At the Crossroads: Newfoundland and Labrador Communities in a Changing International Context

By Kennedy, John C. | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, August 1997 | Go to article overview
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At the Crossroads: Newfoundland and Labrador Communities in a Changing International Context


Kennedy, John C., The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


The small communities (or outports) of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador have had a long relationship with the wider international context - a relationship that has changed throughout history. In this article, I use a rather broad brush to outline three periods of this changing relationship. The first of the three periods spans the interval from the time when the majority of the Anglo-Irish settlement occurred to World War II; the second period extends to the Cod Moratorium in 1992; the third brings the story to the present. I argue that during these three time periods, the pace and character of outport life can be summarized by the words persistence, change and uncertainty, respectively.

My focus is the Anglo-Irish peoples of outport Newfoundland and Labrador. I concentrate on the outport economy and society and on the similarities between outports. Examples are drawn from Anglo-Irish communities throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. Methodologically, my reconstruction of what Sutton (1988), writing about "traditional" Australian Aboriginal culture, would call the "classic" period of outport life is complicated by the fact that the "timeless before" preceded academic, popular or media accounts of outport life. A "timeless before" presents problems of historical reconstruction. As I explained in Peoples of the Bays and Headlands, an account of historic Settler life in the little-studied southeastern Labrador region:

What I present draws on the handful of extant sources, supplemented by my interviews with older Settlers. This is necessary because few early travellers say much about the early Settlers, especially about life during the long Labrador winters. Put differently, history (at least "academic" history, for "lay" history as it appears in the pages of Them Days magazine, is helpful) is silent about the Settlers. Once families left the outer coast each fall for their winter quarters, it is as if they became invisible, truly people without a history. No de Tocqueville wandered among the Settlers; they wintered beyond the fringes of literature or time. We have only glimpses of the Settler winter lifestyle, as sketched out on the coast by lettered summertime visitors, such as Walsh (1896) and Durgin (1908), who jotted a few lines about Labrador's permanent residents. After all, compared to the transient fishers who crowded the coast each summer, the Settlers were an insignificant minority, a few families whose pioneering lifestyle was an anachronism, even to nineteenth-century American fishers, who were themselves only a few generations removed from a frontier lifestyle (Kennedy, 1995: 90).

Fortunately, the historic reconstruction of Anglo-Irish communities of Newfoundland is aided by a number of community studies conducted by anthropologists in the 1960s. And because the "timeless before" was marked more by persistence than change, these studies, which describe old customs and beliefs such as patrilocality, the credit system and Christmas mummery, allow us to sketch aspects of historic outport life. The first academic community studies were sponsored primarily by Memorial University of Newfoundland's newly formed Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER). Most of these studies were conducted by American, British or Norwegian anthropology graduate students. The research was based on long-term, grounded, ethnographic field work as well as participant observation. The result was an impressive number of holistic, descriptive community studies that codified a corpus of local customs and beliefs and made Newfoundland and Labrador - specially its small communities - the best-documented Canadian province (Cohen, 1980; Whitaker, 1988: 78-79).

This "Golden Age" of the anthropology of outport Newfoundland was short-lived, for by the 1970s and early 1980s anthropology's importance in ISER waned, as did its involvement in outport studies (Matthews, 1993: 9-11). Sad as it is to this writer, this situation continues today, and the anthropology of Anglo-Irish Newfoundland communities, if measured by the numbers of long-term field research projects and publications, is dormant, except for the work of a few scholars not based in Newfoundland (e.

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