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Opinion Small province, big heart: Why I stay in Newfoundland and Labrador

Mark Critch is a writer, comedian and actor. His book, Son of a Critch: A Childish Newfoundland Memoir, was published this week.

Susan Dykstra/Alamy

In Newfoundland and Labrador, we have a saying: “The arse is out of her.” That means that things have gone so wrong that it would be almost impossible to undo the damage. That’s why people say, “You should hire that carpenter. He could put the arse back in a cat.” Arse repair is a delicate matter.

Early in September, a 4.2-magnitude earthquake was recorded off the coast of Newfoundland. Scientists were puzzled by the cause – it was the first quake of that size in almost 30 years – but I knew what it was right away. That was no earthquake. That was the arse falling out of her.

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This was an aftershock from the great oil boom. Back then, government budgeted on oil (crude oil, because in Newfoundland even our oil is folksy) staying at US$105 a barrel. The price fell like a George Street reveller on a patch of black ice and our economy went from booming to a fizzle. It now sits there like an unexploded firework that everybody is too afraid to go near.

The Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project was originally approved at a price of $6.2-billion; the estimated cost of the project has ballooned to $12.7-billion. I mean “ballooned” in the “stop blowing air into that balloon or it’s going to pop” sense.

Our province was settled for the fishery and, because of that, our outport communities were designed to be accessible by boat, not roads. And so, we spend more per capita on government programs and services than any other jurisdiction. Which would be fine if 27 per cent of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians didn’t pay almost 80 per cent of the taxes. Our debt is almost $15-billion and that is split between five different credit cards. (Our Premier, Dwight Ball, won’t dare answer the phone if it’s a blocked number – it might be Mastercard calling.) The second biggest expenditure in our budget next to health care is the debt-servicing charge, an estimated $1.4-billion in 2018-19. Even our debt is on life support. We have the highest unemployment rate in Canada and our children (all seven of them) are the most obese in the country.

The arse is indeed out of her and was last seen floating somewhere near Greenland. But this is not the first time that Newfoundlanders have found themselves adrift at sea. The cod moratorium of the 1990s sent us packing off to Alberta for work. But now, the financial troubles in that province have sent us back home again. There is talk these days of Alberta separation. Perhaps the unemployed Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in Alberta can join forces with the unemployed Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in Newfoundland and Labrador and form our own nation of Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta? Why not? Sometimes it seems as if there are almost more Newfoundlanders in Alberta than there are in Newfoundland – and, quite possibly, more Newfoundlanders than Albertans. They want an ocean-connecting pipeline and we have an ocean. All we would need to do is convince Quebec to let us have the pipeline on their – oh, right. So much for that idea.

So, you may wonder, if things are so bad, what’s the point of staying? On dark days, even I have been known to sit in a pub and wonder why. But, sometimes you just can’t see the value of something until you see the glint of its worth in someone else’s eye. I have friend who is about to get her Canadian citizenship. Mimi is Ethiopian. She was raised in Zimbabwe and moved to St. John’s when she was 25 years old. She came to our province for school and stayed to work in the growing tech-sector. She is a typical Ethiopian-Zimbabwean-Newfoundland and Labradorean. She sings in a choir, sells Ethiopian food at the farmers market in her spare time and loves a good jig. She could have settled anywhere in the world but she chose to stay here. And she’s not the only one.

Recently, I was in a small rural community for their summer festival. I started chatting with a couple that looked they had just been cast in one of our famous tourism ads. You know the ones – beautiful, sunny coastline, red-headed children and laundry, flapping in the breeze for miles. Don’t believe them. If you try to hang a pair of underwear on a clothesline on Cape Spear, they would end up wrapped around the face of an Irishman in County Cork.

This couple lived and breathed Newfoundland and Labrador. They had Newfoundland hats and shirts. They walked with a Newfoundland dog the size of our debt. He had a Newfoundland tartan handkerchief tied around his neck. I asked them what part of the province they were from. They answered, “Ontario.”

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“We came here three years ago and fell in love with the people,” they told me. They had been here a week when they decided to buy a house and move. They described themselves as “wannabe Newfoundlanders.” Our greatest resource has never been the collapsed cod fishery or the once-lucrative oil; it has always been the people. It is with music, food, humour and culture that we cast the widest net. I can think of no other place that had a hit Broadway musical written about it simply because the people who lived there were kind.

Later that day, roaming the town, I hit my head on the door frame as I entered a traditional saltbox house. The ceilings are low because the people who built them in the 1860s were short. It’s a good thing they were short, too. Any taller and they might have been blown back to Ireland like the laundry. As I walked through the house, I marvelled at the wood used to make it. Where did it come from?

There isn’t much in the way of trees on the coast of Newfoundland. Evergreen trees called tuckamores bend low and cling to the cliffs to escape the wind. They twist and turn until they grow sideways from the rock. The tuckamore is not a tall tree, but it is stubborn. Newfoundlanders have a lot in common with the tuckamore. For generations, we have survived the hardships that come with clinging to a rock in the Atlantic and in doing so, we have come to realize that the things that make living here so very special are worth fighting for.

My great-grandfather was a fisherman. He drowned and his body was never recovered. His son, fearing a similar fate on the sea, went off to build skyscrapers in New York. He returned to St. John’s, where he died from tuberculosis when my father was 5. My father supported his mother through a depression and a world war, eventually landing a job as a reporter. His son is very grateful for the hardships suffered by all those who came before him.

I ducked as I left the house, bowing to its maker, and stared at the tuckamores bending in the wind. Of course, not all will make it. Many of the younger trees with weaker roots will be blown away in the winter gales that rip across our shoreline. Those with the deepest roots are unmovable. They’ll survive the gale and their branches will protect the ground around them, providing ample soil for new seeds to take root. Not all of them will make it, either. But enough will, twisting and turning until they, too, learn to stand their ground. They will carve out their own spot, changing the landscape ever slightly, too damn crooked and stubborn to know better, until the good weather comes again.

I’ll be here, too.

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