Skip to main content

'I like Newfoundlanders. I really do."

My esteemed colleague Margaret Wente wrote that in a recent column on Newfoundland. Twice. Well, let me say at the top of this one: "I like Margaret Wente. I really do." But I fear her repeated assurance -- and I wish I wasn't writing this -- leaves me unconvinced.

After all, if you write a column describing Newfoundlanders as "picking the pockets of Chinese dry cleaners and Korean variety-store owners who work 90 hours a week," describe them as "surly" ingrates, "gobbling" cod tongues while they luxuriate in a great "scenic welfare ghetto," and, in general, put down everyone in Newfoundland as part of a set of lazy, self-indulging, whining spongers -- rote-chanting "I like Newfoundlanders" doesn't salvage the piece from being one sour, willful, collective putdown.

It's a nasty cast of mind that traffics so generously in stereotypes. The Chinese are drycleaners; Koreans know only convenience stores; Newfoundlanders are shiftless pickpockets. It's a spurious contrast she sets up and she knows it.

If the point Margaret was hoping to insinuate -- that it is only "hard-working" new immigrants who actually "pay" into the revenues that provide equalization; that it is only the most industrious being extorted to pay for the least industrious -- then she has so bizarre a conception of the Canadian tax system, and the principle of equalization, that it is beyond my ability and, more to the present point, my desire, to rescue her from it.

She makes other scattershot observations that are insult trying to dress as candour. Newfoundlanders have a "sense of victimhood that is unmatched." Dear Lord, the global industry of professional victimhood has landed on many shores, and infested whole multitudes of causes and groups like a plague, but if one were seriously to look for a few places where the posture and cant of "the victim" is considered unseemly and unworthy, Newfoundland would be one such place.

For all the social clichés and easy characterizations of "pogey" and "handouts" that seem to teem in Margaret's "I like Newfoundlanders" brain, any real acquaintance with Newfoundland would have introduced her to a strain in my province's character that is the radical opposite of her wildly gratuitous calumny.

I've known people so hostile to every notion of something for nothing, they wouldn't trouble a neighbour to borrow a cup of milk. I've known legions of men and women who put in a lifetime's work of a kind that those of us who spray words for a living should be embarrassed to stand next to.

Try going to Long Harbour, or Burgeo, or Lamaline, or St. Anthony, or Port de Grave and meet with some of the men and women who have worked, really worked, for a living, Margaret -- and try telling them to their faces they're the spoiled delinquents of your furious imagination. Try telling the same to those who, after a life of work, have nothing, and have abandoned their homes and history to find work elsewhere.

We have our louts and layabouts. Point me to any region of any country that doesn't. But where you come up with the notion that Newfoundlanders -- of all people -- are the artists of victimhood is a trawl too confused for me to fathom.

Then there's this business where Margaret writes of Newfoundlanders blaming "us" for the collapse of the fishery. Who's this "us"? The citizens of Canada didn't collapse the fishery, and no one in Newfoundland even dreams they did.

The only point on which any blame is being assigned is over the stewardship of the resource since Confederation. That was federal. No one argues otherwise. And it is surely fair, and not victimhood, that if the government that had control failed in its stewardship, then it should bear some responsibility for so failing.

As for the money being poured into Newfoundland while we guzzle cod tongues and stare out the scenic bay, keep in mind the billion dollars a year going "outward" from Churchill Falls. Churchill Falls alone nullifies the equalization "debt."

Her last shot was as carelessly aimed as all the rest. You can keep all the gas and oil revenue, she says, but pay us (there's that enigmatic "us" again) back what we've sent down. Well, say I, not so fast.

Restock (and return) the Continental Shelf, turn back Churchill Falls and, one last thing, rescind the contemptible practice -- that obviously has appeal to very limited natures -- of dealing in caricature and stereotype, and maligning an entire province on the basis of little more than ill-acquaintance and condescension.

Shut down the Newfie joke industry, of which, it mildly saddens me to say, Margaret Wente's column is an extended and singularly hostile example.

That said, I like Margaret Wente. I really do.

Rex Murphy is a commentator with CBC-TV's The National and host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup.

Interact with The Globe