It’s Only Newfoundland II: You’ll Always Be a Come-From-Away! A History Boy, 10/08/2015

Continued from last post . . . And the one before it, though I never really numbered them that way. From the start, I always found Danny Williams’ style of politics distasteful. He effortlessly enacted the tough populism that has always gone over just a little too well in Newfoundland. He was the biggest of the province’s Little Big Men, and an embodiment of why the island could no longer stand such people. Even though few realize it yet.

Newfoundlanders loved to watch Danny Williams' defy
the over-sensitive norms of mainland Canada with his
seal-fur coats. But his gestures weren't about ecological
politics or indigenous rights. They were about energizing
the population to follow him and him alone.
Williams became leader of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Tory party when they were in opposition to a flailing Liberal regime that had dominated the province’s politics for ten years. The Liberals had their own charismatic rabble-rouser in Brian Tobin, a man who personally boarded a Coast Guard ship and chased down a Spanish turbot trawler to prove that he was tough on illegal foreign fishing in protected regions. 

But by the time Williams became premier in 2003, the Liberals had been in power for over a decade and were well out of steam, energy, or ideas. It was reasonable enough that someone with a different approach to the political would take over the premiership, and although my politics had always leaned left, it’s not as though there was much difference between Liberals and Tories on economic details.

Then Williams achieved his greatest success as premier in 2005. I mentioned in the last post that Brian Peckford’s greatest success was negotiating the Atlantic Accord, the exemption from Canada’s National Energy Program that gave Newfoundland control over the pace and nature of development in offshore oil. Williams negotiated a new version of the Accord that let Newfoundland keep the lion’s share of oil revenue as well.

He did it by playing such a hardball negotiating tactic that I really admired it in itself. But its social effects made me feel deeply unwelcome in the province where I grew up and had lived my entire life until then. Williams ordered every Canadian flag removed from all government buildings throughout the province. 

The Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin was humiliated, and couldn’t do anything from his own office that would achieve a comparable insult to Newfoundland as Williams had just delivered to the federal government. He similarly bolstered his patriotic credibility by humiliating a deservedly under-informed Paul McCartney and his then-wife Heather Mills, exposing their ignorance about the ecology of Newfoundland and Labrador’s seal populations on Larry King Live

The symbol of Newfoundland nationalism, the pink-white-
and-green flag, was everywhere during the Williams era,
and it echoes still today.
Later conflicts with Stephen Harper’s government over oil revenue sharing resulted in Williams leading the Anyone But Conservative movement in the 2008 federal election. Newfoundland’s national patriotism trumped Tory solidarity and sent an NL caucus to Ottawa that was entirely Liberal and New Democrat.

Newfoundland nationalist tricolour flags were flying everywhere in the province, and especially around St. John’s. One of my friends even hiked up a hill overlooking the harbour and downtown to run up a massive nationalist flag on an abandoned flagpole. 

The province’s culture and society was intensely focussed on national pride, and its expression was a boastful sense of superiority over mainland Canada, and particularly Ontario. In 2007, offshore oil revenue made Newfoundland and Labrador a contributor to inter-provincial equalization payments for the first time. As the collapse of Ontario’s manufacturing sector led it to accept equalization payments for the first time, the Newfoundlanders’ reaction was to laugh in Ontario’s face.

“See how it feels to be the poor ones now, fucking mainlanders! Take our money and lick our boots clean while yer at it!”

The politics of national pride had easily spilled into the politics of resentment. It was crass, rude, condescending, and spiteful. It surrounded me in the media, in conversations, and in the unquestioning love of Danny Williams and everything he did. Williams left office in 2010 with approval ratings higher than some totalitarian dictators feel comfortable falsifying. But they were genuine.

Williams had seemingly fulfilled Peckford’s promise that “have-not will be no more.” He was the single great deliverer of Newfoundland to prosperity. The result was that sketchy projects for which Williams laid the groundwork were embraced wholeheartedly by a public that should have been skeptical.

The Muskrat Falls hydroelectricity development will sell power from a new dam in Labrador directly through the Maritimes, thanks to a series of physical links from Labrador to Newfoundland to Nova Scotia. But there’s no transparency from the government on its cost overruns. 

Looking west at my hometown, St. John's, from Cape
Spear last week. Newfoundland is a culture that still
needs to learn that democracy isn't about picking a
leader to follow, but about keeping your leader on a
tight leash, preferably with a yoke around his neck.
Enormous breakdowns at existing power facilities throughout Newfoundland demonstrated that Muskrat Falls construction is diverting money from necessary maintenance. Public outrage over a series of catastrophic power outages in Winter 2014 forced Williams’ successor Kathy Dunderdale from office. But Williams remains untouchable.

The collapse of global oil prices hit Newfoundland’s workers hard, with slowdowns in the offshore industry and huge numbers of layoffs from sites at the Alberta Tar Sands. Despite the popular faith in offshore oil, Alberta remains a major source of income for Newfoundlanders. Or at least it was. 

Still, Williams remains untouchable, and his massive Galway real estate development on St. John’s west end looks to compound his multi-billion-dollar wealth. 

Williams is a hero to Newfoundlanders, the most dangerous kind of person in a democratic country. My cousin Grizzly Man told me when I visited last week, that Newfoundlanders as a culture have yet to get a firm grasp on precisely what democracy is. And this is because they still have heroes. 

There are still heroes in Newfoundland. Men (and they are always men) who will deliver the population from injustice. Visionaries who shine upon the people like a sun and lift us up with their aspirations and schemes. Follow them and they’ll free you from domination by those mainlanders who’d grind you under their boots, and then you can grind some mainlanders under your own. Or a deluded pop star who made a bad second marriage; you can grind him too.

After living 25 years in a culture where people’s politics are driven by resentment and the worship of charismatic prophet-premiers, I was fucking sick of it. I still am.

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