Everywhere you go these days, people are talking about Danny Williams’ abrupt departure from the office of premier and what it means for the province. A certain kind of economic growth has followed the thriving oil industry, and the signing of an agreement for hydroelectric development of the Lower Churchill River, a drawn-out negotiation that ended with a profitable arrangement for Newfoundland, unlike with the much-lamented Upper Churchill, given away for a song by Joey Smallwood in the late 1960s.
The oil boom has changed circumstances dramatically, bringing an unprecedented spike in property values. Expats in places like Fort McMurray, who found themselves priced out of the Alberta housing market five to ten years ago, are now buying retirement homes back in Newfoundland. Meanwhile, rent in downtown St. John’s has soared, making it difficult for single parents, students, and other low-income tenants to find adequate housing. Kathy Dunderdale, the interim premier, is determined to thaw Newfoundland’s notoriously icy relations with Ottawa, a conflict that came to a head during a battle over transfer payments in 2004 that culminated in Williams removing the Canadian flag from all public buildings. The dispute was settled and, for the first time since Confederation, Newfoundland became a have province. But it’s a fickle status that seems to be a matter of interpretation rather than a summation of the facts. Months later, we were demoted back to a have-not. One of the most witty and succinct statements on our economic positioning was a neon sign created by visual artist and CBC Radio broadcaster Angela Antle, which read “Have Not,” with the “Not” blinking on and off.
My husband, Steve Crocker, a sociology professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, says this economic growth is deceptive: “Rural Newfoundland is still in decline. Schools are amalgamating, services are deteriorating, and the population has been forced to suspend their way of life to go west, as part of a new kind of global shift work.” Indeed, Newfoundlanders are still commuting cross-country to find employment. Many of the Super Elite passengers on Air Canada flights out of Newfoundland are oil workers on their way to Alberta, wearing baseball caps and lumber jackets, with thousands of air miles under their belts. But the Newfoundland of migrant labour and abandoned rural communities is not the Newfoundland that introduces the entertainment programs on the movie screens of these same flights.
The new tourism ads created while Williams was premier offer an “official” version of the place. They rely on two kinds of shots: One is the omniscient aerial views that speed over churning seas and time-lapsed clouds fluttering shadows over the water, then zoom vertiginously toward austere cliff faces, untouched mountains, and fjords. The other is more human in scale: children running in meadows and through clotheslines of brightly coloured laundry, aged fiddlers leaning against freshly painted clapboard. The effect suggests a tourist hurtling from a hectic, harried existence to a slower, more authentic way of being, toward a past that has been perfectly preserved. It’s a gussied-up, coy St. John’s, and a rural Newfoundland that’s self-aware, saturated with unnatural colour. It’s a branded Newfoundland and Labrador, quaint and pleasantly out of sync. There is a virginal innocence, full of grandeur, unsullied by modernity, a past devoid of the shame of poverty or peeling paint. The ads promise more than a beautiful landscape; they promise something felt, a way of life.
And by “way of life,” I mean turns of phrase — my darling, my love, my ducky — vegetable gardens and caved-in root cellars, the glass in the windows of abandoned houses around the bay that has rippled with age, so the world wavers when you glance through it. I mean the reverse bargaining while reaching an agreement over, say, the price of a cord of wood. (Would you give me that for $100? You can have it for nothing. Would you considering taking eighty for it? I wouldn’t consider a penny more than seventy-five.) By the time I was seventeen and graduating from high school, these gestures were already disappearing. The mummers’ parade represents an orchestrated effort to ensure that something of those gestures — particular, vital, and ephemeral — is preserved, even as they alter and morph with each iteration.
Waiting for the mummers to emerge from the fog, I recall an afternoon recently spent in an old converted swimming pool change room that still smelled of chlorine. I was there with my son and a crowd of children, parents, and folklorists who were creating hobby horses for this same parade.
Dale Jarvis, a folklorist and the province’s intangible cultural heritage development officer (a title that sounds straight out of an Italo Calvino novel), is one of the instigators behind this latest revival of mummering, and he helped organize the hobby horse workshop. I asked him what the position entails. “I’m an agent provocateur for traditional culture,” he replied. His office works to revitalize aspects of traditional Newfoundland culture that may be under threat.
Ryan Davis, the coordinator of the mummers’ parade, had examined a vintage hobby horse in the Memorial University Folklore and Language Archive, and used it as a model to create something easily producible for the workshop; the original was made of wood and quite heavy. He copied a template of the horse’s head onto sheets of packing cardboard. All over the room, children were bending and folding on the dotted line, slotting flaps, and aiming glue guns. There were bins of fabric and scraps of fur, buckets of wooden jaws, and galvanized nails for the horses’ teeth. The effort reminded me of how quickly the secrets of craftsmanship can disappear. I thought of the many arcane and exacting kinds of knowledge that had once been passed down, from generation to generation, so effortlessly. It seemed Newfoundlanders were born knowing how to build a boat, or fillet a fish with a few economical flicks of the wrist, dance the goat, play the fiddle, or produce a recitation. And I thought about how all of that can be lost within a generation — my parents’ or my own.
“Tradition is always in a state of evolution,” Jarvis said. “Intangible cultural heritage is constantly being reinvented in small communities, giving an old tradition like mummering new meaning and new life.”
My son, Theo Crocker, who is eleven, gave our hobby horse fur ears, a bright red tongue, and giant, startling eyes. He hid under an orange and white checked picnic cloth we had tacked to the horse’s head, so all that showed of him was his sneakers. The horse’s head turned slowly in one direction, then the other. It took in the room and snorted. It clumped forward, pawing the ground with its hoof/sneaker, head swinging menacingly. It nudged my shoulder. Then the jaw crashed shut a few centimetres from my nose. The proper response to such an attack is to thrust a glass of whisky or Purity Syrup under the folds of the picnic cloth and wait for a hand to reappear with an empty glass. All I had was a cup of Tim Hortons coffee.
If these customs and artifacts of the past are ever undergoing reinvention, where does one look, I wondered, when trying to pin down what a place means, or how to describe it at any given point in history? Perhaps the most defining characteristic of life in Newfoundland has been the need to leave coupled with the desire to stay. The habit of travelling to and from the island goes all the way back to the Vikings; settlement was discouraged in Newfoundland until the nineteenth century, and fishermen were expected to leave after the summer catch and return the following spring.
There’s something intrinsically at odds with the excitement and flux of a culture steeped in cosmopolitan travel, rich with the influences of people who come from away, that stands in direct contrast to the notion of the Newfoundland, frozen in time, depicted in the tourism ads. The downtown St. John’s of my youth was a port city full of fishing vessels from Portugal, Russia, Japan, and France, and there were always fishermen off the boats roaming the streets. I remember seeing a group of Russian sailors in the old Arcade store, looking for lingerie to purchase for girlfriends back home. It was an odd sight: groups of burly men digging into big bins, up to their armpits in feminine undergarments, examining the bras they pulled out with mild bafflement. My mother, Elizabeth Moore, says she remembers the Portuguese sailors putting their faces to the windows of downtown houses so they could see the televisions inside: “They were called the White Fleet, because they’d come through the Narrows with the white sails at full mast.” I can also recall the Portuguese sailors playing soccer on the harbourfront, how agile they were, the ball bouncing off their heads, hips, and knees.