One course worth dropping

Peter Jackson pjackson@thetelegram.com
Published on February 22, 2011

I love myth-busting. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with clearing up long-standing misconceptions, and bursting a few bubbles in the process.

But there’s a cabal of myth-busters who inevitably get under my skin. I’m referring to those armchair illuminati whose sole purpose appears to be telling Newfoundland­ers how stunned they are. If not stunned, then hopelessly gullible enough to repeatedly elect nationalist despots who feed them tall tales about bad resource deals and federal trickery. They feed us this stuff, we’re told, purely for the purpose of propping up their sagging popularity. Nothing more.

Who are these myths-busters?

Well, you couldn’t get a finer sampling than political science professors Matthew Kerby and Alex Marland, who were featured in a Telegram series last week.

While somewhat new on the scene, these two gentlemen proudly proclaimed that MUN’s political science department has gone through an exciting renaissance in recent years (one that mysteriously coincides with a greater influx of mainland born and/or trained faculty such as themselves).

One of the primary sources of Newfoundlanders’ mass ignorance, say our learned friends, is nationalism.

(Nationalism is a bad thing, of course — unless it’s Canadian nationalism, in which case it’s the stuff of heroes. The term is never parsed into its diverse manifestations. No distinction is made between those who merely feel the province deserves more, say, in fisheries management and those who say American frogmen are electrocuting our cod stocks.)

“Nationalists will keep saying things that advocate their points of view and they will conveniently ignore things that don’t,” warns Marland. “And so what happens is you start hearing it enough times and then people start believing it.”

One such myth is the belief that Ottawa blithely bartered away fish quotas in unrelated trade deals.

No one has produced a shred of evidence for this. Specific deals have been cited for years without a scrap of documentation to prove they ever happened.

But the myths emerged out of a more fundamental truth — that fish quotas are allocated at the pleasure of the federal government and, when it came to foreign interests, Canadian quotas were often served up with little or no consultation with the province.

Offshore resources — the lifeblood of Newfoundland's past and present — fall under federal jurisdiction. That makes Newfoundland an anomaly of Confederation. In 1985, one federal government agreed to share management of offshore oil through the Atlantic Accord. No such compromise has ever been reached with regard to fish.

Anecdotal fabrications aside, this has been the central issue, and it still is.

Uninformed speculation

Other myths?

There’s the “myth” that Newfoundland would have been better off without Confederation.

First of all, this isn’t a myth. It’s poorly informed speculation — wishful thinking, if you will. There are a few old-timers who still resent joining Canada. And there are a handful of younger folk who like to carry that torch, tinkering with historical numbers until they get the result they want.

But few Newfoundlanders take such a notion seriously. Separatism is a fringe movement.

Newfoundland has no monopoly on myths. Neither does it have a monopoly on electing charismatic leaders, or blaming its woes on the powers that be.

But our poli sci friends go even further.

Voter complacency, they say, is a huge problem here. As proof, they cite the recent constituency spending scandal.

Here’s a news flash: Newfoundland was actually ahead of the ball. Federal MPs still enjoy undisclosed parliamentary spending, and similar controversies surfaced in other jurisdictions after the Newfoundland case — notably Nova Scotia.

But our friends persist in their scolding ways.

“Newfoundland politicians … haven’t shown that they’re able to do a good enough job to be able to manage things when they’re part of something else,” said Marland. “Why should we think that they’ll be able to do things exceptionally well when all of a sudden there’s a level of independence?”

Now, if I didn’t know better, I’d be inclined to call that patronizing, colonialist tripe.

At best, it’s a brazen suggestion that outside forces are necessary to tell Newfoundlanders what they’re really all about. At worst, it suggests the population here is still too backward and insular to properly look after itself.

Here’s Kerby’s response to a question about local hires in the poli sci department.

“If you’re local, you probably carry more imaginary legitimacy than somebody who’s (not from here).”

Ouch. Watch your back in there, Matt.

Yes, there is a strong resentment here about come-from-aways insert­ing their two cents’ worth into the local dialogue. But it’s a common paranoia, no more unique to this province than it is to any other small, entrenched population.

One thing I do know. People from all over God’s acre have willingly visited or settled here and rarely felt the urge to insult the local populace en masse.

Professors Marland and Kerby are not among them.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be contacted by email at pjackson@thetelegram.com.