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FREE NFLD

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There it was, on Yonge street, on the side of a trash can. It was midnight on Halloween, a night for mischief, a night when the boundaries between worlds are supposed to be thinner. FREE NFLD.

I halted, said “hold on.” My friend, a thirty-something Ontarian, stopped and turned.

“Free Newfoundland,” I said, pointing at the trashcan. I was delighted and I wanted him to share my delight. But he didn’t understand why this small, crude graffiti, this Sharpie scrawl, should cause me joy. In fact, he seemed a little offended by it.

“We’ve spent so much money on you guys. You’re not going anywhere. We own you now.”

“You can marry a trophy wife, but that doesn’t mean you own her!” My imperfect in-the-moment retort. But I let it go. The subject changed and we walked on.

I’d been living in Toronto for three years at that point, yet in that moment the place never felt more alien to me. I’d never felt such dépaysement—so outside of my country. That little eight-letter scrawl, F-R-E-E N-F-L-D, 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 Ontarian pal. The homeland is speaking to me! Via a trashcan on Yonge street! On Halloween night! A message from the other side! Some dull ember in me flared to life, if briefly.

FREE NFLD!

*****

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, 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 strange and little comfort.

“Free NFLD?” a clerk in a Toronto bookstore once asked. “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, or less than that. Besides, she seemed nice enough. Like the shirt wounded her feelings. 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 don’t know that Newfoundland used to be an independent nation (or as independent as Canada was at the time). Many, to my shock, don’t even know that Newfoundland is an island—and that’s fact #1 about Newfoundland. They don’t know you can only get there by boat or by plane. If they do know that, they sometimes think the ferry takes a short time, twenty minutes, half an hour. I tell them the length of the North Sydney-Argentia crossing (14 hours, not counting boarding and disembarking) and they’re astonished. I tell them it’s about the same distance from Toronto to Cuba as it is from Toronto to St. John’s. That Fredericton, NB is only half-way there, as the crow flies. 

Quick: which is further south, A.) Victoria, BC or B.) St. John’s, NL? It’s St. John’s, but you wouldn’t tell it from looking at most maps of Canada. We’re so far into the margins that they squish us up into the corner. They distort things to make us fit.

*****

Sometimes, here in Toronto, I get this question. More of a statement, I suppose. Accusation, even. “You’re from Newfoundland, but you don’t have an accent?”  

“And why do you think that is?”

They’re puzzled by my response. Like it has never occurred to them that if you want to be taken seriously you learn to take your accent off like it’s an inappropriate t-shirt at the office. Or, worse, you had your accent trained out of you when you were too young to even understand what you were being robbed of. It might have been passive training, subtle training, a teacher’s frown, a mother’s murmured correction – or it might have been direct, to the point. Speak correctly. 

I do have an accent, though. It usually hides when I’m on the mainland. It goes away without my wanting it to. I want to always have it. I am never sorry to feel that home music dance off my tongue. But if I consciously coax the accent out of hiding, if I put it on, it feels like I’m cheating, like I’m performing an act. It’s faking it, and faking it makes me feel even farther from home.

*****

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 always already 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 soft one, if maybe a half-hearted one, if maybe one not to be taken too seriously. To me, though, it’s a reminder of how arbitrary it is that Newfoundland is now a part of Canada. A happenstance quirk of geopolitics. The opposite of manifest destiny.

*****

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 nation, prior to 1949? That was the line some mainland papers took, back when Newfoundland joined. There were lots of editorials written to that effect. Newfoundland joining Canada was greeted with (I paraphrase) “Finally, the country is complete! The dream of the Fathers of Confederation has been realized!” and so forth. The colonial project is complete. The will of the Empire is realized. That stubborn wandering star has been fixed into our constellation once and for all, completing it.

But you know, if our joining up was so important, why isn’t the anniversary a national holiday in Canada? They could call it National Unity Day or something like that. Confederation Day. The National Day of Doneness. But the anniversary of Canada ‘finally’ becoming ‘complete’ isn’t recognized at all, not even as a fake holiday that no one gets off from work, a trivial entry on the office desk calendar.

It’d probably be difficult to keep a lid on the damnable Newfie jokes, though, even if, like the actual moment of union itself, the anniversary was officially moved from April Fools to the final infinitesimal moment between March 31 and April 1. 

*****

Actually, my Ontarian friend, the one who was with me when I saw the FREE NFLD on the garbage can, he kind of pissed me off with his “we own you” remark. “We’ve spent so much money on you, you’re not going anywhere.” It suggests Newfoundland can be bought. It’s colonialism. If Newfoundland can be bought, if it has been bought, then that just reinforces how Newfoundland is somehow different from Canada, an entity other and exterior to it—an imperial acquisition, not part of the nation proper. If you have to purchase something to own it, it implies that if the money wasn’t spent you’d have no claim to ownership. You own the things you buy, but you don’t own them by some deep inherent right.

That still holds if “all the money” spent on Newfoundland is thought of as an act of charity, not a purchase. If Newfoundland is fundamentally Canadian, then it would be impossible for Canadians to conceive of Newfoundland as the recipient of Canadian charity. It’s not charity when you give something to yourself. It’s only charity when you give something to someone else, someone Other from you.

This makes me think of people who’ve argued that Newfoundland isn’t or wasn’t a country because it isn’t and wasn’t economically viable. I’m not an economist, so I’ll take their word for it. If they say that, on our own, we would be much poorer, with a lower standard of living, then maybe that is so. That doesn’t change the fact of cultural and historical differences.

If you extend the idea of ‘too poor to be a nation,’ it quickly becomes a deeply troubling notion. Is it ethical and defensible for a rich country to annex a poor country, then? When people say Newfoundland was too poor to be a nation, are they making an argument in favour of global capitalist neo-colonialism? Haiti’s quite poor, but who would argue it has no claim to sovereignty as a result of its poverty? Well, the World Bank and the IMF, perhaps, but do we really want to side with them? 

“We spent so much money on you Newfies, we own you now.” 

*****

As November progressed I started seeing more and more of them. FREE NFLDs in downtown Toronto. Written on door frames, on walls, in corners and alleyways. The city was alive with reminders. “Don’t forget! Newfoundlanders are still around! We’re not all Canadians yet!”

Or maybe we are. But we’re Canadians with a twist. We’re not just Canadians. We’re Canadians and we’re something else at the same time. Free Newfoundlanders. My parents weren’t born in Canada. They were born in Newfoundland, before Confederation. So are people like me the children of immigrants? Aren’t we, in a way, new Canadians?  

 Our accents come out. This time there’s no coaxing, no faking. We create Newfoundland for each other. To comfort each other, to rejoice in each other.

The press back home picked up on the rash of FREE NFLDs in downtown 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. The first time she saw a FREE NFLD, she had the same surprised and happy reaction I did. 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 white anglo-Ontarians after we do it. Like 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 homogeneous now.” 

My father has told me about the Newfoundland clubs that used to exist around southern Ontario, clubs where ex-pat Newfoundlanders could congregate. Back when a majority of Newfoundland-Canadians were made, by act of legislation, rather than born, as most are nowadays. 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. The nodes in a vast and active diasporic network. 

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, one of Toronto’s trendy neighbourhoods, and the room is full of us, we who were ambitious artsy youngsters hanging out in the A1C district of downtown St John’s just a few years ago. Our accents come out. This time there’s no coaxing, no faking. We create Newfoundland for each other. To comfort each other, to rejoice in each other. We confound the few mainlanders in attendance, make cultural references they have no way of being familiar with, kill ourselves laughing at 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.

*****

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 young pharmacist on Water Street, McMurdos, selling the just-landed Portuguese sailors—so polite, so likable—soap, aftershave, contraceptives. The long, quiet connection between Portugal and Newfoundland).

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 universal right of national self-determination was agreed upon when Churchill and Roosevelt met in secret shortly after the start of World War II, met in the labyrinthine waters of our own Placentia Bay. Less than a decade later the right of national self-determination is ironically suspended in Newfoundland’s case. The referenda were a sham, Malone says. He’s got the documents to prove it, he says. This stuff will make any Newfoundlander’s blood boil, he says. Our nation was taken from us, he says.

Exhilarated, fired up, 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,” an old friend said to me at the launch. Another Newfoundland-to-Toronto transplant—or, rather, a Labrador-to-Newfoundland-to-Toronto double-transplant (there lies another essay, one that’s not for me to write).

“Yes, but I like having all of my teeth and a University education.” It’s my voice answering, but do I really think that? It’s my dumb, sideways way of saying I like the material and social benefits of being a Canadian. Canada is a good country. I like the social welfare and the prosperity. (Yet here we both are in Toronto, me in academia and he in publishing, because such careers are very scarce at home). “But maybe I’d have them anyway?” 

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 post-World War II soft power, shuffled unceremoniously into the cabinet labeled ‘Canada’ as the British Empire dissolves. One of several couldabeens and wannabes lost among the de-colonial/re-colonial shakedown 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. 

But, again, let’s say it’s true. Let’s say, for a moment, that we were duped into Canada. What then? What is the next course of action? Do we sue Westminster and Ottawa? Do we campaign for separation? Do we just 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 a non-Canadian Newfoundland will start to collect their old age pensions soon (courtesy the Canadian government . . . ). There are still people living who once held Newfoundland passports, but not 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?

*****

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.  

"Free NFLD" scrawled on the side of a building in Toronto. Photo by Michael Collins.
“FREE NFLD” scrawled on the side of a building in Toronto. Photo by Michael Collins.

Maybe my fears weren’t well-founded. Only Newfoundland-based media had reported on the graffiti. Toronto’s 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 back in the ‘30s, signs meant for other hobos, signs understood by other hobos. FREE NFLD is a sign scratched by a diasporic Newfoundlander, meant for other diasporic Newfoundlanders, something only ‘we’ will notice, a sign 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, or a half-nation, or whatever it is. A balm to the homesick and the despairing: you’re still one of us, and there is still an ‘us’ to be one of. The diaspora lives on, b’y, and you’re in it.

But maybe the intent was more like the original FREE NFLD, a famous piece of graffiti in downtown St. John’s, a big silhouette of the island with the slogan in ragged red across it. It had faded away, or been scrubbed off, by the time the FREE NFLDs were appearing around downtown Toronto. I always understood that particular ‘first’ or ‘prime’ FREE NFLD as an earnest, genuine protest. Maybe these smaller, hastier, cruder FREE NFLDs up here are meant to smack ignorant, complacent Toronto in its face, get its attention. To make people who’ve never thought of Newfoundland and its claim to difference actually consider it seriously for once in their lives. This unknown nomad, writing FREE NFLD again and again, in the heart of empire, hoping to remind the colonizer of the people they’ve colonized, circulating in their midst?

Since writing all this, the FREE NFLDs in downtown Toronto have disappeared, have been painted over or cleaned away, have not been replaced. Maybe the graffiti artist moved back home. Maybe he moved to Alberta. Maybe he calmed down and became a Confederate. 

Meanwhile, the first FREE NFLD, on the steps leading down to George Street back in St. John’s, has been restored – it looks a little different, but it’s there again. 

*****

And there it is, behind it all: the original FREE NFLD. Pre-t-shirt sloganization. Before you could buy it and wear it. The big colourful mural in downtown 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 in 1999, a few years before the paint became too faded to see. It was old but still had some potency left in it. I’m sixteen in the photo. Scrawny, hair too long, awkward smile. Behind me is the Great Northern Peninsula. The Burin. The Bonavista. The Avalon. All of our peninsulas like so many grasping arms. And then there are Placentia, Trinity, Conception, Fortune, all our innumerable bays. This improbable island. 

A decade left to this younger self before he leaves for Toronto. This youngster – he wants to see the world, but it hasn’t occurred to him just yet that he might ever leave for good. FREE NFLD. In the photo, I do look fairly free.

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