Irony and independence

On the anniversary of Con-federation, some advice to future Republicans…

It is no small irony that Stephen Harper’s Conservative budget begins (or rather, accelerates) the process of dismantling the Canada we know a mere two days before the anniversary of Newfoundland’s having joined it.

Nor should the irony be lost that the greatest hope of defeating Harper – Thomas Mulcair, new leader of the NDP – is a federalist from Quebec chosen in large part to sap the support of separatists there.

But I’m sure Quebec separatists can fight their own battles.

Let’s focus on ours instead.

One of the questions that always arises this time of year – as the Republican flags flutter proudly and conspicuously – is why the independence movement in Newfoundland has never become a stronger or more potent force.

So on this year’s anniversary, I’d like to offer some musings as to why this might be.

Right place, right time, wrong reasons

First of all, it’s not for lack of trying. I’m sure everybody’s got a “Free NFLD” t-shirt in their closet (or knows somebody who does), or perhaps even the “Newfoundland Republican Army” version. In a CBC interview a few years ago, Living Planet owner Dave Hopley said he sells 200 of the Free NFLD t-shirts a month.

CBC does regular features on separatist sentiment, VOCM’s notoriously unscientific polls on the subject have over the years shown support for independence anywhere from 40 – 80%, and a couple of years ago the province’s Liberal government conducted a Royal Commission to investigate whether Confederation was living up to our expectations and needs. Indeed, we’ve even had, if not separatist, strongly nationalist parties, which have all fizzled and sputtered almost before anyone even knew about them.

So what’s the deal?

I’d like to suggest that the problem is two-fold: (1) there’s been no consistent effort to organize an independence movement (hint: it requires more than just wearing a t-shirt, or running a candidate); and (2) all the previous efforts to form parties to tap into the sentiment desiring an independent republic were in the right place, at the right time…but tried to go about it all the wrong way and for all the wrong reasons.

…it requires more than just wearing a t-shirt, or running a candidate…

There’s not room to get into a detailed analysis in a short commentary, so I’ll save that for another time. Instead, in the spirit of the occasion (Confederation, and federal budget Con-damnation) I’ll offer a few pieces of my own advice for the next wave of Newfoundland Republicans who decide it would be better if we left the dissolving Canadian state while the going is good.

1) It’s not about the past. It’s about the future.

Republican sentiment invariably drifts into a muddly rant about how Confederation came about; a beer-soaked ramble about our nationhood being stolen. Was the vote rigged? Was the campaign stacked? Were we victims of British and Canadian colonialism? Such questions are fine and well for historians to argue about, but any Republican movement must be forward-thinking and forward-focused. It doesn’t matter whether the vote was rigged, or whether the Terms of Union were rotten. What matters is whether we could, at this stage or in the near future, create a more prosperous, sustainable, and socially just future for ourselves as an independent republic or as a continued partner in whatever the Canadian confederation is becoming. Honour the past, but stop obsessing about it. Focus on the future, and what our potential is – and could be.

2) It’s about prosperity and equality. For all of us.

Regardless of whether the vote was rigged or not, there were still a whole lot of people who supported joining Canada. Many of them were from rural communities. Many of them were starving. And virtually all of them were sick of seeing Water Street merchants make a fortune while parents couldn’t afford to look after their children or provide them an education; while skilled and talented workers couldn’t find jobs; sick of watching politicians heckle each other across party lines while really, all of them were just as rooted in merchant /lawyer wealth as the Water Street businessmen whose laws they passed.

The sad irony is that we joined Canada to get away from that, and now Canada’s federal government is functioning just as badly (and undemocratically) as Newfoundland’s ever was, even at its lowest point. In fact, probably worse. Moreover, the social and economic inequality which Confederation was supposed to solve – by way of child funding, old age pensions, and the like – is now unraveling and leading to inequality which might eventually rival that of the pre-Confederation era. The income gap between rich and poor is widening, and at a time when Newfoundland was supposed to be prospering from natural resource wealth, inequality is growing: because a small elite of politicians and business leaders are hoarding that wealth at the expense of the rest of us. Of course, independence is not an automatic solution: we’d have to develop a plan to make sure wealth is more equally distributed. But it’s far easier for us to do that on a small scale, in our own backyard, than to try to influence a country of 35 million people using our paltry 7 MP’s. Moreover, as a province which has had, traditionally, greater income equality than most of the rest of the country, we’d be better off leaving now before the Canadian trend hits us harder and things get worse.

Our government needs to be made to take strong action now to stave off growing social and economic inequality before it gets worse. And 500,000 people have a better chance of influencing 48 politicians, than 7 MP’s have of influencing 35 million people.

Just sayin.

3) It’s about representation.

Well I sort of just said that, but let’s say it again. We have 7 federal representatives in a House of Commons of 308. We have 6 seats in a Senate of 105. Those numbers are on the verge of changing – in favour of other provinces. Is it any wonder that our fishery was used – and gutted – as a trading chip by Ottawa in its dealings with foreign countries; that they reneged on promises like the Atlantic Accord; that they’re even withdrawing vital search and rescue services and endangering our people? When we have no effective representation in the federal government? (you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Labrador. That’s deliberate. If we expect to renegotiate our relationship with Canada, we need to renegotiate our relationship with Labrador, too. Fair is fair.)

Sure, Joey Smallwood may have signed up for all this. But that doesn’t make it right, and nor does it mean that we have to continue to accept it. So here’s a hint, Republicans: No confederation without representation!

4) It’s about sustainability.

North American neoliberal politics is all about quick-fixes and get-rich-quick schemes. The Prairies are being gutted for the oil sands; the North will soon be gutted for all the treasures under the ice. When crises erupt, governments respond with band-aid solutions instead of addressing the systemic roots of the problems. A Republican movement can’t be reactionary; it has to think long-term. We’re running out of chances to get things right here. Look at the oil: it’s running out, and what do we have to show for it? Very little (although a whole lot of corporations, lawyers and politicians have lined their pockets). We have to stop jumping for the quick-fix. An independent republic could be based on constituent assemblies – much like Iceland is now doing – that will give all of us the chance to debate our opportunities, to paint the picture of Newfoundland that we want to see in 100 years, and then decide collectively how we can best achieve that. Republicanism has to be about putting the people and communities of Newfoundland in charge – it can’t be another movement of white-haired ex-lawyers in suits dreaming that they could be prime minister.

Sustainability must be a central plank of any republic we build. Food prices are already rising around the world. Couple that with rising transportation and fuel costs, and it spells trouble. Meanwhile, we still haven’t got a coherent province-wide food security strategy, nor are we protecting vital agricultural areas that we will need if we are going to become food-secure (many of them are still being eyed for golf resorts and other development projects. We can’t eat golf balls, yo.). And poor Mark Wilson – one of the island’s most proficient organic farmers – still hasn’t got the approval to build his organic farm despite countless years of trying. We must do better. Independence is not a prerequisite for this, but it might help provide clarity. We need to realize that we won’t necessarily be able to rely on global food chains forever to feed all our people, and we need to start doing that job ourselves. Wilson pointed out to me in an interview some months ago that Newfoundland is in the unique position where it could still market itself as one of the world’s only completely organic agricultural zones. If we ensure GMO products stay out of our soil, being an island we could meet what is a growing global demand for organic foods, and meet it in a way that mainland agricultural zones – easily contaminated by their neighbours – can’t. If we are to contemplate independence, we must reflect on our strengths. And despite the stereotype of barren rocky soils, in a world where climate change is going to leave much of mainland Canada arid and dry, agriculture will be one of our strengths.

5) It’s about diversity.

Enough of the separatist parties stacked by white guys warning “the Asians are coming!”. The Asians are here yo, screeched in and rocking out: there’s a statue celebrating their presence in Newfoundland down on George Street. There’s a Chinese restaurant in every community from here to St. Anthony; today’s Newfoundland youth are more into sushi and falafels than fish’n’chips (except for the f’n’chi at The Ship Inn of course), and these days it’s a toss-up between the Hindu Temple and the beer tent for most popular place to be on Regatta Day. Lanier Phillips is a national hero, and we are truly fortunate that acts of bigotry pale in the historical record next to the acts of humanity and equality – like Phillips’ tale – which make us proud. Newfoundland’s diversity will be its strength in the years to come and a Republican movement must tap into that in a way political parties have not.

Also, Newfoundland’s aboriginal and First Nations communities are just as – in fact more – ripped off by federal government policies as the rest of us. A truly Republican movement must unite all the communities and peoples of Newfoundland. And we can do it in a way that shows off our pride and our diversity to Canada in a manner Canada has failed to do. An independent republic could adopt Innu or Mi’kmaq language as an official language, along with English and French. We could even promote it in our schools, and in public media. Switzerland has four national languages, and it’s less than half the size of the island. Think big, people.

6) It’s about security.

The great irony is that many of us think of Newfoundland as a hidden rocky secret, on the margins of the world, where few dare or desire to tread – a secret magical wonderland those of us who live here have discovered.

Well it’s not going to be like that for much longer. Climate change and the melting of the Arctic means that the North is already becoming a ‘wild west’ – like frontier. Already, corporate armies are vying with the world’s superpowers to determine how best to position themselves for that rush (Russia and China in particular are quite interested, not to mention all the most unsavoury mining corporations). Ideally the Canadian government would regulate activity in the North to ensure it is sustainable and sensible, but in reality they’re probably simply going to sit back and let themselves be paid off in royalties from whoever is willing to pay the most to plunder the North. Either way, whether the North becomes a site of corporate plunder or international conflict, Newfoundland is situated dangerously close to the front lines. We’re also uniquely positioned to suffer the consequences of environmental disasters that might result from this rush. Canada hasn’t demonstrated any interest in looking after us (witness the history of foreign overfishing, not to mention the withdrawal of search and rescue services), so we must be prepared to look after ourselves.

Furthermore, we’re an enormous land mass that is sparsely populated. Historically, our unpleasant weather and remote location kept it that way. But with an overpopulated planet characterized by increasingly desperate waves of migrants and refugees, we’re not likely to remain that way much longer. I’m not trying to engage in the disgusting, populist anti-migrant rhetoric that European right-wing politicians spout: we are ultimately a nation of refugees and migrants, founded by refugees and migrants, and if indeed we have a cultural heritage to be proud of, that is what it is. But we must recognize this looming reality and we – not Ottawa – must be the ones to decide how we will regulate and humanely, maturely respond to these changes in a way that ensures a sustainable future for all those who wind up living here. We cannot entrust that task to remote politicians in Ottawa. We must have control over our borders and immigration right here.

7) It’s about education.

One of the few legacies of the oil era will be the strong education system – particularly in post-secondary education – that we have built. At a time when post-secondary education is collapsing right across North America under the weight of tuition fees and corporate takeovers, the fact that we valued our educational institution enough to keep it funded and accessible means we now have one of – if not the – best post-secondary education systems in North America. This will be a strength in the times to come. Throughout history we have seen small enclaves of learning keep the strengths of civilization alive while larger empires and countries fall into ruin – Ireland during the Dark Ages; Baghdad and Alexandria after the fall of Rome. Newfoundland’s post-secondary system might remain one of the world’s few true centres of learning as university systems deteriorate around the world. We must maintain our strengths, and build on them.

8 ) It’s about a movement, not a party.

The biggest problem with Republican and nationalist parties in the past has been their obsession with electoral politics. Forget about running in elections. The first task of a Republican movement must be to engage our people and our communities; to figure out what future we collectively envision and desire; to collectively decide how to get there. It must be a movement, not a party. It must spread roots in every community: it must be as involved in cultural and artistic life as it is in political activism. It mustn’t just complain that the government doesn’t provide adequate housing for the elderly: it must build those houses. It mustn’t just complain about over-fishing: it must patrol the waters. Running for political office must be the last step. And if, by that time, Republicans have successfully built a movement – one which transcends party lines and reflects all of our people and communities – then winning an election will merely be a formal acknowledgement of a new era already begun.

9) It’s about thinking big.

It’s hard to dream when our dreams are stifled by politicians who live an ocean away. Confederation has had its pros and its cons. But in a world that is increasingly defined by everything that is going wrong, we have a unique opportunity to do something right. We are perhaps one of the few places in the world with the space, the resources, the self-sufficiency, the creativity and the pride to think outside the norms that are causing riots, exploitation, poverty and suffering around the world. We can be a model for the world, of another way that is possible. Our storytelling has traditionally been a source of strength for our communities, and for ourselves. Let us now tell stories to ourselves not of our past but of our future. Let us dream big; let us share our dreams; and then let us make them happen.

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