Published The Independent, St. John’s, Newfoundland
Friday, 16 December 2006
The three-piece band was outfitted with an accordion, a fiddle and a guitar. The beer was flowing under banners of the provincial flag. The people were loud and boisterous. Somewhere at the end of the bar a couple of people were staring unblinkingly at whirling slot machines and chatting about what Danny was up to. Just as the band struck up the refrain from “The Black Velvet Band”, my fellow Newfoundlander Ted leaned over to me and asked:
“How can you listen to that and live here? Can’t you feel it? Don’t you want to be home?”
Outside the temperature had fallen below -30 Celsius and was threatening to plummet well below anything resembling habitable. We weren’t anywhere close to Newfoundland. We were far from the sea, far from the fog horns and far from both Gulf Stream and Labrador Current. We were in Edmonton, Alberta, the new Mecca for Newfoundlanders and Maritimers in general. The house that Ralph built is bulging at the seams with jobs and job seekers. But this story isn’t about yet another migration of Newfoundlanders. It’s about the reverse migration of Canadiana into the heart of Newfoundland.
On the outskirts of every major city in Canada now stand enclaves of big box stores and warehouse retail outlets. You cannot ever get lost in these complexes as they are pretty much the same no matter where you go. A home renovation store gives way to a big electronics outlet ending at a huge supermarket of food. Along with these box-store nations we have a growing common suburbia with houses that could be plucked from Edmonton into St. John’s and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. You begin to wonder if all the architects in Canada go to the same school.
How different St. John’s is from fifteen years ago when I first came. With each passing year as I visit from Oiltown I notice the homogenization of North America’s oldest city. There’s already little separating Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon and a host of other cities in mid-west English-speaking North America both in culture and in how we live. Watch out this movement is spreading fast and engulfing everything in its path.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the box stores or the houses. They are popular because it’s obviously what consumers want. My worry is that hidden in this influx of box-store, suburbian culture will be the dilution of the Newfoundland culture which made me adopt the island as home. Will what I remember of Newfoundland become what I find in this Edmonton-Newfoundland pub? No more than a host of songs, tacky fishing tackle on the walls, a few flags to remind us of our independent past? Will the accent be all that is left identifying Newfoundlanders from the rest of the mainland once we have all embraced this all-encompassing culture in a few more decades?
It’s not the songs I seek to protect but the feelings and memories they wake inside. For me Newfoundland isn’t about accents or songs. It’s about friendliness and collective caring for their fellows; practicing inclusion and avoiding exclusion, no matter how brain dead the new comer is. It’s about trying new things to make the existence on a bare rock more colourful and exciting. It’s about understanding the forces of the sea and wind as they shape the lives of both islanders and island. It’s about fighting overwhelming odds and succeeding where others expect you to fail.
At the same time no culture should stagnate into a common derivative of its constituent memories. Yet I worry that the very things that make me yearn for Newfoundland no matter how far I travel will soon become a thing of the past and that I will notice little difference between the people of Edmonton or St. John’s, and not for the better. There are few people in the world who are as friendly as Newfoundlanders and I miss that here every day.
Instead, perhaps it’s time that we turned the tables. As much as box-store culture spreads its tendrils into Newfoundland, we Newfoundlanders should make a concentrated effort to influence Canada into partaking in our culture. We already have a huge population of Newfoundlanders abroad and they are ideal ambassadors to shape the future of our country. What a difference the big cities would be if they would share the community aspects of outport Newfoundland. How would the major centres be if people said “Hi” and “What are ya at?” to random strangers and were more inclusive? How about going to any pub in downtown Toronto and being greeted as if you were home by any number of strangers? Our greatest export isn’t an accent or a song, it’s who we are.
Yes, Ted, when I listened to that band, I wanted to be home, but maybe this pub in Edmonton isn’t a bad place to start changing where we live.