By Keith Hannaford
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are emphatically proud of their province and its people. And for good reason: we have a personality, history, culture and linguistic heritage that is unique in the world. We are shaped by the land we live on, both as an extremity of an entire continent and as a rugged, volatile and yet nakedly beautiful terrain that thus reflects the attitude of its people.
These days, however, there is something else of which I am most proud. It is much more fleeting and impermanent, but it is meaningful when we think about our home vis-à-vis current Canadian federal politics: we are the only province in which Stephen Harper’s Conservatives hold no seats.
You might expect me to launch into some shallow Harper-bashing, but the point I want to make is greater than that. I maintain that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians’ rejection of Harper is as much a part of our collective personality as of our politics, and in three distinct ways.
We are famously friendly. It has been commented upon time and again that we are the nicest people travellers encounter. We will gladly offer directions, suggestions for trips and warm wishes for a pleasant visit.
Such friendliness is not characteristic of the Harper government, however. Notoriously, Harper’s style of governance is overly tactical and strategic. There are no well-wishes offered to anyone except those who declare absolute loyalty — and, as the case of abandoned Senate appointee Mike Duffy illustrates, sometimes not even then. What could Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, always ready with a smile and an ear to lend, possibly value in a party that’s run that way?
And Harper is as much a lone wolf as he is a strategist. Harper’s circle gets smaller and smaller as he trusts fewer and fewer. Hardly even a cabinet minister can speak without his approval. And time and again Harper has pounced on weakness (such as through his shameless attack ads) and threatened to starve his fellow parliamentarians to death (such as by cutting the per-vote subsidy, upon which other parties relied for funding).
We abhor this kind of senseless grudge-holding. Indeed, how can one sustain such a grudge when we live in a land that has, historically, compelled us to face a choice: co-operate or perish? We think nothing of pushing someone’s stuck car through a snowdrift, moving a heavy piece of furniture, helping someone who has slipped and fallen on ice, or inviting a knocking stranger to come in out of the rain and wind. We could not thrive here if we tried to go it alone.
Finally, we largely exhibit a small-town sensibility and frequently engage in enthusiastic conversations with neighbours and townspeople. A Newfoundlander or Labradorian will tell you a story with little prompting, and likely will invite you in for a cup of tea or a bite to eat while he tells it. Perhaps this makes us “rubes” — or un-urbane, at the very least — but it is part of our social fabric to be straightforward and not shy. It is, without question, a charm.
Against that, no greater contrast could be made than the closed paranoia of the Harper government. Media have terrible trouble gaining access; Harper only occasionally appears in Parliament and officials are rarely available for comment, let alone an interview. Indeed, last year’s Conservative Party of Canada convention in Calgary rudely shunned any kind of public access. Such conventions are often employed to show off a party’s enthusiasm and momentum; this was more like the meeting of a secret society. Conversely, a Newfoundlander or Labradorian could hardly enjoy life (especially nightlife) without the company and conversation of his fellows, or anyone else for that matter.
Harper is often lauded for his economic piloting, his calm and reserved demeanour and his unsensational priorities. Most of Canada has been distracted by these traits because they have failed to notice the others, which belie contempt for co-operation, openness and multi-partisan governance. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can therefore swell with pride about our ability, ingrained in us socially and geographically, to see through the veneer. When Canadians look around in the near future and see their Parliament weakened, their political parties divisive, their citizens excluded, may they say of us, “they knew better.”
Keith Hannaford writes from St. John’s.