Survival as a Lively Art: The Newfoundland and Labrador Experience in Anniversary Retrospective

Article excerpt

In 1997 the people of Newfoundland and Labrador officially commemorated the 500th anniversary of their discovery by European explorers. In 1999 the people of the tenth province will reflect upon their 50-year experience within the Canadian confederation. These two marker events provide a convenient paradigm in which to place the profound ironies that have characterized the Newfoundland and Labrador experience. Prominent home-grown scholars and writers such as David Pitt and Patrick O'Flaherty have commented upon this continuity in the Terra Nova record. This article contends that the counterpoint between the images of Jovial Outport and Gothic Tragedy may offer a clue to recapturing the narrative thread of the Newfoundland and Labrador story, an inportant theme as Canadian social and narrative history seeks new bearings in the aftermath of extreme deconstructionism and cultural relativism. As Canadians who still possess living memories of a pre-Confederation political existence the basic story-flow of the tenth province is significant for all who are interested in the larger story of Canada.

En 1997, le peuple de Terre-Neuve et du Labrador commemora officiellement le 500eme anniversaire de leur decouverte par les explorateurs europeens. En 1999, les habitant/es de la dixigme province vont refldchir a leur experience depuis 50 ans au sein de la confgdlration canadienne. Ces deux dates butoires offrent un paradigme bien adapte au traitement des profondes ironies qui ont caractdrisd l'histoire de Terre-Neuve et du Labrador. Des erudit/es et des ecrivain/es de la region bien connu/es tels David Pitt et Patrick O'Flaherty ont commente sur cette continuite dans les annales de la Terra Nova. Cette etude aff rme que le contrepoint entre les images du petit Port jovial et de la Tragedie gothique peut offrir une maniere de retrouver le fil conducteur de l'histoire de Terre Neuve et du Labrardor, un theme important au moment oi l'histoire sociale et narrative canadienne cherche A retrouver ses assises suites A la periode du deconstructionisme A extreme et du relativisme culturel. En tant que Canadien/nes possedant encore en memoire une existence politique datant de la periode pre-confederation, le recit de base de la dixieme province importe a celles et ceux qui s'interessent a l'histoire du Canada dans son ensemble.

As old as it is new, as new as old,

Enduring as a cape, as fresh as dulse,

This is the Terra Nova record told ...1

While the world waits for the dawn of a new millennium, the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador - not untypically - has been looking elsewhere: to its roots. The 31 March 1999 will commemorate that night the moment before midnight in 1949 when the people east of Cape Breton became officially part of the Canadian Confederation. On 24 June 1997, the tenth province paused to celebrate the alleged first sighting of the island by John Cabot, mariner of Venice sailing under the auspices of Henry VII of England. Cabot's career has been summarized thus: "We may discern that John Cabot was a veritable leader of men, deprived of rounded historical greatness by premature death and lack of record."2 James Williamson's ironic comment on Cabot's fortunes seems to this writer to describe a double-edged trajectory for any coherent narrative of the Newfoundland and Labrador experience. Culturally and intellectually, Canadian impressions of the society east of Cabot Strait often seem wrapped in a fog of obscurity and stereotyping made more dense by the unevenness of the tenth province's history.

This article attempts a generalized sketch of selected aspects of Newfoundland and Labrador experience with an eye to its significance for Canada itself.3 Five hundred years offers a broad tapestry. The very richness of the materials presents an analytical quandary: where to begin? Shall we pay attention to the prime-time antics of Codco and This Hour Has Twenty-Two Minutes or should we draw attention to the extermination of the Beothuk First Nations? …