996:222), but he wasn’t the only British Commissioner to make that observation. Another British Commissioner, T. Lodge, in describing the state of the fishery in the 1930’s observed that “It is almost unique as an industry in that the class which owns the capital in it has managed, somehow or other, to throw the whole risks, or very nearly the whole risks, on to the shoulders of the working classes (ibid:49).  The worst feature of this system according to Lodge was “that the average Newfoundland fisherman is not only a capitalist taking all the risks attendant to the use of capital; he is a capitalist working on borrowed capital” (ibid:55).

What Lodge was describing is the truck system where a merchant sold fishing supplies on credit to a fisherman in the spring and the fisherman was bound to sell his fish to the merchant in the fall.  When the value of the fish in the fall turned out to be less than the cost of the supplies in the spring the merchant advanced the fisherman, again on credit, food and provisions for the fishing family over the winter.  The result was the fisherman rarely escaped being in debt to the merchant and in the years when the value of his fish in the fall was greater than the cost of supplies in the spring, then the fisherman’s profit was often carried on the merchant’s books as a credit and the fisherman did not receive a cash payment.

By the 19th century when settlement in Newfoundland had expanded to encompass “more than one thousand communities along ten thousand miles of coastline” (Harris 1990:19) the fishery dominated the economy and truck dominated the fishery as it would well into the 20th century. Story notes that the truck system persisted in Newfoundland to the end of the 1930’s, long after it had been banned by Parliament in Great Britain because it “enforced servitude of producer to merchant” (Halpert and Story 1990:22).

Davis describes the truck system as “debt peonage” (Davis 1989:66) where families were continually in debt to the merchant because they “lacked the capital necessary to expand their operation” (ibid:66).  Put another way, as Porter notes in the context of her research into the lives of women in Newfoundland, in conditions of bare survival, “there was no surplus to be appropriated” (Porter 1993:53).  Such was what Sider calls, the “extortionist relations between merchants and fisher families” (Sider 2003:16).

Lest one think that the truck system was merely an early, transitory phase in the evolution of a servant fishery to a family fishery to a factory fishery Sider points out that truck was the “predominate form of payment” in the Newfoundland fishery from the mid-1840’s to World War II” (ibid:80).  It is an observation consistent with Wadel who noted that “Some of the older Newfoundlanders are said not have seen money before World War II” (Wadel 1973:3).  This is the reality of the traditional, outport Newfoundland culture  which is currently being marketed to tourists and it has been since the early 20th century.

Outport Culture Becomes a Product

Following the completion of the railway in Newfoundland in 1898 the interior of the island became more accessible and according to Pocius, Newfoundland “owes its first mass influx of tourists to the promotional efforts of a railway company (Pocius 1994:47).  The same pattern was observed by Dawson in his examination of tourism in British Columbia where he notes that the Canadian Pacific Railway “had identified tourism as an important source of supplementary income to help alleviate the company’s mounting debt”  (Dawson 2004:24)  and by Deitch who observed that in the American southwest “the Santa Fe Railroad pioneered tourism” (Smith 1989:226).

The early efforts by the Reid Railroad Company in Newfoundland, according to Alan Byrne, promoted Newfoundland as “an unexplored land” (A. Byrne 2007:15) and marketed the island as a “sportsman’s paradise” (ibid:4).  Later, as the Commission of Government from 1934 to 1949 overlapped with the Newfoundland Tourist Development Board from 1925 – 1946, tourist promotion according to Byrne showed “the first signs of the creation of the archetypal Newfoundland outport experience, one which included friendliness, generosity, laughter” (A Byrne 2008:50) and highlighted “the role of the supposedly distinct Newfoundland character and way of life” (ibid:51).  For example, in 1931 the future Premier of the province, Joe Smallwood, devoted a chapter in his publication The New Newfoundland to “American Tourists” (Smallwood 1931: 52-73) where he commented on what he called the “quaintness and local colour” of Newfoundland’s small fishing communities (ibid:59).  Smallwood claimed that “There is no other country in North America where life is simpler, where people are more genuine and hospitable, where outdoor attractions are more numerous or easily availed of, or where greater joy of living can be experienced for so small a cash outlay” (ibid:64).  Byrne marks this 1930’s selling of the outport experience as the birth of cultural tourism in Newfoundland (A Byrne 2008:51).

It would be another 50 years before the notion of cultural industries would be explicitly identified in a report commissioned by a provincial government Economic Recovery Commission and promoted as a “growth opportunity sector” (Barry 1991: Executive Summary 2).  Later, in the aftermath of the 1992 moratorium on the cod fishery cultural tourism became identified as replacement industry for rural Newfoundland, but first attempts to modernize the fishery and industrialize the Newfoundland economy would be tried without success.  Those initiatives followed Confederation with Canada in 1949, but before Confederation the Second World War intervened and the impact of the war would reverberate for decades.  What I am arguing is that one of those reverberations took the form of a stereotype that vexes Newfoundland to this day.


The Loss of Self Government and World War II

Joe Smallwood’s vision of a new Newfoundland in 1931 did not anticipate that two years later the Great Depression in Europe and North America would cripple Newfoundland’s economy, leave it’s government unable to meet the interest payments on its national debt, and lead to the Amurlee Royal Commission that recommended the suspension of responsible government.  That recommendation led to the dissolution of the Newfoundland legislature and 15 years of rule by a Commission of Government beginning in 1934.  “Newfoundlanders,” argues historian Peter Neary, “were in effect told that they had been betrayed by their own leaders, had made a flop of governing themselves, and need a period of wardship before they could ever attempt to do so again.  Here were the seeds of self-doubt, self-hate, and low self-esteem” (Neary 1997:7).

Peter Neary has not been alone in speculating about Newfoundland and self-esteem.  In a lecture titled “The Old Lost Land of Newfoundland: Family, Memory, Fiction, and Myth” the award-winning Newfoundland author Wayne Johnston argues,

“There are two (emphasis in the original ) animating myths of Newfoundland.  The first and most evident one derives from a sense of grievance and great pride.  The best way I can think of putting it is that ‘The true king is always in exile while some pretender holds the throne.’

In other words, Newfoundlanders believe themselves to be an intrinsically great people who, throughout their history, have been wrongfully prevented from enjoying the spoils of their greatness.

The other animating myth – and it is one that is rarely acknowledged in any quarter – is that Newfoundlanders are intrinsically inferior to other peoples of the world and have therefore been the authors of their own misfortunes” (Johnston 2009:21).

Wayne Johnston, a writer, and Peter Neary, an historian, are not the only voices to speak of Newfoundland and “low self-esteem” or a sense that Newfoundlanders are “intrinsically inferior” to other people.  For example, in the 1980’s, almost 50 years after surrendering self-government, the then Premier of the day, Brian Peckford, questioned “whether the Newfoundland trait or feeling that others can do it better is a twentieth century phenomenon or not” (Peckford 1983:vi).  Peckford argues that “we have labored under some sort of perceived inadequacy” (ibid:vi) which “may be deep in our psyche” (ibid:vi), buried further in the past than Confederation with Canada or the Commission of Government period.  “It flowed,” according to Peckford, “from our whole history of colonialism, subjugation, and exploitation” (ibid:vi).

However deep the roots, the Commission of Government period set the stage for World War II, an event that would alter Newfoundland in a profound way.  In 1939 Britain declared war on Germany.  By the time America had entered the war in 1941 the Commission of Government had agreed to lease sites in Newfoundland to the Americans for military bases for the defense of North America.  The Commission of Government granted the leases without any consultation with Newfoundlanders and this lack of consultation, according to Long “highlighted the reality for the people that their country was not their own” (Long 1999:137).  The economic impact of leasing land for American and later Canadian military bases in Newfoundland would be immediate, but the reverberations would prove more long lasting.

The pivoting of Newfoundland’s focus from east to west was about to accelerate.  After visiting Newfoundland in 1943, an independent member of the British House of Commons and critic of Commission of Government, A.P. Herbert, described Newfoundlanders as “intensely English.  Their names are English, their ancestors were English, and after all these generations their accents are English still.  If you fell ‘blindfolded’ by parachute on to any part of Newfoundland and you listened to the talk, you might say you were in Devonshire, in Dorset, Cornwall, or Somerset, or Yorkshire: you might say you were in Ireland or Scotland . . . .but you would never say you were in Canada or the United States” (Herbert 1952:257).

With the arrival of a large number of Canadian and American military personnel Newfoundland was about to experience what Newfoundland philosophy professor Lin Jackson describes as a “wholesale cultural shift of focus” (Jackson 1984:18).  Jackson argues, like Herbert, when “independence lapsed in 1934 Newfoundland’s institutions were still entirely British, its education European, and its cultural paradigms still essentially English and Irish.  People generally understood themselves as proud descendants of those mother-cultures, living on the western limits, as it were, of British Atlantic.  In other words, faces, minds, and hearts still facing East across the ocean.” (ibid:18).

I share Jackson’s view though he overlooks an earlier event which in retrospect can be seen as a precursor to the larger wholesale cultural shift that occurs with the invasion of North American servicemen.  This earlier event was the Bank Crash of 1894 when the colony’s two Newfoundland banks failed.  The Commercial Bank, which commenced business in 1858 and catered to rural communities in Newfoundland, was the first to go.  The Union Bank, whose business was St. John’s based, followed.

According to Prowse “Up to fatal Black Monday, 10th December 1894, Newfoundland

credit stood high.  Our principle monetary institution, the Union Bank, had for forty years maintained the highest reputation at home and abroad; suddenly credit, financial reputation, confidence in both mercantile houses and banks fell like a house of cards . . . the notes of the Banks had been the universal money of the Colony – circulating as freely as gold on Saturday, on Monday degraded to worthless paper” (Prowse 2002:536).

Prowse attributes the bank failures to the directors and “their large borrowings and crass mismanagement” (ibid:536).  It could be argued that the actions of the banks’ directors went beyond ‘crass mismanagement.’  Charges of breach of trust and fraud were laid, five Directors of each bank (including the Premier and Finance Minister of the day who were Bank Directors) were arrested, though no convictions were ever obtained (Bill 2011/2012:38).

What is not arguable, however, is that within weeks of the banks’ closure the Newfoundland legislature adopted the Canadian dollar as the official currency of the colony and Canadian chartered banks opened branches in St. John’s.  Newfoundland coinage and currency continued to be produced for domestic use, but foreign exchange  and international borrowing, was based on Canadian dollars.  The result was that Newfoundland forfeited control of its own monetary policy and the political independence that accompanies it and its banking industry passed into foreign hands.  Both of these factors came into play in the events that led to the suspension of representative government in 1933.

Neary describes the decade of the 1930s in Newfoundland as a “hard and unforgiving time” (Neary 1997:3).  It was certainly true that when Newfoundland sought loans to meet the interest payments on its national debt in the 1930s its lenders were unforgiving.   The Bank of Montreal opened a branch in Newfoundland following the Bank Crash of 1894 and emerged as the government’s banker. Its influence was significant.  For example, the Amurlee Royal Commission, which would recommend a suspension of representative government, was comprised of a representative of the British government, a representative of the Canadian government, and a representative of the Newfoundland government.  The Newfoundland representative was a Canadian banker “with close ties to the Bank of Montreal’ (ibid:5).

The Bank of Montreal’s role in the political affairs of the colony led Peter Cashin, the Newfoundland government’s Finance Minister in 1928 and later an opponent of the Commission of Government, to charge in his diary that the Bank of Montreal “was primarily responsible for bringing Newfoundland under a dictatorship” (Roberts 2012:78).

How Canadian bankers viewed Newfoundland in 1943 is recorded in an account of an official of the Bank of Canada who wrote “In the other banks the senior officials are all Canadians and I believe I am right in saying that virtually all of the Montreal’s St. John’s staff are Canadian.  The Canadians are no doubt instructed not to show distaste at their appointments publicly – but in most cases from the manager down they feel that they are bearing the white man’s burden and are living in hopes of a transfer.  Newfoundland being what it is, such an attitude is unavoidable” (Fitzgerald 2002: 33/34 ).  

What Newfoundland was in the 1930s was impoverished.  Representative government was suspended and Newfoundland was reduced to the status of a Crown Colony, or the same type of government which William Coaker, a prominent Newfoundland cabinet minister, described as being “reserved for coloured races” (Long 1999:121).  Such was the setting in Newfoundland at the beginning of the Second World War and the ‘invasion’ of North American military personnel that was to follow.

In 1941 the population of Newfoundland and Labrador was approximately 300,000, but because of its strategic geographical position it would quickly grow much larger.  According to John Cardoulis, “The United States military forces in Newfoundland and Labrador jumped from 2,000 prior to 7 December 1941 to over 20,000 by the end of 1942.  By the war’s end in 1945 over 100,000 US military troops were stationed in Newfoundland and Labrador” (Cardoulis:References Cited1990:19).  Gander became a military town and Cardoulis reports that during the war “750,000 Americans passed through Gander” (ibid:7).

The financial impact was immediate. For example, in November 1940 the number of Newfoundlanders on government relief was 13,184 (O’Flaherty 2011:79), but as the demand for labour increased by November 1941 the number of Newfoundlanders receiving the able-bodied dole had “virtually disappeared (ibid:79) and as a visiting independent member of the British House of Commons observed, “War made poor Newfoundland self-supporting almost at once” (Herbert 1952:260).

In a social history of St. John’s during the war High notes the level of prosperity in 1942 was described by diplomats as being “without precedent in the history of the island” (High 2010:15).  This spike in prosperity was reflected in savings deposits at one St. John’s bank.  According to High “total savings on deposit at the Royal Bank in St. John’s increased from $29,463,000 in 1941 to $39,368,000 in 1942” (ibid:16/17).  What makes this unprecedented prosperity even more striking is that it occurred in a community where “70 percent of the city’s 6,500 houses were substandard” (High 2010:239) and  “14 percent of city homes that did not have sewage connections, two-wheeled horse-drawn carts, with burning torches on the back to ward off flies, regularly collected sewage from the front of each house” (ibid:239).

The construction of the Argentia naval base, at a time when the population of Argentia was 500 (Cardoulis 1990:27), was an enormous project by Newfoundland standards in the 1940s.  Newfoundland historian Sean Cadigan reports that “the huge workforce that built the base, about 1,500 Americans and 4,000 Newfoundland civilians was a boon to the local economy” (Cadigan 2009:225).  In western Newfoundland the village of Stephenville, a community of 500 people with no paved streets, sidewalks, or water or sewage system in 1941, became a boom-town home to 7,000 people and the largest American Air Force base outside of the continental United States by 1942 (Cardoulis 1990:83).

O’Flaherty reports that “the number of men employed on the bases, by one calculation, reached 22,000 by the end of 1941” (O’Flaherty2011:79) and by 1942, according to Major “one-fifth of the total labour force in Newfoundland and Labrador was employed in base construction” (Major 2001:373).  Even though American civilians “received twice the rate of pay of Newfoundlanders doing the same job” (ibid:374) the infusion of cash into the hands of the thousands of Newfoundlanders involved in base construction was unprecedented as “the average household income in Newfoundland doubled during the war years” (ibid:374).

The impact on government revenues was also unprecedented.  As economic activity increased a chronic fiscal deficit had turned into a $7.2 million surplus by 1941-42  (O’Flaherty 2011:85).  It wasn’t just increases in employment and income, however, that was bringing change to Newfoundland.   Newfoundland was becoming increasingly pulled into North America’s sphere of influence.

As one St. John’s observer noted at the time, “You can’t drop a couple of armies, plus the Canadian navy and Uncle Sam’s flotillas on an easy-going country and not have earthquakes happen” (High 2010:79 ).  The earthquakes manifested themselves in several ways.

Lorenzkowski notes that “at a time when the automobile revolution had transformed North American towns,  cities, and countrysides, most Newfoundlanders continued to rely on horses, steeetcars, boats, and the railway to get around” (High 2010:147).  The number of motor vehicles on the road changed as did the rules of the road.  According to Lorenzkowski “at the outset of the war, Newfoundlanders drove on the left-hand side of the road . . . .By the war’s end, however, the law was changed to the (North) American standard” (ibid: 187).

With the arrival of American and Canadian military personnel, Jackson argues Newfoundlanders’ “small, impoverished country was suddenly turned into a classroom in which Newfoundlanders began to learn about the world to the west of them, a world upon which they had traditionally turned their backs” (Jackson 1984:18).  Similarly, Cadigan notes that “The presence of so many Canadians and Americans, along with their entertainment and consumer goods, gave many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians a taste for the more affluent consumerism that had been developing throughout North America” (ibid:227).

Similarly, O’Flaherty argues that with the arrival of American and Canadian troops “a new dimension was added to cultural life.  They didn’t just come as visitors.  They brought their country with them” (O’Flaherty 2011:69).   For example, in St. John’s the Americans constructed Fort Pepperell, a base containing 200 buildings which Sharpe and Shawyer describe as “a complete American city within the city of St. John’s” (High 2010:48).

Jackson suggests that what developed in Newfoundland during the war years was more than just a taste for North American affluence.  He argues that by 1941 Newfoundlanders were driven by “a real longing to escape the griping alienation of life under the Commission dictatorship” (Jackson 1984:19).  According to Jackson “Old loyalties were strained: the existing social order was without life or hope.  It was against this background of disenchantment that the Canadians and Americans appeared” (ibid:18) sowing the seeds “that would make Newfoundland’s assimilation into North American society inevitable” (ibib:20).

Newfoundland novelist Margaret Duley also observed what O’Flaherty describes as the attractiveness of the foreigners, but she was not entirely enthusiastic about it.  Based on her experiences as a volunteer at a hostel and social centre for servicemen in St. John’s during the war Margaret Duley wrote The Caribou Hut: The Story of A Newfoundland Hostel (1949).

The Caribou Hut, located in what was known as the King George V (the Fifth) building on Water St. in downtown St. John’s, had the city’s only indoor swimming pool, five and ten-pin bowling lanes, a kitchen (with what may have been the city’s first electric dishwasher), and a canteen.  The Caribou Hut hosted dances, showed movies, and became a meeting place for Canadian and American military personnel and Newfoundlanders.

The Caribou Hut became the setting for a play called Makin’ Time With The Yanks that debuted in St. John’s in 1981and was remounted in 2011.  The play recalled the war years when an estimated 30,000 Newfoundland and Labrador women married foreign servicemen (Major 2001:377).  The play, based in part on people’s memories of the Caribou Hut, features three working class Newfoundland women, Vivian, Laura, and Irene and their romantic entanglements with the foreign servicemen.  In one scene the three women compare Americans, Canadians, and British servicemen they’ve met:

                                                           Scene 4

        (The Reardon home.  Couch and chair.  Irene is brushing Vivian’s hair.  The girls         are applying powder and nail polish during this scene.)

IRENE;   Well, I’m not going.

VIVIAN: Well, if you won’t go, then she can’t go, and if she can’t go, then I can’t go, and I’m going. (As Irene pulls her hair.)  Owwww!

IRENE;    If you would just sit still for a minute.

VIVIAN:  (Wildly excited.)  Oh, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t . . .He is so divine.

LAURA:   What’s mine like?  What’s mine like?

VIVIAN:  I don’t know.  I haven’t met him.

LAURA:  Oh, wonderful! He is probably the only ugly American on the entire Edmund B. Alexander.

VIVIAN:   No, I made mine promise yours wouldn’t be ugly.

LAURA:   Oh, good.

IRENE:      Well, I wouldn’t go out with a Yank no matter what he looked like.  I’d go out with a British officer or a Canadian . . .

“VIVIAN:  Oh, I wouldn’t go out with a Canadian. They make you feel like you’re worth two cents.

LAURA     Sure, the crowd from Vancouver Island lie like rugs.

IRENE:      But sure, at least they got manners.  And the British officers are real gentlemen, not like the Yanks.

VIVIAN:   Sure, the Yanks are real gentlemen.  What do you know about the Yanks anyway?

IRENE :    I see them all over town walking around like they own everything.  Like they own the whole town.”  (Peters 1996:190/191)

Margaret Duley, like Jackson, viewed the arrival of American and Canadian troops in 1940 as an invasion.  On the first page of The Caribou Hut Duley describes St. John’s as being “peacefully invaded” (Duley 1949:1), but she goes on to write,

“At first the Newfoundland civilian was stunned.  He had always had his country and his roads to himself.  He could dawdle, and enjoy both in the spirit of undisturbed ownership.  Now he felt dispossessed, crowded on his own streets, mowed down by the ever-increasing numbers of dun-coloured, army-vehicles.  The strangers were strutting, becoming the “big-shot.”  They looked down their noses at the natives.  They were disdainful of a hard old heritage.  They began to call the townsfolk “the Newfies” and like Queen Victoria, the Newfoundlanders were not amused” (ibid:11).

“The Newfies”

There is no mistaking that Duley identified the word “Newfie” as one of disdain and disparagement.  It was not, according to Duley, an expression of respect or affection.  In what may be the earliest recorded reference to the word “Newfie” Duley describes it as being used in a pejorative fashion by “big-shot” outsiders who “looked down their noses at the natives.”

According to Webb the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper acknowledged that Canadian soldiers did not use “Newfie” as an expression of respect.  In a report reprinted by the Newfoundland Daily News newspaper, the Globe and Mail said of Canadian servicemen in Newfoundland that “The boys there, incidentally, have annoyed the natives to no end by calling them ‘Newfies’ and instead of referring to themselves as ‘slap-happy’ they say they are ‘Newfie-goofie’ which is a further strain on international relations” (High 2010;209).

For the natives who worked, for example, on the Argentia base there would have been little recourse against being called a “Newfie.”  The terms of the lease between Britain and the United States of America created, according to O’Flaherty, “a sovereign state within a state” (O’Flaherty 2011:64).  Linda Doody, whose childhood home was in the community of Freshwater adjacent to the base in Argentia, recalls that during the years her father worked on the base it “was like a little kingdom and the commander of the base was the king of the castle” (Doody interview May 20, 2010) and in this kingdom “. . . to some extent the Newfoundlanders were the white slaves of the Americans” (ibid).

The emergence of the term ‘Newfie,’ which one observer describes as “a designation somewhere between village idiots and court jesters” (Thoms 1990:29) can clearly be traced to the arrival of Canadian and American military personnel during the Second World War.  For some, the passage of time has not lessened the sting of the insult.

John Perlin, who joined the provincial government in 1967 and became the Province’s first Director of Cultural Affairs, recalls the sting from his days as a student,

“I was educated outside of the province and outside of the country because I’m a pre-Confederation baby and I can remember going through what we used to call the cattle sheds in North Sydney when we’d land in Canada and, you know, you weren’t treated with any great respect.  We were looked on as odd creatures and the fact that there were a group of us traveling first class on trains and going up to Ontario to go to school, you know, we were freaks, even in Nova Scotia at that time.  In my view, and maybe we have an inferiority complex, I’m not sure, but we were not looked upon as anything but the kind of people to be made fun of and the use of ‘Newfie’ in my view by outsiders is pejorative” (Perlin interview June 11, 2010).

Elizabeth Batstone succeeded John Perlin as the province’s Director of Cultural Affairs in 1989 and she shares Perlin’s view of the word “Newfie.”

“I dislike it.  I’m not fanatical about it, but I know people who are and with good reason.  But, if I could draw an analogy I would say that language influences thought as much as thought influences language.  So, if you draw the analogy of the women’s movement and take into account the efforts over decades and decades to try and expunge from the language demeaning words that were so part of the lexicon of how people spoke, they didn’t even think of them as demeaning words.  So, as the politically correct language era came in and people said, ‘Oh yeah, you can’t say this and you can’t say that because it’s not politically correct.’ Whether people know it or not a lot of the way that the women’s movement’s goals got accomplished was by expunging the language of demeaning terms.  So, if you take “Newfie” as a term, that some people will say is an endearment, I think it is a way of dismissing people.  I think you can dismiss a whole group of people if you find a cute little word that sounds endearing but basically is dismissive.

If you were to say to a person who uses the word “Newfie,” and I don’t mean Newfoundlanders who use Newfie.  They have a different image in their minds and it is an endearing one, but if you were to say to people, and we all know hundreds of them, who say ‘Oh, I love “Newfies” and just say to them, “Ok, stop.  I want you to think of three descriptive words that mean “Newfie?”  I don’t think for a moment that it would be intelligent, educated, forward thinking.  I don’t think those words would come.  I think the words that would come in their mind mentally, they probably would be aware enough not to say.”  (Batstone interview June 2, 2010).

Anita Best, one of the authors of the Provincial governments’ cultural policy, is not amused either at being called a “Newfie.”

“Newfie” is like Nigger to me and it’s used in the same way and it’s meant the same way so far as I’m concerned.  I don’t see anything fun or non-patronizing about it.  It’s always patronizing.  To me, “Newfie” is always used in a patronizing way.  It always means that the person you’re calling a “Newfie” is not as smart, is not as sophisticated, is not as up-to-date as you are, right?

(Best interview Dec. 5,2010).

Pat Byrne, a traditional musician, former Chair of the Board of Directors of the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council and member of the English Department at Memorial University, suggests that one of the reasons the group label “Newfie” emerged is because in Newfoundland in the 1940s “most people outside of the capital were not highly literate.” (Interview Dec 2, 2010).

Byrne speculates that American and Canadian military personnel in the 1940s encountered Newfoundlanders who had,

“an unusual, strange, queer. . .whatever word you want to use. . .sounding tongue.  The better educated Canadians even if they only had high school for that matter, and the better educated Canadians and Americans noted immediately the difference in the language and the foodways, the stuff that Newfoundlanders ate.  The salt beef and the cod’s heads.  I think a dominate culture will always denigrate the peculiarities of what they see as a subordinate culture and Newfoundland had it in spades” (P. Byrne interview.  Dec 2, 2010).

If Pat Byrne traces the roots of the pejorative group label “Newfie” back to the 1940s encounter between better educated Canadians and Americans and Newfoundlanders with an unusual, strange, or queer manner of speech then it should not be surprising that some researchers find the reverberations of the encounter lingering decades later.  For example, in their analysis of the politics of ethnic labeling King and Clarke argue “In mainland Canada, distinctive Newfoundland accents are typically associated with laziness and stupidity”  (King and Clarke 202:538).

Brian Griffin, a young St. John’s actor who performs with a theatre company that caters to mainland Canadian visitors has learned to turn his distinctive Newfoundland accent on and off.  The performer with the Spirit of Newfoundland theatre company says, “Unless I’m drunk or angry I don’t speak ‘Newfie’” (Interview Aug 1, 2011).  Shelia Williams, another member of the Spirit of Newfoundland theatre company, though a generation older than Brian Griffin, uses her distinct accent as a means of resistance and won’t tell “Newfie” jokes or use the word “Newfie.”  “I don’t like it” she says, “I don’t use it.  Never never never.   Goofie newfie? I am proud, I am clever, I am industrious.  I’m certainly not goofy” (Interview Aug 12, 2001).

It would be a mistake to conclude that all Newfoundlanders object to the expression “Newfie.”  Anita Best, who was one of the authors of the Province’s cultural policy says she hates the word “Newfie,” but the Premier of the Province who financed the development of that policy and adopted it does not object to the term.  Danny Williams says “I have no problem with being called a “Newfie.” I am proud to be called a “Newfie” . . . it’s a badge of honour as far as I’m concerned” (Interview May 10, 2010).

In between those who hate the expression and those who are proud of it are people like Mike Claire.  He succeeded Liz Batstone as the Province’s Director of Culture and became the Director of Arts and Heritage for the province in 1996 when the job description and title was changed.

“I’m not sure that I have a strong opinion one way or the other.  I know a lot of people who says the word “Newfie” with warmth and because they may have met somebody along the way in Ontario or Alberta who proudly called themselves a “Newfie” so they returned the favour.  I don’t know if we’re making too much of it.  I don’t know how much we should worry about what other people think of us.  So, I don’t have a strong opinion” (Interview June 3, 2010).

Eleanor Dawson succeeded Mike Clair and became the Director of Arts when the job of Director of Arts and Heritage for the province was split in 2008.

“I particularly don’t like the word, but I understand that’s just me and my own experience . . . people who don’t mind it will say, oh my god you’re uptight, it doesn’t mean anything.  I don’t know.  I personally don’t like it . . . I mean I think there was an insecurity in someone like me who didn’t like it.  I instantly take umbrage at it because I thought it was putting me down.  The generation now is much more confident in who they are and they don’t think of it that way”

(Interview June 9, 2010).

In spite of the sensitivity on the part of some Newfoundlanders, the term “Newfie” has been used and continues to be used by mainland Canadian and American media.

For example, in 1983 a national television program called Live It Up produced an episode in Newfoundland about the welcoming and initiation Screech-In ceremony and the program host used the expression “Newfie” almost casually.  Live It Up, which is no longer broadcast, was a popular Toronto-based television program that was broadcast by the Canadian Television Network (CTV).  In the Newfoundland episode the program staged a Screech-In ceremony on Signal Hill in St. John’s and Liz Grogan, the program host, took part in the ceremony and then announced cheerfully to her viewers that she was “A new “Newfie” and then later in the program she took viewers on a search in St. John’s for what she called “Newfie” foods.

More recently a travel writer published a profile of Newfoundland in the Washington Post newspaper, called “A Trip to the Old Rock” (Washington Post April 27, 2008).  In the article the author Paula Stone writes that “Newfies are generous, hospitable, fun-loving.  Just go to any ‘dance up’ where leather hits the lumber.  Newfies take square dancing to a new level” (Washington Post 2008:4).   It is an unpleasant parallel to draw, but Stone’s characterization of Newfoundlanders is not unlike Bogel’s description of the Uncle Tom characterization of black Americans where Toms are “hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind” (Bogel 1973:6).

I have cited just two examples of a mainland Canadian and American journalists casually using the word “Newfie” in a way which suggests that they may have no idea that some Newfoundlanders find the word objectionable.  Some mainland journalists, however, have shown that they are aware of the negative connotation that accompanies the word. For example, in 2008 the Halifax Chronicle Herald, the largest circulation daily newspaper in Nova Scotia, published a cartoon on their editorial page that depicted an encounter between Danny Williams, the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador at the time, and Dalton McGuinty, the Premier of Ontario at the time.  The cartoon was published on the occasion of the introduction of the provincial budgets in the two provinces.  In Ontario, Canada’s traditional ‘have’ province a serious budget deficit was forecast.  In a reversal of roles, in Newfoundland, Canada’s traditional ‘have not’ province a budget surplus was forecast.  In the cartoon Premier Dalton McGuinty is holding his upturned hat out like a beggar on the street and as Premier Danny Williams is withdrawing some money from the inside pocket of his suit jacket and the thought bubble over Premier Williams’ head says, “Heard any good Newfie jokes lately, Dalton?”


King and Wick contend that “the ethnic label ‘Newfie’ “is the site of an ideological dispute” (King and Clarke 2002:537 ) and they further argue that “the debate over Newfie is part of a larger ideological struggle concerning commodification of an ‘invented’ Newfoundland culture, which itself must be understood in terms of Newfoundland’s socioeconomic position as Canada’s poorest province” (ibid:537).  I will return to the issue of a larger ideological struggle concerning the commodification of an invented Newfoundland culture in my analysis of the Screech-In ceremony in Chapter Six, but for the moment, suffice it to say that the term “Newfie” is relatively new.  Narvaez notes that its first recorded appearance was in 1938 in a Newfoundland radio program.  The term was used in a fictional lying competition “in which a New Yorker talks of Americans’ superior building skills and remarks to a Newfoundlander, ‘Nothin’ like that in your country, eh Newfie? (ibid:539).  The term appears to have gone rapidly from first appearance in 1938 to entrenchment during the American and Canadian ‘invasion’ of Newfoundland during the Second World War and later when Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949 instantly becoming Canada’s poorest province, a status it maintained for decades.

To put Newfoundland’s status as Canada’s poorest province in 1949 into context it is useful to take account an observation of Peter Alexander Clutterbuck, a British civil servant with experience in Newfoundland and Britain’s High Commissioner to Canada in 1946.  In an exchange of letters with other British officials as the Second World War came to an end Clutterbuck wrote “The traditional Canadian attitude towards Newfoundland has been one of detachment, condescension and even contempt” (Malone 2012:53)

On the eve of Confederation with Canada in 1949 Joseph Smallwood, the province’s first Premier following Confederation, wrote an article for a Toronto newspaper in which he claimed that joining Canada was Newfoundland’s “only hope of escaping poverty and oppression” (Smallwood 1979: 309).  Prior to Confederation Newfoundland was, according to Smallwood, was “a poor country; the poorest in North America” (ibid:172). To the extent Smallwood’s claim was true, Confederation with Canada did not change much. For example, in the 1980s then Premier Brian Peckford noted that “at the time of Confederation, Newfoundland’s per capita earned income was 46% of the Canadian average – today, thirty-three years later, it is just over 50%”  (Peckford 1983:67).  Being the poorest province in the country, according to Major, led some “Newfoundlanders who migrated to mainland Canada to adopt as a survival skill the “Newfie” persona and that in turn “spawned a glut of odious music and the caricature of the dim-witted-but-friendly, rubber-booted Newf, a situation made worse by a local tourist industry feeding itself on idiotic ‘souvenirs,’ joke books, and that ceremonial embarrassment, the Screech-in” (Major 2002:442).  King made a similar observation about what author Bernice Morgan called “Canada’s Oakies” (King and Clarke 2002:538) living in mainland Canada noting that some Newfoundlanders “deal with derision by insisting that derision does not exist.  Declaring that a slur is actually harmless, and a term of endearment at that, may be viewed as a survival strategy, not only in Newfoundland but also in the minority context in which working-class Newfoundland expatriates find themselves in mainland Canada” (ibid:551).  Modernization and industrialization on the island were supposed to change the perception that Newfoundlanders were Canada’s ‘Oakies.’

Modernization and Industrialization

     Confederation with Canada followed the end of the Second World War and Fitzgerald argues that “when it finally took place, it had a pivotal and defining economic, cultural, and social impact on the people of Newfoundland and Labrador” (Fitzgerald 2002:iii).  Fitzgerald could have added political impact to his list because representative government returned to Newfoundland politics and with it a Premier whose party’s aim was to modernize the island’s economy.

     Cadigan argues that successive Newfoundland governments viewed the fishery as a backward industry (Byron 2003:22) and since the 1930’s “Newfoundland governments had become committed to the notion that the fishery must be industrialized” (ibid:32).  In 1931, eighteen years before he became the first Premier of the Province, Joe Smallwood expressed that desire in the context of a larger vision of a modern, industrial Newfoundland.  In the first paragraph of The New Newfoundland Smallwood writes,

“After more than three centuries of existence as a remote and obscure codfishing country Newfoundland in the past decade or so has entered upon a new march that is destined to place her, within the next dozen years, in the front rank of the great small nations of the world.  That new march is towards modern, large scale industrialism” (Smallwood 1931:1).

Smallwood was clear about his model for Newfoundland’s future when he wrote, “the outstanding fact is that after so long a period of primitive existence, Newfoundland has entered upon a new life, a life very much akin to that of industrial America or industrial Canada” (ibid:7).  For Smallwood, who described the fishery as existing in a state of “near slavery” (Smallwood 1979:73), America and Canada represented the standards of modernity.  On March 31, 1949, literally on the eve of Confederation with Canada, Smallwood wrote that “While Canada and the U.S. grew into great industrial and manufacturing nations we languished in our half-developed state” (Smallwood 1979:310).  Of the fisheries he wrote, “They must be industrialized” (ibid:361).

Critical to the success of Smallwood’s industrialization strategy was what he would later call “The great centralization of population programme” (ibid:271).  According to Walsh the prevailing logic of the time was that “a modern industry needs a centralized workforce and the resettlement program, as instituted by the provincial government, served this purpose in part” (Clark 1986:22).  Opinions differ about the effectiveness of the program.  Sider points out that “By the 1970’s about a third of the named communities of Newfoundland had been abandoned to the planners’ and politicians’ dreams in the largest forced relocation campaign in a western capitalist democracy, and new social, cultural, and economic arrangements, which the government was pleased to call ‘modernity’ had become inescapable” (Sider 2003:3/4).  Overton argues that resettlement during Smallwood’s years as Premier was just one of the variables that was “destructive of outport life and folk culture” (Overton 1988:49) in Newfoundland.  The Memorial University sociologist argues the “unique culture centred on the outports has been undermined by industrialization, the welfare state, urbanization, and the introduction of North American values in the period since the Second World War. Newfoundland culture is now threatened with extinction” (Overton 1998:49).

In contrast, Byron suggests that beginning in the 1970’s there was the appearance of relative prosperity in rural Newfoundland where it had not existed before.  According to Byron, “Profits were being made, jobs were being created, and good wages were being paid to more people.  Living standards were rapidly improved, especially in those outports where the state-sponsored modernization of the fisheries was concentrated” (Byron 2003:7).  For example, in their analysis of the fishery on the northwest coast Palmer and Sinclair describe the period 1982-1987 as “The Glory Years” (Palmer and Sinclair 1997:33-50) when the expanding fish processing industry had become the largest employer in the area.

The glory years did not last long.  The industrialization of the fishery was accompanied by the extension of Canada’s offshore jurisdiction from 12 miles to 200 miles, the introduction of large near-shore fishing vessels utilizing trawl technology year-round, and a deep sea trawler fleet that provided fish to industrial processing plants year-round.  The era of the seasonal, small boat, inshore trap and gill net family fishery was coming to an end and the result, according to Cadigan, was a “disastrous overcapacity that led to the commercial extinction of the northern cod” (Byron 2003:33) which was punctuated by what McGuire called “the catastrophe in 1992” (McGuire 1997:44) which was the declaration of a moratorium on fishing for northern cod.

When the cod fishery closed there was no shortage of blame to go around, but Neil and Kean argue that “most researchers now accept that overfishing was the primary cause of the collapse of the northern cod” (Byron 2003:66).  Further, there has been no denying the impact.  It has been estimated that 40,000 jobs were lost by 1993 (Cadigan 280), an almost unimaginable number in a province with a population in 1992 of 580,000.  Newfoundland’s population would decline for the next 15 years until it reached 509,000 in 2007 (Statistics Canada, Demography Division).  As unpleasant as it was for some to read and as unfair as it may have been to write, a columnist with the national Globe and Mail newspaper in 2005 described rural Newfoundland as “probably the most vast and scenic welfare ghetto in the world”  (Rowe 2010:206).

What Reade Davis describes as the subsequent “radical social, economic, and environmental restructuring” (R. Davis 2006:504) of rural Newfoundland led to a “chronic exporting of people of working age” (ibid:520).  The export of young people from rural Newfoundland was highlighted in a post-moratorium survey conducted on the Bonavista peninsula where 87% of the survey respondents under twenty years of age reported that they expected to leave their community (Sinclair, Squires, and Downton 1999:329) and on the Northern Peninsula where 84% of males and 83% of females surveyed said they expected to leave (Byron 2003:61).  Sider calls this movement of young people a “crisis of social reproduction” and “an intensifying inability of communities simply to continue” (Sider 2003:312).

The northern cod fishery has been closed for 24 years as I write this and I am not aware of a precise demarcation between what is meant by short term effects and what is meant by long term effects, but Newfoundland historian Leslie Harris warned in advance of the 1992 moratorium that the consequences of the demise of the northern cod were dire.  Harris wrote,

“If we contemplate, over the long term, the demise of the northern cod stocks, we contemplate the death of communities along the whole east and northeast coast of Newfoundland as we have known them.  For the vast majority of the communities in question, northern cod was their only reason for existence and the northern cod remains the only substantial economic base for their survival.  And this is a simple statement of fact and not an argument pro or con” (Harris 1990:21).

Eighteen years after contemplating the demise of the northern cod and the communities whose economies depending on that resource Les Harris addressed a conference in St. John’s on the subject of managing the resources of the sea.  He told the conference, “The outport as we know it has all but disappeared and will not be recalled … to deny the reality of change is as foolish as it is pointless” (Harris 2008:41).  Foolish and pointless as it may be, recalling the Newfoundland outport became one of the centerpieces of the Province’s tourism advertising campaign launched in 2006.


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