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 firstname.lastname@example.org.