Xenophobia (n): an intense or irrational fear of or contempt for that which is foreign, especially of strangers or foreign peoples.
That is my own cobbling together of a couple of online definitions. I think it pretty well captures the term.
But I’ve always struggled with the term, because “fear” or “contempt” is not always an irrational thing when it comes to strangers. Ancient tribes had good reason to fear foreigners, since many of them had a reputation for killing, raping and pillaging. North American tribes had good reason to fear Europeans.
Even in modern times, there’s always that suspicion that strangers may be up to no good — that they may disrupt or diminish your cherished lifestyle, or build a big, smelly factory in the pristine countryside.
Most of us have conquered the primitive paranoia. In Canada, we strive to welcome people of other countries. We accept people of differing race, creed or colour without prejudice. In our minds, we make an effort to reconcile the concepts of national identity and national diversity, even though they connote divergent notions of singularity and plurality.
I am white, anglophone and Canadian-born. That is my “tribal” identity, but I have no more claim to the Canadian identity than a Haitian-born immigrant.
And that is why comments like those made by Lake Melville Progressive Conservative MHA Keith Russell on VOCM’s “Open Line” last week make me cringe. Because his comments reflect the darker side of Newfoundland and Labrador nationalism.
“Open Line” host Randy Simms was challenging Russell over the government’s restrictive new access-to-information bill, which became law late last week.
One of the flashpoints during debate of the bill was a media report quoting an international expert who ranked the bill behind similar laws in countries such as Moldova, Uganda, Ethiopia, Bulgaria and Mexico.
Justice Minister Felix Collins gruffly dismissed the comparison, and made blanket comments about human rights abuses in those countries. In response, NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said Collins’ contemptuous tone smacked of racism, and reminded the minister that people from those countries live right here in this province.
Now, Collins’ rant in the House may have been a bit crude and un-ministerial, but racist may be too harsh a term. Russell’s remarks are another matter. Here’s what he said on “Open Line”:
“The people from those countries do have residents here in Newfoundland and Labrador, certainly we do, and they are most welcome, but the bottom line is this: the fire in your heart should be for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. It should certainly be foremost for the people who are from here.”
The “fire in your heart,” one can only presume, is that primal instinct to stick with the tribe. And this is definitely not how our democracy is supposed to work.
In Newfoundland, as in Quebec, politicians like to stir up nationalist fervour. There’s nothing wrong with a good dose of provincial pride — or with standing up for the province in the national arena — but ranking citizenry according to ancestry has no place in it.
In Quebec, the preferred citizenship concept is captured in the term “pure laine” (pure wool). The equivalent here is the incessant adoration of the “true Newfoundlander.” Many of us use this term quite innocently, in a benign context. But it implies more than just cultural and historic pride. There is an inherent belligerent tribalism. Taken in the wrong context, it can — in Lorraine Michael’s words — lead to overtones of racism.
This unfortunate sidebar had nothing to do with the egregious information-blocking law that was passed last week. But it’s important to address this troubling undercurrent from time to time, and to strive to distinguish what is meant by such comments.
In this case, I don’t think Russell’s meaning was particularly charitable.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email email@example.com. Twitter: pjackson_NL