No, Margaret Wente, all is not forgiven

in Featured/To Each Their Own by

In 2005, Wente penned a Globe & Mail column that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have still not forgotten. At the height of our battle with Ottawa over equalization payments, she denounced Newfoundland and Labrador as “the most vast and scenic welfare ghetto in the world.”

Newfoundland’s “sense of victimhood is unmatched,” she wrote. “No one is better at this blame game than the Newfs.”

She called us deadbeats and raged that mainland Canada had sent countless “cakes” our way: “equalization payments, pogey, and various hare-brained make-work schemes.”

Now, she says, she’s changed her tune. A visit to Fogo Island changed everything.

Lured in by millionaire Zita Cobb’s famous tourism gentrification of the island, and by the culinary praise of “upscale Toronto chefs”, she decided to give it another try. She couldn’t afford the Inn, she claims (lo! – the proletarian unmasked), but found a quaint little spot nearby where she was regaled with stories of hardship told by authentic Islanders—the ones with “weather-beaten face and hands like horn”—over scallops and beer.

Charmed, she now offers us her blessing. “Please forgive me, Newfoundland,” she wrote in a Sept. 24 column.

The message remains the same

The thing is, Wente’s critique of Newfoundland and Labrador has not changed. Her critique boils down to this: that we should stop being upstarts. That we should not raise our voices. That we should not dare to demand fairness, let alone our just due.

She is happy so long as we comply with the system of regional disparity and income inequality that keeps us in thrall to rich folk from Ontario who fly in to enjoy our quaint inns. She is happy so long as we show we are struggling to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, building our own houses and fixing our boat motors. She is happy so long as we play docile pets to those rich mainlanders who fly in to enjoy $1700-a-night suites (the cheapest ones at the Inn) and want to be taken out to fish cod from a boat the next day.

But God forbid we should try to feed ourselves and our families with that fish.

She is happy so long as we thrill her and her visiting mainland friends with tales of our struggles: five kids to a bedroom, hauling water from the well, eating seal to survive the winter.

“I felt like I was in a Dickens novel,” she gushed. Yes — one where they are the princes, and we are the paupers.

 So long as we tell our tales, serve our masters, and entertain them well, they will pat us on the head and tip us well for our service.

So long as we tell our tales, serve our masters, and entertain them well, they will pat us on the head and tip us well for our service.

But should we demand the right to exist as equals, should we demand the right to fish for our families and our communities and that Canada pay us compensation for destroying the fishery that once gave us a shot at self-sufficiency — then we are a “scenic welfare ghetto” that must be put in our place.

Wente wants us to stay in our place, to have weather-beaten faces and hands like horn, to tell stories about lighting fires in the morning to warm the five kids living in a single room, stories of falling over the side of a boat into the cold North Atlantic. To take her fishing by day and amuse her with stories by night.

The notion that we could grow up to not have hands calloused by the elements, that we could give our children their own heated room and that they could all grow up to find work in their home province, and that we could find something more rewarding and fulfilling to do with our time than entertain rich folks and take them cod fishing during their holidays — this is a notion beyond Wente’s imagining.

Let’s be clear: we are proud of our heritage. We know that we are resourceful. We honour the weather-beaten faces and the hardened hands of the generations that preceded us. And we respect the hard-working fishers who carry on those noble traditions today.

But we also expect more. We demand more. We demand a future where we can choose what we do for a living, a future where we live and work for ourselves—not the whims of vacationing elites—and where we and our children do not need to have weather-beaten faces and tell stories of struggle to be judged worthy in the eyes of our mainland masters.

Where we do not have mainland masters at all, but are the masters of our own destiny.

Danny Williams is no longer here, but the demand that we be masters of our own destiny was never his exclusive domain anyway. It’s a refrain that echoes throughout our history: the dream that today’s struggles will lead to a better world tomorrow, that future generations will move past the hardships of yesteryear, that our children will have a future to be proud of here, and that our neighbours, both in and outside Canada, will treat us with the respect we deserve.

Fighting for fairness, and justice

During the Williams battle with Ottawa—over equalization clawbacks when the oil revenues started flowing—people like Wente couldn’t understand why Newfoundlanders and Labradorians wanted what Wente and her friends considered special treatment. What was with the sense of ‘victimhood’, they demanded, even after Canada’s ‘generous’ payments of EI and other social programs began flowing into the province.

The notion that we have been ungrateful for the generosity of Canada’s social programs only holds if you consider those programs to be generosity. They are not. Employment Insurance, equalization payments and all the rest of it is not generosity, is not charity, is not a gift. It is a fundamental right and part of the fabric of this country.

 The notion that we have been ungrateful for the generosity of Canada’s social programs only holds if you consider those programs to be generosity.

Take our fisherpeople. For several weeks of the year they work harder than Wente—by her own admission an “effete big city type”—has probably ever worked in a lifetime. But because we live in a society that rewards coddled corporate elites and their press agents (like Wente) instead of the actual hard-working people of the country, we have social programs like EI to redistribute a little bit of the country’s skewed wealth system a little bit more fairly.

So let’s be clear: Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were never the ones being coddled. While our hard-working fisherpeople were earning their weather-beaten faces, the “effete big city types” were taking trade concessions and industrial benefits for central Canada in exchange for looking the other way while foreign fishing fleets destroyed the province’s key industry. While Fogo’s families were sending their children off to mainland Canada to earn a living, mainland Canadian elites were reaping the benefits of tax breaks and other forms of corporate welfare to line their pockets while ruining the country’s labour markets and rural industries. And when this province tried to hold Ottawa to its commitment that we should receive a mere fraction of the type of fiscal flexibility that the country’s mainland corporate elites have always enjoyed, Wente and her colleagues were outraged.

Our lament was never that we should be given special treatment. Our lament was that we should be treated fair.

Why did the Globe feel it necessary to republish that original offensive story right beneath Wente’s new column? It’s not to show that she’s changed, that’s for sure. If indeed she had, then she would not want that story to be ever seen again.

No, it’s published there to send a message—a warning—that so long as we play the docile pet to Canada’s (mostly mainland) elites, we’ll be patted on the head by Wente and the rest of them. But should we raise our fists in anger and demand justice, then we’ll just as quickly face the editorial wrath of the mainland elite once again.

Well — bring it. Better to hear the howls of outrage from Bay Street than the gentle purring of Canada’s coddled elites.

No, Margaret Wente, you are not forgiven.

Not now. Not ever.

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

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