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Bob Wakeham: Pearson kitchen party was a proud moment

Pearson Airport kitchen party, Toronto. — Screenshot
Pearson Airport kitchen party, Toronto. — Screenshot

Throughout much of my adult life, both professionally and privately, I have rallied against so much as even a hint of mockery of Newfoundlanders, the type of classless and tasteless views so disgustingly evident in much of Canadian society for way too long.

 

Bob Wakeham
Bob Wakeham

 

And my protests were hardly subtle; after all, when dealing with shockingly bigoted myths, it was only a sledgehammer approach that seemed capable of penetrating the dense skulls of those who perpetuated what was, at best, a monumental misunderstanding, at worse, a deliberate distortion, of a lovely place and an amazing culture a half million of us continue to embrace.   

I recall telling a roomful of CBC producers on the mainland many years ago in an angry tirade that I was not about to tolerate even a single hint of “Newfie” jokes during our time together, the obscenity-laden warning provoked by the suggestion from one of my colleagues, in a warped attempt at humour, that I would have difficulty producing a television item about a newspaper in Toronto catering to Newfoundlanders “because you’ll have a hard time finding a Newfoundlander who can read or write.”

In a documentary I produced for airing across Canada on the CBC to mark the 50th anniversary of Confederation, I included a section that dealt with the denigration of this place and its residents, a chapter that allowed me to elicit tremendously strong and articulate opinions on the subject from an array of prominent and successful Newfoundlanders, including Mary Walsh and Ray Guy, Christopher Pratt and Wayne Johnston, Des Walsh and Donna Butt, and many others; their reflections on the subject were immersed in emotion, the anger and resentment palpable.    

I recall the late great Guy noting, though, that occasionally we were/are our own worse enemies, acting out in ways that reinforced the stereotypical image so many Canadians have had of Newfoundlanders, the lovable and sort of dense “Newfie,” the “Newfie” exemplifying the “hey diddle, diddle, cat and the fiddle” persona, as Guy put it.

“Newfie Joke” books were even being published locally, and there were those obnoxious Screech-ins, encouraging anybody wanting to become a professional Newfoundlander to kiss a cod, munch on a piece of bologna and utter an insulting, over-the-top version of a Newfoundland accent.

I’m not sure what was worse, the Canadian bullshit about Newfoundland, or the complicity of way too many Newfoundlanders in its perpetuation.

Either way, the result was hard to take.

Which brings me around to that column written Nov. 22 by Robin Short, The Telegram’s sports editor, a piece that has elicited a fair amount of vitriol — near hate mail, from what I’ve been able to gather, reaction to his conclusion that that impromptu kitchen party at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Nov. 20 had “stoked the stereotype of the goofy Newfie — you know, the sou’wester wearing, life of the party Newfoundlander who yearns for a good time, but is virtually incompetent at everything else.”

Now I certainly don’t “hate” Robin Short; in fact, I’ve been a fan of his work over the years, and have respected the fact that his reporting has had regular flashes of bluntness in a community where sports writers are deemed to be either cheerleaders or traitors, and nothing in between.

But, Robin, my son, you are totally out to lunch on this one.

There are still occasions (fewer and fewer, thankfully) when Newfoundland is subjected to shocking displays of ignorance or caricaturing.

A group of passengers are entertained by a fella on an accordion, another on a guitar, and a boy with a gorgeous singing voice, and Short inexplicitly decides such an event was accentuating some sort of stereotype.

I can only assume that if the entertainers had pulled out guitars and played a few Beatles songs or a Simon and Garfunkel tune or two, or a Blue Rodeo collection, Short would not have gotten his back up.  

But, by daring to play Newfoundland songs, the musical genre the two men are involved in back home, the genre they are most comfortable with, they somehow delivered another message of stereotyping to Canadians and the world (the spontaneous gig was all over the internet).

Short’s reaction is reminiscent of so much of what went on after Confederation, when Newfoundlanders seemed embarrassed to openly reflect their culture, when they felt they had to do everything possible to assimilate into the Canadian way of life.

The so-called renaissance of the ’70s helped change all of that in dramatic fashion, when Figgy Duff, Codco, Gerry Squires, the Mummers Troupe, endless writers (the list goes on and on), made Newfoundlanders aware, once again, that this was an amazingly unique province in which to live, and that we shouldn’t take a backseat to anyone, anywhere, on any level.

Including music.

There are still occasions (fewer and fewer, thankfully) when Newfoundland is subjected to shocking displays of ignorance or caricaturing.

But what happened at Pearson Airport was simply another reflection of the extraordinary sense of place that exists here. 

My reaction was one of pride, not disgust.

 

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

 

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