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OPINION

Please forgive me, Newfoundland, and slap me with a cod

Margaret Wente at the lighthouse at Cape Spear, Canada’s easternmost point.

Margaret Wente at the lighthouse at Cape Spear, Canada’s easternmost point.

COURTESY OF IAN McLEOD

In a 2005 column, Margaret Wente called the province a ‘vast and scenic welfare ghetto.’ Now, she says she couldn’t have been more wrong – and last month, she saw it for herself


Aubrey Payne is a stumpy guy with a weather-beaten face and hands like horn. He has a thousand stories. Once he was out fishing with his wife, Marie, and fell into the frigid North Atlantic. “I thought I was a goner,” he says. She fashioned two lassos with rope and hauled him into the boat, saving his life.

Aubrey, one of 14 kids, grew up on Fogo Island. The whole economy relied on fish. Then the longliners and factory trawlers came along and scooped up all the cod, and the fishery shut down. Fogo went on welfare. The kids left.

Today, Aubrey and Marie are back fishing. They take rich tourists out to catch cod the old-fashioned way, one at a time. Their customers come from the Fogo Island Inn, where rooms go for $1,700 a night and up. Ever since Gwyneth Paltrow stayed there and gushed about it on Instagram, the inn has been sold out.

Suddenly Newfoundland is hot. It has been discovered by the jaded global cognoscenti who’ve seen everything and been everywhere. It offers exactly what they want: novelty, rugged beauty, authenticity and bragging rights. Even the food is pretty good. You can still get fried baloney pretty much anywhere. But you can also get personally foraged sea-urchin roe, collected on the spot and served on a rock by the ocean. “North America’s most unlikely culinary capital” blared The Telegraph of London, which raved about the sustainability of it all.

Last month, we went to Newfoundland with some friends. I was a little worried about my welcome. Back in the Danny Williams days, when the province went to war with Ottawa over oil royalties, I’d written a snarky column that described the province as a “vast and scenic welfare ghetto” populated by ingrates on pogey. Newfoundlanders took offence. I was deluged with thousands of e-mails from folks who wanted to boil me in seal oil. “You’re as ignorant as my grandmother’s arse,” went one of the milder ones.

Newfoundlanders, I have learned, never forget. They still remember the forced resettlement of the outports as if it happened yesterday. So I decided to travel under my married name, Peggy McLeod. Secretly, my friends called our trip the Margaret Wente Truth and Reconciliation Tour.

On a tour of the Fogo Island Inn.

On a tour of the Fogo Island Inn.

COURTESY OF IAN McLEOD

We wanted to visit Fogo, but the Fogo Island Inn was a bit above our price point, and also full. So was every other place. We finally found a house called Nan’s, in the town of Little Seldom, on a street called Penney Lane. Our landlady was Joan Penney, who is Marie’s sister, and that’s how we wound up having dinner with Aubrey, Marie, Joan and her husband Max. “Aren’t you some kind of celebrity?” Aubrey asked suspiciously when we met. It turned out he was referring to my husband, who sounds like someone on Stuart McLean’s radio show.

Over scallops and beer, they treated us to tales of their early life: five kids to a bedroom, hauling water from the well, eating seal to get them through the winter. Their conversation was salty and wonderfully accented. They dropped and added “h”s and didn’t bother with “th” at all. Aubrey told us about the job he had as a kid, lighting the fires in the morning at the merchant’s house on the hill. “I remember dem all in deir beds, all huddled up in deir noightcaps,” he recalled. I felt like I was in a Dickens novel.

Aubrey can do anything: build a boat or house, fix a motor, dodge a whale or iceberg. So can Marie. She has a fishing licence too. Someone once told her at a meeting that women don’t belong in the fishery. “How do you know I’m a woman?” she shot back. “Have we ever been in bed together?”

Today, Aubrey is on the planning committee for Fogo, where he works with the inn’s owners to figure out a sustainable future for the island. (The inn was built by Zita Cobb, the daughter of an illiterate Fogo fisherman, who went away to study business, joined a fledgling high-tech company, became CFO and cashed in for $69-million, a good chunk of which she has plowed back into Fogo.) They are building a business selling artisanal hand-caught cod to fussy upscale Toronto chefs. Last fall, Aubrey went to Shanghai to close a deal to sell sea cucumber to the Chinese. (It’s supposed to be an aphrodisiac.)

“Those Baymen,” someone said to me one day. “They can build a tin arse into a cat.” That certainly applies to Aubrey. Next to resourceful Newfoundlanders like him and Marie, effete big-city types like me are useless. I got them wrong, and I’m sorry. I’ve even bought a sealskin hat, which I intend to wear on Bloor Street when the winter comes. I don’t care what people say. It’s a sign of solidarity. Besides, it’s warm.

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At the Broom Point Fisherman’s Museum in Gros Morne National Park.

At the Broom Point Fisherman’s Museum in Gros Morne National Park.

COURTESY OF IAN McLEOD

On a stroll in Crow’s Head, a suburb of Twilingate.

On a stroll in Crow Head, a suburb of Twilingate.

COURTESY OF IAN McLEOD


From the archives

Oh Danny boy, pipe down

by Margaret Wente

Originally published Jan. 6, 2005


In Newfoundland and Labrador, Danny Williams can do no wrong. These days, he’s more popular than God. Following his lead, the people of the Rock have banished the Maple Leaf from their dominion. Angry citizens are flooding open-line shows and threatening that, unless they get what’s owed to them by Canada, Newfoundland should go it alone.

My grandpa had a saying for moments like this. He would have said, “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?”

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams gestures at a news conference on Dec. 23, 2004. JOE GIBBONS/ST. JOHN'S TELEGRAM/THE CANADIAN PRESS

I like Newfoundlanders. I really do. But their sense of victimhood is unmatched. And their flag protest isn’t winning them much sympathy on this side of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In fact, the sensation on this side is of a deep and painful bite to the hand that feeds. Mr. Williams reminds me of a deadbeat brother-in-law who’s hit you up for money a few times too often. He’s been sleeping on your couch for years, and now he’s got the nerve to complain that it’s too lumpy.

The ins and outs of the current squabble between Newfoundland and Ottawa would baffle any normal human being. Technically, the fight is over the esoteric details of equalization payments and offshore revenues. But according to Mr. Williams, it’s really about treachery, deceit and betrayal.

Peter Fenwick has a different view. Mr. Fenwick, a long-time Newfoundland political commentator, says it’s about having your cake and eating it, too. “He’s going to end up with a cake and a half,” he says. “And he’s got 95 per cent of the province behind him.”

Over the years, those of us not blessed to be born on the Rock have sent countless cakes its way in the form of equalization payments, pogey, and various hare-brained make-work schemes. (Who can ever forget the hydroponic cucumber farm?) In return, the surly islanders have blamed us for everything from the disappearance of the cod stocks to the destruction of the family unit, because if people had to work more than 10 weeks before they could collect EI, they might have to move away.

This hallowed policy of siphoning money from the haves to the have-nots, so that everyone can be equal, has turned Canada into a permanently aggrieved nation, in which every region of the country is convinced that it’s being brutally ripped off by every other region. No one is better at this blame game than the Newfs, egged on by generations of politicians. The only way to get elected there is to pledge to stop the terrible atrocities of Ottawa (i.e., not sending enough money). If you should make the error of suggesting that people might have to become more self-sufficient, your political career is dead. Politicians like to get elected, which is why things never change.

A provincial employee unties the Canadian flag from in front of the Confederation Building in St. John’s on Dec. 23, 2004. After the premier said Ottawa wasn’t offering enough of its offshore revenues, he ordered the Canadian flag pulled off all provincial buildings. JOE GIBBONS/ST. JOHN'S TELEGRAM/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Newfoundland’s population has dwindled to something less than that of Scarborough, Ont. Because of stupendous political malfeasance, it is at least $11-billion in debt. But it still has seven federal seats. And so we send more money so that people can stay in the scenic villages where they were born, even though the fish are gone and there’s no more work and never will be, unless they can steal some telemarketing from Bangalore. Rural Newfoundland (along with our great land north of 60) is probably the most vast and scenic welfare ghetto in the world.

But who can blame people for wanting to stay put? Not me. No one will ever gobble down a plate of cod tongues and pen an ode to Scarborough. Scarborough is not romantic. It is filled with ugly high-rise towers of immigrants scrambling to gain a foothold in a new land far from home. The difference is that, when they do it, we congratulate them and call it enterprise. No one will ever buy a scenic picture postcard of a strip mall. But Scarborough supports itself, and Newfoundland does not, and I wish Danny Williams would explain why it’s a good idea to keep picking the pockets of Chinese dry cleaners and Korean variety-store owners who work 90 hours a week in order to keep subsidizing the people who live in Carbonear, no matter how quaint and picturesque they are.

I like Newfoundlanders, I really do. Where would we be without Rex Murphy and Mary Walsh and Rick Mercer? On the other hand, they left.

As for you other people of the Rock, maybe we can strike a deal. You can keep all the oil and gas revenues. And you can pay us back all the money we’ve sent you since you joined Confederation. Fair enough?

I thought not.

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A man looks out at St. John’s from The Rooms, a public cultural space.

A man looks out at St. John’s from The Rooms, a public cultural space.

PAUL DALY/THE CANADIAN PRESS


THE BACKLASH

Newfoundland’s reply: ‘We are a proud people’


Ms. Wente’s 2005 column elicited a passionate response in the next day’s Globe from then-premier Danny Williams:

As Premier of the great and proud province of Newfoundland and Labrador, I found Ms. Wente’s column to be more than insulting. I found it very, very sad. If people around the country wonder why we removed the Canadian flag to protest against the treatment of our province by the federal government, I suggest they look no further than Ms. Wente’s column. Her comments perfectly demonstrate why Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have to take such firm action to get the attention of the people of this country. Her paternalistic and condescending attitude serves only to further ignite the passion of our people at home and abroad.


PATTI GOWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

CBC commentator Rex Murphy, a native Newfoundlander, also weighed in against Ms. Wente:

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.

On The Globe’s letters page, others supported Mr. Williams’s position. Here’s an excerpt from one by Shannon Reardon:

The crux of the issue, if Margaret Wente (Oh Danny Boy, Pipe Down – Jan. 6) had bothered to pay attention, was that in June of last year, Prime Minister Paul Martin made a campaign promise to our Premier and to our province. He publicly accepted the proposal of the government of Newfoundland and Labrador to remove the effect of the equalization clawback on offshore revenues so that the province would receive 100 per cent of the value from these revenues. Mr. Martin has reneged on this promise, and Premier Danny Williams is doing what is right and what Newfoundlanders and Labradorians would expect of their leader: He is fighting for what we were promised and what we are rightly owed, and he is doing all he can, even if it means temporarily taking down the Canadian flag, to ensure that the Prime Minister and the government of Canada honour their promise.

Others sided with Ms. Wente, like Kevyn Nightingale:

Rural Newfoundland is not economically viable as it now stands. It depends, and will depend, on handouts from central Canada in perpetuity. Despite the bluster about ‘vast natural resources,’ Mr. Williams doesn’t even dispute this, Ms. Wente’s main contention. All he does is whine about the past injustices of Churchill Falls and the fisheries. I guess that Newfoundlanders had nothing to do with the depletion of the cod stocks – it was all those perfidious foreigners.

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