Muskrat theatre came close to mocking Newfoundland pride

Bob Wakeham
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If you didn’t know differently Monday evening, you’d have sworn CBC reporter Lee Pitts must have had an inkling that the announcement of the Muskrat Falls sanction he was introducing live was going to be wrapped in the Newfoundland flag, exploited with a nationalistic fervour that would make an elite propagandist proud.

Pitts told us — his television audience — that we were listening to the “Ode to Newfoundland” being sung by a choir in the background just as the curtain was being raised on the Muskrat Falls show in the lobby of Confederation Building.

As most of us were aware, it wasn’t the “Ode,” but “O Canada” we were hearing at the time (I gather from a piece in The Telegram that the “Ode” did make its way into the program, along with some Christmas ditties; perhaps there was even a version of “Good King Wenceslas,” as in Good Queen Kathy Wenceslas struggling through a mid-December cold snap to deliver an $8-billion present to the peasants: dirt cheap electricity rates for eternity).

We should cut Pitts some slack for the minor miscue, though, because Newfoundland patriotism was heavy in the air as he started his “hit” after “Here and Now” (and, I would presume, “The NTV Evening News”) were hijacked by the government, having scheduled its extravaganza for exactly 6 p.m., just in time to give the two television broadcasters little choice but to relinquish valuable news slots to an unedited Premier Done-Deal and company.

Joey Smallwood once said Confederation was the best thing to ever happen to Newfoundlanders, “other than life itself,” and Kathy Dunderdale was trying to convince the province Monday night that Muskrat Falls was in the same existential orbit, God’s latest gift to poor Newfs everywhere.

And her government pulled out all the stops, putting on a Tory dinner theatre show: music and political thespians, a menu of fried muskrat, smothered in nationalistic gravy and stirred up by rantin’ and roarin’, true Newfoundlanders.

An appearance by Gordon Pinsent, the “codfather,” as he was once so colourfully dubbed by the crowd at “This Hour Has 22 Minutes,” would have fit right in.

The performers were introduced as some sort of Newfoundland all-star team, each basking in his or her own glory. I was waiting for a Newfoundland mascot — Sammy the Seal or Mike the Moose or Clar the Caribou — to trot across the lobby.

And you’d have to give an “A” to the script writers who fashioned Dunderdale’s speech. This was a hymn for the flag-wavers. Most people probably ate it up. But it left me in need of an Alka-Seltzer.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m as die-hard a Newfoundlander as anybody else: I’ve had the pink, white and green flag hanging outside the house (until the Flatrock winds ripped it to shreds); we have a bookcase blocked with Newfoundland publications; and, yes, I still get goosebumps whenever I hear “The Ode,” no matter what the occasion.

But this piece of Muskrat theatre Monday came awfully close to making a mockery of Newfoundland pride and the unique Newfoundland identify, of utilizing that strong sense of place we all embrace, as a political tool.

Danny Williams was in the audience, and it was appropriate that he was front and centre, not so much because he was the one who dumped Muskrat Falls in our laps just before saying bye-bye to the political wars, his legacy in place (at least from his perspective), but because the tenor of Monday night’s announcement fit him to a tee.

Williams, for all his accomplishments (and they weren’t few in number), frequently had this discomforting habit of implying that if you didn’t applaud his each and every move, if you didn’t accept unconditionally what the government was doing, you were somehow a traitor to the Newfoundland cause. You were either with us or against us. There was no in-between. Question what we do and you’re to be stripped of your Newfoundland badge of pride. Branded and scorned.

And that was the less-than- subtle message Monday night. It was all about being a Newfoundland patriot. Continue to wonder publicly about the viability of Muskrat Falls and you’re not a true, blue bonafide Newfoundlander.

Do you hear that Cabot Martin, Ron Penney and others? A real Newfoundlander would keep his or her trap shut.

Well, Dunderdale and her caucus choir can sing the Muskrat melody all they want. This is still a controversial business deal, period. It has nothing to do with being a proud Newfoundlander.

It might turn out to be a financial bonanza for Newfoundland and it could be the answer to electrical needs for this place forever and a day. Or it could be a financial disaster. We still don’t know.

And it hasn’t helped that the project has been cloaked in ambiguous, fuzzy terms and a resulting public uneasiness right from the get-go. To say nothing of the inept process used by the government to peddle the project to taxpayers and to debate its merits, a process that would have brought tears to a competent public relations professional.

What shocks me is a recent poll indicating that Newfoundlanders feel they don’t have enough information about Muskrat Falls, but are still inclined to give it their support. You’d think we’d have learned a lesson or two about accepting whatever we’re told by those in authority, to trust them all, the political and religious leaders, the upper crust, and the like. But I guess not.

For the gullible, there was another vat of Kool-Aid served up Monday evening.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Muskrat theatre, CBC, NTV Evening News Flatrock

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Muskrat Falls

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Recent comments

  • EDfromRED
    December 22, 2012 - 11:23

    I think the local media here needs a new player who's not afraid to step on toes to get stories. Why have we not seen one report on who all this Muskrat $ will make rich? ...and the expense of most of us! Flicking through the channels you see in depth, undercover, money trail following,scam exposing, news reports from other provinces on a daily basis. Here friday on CBC, it seemed 25% of the news was spent on self-congratulatory turkey drive coverage. It seems kid gloves are used too often when it comes too local news. Maybe the solution is bringing in news people/producers from out of province with no local ties.Maybe then we'll get news instead of snooze.

  • david
    December 22, 2012 - 10:09

    What goes unspoken in all this is the roots in the now-common "lottery mentality" of Newfoundlanders. What supporters and the government are actually expecting...not hoping ---- expecting! that the great escalation of electricity prices that occurred under Joey's watch, a once-ever-in-history combination of sharp inflation and energy valuations, is going to happen, this time for Newfoundland's benefit. This "thinking", for lack of a better word, is pure fantasy, It has no foundation in facts, or statisitcal trends. or predictable reality. It is the latest, biggest manifestation of political childishness, egotism, arrogance and a genetic predispostion to financial failure. It is who we are. Let the flag waving begin in earnest.

  • david
    December 22, 2012 - 10:00

    ...."It might turn out to be a financial bonanza for Newfoundland and it could be the answer to electrical needs for this place forever and It might turn out to be a financial bonanza for Newfoundland and it could be the answer to electrical needs for this place forever and a day. Or it could be a financial disaster. We still don’t know.".... Newfoundland governments have a long, unbroken history of arrogance-based failures ,and Hibernia oil money has super-charged that trait. This government has shown it's track record for complete incompetence in much less complex things, in fact everything it has ever touched. It cuts its teeth on arrogance, deception, self-interest and more arrogance. Theatrics and bluster before competence and effort, faux nationalism instead of analysis. If you can be duped into thinking of this multi-billion folly as being a sort of "random" exercise, and therefore simply praying for a 'head' instead of a 'tail', then you really do deserve this government, in all it's glorious, ruinous idiocy.

  • Graham
    December 22, 2012 - 09:48

    Excellent article Bob. I think that slowly but surely more and more people are starting to see this government for the absolute farce it really is.

  • saelcove
    December 22, 2012 - 09:41

    How proud will we be when the cost increases another 3 to 5 billion nalcor is laughing

    • John Smith
      December 22, 2012 - 10:51

      ...but why would Nalcor be laughing....Nalcor employees have nothing to gain, or lose from this project...they are just civil servants...who go to work under PC governments, Liberla governments, and (god forbid), even NDP governments. They will earn the same pay, do the same jobs as they have for the past 5-10-20 years. Nalcor is owned 100% by the people of NL, and it is us who will decide it's fate. They are not laughing at us...they are us...

  • Cyril Rogers
    December 22, 2012 - 09:24

    Mr. Wakeham, thanks for giving that scam the dignity it deserves. It is more to our shame that we have to witness such extravagance just to continue to reassure the PC government that they are doing the right thing. They are not and they know it so my question will continue to be...why? What drives them to complete this lunacy, given the compelling evidence to the contrary. The insane cost of the project, the lack of markets, the hostage-like negotiating stance imposed by the federal government, the province's being totally responsible for cost overruns, and so forth. It all flies in the face of rational what is driving it? It will cost us ten billion upfront and more than double that amount by the time it is paid off.....50 years down the road....all for a measly 500-600 MW of power.

  • John Smith
    December 22, 2012 - 08:26

    The people of NL elected the PCs by a landslide victory...they elected the PCs who were led by Ms. Dunderdale, and ran on a platform with muskrat falls as the centerpiece. The people of NL did not elect the NDP, or the Liberals by a huge margin...they elected the PCs by a huge margin. There have now been four polls in a row that show the majority support the project, and there has been no alternative put forward, by anyone, that makes sense, economicly, or otherwise. The celebration at the confederation Bldg, was for those of us who support the project, who support the governemnt, and understand that the biggest project ever undertaken by the province deserves a little pomp. It was not for Cabot Martin, or Jim Morgan, or Bern was for the people of NL...who voted in the PCs by a huge magin, and gave them a mandate to carry on with the vision they have for this province.

  • A proud Newfoundlander
    December 22, 2012 - 07:21

    From watching the Premiers speech on Muskrat Falls, I did get the feeling that you would be a traitor if you were not on board. For myself too much secrecy as well as little detail and a project the taxpayers will surely be on the hook for. This well may be the most expensive project that will burden our children until they are in their senior years. A Merry Christmas to all