It is ironic that most of the early media tributes Wednesday to Farley Mowat either ignored or glossed over his time in Newfoundland.
Ironic, because he is credited by many for helping stir Newfoundland’s cultural revolution in the 1960s, and for putting this place on the map.
His battle to stop the killing of a trapped whale near Burgeo in 1967 — later to become a novel and film — sullied his reputation for many in this province. Despite his growing environmental militancy, however, he always maintained a deep affection for “This Rock Within the Sea,” as the title of his 1968 tribute describes Newfoundland.
Mowat, who died this week at 92, was a brilliant
storyteller. He was also a political activist and incurable romantic. His idealism often interfered with the facts, but Mowat felt it was more important to take a stand than to stay true to detail. He was led by his heart, which is not always the best pilot.
Nonetheless, books such as “People of the Deer” and “Never Cry Wolf” shone a necessary light on the isolated lives of Canada’s northern inhabitants. His writings about Newfoundland echoed some of the same sentiments.
“The qualities that Newfoundlanders share with the Eskimos (sic) are rare attributes that should be treasured,” he told The Evening Telegram in 1958, a few years before he took up residence near Burgeo. “Kindness, understanding, sympathy that is never pity, a dual vigour of mind and body, the strength and endurance that comes from a hard and productive life.”
The quote is contained in a 2000 paper by James Overton entitled “Sparking a Cultural Revolution: Joey Smallwood, Farley Mowat, Harold Horwood and Newfoundland’s Cultural Renaissance.”
Overton describes how Mowat took a very active interest in local politics during his time here, and how he and Smallwood exchanged sachharine expressions of mutual admiration.
Mowat saw a need to revitalize Newfoundland’s cultural identity in the wake of Confederation.
A “manifesto” he wrote to the premier may seem a little patronizing in the way it puts locals under the microscope, but in the end, his ideas helped form the way many Newfoundlanders came to see themselves. It was a goal he shared with his friend and writer Harold Horwood.
Here’s an excerpt:
“During the past 17 years, Newfoundland has made a galvanic leap out of the morass of a feudal-primitive society into the gleaming material society of 20th century North America. More than a century has been spanned in less than two decades. … The New Newfoundlander has now emerged; well-fed, secure in his possessions, guaranteed against oppression, healthy and hopeful. He is also, and this is very sad, rather naked, increasingly uncertain of himself, and in a condition where he is rapidly being bereft of those tenuous, but vital, links which give every man a place in the continuity of human history. The metamorphosis which stripped him of the rags of poverty, cleansed him of the scabs of disease, and freed him from the brand of servitude — has also stripped him of his history, his story; without which he can have no culture of his own and no firm grip on certainty.”