Newfoundlanders first - and that's not a bad thing

Bob
Bob Wakeham
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Shortly after launching this columnist gig, I related a story that - given next week's 60th anniversary of the contentious, provocative and evocative marriage of Newfoundland and Canada - bears repeating (I agree I am devoid of objectivity in deciding the yarn is worthy of another read).

So here's my couple of lines of redundancy.

When my mother finally found the nerve in the spring of 1949 to tell her father Joe Judge - Beaumont Hamel survivor, grinder room foreman in the Grand Falls mill, son of a Point Verde fisherman - that she had voted for Confederation, my sometimes volcanic grandfather reacted in an uncharacteristically subdued, but nevertheless poignant, fashion: "Ah, Eileen," he told his daughter, "you gave her away."

Shortly after launching this columnist gig, I related a story that - given next week's 60th anniversary of the contentious, provocative and evocative marriage of Newfoundland and Canada - bears repeating (I agree I am devoid of objectivity in deciding the yarn is worthy of another read).

So here's my couple of lines of redundancy.

When my mother finally found the nerve in the spring of 1949 to tell her father Joe Judge - Beaumont Hamel survivor, grinder room foreman in the Grand Falls mill, son of a Point Verde fisherman - that she had voted for Confederation, my sometimes volcanic grandfather reacted in an uncharacteristically subdued, but nevertheless poignant, fashion: "Ah, Eileen," he told his daughter, "you gave her away."

"Her," of course, was Newfoundland.

An update: just this past week, I was talking once again with my mother about that memorable conversation she had had with her father, and she remarked that, as tough as he was (a man of immeasurable integrity, as well), Pop, like nearly half of the voting population of Newfoundland, was on the verge of tears as he realized his home, his native land, had turned its back on self-rule.

And one of his sons, one of my mother's brothers, Bill Judge, who died just this past fall, told me many times that he had voted in every election for any party other than the Liberals, just his way of protesting, as did his father, the decision to become a province of Canada.

Although my Uncle Bill made, by any standards, a good living in the Canadian province of Newfoundland, and served proudly with Canadian troops in the Korean War, he believed to his last days on Earth that this place should have never, ever rejected independence.

People of many age groups, therefore, do not ponder that choice 60 years ago as academics, or researchers or thesis writers; it was our parents, our grandparents, our uncles and aunts, who made that decision, the most significant in the history of Newfoundland.

My mother and father, still very much alive, can talk with emotional explicitness, as can thousands of others, about declaring themselves for or against independence, and have transferred to their offspring - people like me - a visceral proximity to an event that altered our history forever.

I believe many Canadians, although acknowledging the uniqueness and independent spirit of Newfoundlanders, seem to forget that it was just yesterday, not centuries ago, that the battle took place over joining Canada or reverting to Responsible Government (which the colony had carelessly and thoughtlessly relinquished, temporarily, in 1934). That March 31, 1949, when the two countries exchanged vows through the terms of union, is, in historical terms, a very recent date, and it still resonates with many in a raw fashion.

That's a reason why every legitimate poll I've ever seen (including one I had conducted as a CBC executive producer 10 years ago) reflects the fact that upwards of 75 per cent of people here consider themselves Newfoundlanders first and Canadians second.

It doesn't mean Newfoundlanders are prepared to separate from Canada (the vast majority seem to believe that Canada, of all the countries in the world, is a fine place of which to be a part).

But the fact remains that Newfoundlanders are still "new Canadians," and can't adjudicate the actions of a Canadian government - not just this Canadian government, but past administrations, as well - as if we had been around the constitutional table forever and a day.

We came within a hair, a mere 60 years ago, of being a country once again (and there's still the conjecture that Britain and Canada conspired to make Confederation happen, that there was something fundamentally unfair, perhaps immoral, even unlawful, about the process).

In any case, it's there, barely below the surface - that feeling of detachment.

I happen to think it's healthy.

And there's nothing wrong - and everything right, in fact - about reminding Canadians of that fact, especially when we're ridiculed or mocked or treated with paternalism and condescension.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by e-mail at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: CBC

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, Grand Falls Britain

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