My father was born a Newfoundlander. His first child was born a Canadian. Growing up a Newfoundlander in Canada is an ambiguous journey. In school, the textbooks were largely American, TV and entertainment was largely American. I'm not sure I understood that Canada was a separate country from the US. With an adult eye, I'm still not sure there is a great distinction. When the realization of the geopolitical relationship of Canada and the US was finally resolved in my mind I remember feeling disappointed. With the realization that Newfoundland was not a part of The States and that in fact Newfoundland was the adopted child of the Canadian Dominion - disappointment was the closest feeling that could be conjured up.
For the young Newfoundlander in Canada the fact that we had no affiliation with the US and that in fact we had only been with our present country for a couple of decades... It reflected on my own sense of identity. It meant that the childhood heroes; the writers, artists, movie stars, rock singers... were all part of a culture that was not your own. It made the dreams of becoming rich and famous like them suddenly unattainable. Who from Newfoundland was known in Canada, let alone the US? The greater dreams of fame and fortune were suddenly like catching moonlight in a box. It was perhaps the first time that the reality of my future was chiseled in the foundation of my psyche.
So given that I wasn't an American, I wasn't even in my country’s eyes a true and equal Canadian. I was a Newfoundlander, we did not become rich and famous. I was unlikely to become a Walt Disney or Elvis Presley. We came from labourers and fishermen, farmers and loggers. We worked on the sea, in the mines and in The Mill. My father, his brothers and their father worked in The Mill. My future was a flat-topped wooden lunch basket with a sandwich, a tea bag, a Gerber bottle of sugar and a spice bottle of milk. That was my reality. Falling asleep from shear physical exhaustion after supper, thick woolen socks covered with tiny pellets of wool. In steel toed shoes for ten hours of confinement. I don’t know of a ten year old who dreams of that. My pride in my father, my uncles and grandfather now is from a very different perspective than it was then.
Canada was 100 years old when I was born; The province of Newfoundland in Canada a mere fledgling at 18 years. My baby picture has grey centennial coins inside the frame, a goose, a rabbit, a dove. A boy of ten can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing the place of Newfoundland in Canada. Not only did we read American and Canadian books but Canada itself was celebrating its 110 birthday. But Newfoundland only joined in 1949? Canada has had a long history without us; our joining is a footnote.
That is the context of growing up a Newfoundlander in Canada. When Arthur Scammel wrote “The Squid Jiggin’ Ground” as a school project he received a poor grade. Not because it wasn’t a marvelous ditty, a fun reflection of the time and place – but because it was a reflection of his time and place. Newfoundlanders did not write about Newfoundland. Children should write about going to buy candy at the corner market or painting picket fences – not about getting ink in the eye from a Cephalopod. But he did and the song became one of the most recognizable ditty’s of Newfoundland and Labrador culture.
Without a lot of heroes and role-models, without learning our history, our place, despite all of the formal schooling to the contrary I am proud of this place. I am proud of the people who worked hard with smelly wool socks, flat topped lunch boxes and calloused hands. I am proud of the people who fought and died. I am proud of the Rhodes scholars, the artists, and writers who live in Newfoundland and Labrador. Although much of the true context of being a Newfoundland and Labradorian had to be discovered on my own; I am none-the-less grateful for it. Walt Disney never had it so good.