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Letter: The malevolent history of the world ‘Newfie’

Letter to the Editor
Letter to the Editor

Victor Pittman in his cogent July 14 letter to The Telegram (Newfie — insulting then, insulting now) makes a keen and pertinent observation. He said the word Newfie “was an insult when it was first coined and is an insult now.”

He states that when he first heard it after joining the RCAF in 1949 it wasn’t a compliment. Twenty years later in 1969 I first went to Toronto to find work after completing my first year at MUN and was shocked at finding myself the object of derision due to where I was from as readily identified by my dialect.

I felt the brunt of it daily in lunch rooms and other locales. It was impressed upon me that we were migrant interlopers. Not even our reputation for a strong work ethic could stave off the poor cousin innuendo. We were “Newfies” plain and simple.

I recall feeling that I had gained some success in my desperate attempts to assimilate when one day outed by my diction the questioner asked “are you a Maritimer?” Nodding in the affirmative and pleased that the dreaded N word wasn’t mentioned I felt that progress had been made as my brogue was now being identified as 1,000 km closer to the promised land.

Later that year I had occasion to visit California and was quite surprised to find no such prejudice there to my patter and that it actually provided enhanced social cachet due to being perceived as European in origin.

Still yet a teenager I returned to Newfoundland and university where I changed my major from commerce to the arts in an attempt to figure all this out. A smattering of sociology, anthropology, psychology, Newfoundland history, literature and folklore, among other academic courses did the trick. I now knew not only who I was but why. The resulting pride was both uplifting and motivational.

Around this time (circa 1973) CBC issued a local call for interviews for potential radio announcers. Right up my alley I thought and encouraged by others went to do the voice test. A short time later I was informed that I had not made the cut. On further inquiry as to why I was told “you sound too much like a Newfoundlander.” But at least they didn’t use the “Newfie” sobriquet. Slight progress.

That door closed I pursued a further smattering of business related courses at the undergraduate and graduate level. This prepared me eventually for senior roles within the federal bureaucracy and my passage back to Ontario and Quebec and other provinces on numerous occasions over several decades.

There, dealing with other Canadian colleagues, I found the Newfie stereotype well ensconced. Once at a large nationwide conference I heard a belittling Newfie joke told by the key speaker of a national organization as part of his warm up. On another occasion, while on the way to lunch with symposium colleagues including some from Newfoundland, one mainlander jokingly says as he blocked a liquor store entrance “let’s keep the Newfies away from the liquor!”

Another time in Niagara Falls when a colleague from Newfoundland and I were introduced to one of the organizers of a national forum she couldn’t contain her surprise and stated “you mean to tell me that the two best dressed attendees here are from the Rock!?” I bit my tongue so as not to say “yes, and no need to feed us as we brought our own squid sandwiches”!

Another time during the cod moratorium, while co-ordinating one of the response programs, I was talking to a Quebec colleague who was the Ottawa lead on the program. During lunch he asked me about my family situation and I told him I had three teenage boys. I was shocked to hear him say “too bad all they have to look forward to is some form of welfare.”

I am very well aware that there are many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in mainland Canada who are quite successful and treated with respect. I am also aware of entrenched negative stereotypes which remain as a hangover from the dire social and economic circumstances that brought us into Confederation.

It certainly didn’t help when Ralph Klein, then premier of Alberta, channeling the protectionist zeitgeist lumped us in with his rant against “eastern bums and creeps.” Or when Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail thought she spoke for many when describing the province as a “vast and scenic welfare ghetto.” Or when Stephen Harper once referred to all of Atlantic Canada as having a “defeatist culture.”

Mr. Pittman’s got it exactly right.

The term “Newfie” was an insult then and for many it is an insult now. In too many quarters it’s malevolent history far outweighs any cute or benign usage.

It is naive to think otherwise.

Tom Hawco

St. John’s

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