Who are we? Complex cultural identities on the Island of Newfoundland

Newfoundland’s history, like its people, is much more complex than we’re taught in school. That’s something which needs to change.

I vaguely remember when we were British.

In 1977 the world—it seemed—marked Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee and our teacher asked us to put our names to a list of people offering best wishes. The list was being compiled by one of St. John’s most colourful citizens, Lady Jacqueline Barlow. Lady Barlow was heavily involved in the monarchist league and regularly strode around town on her horse, black velvet hat on her head. (There was less traffic then, obviously.) She advocated a competition for the most decorated street in the city but there were no takers. St. John’s had plenty of characters back then, including Lady Barlow, but nobody as showy. We schoolchildren duly signed our names, although I felt uneasy about it and told my teacher. I couldn’t articulate my objections but this was, I think, a seminal event in my lifelong interest in collective identity.

As a teenager, I gained a heightened awareness of my pretty close Irish roots, right from Ulster (the province the British tragically split in two, with not a lot of foresight, at Irish independence). This was one source of the unease I’d felt in reaction to Lady Barlow’s list. Even as I was handed the pen to sign the list, I had cloudy ideas that the Queen’s people had caused a lot of trouble for the people then known as Indians. I also had Mi’kmaq ancestry but that, too, was not at the fore in my life. I had English heritage as well; my stiff upper-lipped grandmother from Oderin Island in Placentia Bay could have transported herself to any Devon village and fit right in. But identity politics were not strong in those days, at least not on this island. We just were who we were and we just did what we did.

The Irish loop

In the 1990s, Newfoundland went through an awkward Irish phrase, spearheaded by Brian Tobin and his ill-advised post-moratorium push for tourism development. In a series of embarrassing developments, the province sent the world the clear message that we were all redheads, dancing jigs in meadows while a nearby cousin played the fiddle. We smiled all the time, of course. The reality was we were all damn depressed as the outports emptied, the packed flights to Alberta took off, and the capital city began mushrooming into its current unwieldy size. But we were Irish, apparently, and we were constantly admonished to imitate all good things Irish.

This grated on my nerves (and those of many others, I know). I’d been to Ireland several times and it felt like an alien culture. I did feel somewhat at home in Belfast where, ironically perhaps, people seemed to be more open and engaging than in the south; I liked their bluntness that was in marked contrast to the taciturn nature of Dubliners. But the whole place was definitely a foreign country. It seemed like a backwards step to make Newfoundlanders twist and turn ourselves in order to emulate it. This kind of pressure was at its worst during the Celtic Tiger episode, which ultimately failed. Few are telling us to imitate the Irish now, a good thing considering the mess the Dail is making of water rates and the housing and homelessness crisis.

So who are we? A colonial outpost? A little Britain? “Celtic to the core,” as CBC Radio’s Shelagh Rogers once annoyingly opined? Canadians? Sorta Canadians? Nearly Americans? More European? Bushborns, as London referred to our ancestors?

A many-threaded history

I don’t know exactly how to answer this question but over the years I’ve learned not to make assumptions. And I’ve learned to expect complexity. For instance, I did some genealogies for a couple of coastal Newfoundland communities in the early 2000s and found that people’s ancestors were “Canadian,” Cree, Mi’kmaq, Innu, Norwegian and Polish (as well as English, Irish and French). We’ve heard lots about the English and the Irish but why have we heard little to nothing of the Poles or the Norwegians? Or the Italians who moved to St. Lawrence? Why have so many of our ancestors been airbrushed out of our history?

Photo by Justin Brake.
Tombstones marking the burial place of several members of the Chinese community are found at the eastern edge of the General Protestant Cemetery between Old Topsail Road and Waterford Bridge Road in St. John’s. Photo by Justin Brake.

Writer Michael Crummey once said he was surprised to learn there were Lebanese in Newfoundland. Shouldn’t we all have learned this in our grade five history lessons? Shouldn’t it be in the ether and in the stories we tell? Many Lebanese made Newfoundland their homes. They were mainly Christian and spoke Arabic and had names like Kawaja, Michael, Gosine, Faour, Boulos, and Noah. Some of their descendants are well-known, including the outgoing leader of the NDP and the longtime mayor Wabana. In Corner Brook a street is named for the Kawajas.

Just as interesting is the Jewish history of Newfoundland. My grandmother shopped at “the Jewish stores” in St. John’s as Maurice Wilansky was kind enough to give her credit. Every year we went to the “Jewish sale” at the synagogue where Value Village-type bargains could be found, long before there was Value Village. Jewish “tinkers” came from Russia and Northern Europe to travel through the outports selling. The first synagogue was established by Israel Perlin before the 1800s drew to a close. Think about the Perlin legacy alone — the artist Rae, the educator Vera.

The Chinese came here, too, as the touching monument near George Street attests. They were victimized by racist and gendered policies that saw families separated. Sadder still is the line of Chinese graves in the cemetery on Waterford Bridge Road; in the 1930s, it seems, a number of these young men died, perhaps from tuberculosis, so far from home.

Rediscovering our collective heritage

When I moved to the west coast over a year ago, I was struck by how different the surnames are than those on the east coast. There are many more French than Irish. “No one likes Irish music around here,” a local singer told me regretfully. There are Scottish names and many names I have never heard of and cannot place. Part of Corner Brook’s Townsite was once known as Germantown, a story I have yet to investigate. Danny’s Bakeshop, with its gorgeous chocolate eclairs, is owned and operated by a Swiss immigrant who has been in Stephenville for decades. And the road signs on the Port au Port Peninsula are in Mi’kmaq and French. It is, to say the least, refreshing. It is honest.

We have a many-threaded identity in Newfoundland. And I have hardly touched on our Indigenous history or Labrador’s story, which are topics for another day.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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