The Labour Day story (as told by the fishes of St. Mary’s Bay)

Some of our aquatic neighbours reflect on the meaning of Labour Day for Newfoundland and Labrador…

Once a week, and always on a Sunday, the fishes of St. Mary’s Bay had their after-church dinner. Not just fishes, of course; the entire ocean floor was invited. There were the irascible Squiddy Jig Jig twins, their childish tentacles all lit up with assorted bling they’d retrieved from sunken cargo containers. Then there was Louis the Lobster, who always turned red after two sips of whisky, and Miss Mack the Mackerel, who made delicious potato salad, and of course Bob the Cod, the oldest cod anybody knew of that side of the coast, who would sit back with that wisecrack smile and smoke his pipe, and he could blow smoke-rings the exact shape of any type boat you could dare name. He’d seen them all, he said, and there wasn’t a vessel on the high seas he couldn’t blow smoke rings in the shape of. And every Sunday after church they’d gather in the large hold of a sunken cargo liner, which doubled as a Bingo Hall on Thursdays, and they’d cook up a scoff and discuss the goings-on up and down the shore. And eventually, of course, the discussion would turn to the strange world of humans above.

“Tomorrow’s Labour Day,” groaned Louis as he settled himself into an easy chair, which is no mean feat for a lobster to do. “There’ll be more than a few boats out trying their luck, I’d say. Better watch it on your way home!”

The Squiddy Jig Jig twins, always full of questions, piped up eagerly. “What’s Labour Day? What’s Labour Day?”

Miss Mack looked over from her knitting. “It’s the day the humans up top-side learned to stand up for themselves,” she proclaimed with a tick of her head.

Sandy the Seal looked up from where he was working on a pie crust, trying very hard to keep his flippers out of the pie.

“I remember,” says he, “my grandfather telling me about the first time they had a strike up top-side, those humans. It was the year 1832. Poor souls in the outports were treated like dirt by the merchants. They didn’t even get paid in cash for all their hard, back-breaking work, risking their lives out on the oceans! All they’d get was the tools to catch fish for the rich merchants, and maybe a bit of food to help them survive the winter. It was only when they came out on the seal hunt, trying to catch us on the ice that the merchants would pay ‘em cash. And we’d give ‘em a good run for their money boyo, let me tell you! But poor outport souls needed that cash, to buy the things the merchants wouldn’t give them. Their only cash – can you imagine? If only those poor souls knew how rich the merchants lived in St. John’s; they lived rich by ripping off every hard-working outport outside the capital.”

“Then what happened? Then what happened?” asked the Squiddy Jig Jig twins.

Bob the Cod picked up the tale, picking at his pipe. “Then one day the merchants thought they’d stop giving cash for the seal hunt too. Wanted to give them credit, just like for the fish. Greedy buggers. The outport sealers got together, and their whole community too. On a cold January morning in 1832, 3000 people marched up Saddle Hill, led by drums and fifes, to have a meeting and decide how they’d deal with the greedy merchants. They made a collective agreement that they’d only go sealing with the ones who agreed to pay cash. Well the merchants bribed the police to say that was illegal. Imagine, forming a club or a union or whatever they called it, illegal!”

“Yes,” Sandy the Seal broke in again excitedly. “But the police were on the merchants’ side because the merchants had all the money, so one night – my grandfather was there himself! – the sealers of Harbour Grace and Carbonear all put on masks – a hundred of them at least! – and snuck aboard the boats belonging to the merchants who refused to pay them cash, and hacked one of them boats to pieces with their saws and their hatchets. My grandfather was hanging out just off the side of the ship, clapping his flippers, cheering them on. “That’s the way to do it b’ys!” he yelled up at them. “Show ‘em they can’t rip you off and pay you less than you’re worth!”

Miss Mack looked up. “Sure some of them got arrested, but if they hadn’t done it, them merchants would have paid them nothing more than a few cans of peas for a whole season of sealing!”

A few pints a day, keeps the jiggerman away

The Squiddy Jig Jig twins looked up from their Wii. “That was an awfully long time ago,” said one. “Why do they still celebrate it?” said the other.

Louis adjusted his impressive carapace upon the recliner. “It wasn’t just the sealers’ strike,” he said, reaching for a jam-jam. “Isn’t that so, Swami?”

Swami the Seahawk ruffled his feathers as he did when he was excited about a subject. “That’s so. My peeps have flown from one end of this country to the other, and Newfoundland and Labrador has got more unions per capita than anywhere else in the country.”

“And it’s been that way for a long time,” said Stanley the Sea-Turtle with the wisdom borne of age. He paused in the middle of whisking up a meringue. “When Newfoundland joined Canada, it had twice the number of unionized workers per capita that Canada did. Why when the Canadian union reps arrived to see what they could unionize, their leader said in astonishment that St. John’s was the most unionized city he’d seen anywhere! Our humans up top-side are no fools, I’ll tell you that; they recognize the value of sticking together and working in solidarity. ‘Unions’ and ‘Newfoundland’ go together like ‘seagrass’ and ‘algae’.”

“Well I remembers,” interjected Swami the Seahawk, not to be outdone, “the great Loggers’ Strike. The scoundrels in the logging company tried to keep the union out back in 1956, and so you know what they did? The union went and rented an airplane, and they parachuted union organizers behind company lines, right into the woods, and then began signing workers up to the union.”

“God bless ‘em,” said Miss Mack with a tick of her head.

“You know,” said Bob, puffing upon his pipe, “things didn’t work out too well with that strike, as I recall.”

“Maybe not,” said Miss Mack. “And maybe they didn’t win their demands. But imagine you’re working your guts out in the woods for 12 hours a day, sleeping on a flea-infested straw mattress – some of them only had layers of spruce boughs to sleep on! – getting a bit of beans in the evening for your dinner. And you’re feeling all forgot out there in the woods, slaving away for some rich St. John’s merchant just so you’ll have a bit of cash to send to your family for the winter, or to give your kid a bit of an education. And that rich owner with his son going to Oxford and his yacht tied up in Quidi Vidi, tells you that you gotta take a pay cut and decide whether you want food for the winter OR an education for your child. And you’re trussing out that decision on your flea-bugged straw mat, and all of the sudden some soul comes literally parachuting into your camp, willing to risk his own life to try and unify the workers to stand up and say no. Win or not, it means something when somebody’s willing to stand up for you like that.”

“Yes!” piped up Louis. “Sure I remembers in 1986, when all them public workers were on strike, and they started arresting them. They said they were ‘essential workers’ – like by da jesus, who’s *not* essential on this island, wha? – and that a strike was illegal. And the workers said “no way b’y” and refused to stop striking. And so they started arresting them. Hundreds of them! And the union leaders came out. And they arrested them! And then – honest to god truth – the opposition MHA’s in the House of Assembly came out, and they said “B’ys, you’re arresting hundreds of hard-working Newfoundlanders for exercising their democratic right to strike. No matter what way you dress it up, that ain’t fit in a so-called 20th century democracy.” And then them MHA’s got arrested as well!”

“Go on!” said Stanley, gingerly dissecting a jam-jam.

“Them humans got spirit,” said Sandy. “Even if it does take the worst of times to bring it out in them.”

A hole in the line saves nine

“What I want to know is this,” said Miss Mack, laying down her knitting. “With all their fancy things and their book-learning, and all their money they print every year, why can’t they look after the simplest things? Like making sure everybody gets a fairly equal amount of stuff for the work they do, rather than hoard it up and fight all about it all the time and leave their own kind sufferin’ and starvin’?”

“Because,” Simon the Sea Urchin suddenly said, and everybody listened intently, for it is rare indeed that you hear a sea urchin speak, and they have a grave and commanding sort of voice, “they dress it up as all sorts of fancy things, but ultimately it boils down to two basic things. The ones with the money are greedy, and the ones without it are jealous. The ones that are greedy try to keep the money to themselves, while the ones who don’t have it…well, sometimes their jealousy leads them to fight amongst themselves for the crumbs that are left over.”

“But everybody knows,” broke in Harry Haddock, “that you don’t go debasing yourself for some crumbs. I mean, I knows quickly enough, that if I see a parched, cut-up worm twitching about weakly on the end of a stick, there’s a nasty bugger with a fishing-hook not far off, just waiting to toss me in a pan and eat me for his supper.”

“And that,” proclaimed Bob, pointing his pipe in Harry’s general direction, “is why YOU are still here, and so many of your illustrious compatriots are not.”

“So let me get this straight,” said Squiddy 1, and Squiddy 2 immediately then piped up: “No wait, I got it!” and in the end, they both spoke simultaneously, the bling on their tentacles flashing brighter than their wide young eyes.

“So while a lot of them humans up top-side slave away in a sort of silly fashion, there’s these unions that try to organize them to stand up for themselves, and that’s what they celebrate on Labour Day?”

“Not precisely,” said Miss Mack. “Labour Day ain’t just about unions. It’s about the fact that all them humans up top-side are pretty hard-working little buggers, even if they do have two legs and a stuck-up attitude. Labour Day is when they celebrate all the good work that all of them do, and all of which keeps their odd little civilization functioning: from the b’ys who build the houses, to the ones who answer phones at the call centres, to the ones who serve coffee to all them lawyers in the morning.”

“And,” added Sandy, looking up triumphantly as he completed the top casing of the blueberry pie he was working on. “Not all them unions are good either. They’re just human, and there’s some of them make mistakes sometimes, dumb mistakes. And sometimes they find themselves standing up for principle when they don’t really have the support for it, or underestimating just how far the greedy ones will go to defend their wealth.”

“But you must admit,” said Bob, blowing out a ring of smoke in the shape of a 1960s East German fishing trawler, “that without a handful of people willing to stand in the front, and say “b’ys, you’re worth more than this!”, them humans up top-side would be a lot worse off now than they are.”

“Oh yes,” said Miss Mack. “I think what they celebrate on Labour Day, more than anything else, is the simple fact of respecting their own self-worth. I mean, there’s always gonna be people who say “Hey you! You’re just some fly-by-night cashier at Tim Hortons, and I’m a big weenie who’s your boss and I own this joint, and so you better do what I say and come in to work whenever I tells you to or else I’ll fire you.” But the way I sees it, every year there’s less and less poor souls willing to take the abuse, and more who stand up for themselves, and knock that nasty boss down a peg or two. And if that’s not progress, well I don’t know what is.”

(Sticks and stones can’t break my bones, but a dragger net means it’s over)

In the end, the fishes of St. Mary’s Bay decided the humans up topside still had a lot to learn. By and large, they didn’t seem to appreciate their own self-worth, they didn’t seem to appreciate the few who stood up for themselves despite the odds, and they didn’t seem to appreciate that the secret to a good blueberry pie is adding a grated apple to the filling for thickening.

But, they did at least set aside one day of the year to recognize that there is something special to the act of saying “I am worth more than this.” And that whether such an act results in masked men hacking up a sealing boat, or parachuting into a forest in a hopeless effort to improve conditions for the ones who labor there, or offering themselves up for arrest because they recognize the utter sinfulness of letting others be dragged to jail for expressing their democratic right to strike, the fact is that throughout humans’ poor and somewhat tawdry experience on this island, there had always been those willing to say to others, whatever the price they paid for it:

“I am worth more than this.”

“And so are you.”

And that spirit, concluded the fishes of St. Mary’s Bay, was what made humans the truly impressive, and daunting, and fearsome creatures they were.

All the incidents referred to in the piece above are true. Including the secret to a good blueberry pie.

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