Some things change, and some things stay the same.
At least, that’s the case with the latest piece of work from Peter Willie Youngtree, a St. John’s songwriter who has given new life to the classic Newfoundland song The Government Game by rewriting the lyrics to reflect the state of affairs in Newfoundland and Labrador today.
Youngtree, who originally hails from Placentia Bay, the old stomping grounds of the song’s original author and performer—poet Al Pittman and musician Pat Byrne respectively—told The Independent the Liberal government’s recent turn to austerity to deal with the province’s fiscal woes is what inspired him to revisit the song.
The original version, which appeared on Pat and Joe Byrne with Baxter Wareham’s quintessential Newfoundland album Towards the Sunset in 1983, addressed the ongoing government campaign of resettlement and centralization.
“I always thought The Government Game was a really great protest song in general, and I thought it would be great to sing that at a march or in a group of protestors, but I thought the lyrics weren’t fitting for what was happening in Newfoundland today, in 2016,” he said.
It appears to me there’s a real push to keep on strangling the outports, to allow people to go into such poverty that they’re forced to leave… — Peter Willie Youngtree
So on a ferry crossing to Nova Scotia earlier this month as he hit the road for a tour of Eastern Canada, Youngtree pulled out his pen. The lyrics just came to him, he said.
The Ed Martin severance scandal was in the news, and “the emotional outrage at the inequality [in the province] kind of bubbled over.”
In the song Youngtree takes aim at austerity, Muskrat Falls, colonialism, the state of democracy and neoliberalism — all things that characterize the present moment in the province’s history — but says the overarching theme that he finds “disturbing” is the government’s apparent desire to drive people out of rural Newfoundland and Labrador and into the cities or out of the province altogether, just as it was doing 33 years ago when Pittman penned the original song’s lyrics.
“It appears to me there’s a real push to keep on strangling the outports, to allow people to go into such poverty that they’re forced to leave — and that will supposedly benefit the province’s purses because they wouldn’t have to provide services to these small communities,” he said, citing the Liberals’ recent decision to close more than half the province’s public libraries as a key example of policies that are “so clearly ideological” and amount to a “further tightening of the grip” on rural communities.
“I think that push is ongoing. It’s my believe that resettlement is an active process and isn’t always called ‘resettlement’,” Youngtree said.
Modernized tactics, same old game
Youngtree said while the terms aren’t common in public discourse around politics, society and the economy, it was important to him that the processes of colonialism and neoliberalism be specifically named in his rewrite of The Government Game, since they are fundamental to what’s happening in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Neoliberalism is this prevailing ideology in the world, and a lot of world leaders and countries adopt its policies — like more free trade,” he said. “It’s leading to corporations having way more power than I think anyone ever intended. We see it playing out globally but also locally — this idea that we have to pay back all the creditors and banks so quickly to the point where we have to starve people, make everyday citizens have a very tough life to pay money back to these huge entities. That’s exactly the type of thing neoliberalism espouses, and I think a lot of people aren’t aware it’s an ideology.
“This isn’t just a government reacting to a particular circumstance,” he continued, explaining austerity is a manifestation of neoliberalism. “It is following a particular ideology, a particular set of principles, and there are many routes to go when you are faced with a deficit and a downturn in the economy. Our government has chosen a neoliberal way of going about it, and it didn’t have to.”
In another verse Youngtree sings: “They’ll dam up the Churchill where our folk hunt and fish —
our Indigenous brethren, all against their wish. We just won’t get rid of the old colonial way. And so there’s more casualties in The Government Game.”
He told The Independent the way the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is handling the controversial Muskrat Falls mega dam in light of concerns by Innu and Inuit in Labrador is unacceptable.
“Indigenous people are not being listened to,” he said. “These latest protests are happening up in Labrador and the environment minister said, yes you’re going to be poisoned, and yes we’re going to take your land, but we’re gonna throw some money at you so don’t worry about it,’” he continued, referring to the ongoing Indigenous-led protests in Labrador communities like Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Nain and Rigolet, where students, teachers, parents, children, Elders and other community leaders are resisting the government’s attempt to flood the Muskrat Falls reservoir without clearing all vegetation and soil first.
A recent study out of Harvard University projected that if the reservoir is not fully cleared methylmercury levels in the traditional country foods the Inuit and Innu harvest could rise to levels unsafe for human consumption, removing not only an important food source for locals but also a traditional way of life for the Indigenous communities.
“This is colonialism,” said Youngtree. “As a province we’re acting as colonialists right now in 2016, and I think most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are not okay with that. So in putting Muskrat Falls in the song, it was important for me to talk about colonialism and the plight of Indigenous people.”
Youngtree said Muskrat Falls also illustrates the poor state of democracy in the province, and that it is the “biggest example right now of the government game.”
“Several years ago when [the project] was being proposed there was so much public resistance to it,” he recalled. “There were economists saying it was a problem, average citizens were saying it could be problematic environmentally [with] toxicity in the water, that there would be problems for the food supply for Indigenous people who are fishing and hunting around there — flooding the land around where they live.
“There were very legitimate arguments being made and they weren’t listened to. The project went ahead because some group of people wanted that to happen. That’s neoliberalism at work. Now we see it’s over budget, we’re going into debt, it’s taking longer than anticipated.
“All that is an example of how democracy isn’t really functioning as it should in our province, and in I think a lot of places. We vote every four years and that’s basically the extent to which we participate in democracy.
“We elected a Liberal government based on a whole lot of promises and ideas and attitudes that were put forth, and we gave them a majority to rule. And those attitudes and promises — when they go back on all of them, there’s no recourse. I think it’s fantastic that all the demonstrations are happening and people are being galvanized to action, but this government should not be in power anymore and there’s no way to rectify that in the existing system.”
Youngtree will wrap up his current tour in support of his album “Country Hymns” with shows in Woody Point (June 27), Corner Brook (June 28) and St. John’s (July 2). Visit his Facebook page or official website for more information.