Daily Archives: April 1, 2009

Happy Birthday, Newfoundland & Labrador

Sixty years ago, on April 1, 1949, Newfoundland and Labrador joined confederation. They were the last and tenth province to join Canada. Newfoundland has a rich and the oldest history of visiting peoples than anywhere else in the Americas.

Leif Ericson and his Vikings first came to the coastal shores in 1000 AD. How long they stayed and if they mixed in with the Beothuks and Mi’kmaq is unclear. But artifacts were found there nonetheless. John Cabot then rediscovered it in 1497 and it was claimed by Sir Humphrey Gilbert for England’s Queen Elizabeth I in 1583, making it the first overseas colony.

Governors were appointed through the 16 and 1700s. Whether it was a feather in their cap or a punishment is hard to tell. In 1855 Newfoundland was granted the right to government with its first prime minister Phillip Francis Little, a native of Prince Edward Island. They rejected confederation with Canada in 1869. For much of those years until 1890 Newfoundland was split along religious lines of Catholics and Anglicans with Irish and British colonialists. They were used as an example of why not to let Ireland self govern.

The politics finally changed to eliminate the religious aspects with Prime Minister Hugh Hoyles who worked hard to bring in both sides. In 1907 Newfoundland became a dominion. After the depression and a massive debt they joined confederation in 1949. Most Newfoundlanders will always mention Labrador as a distinct entity. It was in dispute for years as to who owned it, the French or the British. You will put yourself in good stead if you remember that Labrador is distinct too.

Some other aspects of Newfoundland are that it has the remains of a Basque whaling station in Red Bay dating from 1550. I have a friend in Washington who has a somewhat Spanish mix in him. He’s diminutive. When he and his wife went to Newfoundland they took a picture of him standing beside the Basque mannequin. They were of a height and very similar in skin tone and facial characteristics. There are three galleons and four chalupas under the waters around Newfoundland making it an underwater archeological site.

With a strong mix of Irish as well as Scottish and British in Newfoundland’s past, and being steeped in fishing culture, Newfoundland accents can be very strong. An old slang term for Newfoundlander is Newfie, or Newf. At one time it seems that it was derogatory and was used to indicate someone slow and of limited intelligence. Newfoundland was largely a religious and fishing community and an economically poor province for years. The term probably originate through those stigma. However, I remember my mother relating a tale. It was the end of the second world war and she was out with other friends, all in the military. One of the guys was from Newfoundland (at this time Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada). My mother naively called the guy a Newfie and the next thing she knew, he was trying to strangle her and several guys had to pull him off.

These days there is still a mixed feeling by Newfoundlanders as to whether it is perjorative or not. Make sure you know the person before using this diminutive. Newfoundland is also famous for its Newfie Screech, a locally made rum, reputed to be rough and high in alcohol. It’s probably smoothed out some these days. I have a tiny bottle that friends gave me and I’ll give it a try at some point soon. If you’re in Newfoundland, you can be screeched in, where you’ll drink a shot of screech, kiss a cogdfish (cod is somewhat rare these days to these may be dried?) on the mouth, and be asked, “Is ye an honourary Newfoundlander?” You answer, “‘Deed I is me old trout, and long may your big jib draw.”

Newfoundland is part of the rugged east coast. The geography is known to be beautiful though I cannot attest to this. Years ago I was working with a woman on a book of Newfoundland proverbs that she had gathered as well as true ghost stories. She was one of eleven children, a common size for families in the past. She told me some terrible tales of being in the small fishing village where her father ran the dogsled. The only phone was owned by the Catholic priest and her family was Anglican (or possibly Protestant) and how the priest would pull cruel revenges on the children. She suffered debilitating chronic fatigue, which the doctors believed was cause by the mercury in her system from all the polluted fish. These days the fishing industry, like so many other countries, is severely jeopardized and diminished. Newfoundland has lately reinvented itself and is prospering.

So bravo, Newfoundland and Labrador, for being unique, having a strong identity, reinventing yourselves and for joining Canada. We would definitely be a lesser place without you.

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