It’s Only Newfoundland I: Napoleon Complex, A History Boy, 09/08/2015

Friday night, I arrived back in Toronto from my vacation to St. John’s, visiting my mother, family, a few (but not enough) of my friends, my girlfriend’s mother and her own new boyfriend, and seeing some of the beautifully desolate sights of the Avalon and Bonavista peninsulas. I’m home now.

From Cape Bonavista. If you look carefully, you can see
a tiny fishing boat, three people back to their workday
in the terrifying sublimity of the North Atlantic. You
shouldn't complain about your office job.
This can be a very controversial thing to say among a community of Newfoundlanders: that you were born and raised in Newfoundland but don’t consider it home. To some, it’s understandable. A place where you moved and made a new life can feel more like a home than where you grew up, precisely because it’s free of the growing pains and uncomfortable memories of your origins.

But to others, it sounds like a betrayal. Or at least, it’s incomprehensible.

Last week, I discussed my contempt for Newfoundland’s cultural lack of an environmental or ecological consciousness. Today, I want to talk about a vile aspect of Newfoundland’s culture that hits me more viscerally: its political small-mindedness and insularity.

Newfoundland politics has historically been dominated by Little Big Men, charismatic leaders who inspire public support verging on worship. They ride through political office on promises that their leadership alone will bring salvation. 

The legacy of Joey Smallwood dominated my childhood education about the Canadian period of Newfoundland history. In my elementary school classes, he was treated almost as a hero, usually for having begun the Canadian period of Newfoundland history in the first place. 

Smallwood began as a socialist and social democratic political organizer in rural Newfoundland during the island’s years as an independent country, and then its submission to the British crown as a returned colony during the Great Depression. His campaign to join the Canadian confederation was marred by allegations of vote rigging and ballot destruction that persist to this day. 

Joey Smallwood was Newfoundland's most
successful dictator.
He ruled as an autocratic premier for 23 years after confederation in 1949, attempting a variety of state-centric schemes to subsidize the population of Newfoundland into prosperity. There was concrete material progress after confederation, as basic health care services were brought to much of the rural population for the first time. 

However, this required the controversial forced and incentivized resettlement of many of the smallest, most geographically isolated communities. It forced thousands of people out of their careers in the cod fishery because they no longer had access to their generational fishing grounds. Resentment lingers over what was literally the government’s destruction of hundreds of small towns.

After two decades of autocratic one-man government in an ostensible democracy, Smallwood was forced out of power in the 1972 election. Newfoundland politics in the 1980s was dominated by another charismatic figure, Brian Peckford. Peckford was a Tory, which in provincial Newfoundland politics is associated with independence and anti-federalism, in contrast with the historically conciliatory Liberals of Smallwood.

Peckford’s biggest achievement was negotiating the Atlantic Accord, Newfoundland and Labrador’s inter-provincial treaty with the federal government exempting it from the National Energy Program’s mandate of federal control over offshore oil. 

Despite his self-adopted handle as the “Great Negotiator,” Peckford was also responsible for a series of failures in trying to wrest provincial control of other resources and build a self-sufficient economy for Newfoundland and Labrador. 

He tried unsuccessfully to re-negotiate the Churchill Falls hydroelectric development, because Smallwood initially locked the province for nearly a century into terms that would essentially pay the Quebec government to sell hydroelectric power generated in Labrador. The Quebec government wouldn’t give up such a wonderful deal for them, and the courts upheld the original agreement.

Peckford also tried to gain provincial control over the cod fishery and the power to grant fishing licences from the Canadian government, which was selling licences to destructive freezer trawler companies in an era of dwindling cod stocks. He also, along with the rest of Newfoundland, ignored any ecological damage from the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil platform, which only exacerbated the destruction of the cod stocks to the point of extinction.

A reasonable graphic representation of Philip Sprung.
Peckford’s attempts to diversify Newfoundland’s economy beyond fish and oil were laughable. His major project was a heavily subsidized greenhouse agriculture project, whose development partner in the private sector was little more credible than Lyle Lanley. The Sprung Greenhouses went the way of the Springfield Monorail.

Brian Peckford is most fondly remembered for a single poetic phrase that embodies the empty dreaming of a magic bullet cure for all of Newfoundland’s problems, the one mad scheme that would save everyone. “Someday the sun will shine and have-not will be no more.”

His major material legacy was as the first draft of the Danny Williams premiership, the period whose height disgusted me so much that I couldn’t bear to live in Newfoundland anymore. To be continued . . .

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