Gaslighting a Generation

I know it’s been a whole nine months since I lived on the rock, but I was surprised to get the news the other day—after the budget was announced—that everything is great now. Apparently, there’s even talk of billion-dollar budget surpluses and public spending. It’s funny because I was under the impression that I had to leave at least in part because of budget cuts to higher education (and very little hope in any other sector).

Of course, there are those in this magazine and beyond who think that all the good news might have more to do with an upcoming election than the real financial situation in the province. It’s hard to swallow that all those meetings I had to sit in where I was told there was no money, no vision, no future were actually inaccurate. Apparently, there has never been a better time to live in Newfoundland and Labrador (under a Ball government of course).

My first question: Was the premier gaslighting me?

History would say yes. This kind of gaslighting by the provincial government is part of a pattern—I would say even standard practice—in island politics. I would even go so far as to say a similar kind of gas-lighting and obfuscation happened during, and especially after, the collapse of the fishery. Even though rural Newfoundland has been in bad shape for a long time, there has never been any real attempt to face up to the depth of the loss, let alone to fix it.

Below are my honest observations from the seven years I was home—trying to make a living and a life on the island I loved and wanted to write about—when for most of the time I was told the sky was falling.

During those years, I realized how much I missed and needed my generation—a group of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who had been written out of its history years before as collateral damage from that other fiscal crisis. Some days I can’t help but wonder if more of us had been able to stay, or at least come back, then maybe the place wouldn’t be as stuck as it is now.

Bungalows or McMansions

As I go about my business in Montreal, I occasionally run into someone who asks where I’m from. I sigh and say Newfoundland, or Terre Neuve, then brace myself for the positive response: “Oh I love Newfoundland! A friend of mine has a house there!” Or “I almost bought a house there! Those little villages are so quaint!”

I smile. I say, yes indeed, it is a beautiful place, but that, you know, it has some economic problems, and that’s why we had to leave the island for the big city. I get self-conscious as I speak these clichés. They usually nod sympathetically and say, yes yes, because they likely gathered somewhere along the line while they were there, or from the rare report on the national news—in between the majestic tourism ads—that Newfoundland has had some money problems over the years.

What I want to tell them is that the island they have been sold is largely a construction of a never-existing past. The ‘saltbox’ they were staying in was probably abandoned by some family that went off to Alberta or Toronto long ago and was then sold for a pittance and painted up like a museum. Most Newfoundland houses these days are not ‘saltboxes’ at all but boxy bungalows or McMansions. Since this latest economic crisis, the most typical decoration up and down the island’s many coasts is a For Sale sign.

I’m not sure they would have noticed these features when they were on the island. Their eyes would have been directed towards the whales, the mummer Christmas decorations, the trigger mitts, the vamps, and the endless images of cozy outport scenes painted onto mugs, blankets, and t-shirts. Their cruise ships would only have dropped anchor into the best-preserved spots.

Or perhaps they stayed in certain ‘chosen’ communities like Fogo or Trinity or somewhere around Gros Morne. They likely didn’t care to see, or simply weren’t told about, the endless resettled outports, those with the crumbling fishing infrastructure. They most certainly would have steered clear of the ruins of the American Air Force base where I grew up, the strip-mall architecture of many of the inland towns, or the box-store sprawl around St. John’s. They wouldn’t be told about the island’s chronic problems with domestic violence, drug abuse, joblessness, and suicide, which has come as the result of all that resettlement and instability.

And they have probably not been told that this has more or less been the plan all along—that is, to have no plan. Outmigration. Resettlement. Endless comings and goings. That the island’s people have been told this was fate, an inevitability, a matter of course. It was up to the people to adapt. And they did. They left.

Spiritual Refuge After the Collapse

I doubt many of these visitors have looked into the haunted eyes of aging fishermen and women, and now oil workers—eyes that have watched their communities collapse and their children leave. These visitors won’t hear stories about outport neighbours, pitted against one another in yet another resettlement vote, as communities try to decide whether to take a lump sum to leave a place their great-grandparents built, a place they have given their lives, their hearts, and their souls.

I have a pet theory that one of the most positive developments I saw when I was home—the affirmation (finally) of the Mi’kmaq identity on the west coast—came at least in part from a growing need to express belonging to an island with a disrupted identity and a destroyed economy (following the brutal disruption that was colonialism itself).

First Nations identity allows them to express a longing for, and a belonging, to the land. But as a result, they use a blood-and-soil rhetoric that has a troubling past.

“I feel connected to the land,” I heard my students say after they had confirmed, or in some cases ‘discovered’, their official, or more likely non-official, status as Mi’kmaq.

I didn’t know how to tell them that this is a stereotype, that if they felt connected to the land it was probably because their grandfather or mother—indigenous or not—had them at the cabin before they were out of diapers. I couldn’t really say to them either that it is whispered that there was an economic motivation in going for status. Nor could I say—complicated as it is—that I thought this was understandable seeing as there had always been a need for more economic redress for the west coast no matter what identity it claimed.

One way for people to get reparations, on an individual level, was to apply for status. On the collective level, this awakening came across as a legitimate effort to be seen, and to give a voice to a people shaped and ravaged by colonialism. I know why so many people were so upset when they didn’t get their official status confirmed by the Canadian government: the ‘landless’ Qalipu band offers people voice, identity, and more economic power.

Even more importantly, the awakening offered a spiritual refuge after the collapse of everything else.

Holding a Lonely Line

One thing I notice about Newfoundland today, especially on the west coast, is its emptiness. In winter the restaurants are empty, the churches are empty, the streets are empty, the land is empty (except for a motley, confused herd of caribou that often gets caught behind the fence on the highway between Corner Brook and Stephenville). When I first lived away and would come home, I found this emptiness comforting—and head-clearing. The longer I stayed home this last time the more I found it discomforting, even disturbing.

A generation had gone off. Every one of my old friends left after high school. A few like me came back, but most of us struggled. As I spoke up and felt the stubbornness of the old guard in Newfoundland, I started to feel that there just needed to be more of us. I missed my generation. My voice fell on deaf ears, but so many voices weren’t even there.

There needed to be more immigration too, to build a more diverse group of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. That required openness and inclusivity on everybody’s part so that the island, for once, stopped performing itself for itself—and for the tourists—and started looking outwards to build something less incestuous and more worthwhile.

There is no way I can explain to a Montrealer the look on some of my students’ faces when I said I had finally given up the ghost, that I was leaving the island. How do you tell them what it felt like as my students picked through my books—at my urging and blessing—and went off with our dog-eared copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, my favourite hand-blender, and my writing desk? To many of them, I was the one who had come home. I was making it work.

I had, on the surface, a high-status position as a professor, but I was really just a McDonald’s-type academic labourer, working contract to contract without job security or much pay or much hope for the future. In reality, the university needed me to process first-year students. I did that as meaningfully as I could until the contracts finally dried up.

There was no way I could stay. There was no need for me on the island. Some of my students even asked me if there was a need for them. I just didn’t know what to say. I had just spent seven years trying to convince them (and myself) that there was.

I feel bad even writing this, like I’m being disloyal to something that was never really loyal to me, such is the mafia-like hold of the island’s boosterism. I will never give up hope that things can change for the better in both Newfoundland and Labrador, and that some new generation, or some new person, will do better than mine (or I) could.

I wish I could confirm all those positive prejudices the next time some lovely Montrealer asks me where I’m from instead of momentarily wishing I didn’t come from anywhere at all.

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