I’m a Newfoundlander Born and Bred and I’ll Owe Debt Til I Die

Let’s take Finance Minister Siobhan Coady at face value: what does it mean that “debt” is our birthright as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians?

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Last week, the provincial government delivered its fall fiscal update. TL;DR—revenues and expenditures look a little bit better than forecast in Budget 2021, so the deficit is about ⅓ lower than originally anticipated. Hooray!

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the provincial debt remains formidable. Or, as Finance Minister Siobhan Coady phrased it rather melodramatically: “A child born in this province today owes debt as its birthright.” A couple hundred years ago Rousseau could at least opine that “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” But in Newfoundland and Labrador apparently the creditors now have their chains on you before you’re out of the womb. Woof!

All told, Coady’s remark is not particularly helpful, clarifying, or even meaningfully true. (Kelly Blidook’s observation on Twitter is worth repeating here: “there are no options if one wishes to be born without provincial debt. NL’s isn’t the worst or particularly unique (but I know there is a tendency to highlight everything from NL as though it is unique).”)

I understand why the finance minister would phrase it that way, of course. Besides making for a good soundbite, it presents the province’s debt as an urgent individualized problem—a kind of moral crisis where we are instructed to “think of the children.”

That this is a largely false picture of how public finance in Canada actually works is besides the point. While metaphors of state budgeting as a kind of mega-household are common, it isn’t really accurate. As Christian Odendahl and Adam Tooze put it in a policy brief for the Centre for European Reform: “States do not have to repay debt, unlike people (if they want to protect their credit score). States can simply roll it over or pass it on to the next generation. If that sounds worrying, it also means that state debt provides a perpetual piggy-bank for investors. The state will be there for generations, paying interest, repaying old debts and issuing new ones.” (Servicing costs on the provincial debt remains the thorniest issue here, which hinges largely on Muskrat Falls—hence the significance of the rate mitigation negotiations and rolling everything into future developments of more Atlantic Loop megaprojects. The spectre of provincial “bankruptcy” is just that—a bogeyman story to wield against the children.)

I say ‘false’ above rather than ‘useless’ because framing it this way has very clear uses. It is a political choice that enables certain actions and disables other ones. In this case it is rather obviously ideological ground-clearing for austerity. This is a government whose representatives love to regularly threaten (promise?) “tough decisions,” seemingly for their own sake. (This despite the fact that, as Russell Williams has noted in The Independent, a) we’re functionally seven years into austerity already, and b) the financial situation, by and large, is modestly improving without the need for the drastic cuts so many people both in and out of government seem to be fantasizing about.)

So it’s important to start thinking critically about the debt less as a clear-cut technical issue than as an expression of a priori political commitments. (I am hoping to write something a bit more coherent about this specifically after I go and read a big whack of books graciously recommended to me by people on the internet.)

In the meantime, though, let’s do something radical: let’s take Siobhan Coady at face value, and consider what it might mean that “debt” is our birthright as Newfoundlanders.

As a piece with Premier Furey’s remarks to Liberal party faithful earlier this month or the aristocratic pretension suffusing Dame Moya Greene’s report, Coady is (consciously or otherwise) tapping into a powerful current of ideology that shapes how Newfoundlanders understand ourselves and our polity—a particular way of understanding our ‘problems’ (and therefore the available solutions). It has its roots in the founding trauma of the modern NL state: the suspension of self-government in 1933 on the widely-accepted premise that Newfoundlanders are inherently incapable of governing themselves. (“Newfoundlanders cannot govern themselves” is the core mythology of local politics and once you are conscious of it you will see and hear this idea expressed everywhere. Relinquishing this fantasy in yourself is the necessary first step to emancipation.)

We are all familiar with this famous conclusion from the Amulree Report. Declan Cullen’s “Race, debt and empire: Racialising the Newfoundland financial crisis of 1933” (2017) does some immensely valuable genealogical work in locating the genesis of this myth in the confluence of eugenicist thinking, racial anxieties, and the profound ideological (and material) crisis presented to British imperialism by the Great Depression. Amulree and friends encountered in Newfoundland “a ruling class that had seemingly given up on the prospect of self-rule,” (692) in part out of frustration with the lower classes they were tasked with ruling. It is worth quoting at length:

[James Harris, a former deputy minister, told the Amulree Commission that] “in Newfoundland we have only about 200 people to my mind who are qualified to represent.” Harris was “inclined to think [that] the franchise will have to be altered,” and he and Amulree pondered “a system of having a property and cultural qualification.” Mrs Jean Muir, Commissioner for Relief in St John’s, also questioned whether the lower classes “should have the right to vote at all.” They were, she argued, “of no assistance to the country.” (…) [Meanwhile, the lower classes] criticized the ruling elite for persistent economic mismanagement and corruption. (…) Newfoundland’s failures were not due to a deteriorating socio-economic system or global financial crisis but to a lack of prudent resource exploitation by its people. (…) The spectre of colonial degeneracy loomed large in Newfoundland.

Cullen, 2017: 693

All this leads up to the imperial verdict which has haunted public life in Newfoundland and Labrador for the last nine decades:

When the Royal Commission published its findings, known as the Amulree Report, on 21 November 1933, details concerning Newfoundlanders’ character painted a picture of colonial failure: “the simple minded electorate” had become completely dependent on paternalistic and incompetent governments to the point that they were “not fit for self-rule.” (…) [Newfoundlanders] exhibited “a child-like simplicity when confronted with matters outside their own immediate horizon.” They also allegedly lacked education and culture. Isolated from the world, they lived in places which “judged by modern standards, would not be regarded as fit for human habitation.” The effects were especially pronounced in the outports where the report, explicitly referencing degeneracy, argued, “long periods of enforced isolation have given rise to intermarriage, chronic diseases through absence of medical advice, and gradual degeneration.”

Cullen, 2017: 695-6

The full paper is well worth reading (and I wish it had existed while I was still in grad school—thanks to Heidi Coombs and Dean Bavington for bringing it to my attention). All of these arguments sound familiar because they have remained part of our conventional wisdom. You still hear echoes of this basic sentiment in popular discourse and official pronouncements. (And as any good therapist can tell you, this kind of distorted self-understanding has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

‘Degeneracy’ functioned as a way of conflating and gentrifying the difficulties with categories of race, class, and gender confronting imperial administrators. It was useful both for our British overlords and, to a lesser extent, local elites who were happy to forfeit political power in order to retain economic power. (Someday it may be worth translating and elaborating Patrick Wyman’s insights about “The American Gentry”—”the salt-of-the-earth millionaires who see themselves as local leaders in business and politics (…) [and sit] at the pinnacle of the local hierarchies that govern daily life”—into the NL context.)

The failure of the Newfoundland state in 1933 remains the foundational trauma of our public life and subsequent political history has been characterized by efforts to grapple—or “cope”—with it, with varying degrees of success. (He doesn’t frame it in exactly this way, but I read Jerry Bannister’s 2003 submission to the Royal Commission on Renewing and Strengthening Our Place in Canada, “The Politics of Cultural Memory: Themes in the History of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, 1972-2003,” as identifying a ‘manic-depressive’ dialectic in Newfoundland political history that oscillates between unhinged Whiggish optimism and fatalist reactionary pessimism—both, I would argue, representing responses to the collective trauma of 1933. I gave a presentation on this theme to the British Association of Canadian Studies conference in London in 2016, but it’s probably worth revisiting and expanding that line of inquiry into a fuller essay. Someday…)

The obvious racial overtones of the 1930s ‘degeneracy’ thesis have been largely superseded by the early 21st century—few people these days would question the “whiteness” of Newfoundlanders; it is problematized in a new way. But the basic fantasy remains a powerful coping mechanism in the face of longstanding structural problems in political and socio-economic life. Its core ideological content—Newfoundlanders as ‘inherently’ (by dint of nature and/or nurture) incapable of self-government—remains not only operative in our collective imagination, but downright pervasive. Moya Greene’s barely-contained antipathy towards the voting public and our basic institutions of government is the latest formal expression of this sentiment—as is, arguably, the last provincial election where the governing party militantly refused to engage in any meaningful discussion with an electorate it views with a mix of pity and contempt.

In this light, it is hard not to see the ruling class’ fixation on austerity for its own sake as a new iteration of earlier calls for the ‘moral rehabilitation’ of Newfoundlanders and their “unreasonable” demands for a functioning welfare state. There is a call that we be disciplined—and that we embrace it, as proof of our “resilience.” In this sense, then, the debt to which Newfoundlanders have a birthright is less material than spiritual; our inheritance is nine decades of unresolved political trauma and the trauma-responses that structure what is felt as acceptable, or even possible, in our public life together. Perhaps then “birthright” is not the word Minister Coady was actually reaching for; perhaps what she really meant was “fate.”

Fate may be a better register here. We often experience trauma as a kind of fate. It has a determinative quality. Until it gets resolved, processed, assimilated, it tends to be repeated over and over again with catastrophic consequences. (To what extent is 1992, and our responses to the ongoing trauma of the moratorium, an echo of 1933? Will it be repeated again when the fossil capital economy—and/or our ecological balance—collapses? The carbon budget, perhaps, is a more urgent debt.)

Of course, many members of the Newfoundland Gentry are happy to see us consigned to our fate—endlessly reprising our roles in a collective psychodrama of powerlessness, abasement, and (self-)flagellation. They, too, have a share in this birthright, and are more than happy to claim it by sticking to the script.

The question is: are we going to keep taking their directions? Or is it time to start writing a new scene? The curtain call is closer than you think.

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