Why the nationalism debate needs to stop being dominated by white men

A recent panel on Newfoundland nationalism at MUN reveals the stale nature of the debate.

The topic of “Newfoundland nationalism” was debated at Memorial University on Friday, featuring a panel of speakers well-known for their outspokenness on the subject. For the most part, they stayed true to form, delivering predictable and well-rehearsed positions on the topic. Taken together, they reveal four key approaches to the issue of N.L.’s national identity. But the most useful intervention, it turned out surprisingly, was not to come from the panelists at all.

Newfoundland nationalism: the ‘balance-sheet’ approach

Former NDP MP Ryan Cleary made his career—both as a former editor of The Independent, and then later as a one-term NDP MP who after losing his seat in the last federal election ran and lost under the Progressive Conservative banner provincially—as an outspoken advocate of the ‘balance sheet’ approach to Confederation. As editor he helped organize a well-researched series looking at the balance sheet of the province’s give-and-take since Confederation, and as politician he made natural resource sovereignty and management—particularly the fishery—a key political issue.

At Friday’s debate, he emphasized again the ‘balance-sheet’ approach to the question.

Ryan Cleary. Photo by Graham Kennedy.
Ryan Cleary. File photo by Graham Kennedy.

“I’m not a separatist,” he said. “But we should look at [the idea of] separating. It’s a relevant question in terms of straight-up dollars and cents. Would we be better off—yes or no?”

True to the ‘balance-sheet’ approach to nationalism, Cleary argued that “until we [control our resources], we don’t control our destiny.”

Yet it’s unclear where the responsibility for that management—and mismanagement—lies. Cleary observed that in his experience as a journalist, first with The Telegram and later The Independent, he wrote countless stories about mismanagement of resources, including but hardly limited to the fisheries. Yet despite all the stories and coverage and exposure of mismanagement, he lamented, “nothing has changed.”

Newfoundland nationalism: the historical approach

Actor and activist Greg Malone published the provocative and well-researched 2012 study Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders: The True Story of Newfoundland’s Confederation With Canada, which argued that Confederation with Canada was the product of manipulation and deceit on the part of Canadian and British governments who were terrified of Newfoundland falling under American influence after World War II.

Malone also stopped short of calling himself a separatist, but made clear that it’s an option he’s open to. He in many ways epitomizes the ‘historical loss’ approach to nationalism, lamenting the loss of self-government to Canadian confederation. There’s a certain bitterness to this approach, a sense of thwarted destiny and hijacked history, blamed on collusion between England and Canada and their joint efforts to manipulate the National Convention and undermine self-government.

Author and actor Greg Malone reads from his book "Dont Tell the Newfoundlanders" in 2013. Photo by Justin Brake.
Greg Malone reads from his book “Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders” in 2012. File photo by Justin Brake.

Malone’s book outlines this argument in extensive detail, and the fear both Canada and the UK felt at the prospect of Newfoundland falling under American influence. (Ties grew between the U.S. and Newfoundland as a result of American troops stationed here during World War II, during which time, Malone notes, the Americans invested far more into Newfoundland’s social and infrastructure development than either England or Canada).

Newfoundland had the oldest existing parliament outside of Westminster, Malone said Friday, and was the first country outside the United Kingdom to be granted a coat of arms by the empire. “More than that, we’re a nation because we identify ourselves as such.”

Malone said that the loss of our nationhood led to 50 years of shame which Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are only now beginning to put behind them. He emphasized that wanting nationhood is not the same as being nationalistic. He dislikes the pomp and patriotism of nationalism, he said, but “at the centre of the question of nationalism is our right to self-determination.”

Newfoundland nationalism: The academic-intellectual approach

Sean Cadigan, a history professor at Memorial University, has published extensively on Newfoundland and Labrador history, including a 2009 article for The Newfoundland Quarterly provocatively titled “Not A Nation! (Or Why Newfoundland Nationalism Doesn’t Make Historical Sense).” In that, he wrote:

Nationalism fabricates the notion that peoples of diverse interests are really one, that they should mobilize in support of a particular interest group or party… Newfoundland and Labrador is the home of a variety of peoples who, on a day-to-day basis within the context of their communities, are defined far more by their class, gender and ethnicity than by political elites’ nationalism. Since Confederation, politicians have used a particular form of nationalist Ottawa-bashing to distract the peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador from how they have been treated by the provincial government and to co-opt their support… Our history is more accurately one of profound internal social divisions than it is of national oppression or struggle.

At the debate, Cadigan reiterated much the same argument, while admitting that much depends on what you consider to be a nation. However, he argued that along most of the measures whereby nations are usually defined by academics and intellectuals, Newfoundland isn’t really a nation. He argued that Newfoundland nationalism has largely been an “ideological construct, largely by groups in St. John’s, trying to mobilise people around their interests.”

In contrast, he argued, people along the island’s west coast historically didn’t align their interests with St. John’s any more than they did with Halifax. During the brief question period at the end, several audience members took issue with this, suggesting that Cadigan’s purist notion of a nation doesn’t exist in the real world, where many existing nations are also divided by plenty of their own internal differences.

Newfoundland nationalism: Ethnic vs. civic nationalism

Jamie Baker, a MUN instructor who also works with the Association for New Canadians, offered the most innovative contribution to the discussion in his opening remarks. Baker’s interest lies in immigration, and he wasted no time pointing out how nationalistic ideas have impacted efforts by recent provincial governments to boost immigration. “The discourse on immigration has always been paired with one of repatriation—bringing home our native sons,” he said. “Newfoundland’s history is one of loss, and this complicates matters.”

Baker observed that Newfoundland’s politics has often been oriented around ‘nativism’, in the sense of promoting the interests of a particular segment of those who were born here (into settler families of English and Irish descent, one might add). Ethnic nationalism of that sort emphasizes principles of shared descent, instead of focusing on developing principles of shared civic ethics and ideas which can be built and shared by settlers from all ethnicities and cultures, as well as Indigenous Peoples.

“The emphasis on ethnic nationalism may not create the conditions for immigration,” he warned. “While Newfoundlanders are friendly, we are not always as welcoming as we should be.” Being welcoming, he emphasized, means more substantive engagement and support for newcomers than the token kissing of the cod.

Newfoundland nationalism: Beyond the pale and stale

The biggest contribution, however, came from audience member Sharmane Allen, a graduate student in Geography at Memorial, who challenged panelists and professors alike on their role in perpetuating the stale and anachronistic way in which the nationalism debate is carried out.

Allen laid bare the glaring problem with the whole set-up of Friday’s debate, which other attendees had also been grumbling and whispering about.

“I’ve [been] to many of these events, and what troubles me the most is we never ask women. There’s no women on your panel,” she said. “And when has a woman in this province really ever been given a voice to speak? Where are the First Nations voices on what it means to be a nation?”

Allen singled out Political Science professor Matthew LeRiche, who organized the panel, and asked him point-blank: “Did you ask a woman to speak on your panel?”

LeRiche responded with an awkward, “They were out of town.”

One presumes he didn’t mean all the province’s women were out of town. Indeed, there were plenty at the debate. And as Allen went on to point out, she could list not one, but dozens of women off the top of her head who would have been worthy additions to the panel.

More than white men have something at stake here

The fact that a university department, in this day and age, would organize a panel of exclusively white men to ‘debate’ an issue of such importance is scandalous and embarrassing. But it also reveals with stark clarity why nationalist movements have never appealed to people in this province in recent decades, despite their clearly nationalistic streak.

The public cheered on the removal of Canadian flags from federal buildings during Danny Williams’ high-profile attacks on equalization clawbacks; thousands attended the rallies he organized in support of his nationalistic cause. Friday’s debate itself garnered such a crowd the organizers had to rig up a makeshift overflow room into which they broadcasted the live debate, and attendance was still standing-room only. Clearly, interest in the idea is there.

But Allen put it best. She said that when “Newfoundland stops letting only white males speak, we might get somewhere.

“As a person who grew up in this province, I’ve always been bombarded with words like ‘fighting sons’, ‘brave sons’, ‘where our fathers stood’. It was our mothers, and fathers who built this, who built what we are as a culture.”

Allen made the most important point in the entire discussion: The organization of the panel revealed exactly why discussion of N.L. self-determination remains ineffective and inconsequential, and replicated those very same conditions on the panel.

 I’ve always been bombarded with words like ‘fighting sons’, ‘brave sons’, ‘where our fathers stood’. It was our mothersand fathers who built this, who built what we are as a culture.” — Sharmane Allen, MUN student

Ever since the National Convention, the debate over self-determination has remained a preserve of white folks, and predominantly men. Little room has been made for the Newfoundland and Labrador of today, which is so much more: a nation of women, of proud activists and citizens who defy the traditional gender binary, of Indigenous Peoples, of immigrants from Asia to Africa to the Middle East and everywhere in between. Of artists and tech-savvy entrepreneurs and craftspeople and innovative chefs and talented musicians and community collectives working to revitalize the rural communities that have been forgotten and ignored by the merchants of Water Street and their servants on the Hill.

Moreover by titling the event “Debating Newfoundland Nationalism” the organizers themselves contribute to silencing the people of Labrador. This silencing is one the peoples of Labrador are, sadly, all too familiar with, but it’s a practice—perpetuated by this very event—which is colonialist and needs to stop.

This is the greatest barrier facing the idea of N.L. nationhood: the discussion has become the preserve of stale political scientists and other middle-upper-class white men. No one is interested in a nationalism that will simply further the interests of white men in suits—the same ones who dominate the present system. The great dream of nationhood for N.L. is meant to be one that will offer new opportunities, and allow us to realize new political possibilities that the current gatekeepers of the possible—those white men in suits—say cannot be done.

The first step in engaging in a serious discussion about moving N.L. nationhood forward is to broaden that discussion. What could greater self-determination and more localized self-governance mean, in real and tangible terms, for gender equality? What could it mean for loosening restrictions on immigration that work against this province’s best interests?

If we finally achieved greater control over our resources and our coastal waters—what would that mean? Would we use it to allow transnational corporations to steal and gut those resources even worse than they do now, for the benefit of a handful of rich white men? Or would we use it to exert a new set of principles on the global stage — ones grounded in wiser stewardship and sustainable management than the federal government has shown?

How could N.L. nationhood be used to imagine enhanced forms of Indigenous self-governance and respect for treaty rights? How could it be used to re-imagine Newfoundland’s relationship with Labrador, and to create not merely a hollow name but a substantive and fair division of powers between what should be two equal partners?

And most importantly, what ideas, suggestions, experiences and insights can all the diverse populations of Newfoundland and Labrador bring to the discussion? We know what the urbanized white men in suits have to say; we’ve been hearing them speak to each other for the past 70 years. What about Newfoundland and Labrador’s many other voices? Women and other genders, racialized and Indigenous Peoples, recent immigrants and rural voices?

Fighting for greater self-determination, whether through renewed nationhood or some other form, is a noble cause. But until we determine to include a broader array of voices in the discussion, it’ll remain simply a discussion for stale classrooms and bitter old men.

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