Why do the initiatives with the greatest potential to build the capital city face the greatest resistance?
As someone born in Newfoundland but now living happily in Toronto, I’m under no illusions that my words about life and politics in my hometown of St. John’s will be received with equal weight. At the least, a few folks will read this and spit the island’s most bitter curse, “Get back to your own business on the mainland!” But mainlanders are people too, and some Newfoundlanders are happy to build a life and career there for some pretty good reasons.
I discovered this month’s controversy in my hometown over the Taste of the Balkans restaurant through some old friends in my social media feed. Eldin Husic, reportedly from Bosnia-Herzegovina, has since decided to move on from Boncloddy Street and look for a new location, but his saga isn’t over, and there are important lessons we must all learn from this.
Reading about Husic’s dream on the edge of disaster made me reflect on some of the reasons why I said goodbye to St. John’s. I hope you’ll listen to my own story, and maybe we can learn something from each other.
The answer to one of Newfoundland’s proudest myths—that Islanders are some of the friendliest people—depends on what it means to be friendly.
Welcoming tourists and visitors is certainly one kind of friendliness; such open hospitality is fitting for a culture so intimately connected to life on the sea, if I can speak stereotypically for a moment. Yet that is a superficial kind of friendliness. One’s open attitude depends on a visitor’s nature as a visitor — someone who will be here for a little while but has no plans on staying.
Newfoundland’s friendliness of hospitality is very different from the friendliness I have observed in Toronto. Canada’s largest city is famous for a lot of things: its toughness, its fast pace, its wealth, and its diversity. Torontonians are famous for being rude to people in everyday interactions, preferring to keep to themselves, annoyed when the lives of others interfere with their own. So what kind of friendliness are we talking about here?
People in Toronto do not always make friends easily, but they make friends with everyone. It used to be a very homogeneous city, as cold as an Ontario winter was before climate change set in, and as snow white as an episode of Murdoch Mysteries or the characters of a historical Margaret Atwood novel. But Canada has overcome the institutionalized, hide-bound racism of its traditional culture, when things like strict quotas on the number of Jews permitted to study at universities were perfectly proper. Toronto used to be the centre of Canadian anti-Semitism and racism more generally. That shameful heritage has been swept into the ash-heap of history with joy and laughter.
There remains much work to do to build a truly just society in Toronto, St. John’s, and throughout Canada. But we have already achieved one categorically important step: a considerable majority of Canadians know that there is work to do.
We now understand that institutions like Indigenous residential schools, policies like the Chinese Head Tax, and government actions like turning away the Komagata Maru or ships carrying Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe were, at best, morally wrong, and at worst, crimes against humanity. At the time of these racist and genocidal actions, the vast majority of Canadians supported them enthusiastically. We should be proud throughout this country that our national identity is no longer bound up with aggressive racism and hatred toward billions of people.
Toronto has been a city of immigrants for decades. More than a city of immigrants, it has become a genuinely multicultural city, where newcomers frequently find work and build social networks beyond their ethnic enclave. More than a multicultural city, Toronto has begun to create what may become one of the most multi-vectored creole societies in human history, with a rate of ethnically-mixed marriages and relationships nearly twice that of Canada as a whole. That massively-creole culture also expresses itself in music and art celebrating and blending the heritage of the world’s cultures in the city’s life, both in the avant-garde and in prime-time television.
When I first heard of Taste of the Balkans, it was a celebration. My Facebook feed literally exploded with happiness that cevapi would soon come to St. John’s. Readers of Newfoundland, please understand what you will miss if Taste of the Balkans doesn’t manage to overcome barriers and open. Plates full of finger-long sausages, the meat a blended mix of beef and lamb. It would all be halal, so there would be none of the sadly flaccid texture of traumatized, factory-farmed meat.
Forget about Ches’s — growing up in St. John’s, the most famous and best restaurants were the non-traditional ones: India Gate, International Flavours, the Sprout, the Afghan Restaurant, and even the exquisitely greasy Chinese take-out from the place in the mall down the road from my mom’s house in the east end.
Yet instead of swift progress on a family-focused restaurant serving delicious, quality local food while bringing diversity, community bonding, good health, and happiness to its neighbourhood and city, Husic got stuck with a bureaucratic spike in his tires. Councillor Art Puddister became Husic’s ally in trying to save his business from this witless spool of red tape. But that was only after some public outcry.
When The Telegram first reported on the potential crash-and-burn of Husic’s dream, Puddister spoke out in defence of the bureaucracy that now stood in his way. Councillor Dave Lane from the start lent Husic qualified support, but he was a lonely voice on council for progressive policies, which includes his vocal support for encouraging global immigration to the province. Even in this case, Lane focused his remarks on changing the zoning laws to encourage small business growth, stepping back from promising any direct advocacy for Husic’s venture.
Husic is an immigrant restauranteur from a Muslim country, just like Ali Al Haijaa, whose restaurant, Mohamed Ali’s, stands with some of the best independent Arab restaurants in the country. Yet St. John’s City Hall’s bureaucratic straitjackets kept Al Haijaa from building his business for three years.
I am not about to accuse anyone of anything, but I do glare with some suspicion at the unnamed neighbour so intent upon the shuttered bar reverting to residential status that they would allegedly be willing to sue the city over it.
“While it seems so obvious that Council should just ignore this minor technicality and allow the permit, the fact is that we would almost certainly be sued by at least one neighbour – and we would most certainly lose, forcing us to take back the permit anyway,” Lane said in a post on his website.
Keep in mind that in the last few years Husic is the second immigrant Muslim businessperson in St. John’s to face potentially catastrophic bureaucratic opposition to building a restaurant whose food openly comes from a Muslim culture. The troubles of Al Hajjaa and Husic may be matters of coincidence. But people’s attitudes, whether or not they are conscious of them, make some coincidences more or less likely.
I have lived in southern Ontario, the most ethnically and culturally diverse and integrated region in Canada, for nearly a decade. I’m so accustomed to this variety in my daily life that when I visit St. John’s, I feel unnerved to be surrounded by so many people who look the same. When I walk down the streets of St. John’s with my Romanian-Jewish spouse, we sometimes get looks from people that I don’t know how to describe. It’s as if we have somehow shocked them a little. At moments, I wonder whether anyone in that crowd of white faces is so accustomed to this radical sameness, they feel unnerved at the sight of variety or difference.
Newfoundlanders love the story of Lanier Phillips. As his navy ship wrecked off Newfoundland’s shores, all the black sailors but him stayed on board, certain that the small-town white men who lived on the coast would lynch them. Phillips was cared for by a local family who had never seen a black person before. The kindness of Newfoundlanders was a central experience in motivating Phillips to join and become a leader in America’s Civil Rights movement.
Newfoundlanders take a lot of pride in that story, but there is a dark side to its lesson. Newfoundlanders were uncommonly kind to Lanier Phillips. But they knew he would return to the U.S. Navy. He would visit now and then—he even received an honorary doctorate at my convocation from Memorial University—but he was always a visitor.
Phillips never wanted to—let’s pluck an example from thin air—open a soul food restaurant on Boncloddy Street.
If he had, how would we have reacted?
Adam Riggio is a college teacher, writer, and activist, born and raised in St. John’s, Newfoundland, now living and working in Toronto. He is marketing director for the Syria Film Festival, and teaches communications and ethics at Cestar College to a student body of newcomers to Canada. He tweets, blogs his research and other projects, and you can support his work on Patreon.