Thu, May 2, 2013
Budgets are a tough game. I mean, sure, when times are high and you’re rolling in petrodollars, it’s easy to slap together a real crowd-pleaser. You can just make it rain: everyone gets tax breaks and you can just invent a bunch of civil service jobs. But when the oil price party’s over and you’re stuck with cleaning things up, it’s a lot less less fun, and this is the lesson we’ve been learning this month after the Dunderdale government dropped a budget that just about everyone loves to hate.
Coming down off the Williams-era high, this one is a whopper. Jobs (and salaries) took a direct hit — there were 935 layoffs (485 from the core bureaucracy, 450 from non-core services like health and school boards, College of the North Atlantic, etc.), and 250 vacant positions were eliminated. To help in the cash grab, service fees are going up and smokes are getting more expensive (which is totally salt in the wounds of anyone who just lost their job). They’re also condensing Cabinet by merging Aboriginal Affairs into Labrador Affairs and giving the Premier extra duty as the Minister Responsible for Intergovernmental Affairs, which is a great idea because we definitely need to centralize more power in the Premier’s Office. Budget 2013 is also the opening salvo of a 10-year debt reduction plan. This year they came for civil servants; next year they’re coming for Memorial University, CNA (again), the regional Health Boards, and a financial nightmare known as Unfunded Pension Liabilities. Hold on to your butts b’ys, it’s gonna be a fun decade.
Out of everything impacted by the cutbacks, Justice and Education seem to have been the most contentious. The backlash to the proposed Justice cuts was so bad, in fact, that not only were union leaders ragging on the government about them but also the Canadian Bar Association and even the province’s own Crown attorneys were stressing that cutting a department already running a bare-bones operation would effectively cripple the entire criminal justice system. The proposed reduction of crown prosecutors, sheriff’s officers, probation officers and legal aid would lead to more wrongful convictions, more dropped cases, you name it — exactly the sort of things you don’t want happening in a province where drug and violent crime is surging. To Justice Minister Darin King’s credit, he took t he outcry seriously and is working to rescind some of the proposed cutbacks, although that then begs the question of how much thought, research, or consultation actually went into this budget in the first place.
The blowback against the Education cuts has been a little less successful (so far). In particular, the overhaul of CNA — privatizing Adult Basic Education, slashing 27 programs across the province, and other funding cuts and layoffs — have been especially unpopular with students and faculty, resulting in protests springing up across the province in the wake of the budget announcement. The upset isn’t especially surprising considering that in just over a year, the Premier went from telling the Canadian Federation of Students at their National Day of Action that “education is a right, not a privilege” to slashing community college programs that provided access to that right for the most vulnerable students in the province. Teachers and school administrators have also stressed that the government’s plan to consolidate all the regional English school boards into a single bureaucratic megalith will adversely impact rural students in particular and the quality of schooling generally as teaching staff and service provisions are scaled back. Thankfully the government has also increased the amount of money allotted for the resettlement of rural communities, so any serious decline in the quality of rural life should be able to sort itself out.
However you personally feel about the budget, we can all agree that these are all fairly important issues we need to be having a serious collective conversation about. This goes doubly for our esteemed elected officials in the House of Assembly, who actually hold all the power over what the government actually does. Instead, any serious political discussion about all of the budgetary fallout I just described was shelved for a solid week so that our politicians could argue about Facebook and Twitter on the public dime in what is easily the most embarrassing story to come out of the House in a long time. This is actually pretty impressive considering we just spent two years having a collective public meltdown about Muskrat Falls.
What follows is a cautionary fable about the importance of thinking things through. When a social media monitor in Confederation Building noticed that some mouthbreathing internet troll decided to make a death threat against the Premier in a Facebook group called ‘Kathy Dunderdale Must GO!!!’, they rightfully brought it forward to their superiors as something potentially serious. Somewhere else along the line, someone noticed that NDP MHA Gerry Rogers was also a member of this group. Handled sensibly, the issue of online death threats might have been raised in the legislature in a way that underscored their seriousness without resorting to hyperbole, garnered some human sympathy for an unpopular Premier, seen Rogers tastefully admonished for ill-considered online consorts, and given us a timely and civil reflection by MHAs and partisans of all stripes about how they’re mucking around online.
But naturally, since this is the House of Assembly we’re talking about, it was handled in the poorest way imaginable. Darin King suggests in the House that because Rogers is a member of this group, she automatically endorses every single line of commentary that appears therein, from overwrought Grumpy Cat memes to death threats scrawled by barely literate urchins. He also declared Rogers’ clear support of internet regicide was comparable to the Boston Marathon bombings that happened literally the day before. The question of whether or not Rogers endorses murdering the Premier went to Speaker Ross Wiseman, who in his infinite wisdom ruled that even though it could not be determined she actually did anything wrong, she had to apologize anyway or be found in contempt of the House. Rogers refused, and was promptly evicted from the legislature for refusing to apologize for something she didn’t do. Wiseman’s ruling was in all honesty baffling, and indicated he either didn’t understand Facebook or didn’t understand his job. While he did retract his ruling a week later, you know what they say about first impressions. This is, after all, the same guy who, as Health Minister, failed to read his own briefing notes in the middle of a cancer testing crisis.
Whichever genius in the communications office thought it was a good idea to use death threats against the Premier as a way to smear another MHA (who very obviously had nothing to do with them) clearly did not actually bother thinking it through all the way. In response to this flagrant abuse of common sense and decency, some intrepid CBC journalists applied this same tenuous ‘guilt by association’ rationale to the Tories and managed to hoist just about every last one of them by their own petards. According to their party’s very own lopsided logic, Charlene Johnson is a bloodsport enthusiast, Sandy Collins is hawking shady payday loans, Ray Hunter is circulating online petitions against his own government, and Paul Lane is a card-carrying Liberal. As the pièce de résistance, they even discovered that the Premier herself was following porn bots on Twitter. But instead of taking the hint from this exposé that their latest approach to social media was an absolute farce, Dunderdale doubled down by deleting her Twitter account wholesale and stressing in a press release that Gerry Rogers remains a cyberbully. Not that it’s only the Tories with dirt on their hands — a good few yahoos and partisans on Twitter took the opportunity to write erotic fanfiction about the Premier in the hashtag ‘Dunderporn’, effectively ensuring that we will never have nice things.
The moral of this story? Stop and think about what you’re doing. Instead of addressing the very serious issue of death threats in a sensible manner, the Tories proved themselves woefully out of touch on not only how social media actually works, but on what it means to have a serious conversation about violence and bullying in our communities, both on and offline. They wasted a solid week trying to smear an opposition MHA with baseless accusations instead of debating the very real consequences of the budget. Anyone who has ever expressed distaste for the utter foolishness and futility of what passes for politics in Newfoundland and Labrador need only reference The Great Facebook Feud of 2013 to be totally justified in their despondency. It is an embarassment, and it made national headlines. If the government really is spending upwards of $50,000 on social media management, their biggest mistake in the budget was not cutting that loose first.
Wed, Mar 27, 2013
March is the grossest month. The snow is either half-melted into nasty brown sludge or the snow keeps coming and winter threatens to indefinitely renew your subscription to Seasonal Affective Disorder. There is a really good reason why they put St. Binge Drinking’s Day in the middle of this horrible month. Not that I’m bitter or anything.
But while we’re on the topic of nasty brown sludge and bitterness, let’s get into it about the Keystone XL pipeline, yes? Keystone XL names a proposed extension to an already-existing pipeline from northern Alberta running south into the States that would allow for even more heavy crude to be pumped out of the oil sands (or ‘tar sands’, as everyone used to call them a few years ago before a massive PR makeover) down to the Gulf Coast for processing and export. It’s been in the works since roughly 2010, but the pressure is mounting on the Obama administration to soon give a Yay or Nay on whether or not to see the thing built. Proponents fear that without some sort of pipeline expansion, oil sands production will sputter and stagnate and, along with them, the Canadian (read: Albertan) economy itself. Those opposed to the developments highlight the fact that the last thing the planet probably needs right now is an expansion of tar sands production and the incredible amount of pollution that would come with it. Obama giving Keystone the thumbs-down would signal that the US is serious about tackling climate change, and that maybe your grandchildren aren’t doomed to inherit a totally broken planet after all.
So the stakes for either side are pretty high. So high, in fact, that Canadian politicians have spent the last couple months putting serious pressure on Washington to do the right thing. Alberta Premier Alison Redford has been the most vocal in her enthusiasm for the project, and the Harper Government™ has also signalled that they believe whatever is good for Chinese oil conglomerates is good for the country. Redford made a few trips to the US Capitol do some personal lobbying, and her government recently took out a full page ad in the New York Times to declare that approving Keystone XL is the “Choice of Reason” (which is a really polite way of calling your opponents stupid). Not to be outdone, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair made a US trip of his own this month to allegedly talk some smack about the Keystone project (although he seems less motivated by environmentalism than by the idea that oil and jobs might leave Canada). In a very reasonable and well-measured response, Ms. Redford accused him of “treason”, while the federal government and much of the national media were quick to label him a saboteur of all that is good and decent. We won’t know for sure if Mulcair’s loose lips really did sink the Keystone ship until Obama makes his call, but if nothing else it at least kept his name in the headlines as Justin Trudeau virtually locked down the Liberals’ virtual leadership race.
Speaking of sinking ships, this is a great segue for riffing on the latest adventures of Peter Penashue, “the best MP Labrador has ever had” (according to Stephen Harper). I’ll be honest, I had totally forgotten Penashue even existed until he recently resigned over some tens of thousands of dollars of illegal campaign contributions to his 2011 election—a credit to the muzzling skills of the PMO, I guess. I’ll commend him for running for re-election, though, as it takes an awful lot of gumption to run on a platform of brown-nosing when your record is deafening silence and either incompetence or corruption (pick one). Penashue is the perfect poster boy for the CPC’s ‘what are ethics, even’ school of politics, which would probably explain why Harper is backing him so enthusiastically.
The most interesting part of the race in Labrador won’t be whether or not Penashue gets re-elected (he probably won’t unless the NDP and Liberals split the vote), but that former provincial Liberal leader Yvonne Jones has vacated her seat to challenge him. This is interesting precisely because now we get a provincial by-election that will end up deciding the fate of the province’s opposition. A single Liberal seat separates the NDP from Official Opposition status, and if you trust the polls that Paul Lane can’t stack, it seems orange is a very fashionable colour these days — at least relative to the alternatives. The provincial Liberals have yet to get their act together, and the provincial government right now is about as endearing as your St. Paddy’s hangover.
And what a headache it is: the same Tory PR wizards who would have you give them all the credit for billions of dollars of oil surpluses are now swearing they have absolutely no hand in the fact that we’re going to run up a roughly $4 billion deficit in the next couple years. No wait, sorry, that number’s out of date: when they dropped the budget on March 26th, they had somehow managed to find an extra billion dollars to make up for the anticipated shortfall. Hooray?
An optimist might read this ever-changing numbers game coming from government as the natural outcome of working with a volatile commodity like oil. A cynic might read this as shrewdly low-balling revenues in order to soften the blow of what is otherwise an austerity budget. A pessimist might go so far as to figure this is government gaslighting labour unions with scary numbers ahead of contract negotiations. However you read it, a couple things aren’t up to interpretation: 1200 jobs are were cut from the public service in one fell swoop (which will no doubt ripple outwards), and the province has consolidated every school board in the province into a French one administering about 300 students and an English one administering literally everyone else. Because nothing says ‘efficiency’ like an overloaded bureaucratic monster centred in St. John’s. Hey, it worked for Eastern Health, right?
To cap off this March madness, I’m pouring out my proverbial 40 oz. to mark the passing of national treasure Stompin’ Tom Connors, who is no doubt at this very moment stomping the heck out of some clouds and/or angels. Oh, and happy 64th birthday, Confederation. Will Canada still need us, and will they still feed us, now that we’re 64? More like we feed them, am I right folks? Haha, just a little April Fools joke for you guys there… much like this joke of a federation! Wakka wakka. Okay, I’m done.
Fri, Mar 1, 2013
The spring of hope may be just around the corner, but February is still crotch-deep in the winter of despair. But if the never-ending parade of winter storms is leaving you out in the cold, don’t worry: there’s enough hot air being blown around in the news this month to make St. John’s feel downright tropical.
So, anyways, the Ottawa senators are a giant mess this year, and that’s not a hockey jab. For those of you unfamiliar with the subtle machinations of the archaic mess we call a federal government, the Senate is an unelected body of patronage appointments meant to provide “sober second thought” to legislation coming out of the House of Commons (which was presumably really important back when Canada’s first few governments were run by raging drunks). While creating a class of pseudo-aristocrats to put a check on democracy fit right in with the Victorian era, this argument feels a little less compelling now that we’re into the second decade of the 21st Century. What little dignity the Red Chamber has as a grand historic institution is also being squandered by recent embarrassing behaviour from many senators themselves. A cadre of senators led by former CTV pundit Mike Duffy have been busted for claiming tens of thousands of dollars a year in living expenses for a ‘second home’ in Ottawa despite already living in the national capital for decades. To make matters worse, another one of those double-dippers—young Patrick Brazeau—was recently arrested on charges of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Both the NDP and the Conservatives have expressed interest in tackling the Senate problem for years, and the recent surge of scandal has started tipping popular opinion away from fixing it and towards just scrapping it altogether. Abolition is certainly tempting. The idea of keeping the patronage status quo is nothing short of depressing (despite what Justin Trudeau might tell you), but the cure isn’t immediately much less painful. Reform would likely trigger a Constitutional crisis (the best kind of crisis!) where we’re forced to get all the provinces to agree over serious arguments like seat proportions, and good luck getting Ontario, Quebec, the West and the Atlantic to agree on who gets more power in the Senate. There is also the nightmare scenario that two different political parties might separately control the Commons and the Senate at the same time and that nothing would ever get done (although some wonks find that kinky). Getting rid of the Senate entirely would certainly be easier, but then we have other problems: like, say, the Prime Minister in a majority government having even fewer checks on their already almost limitless power. Even if everyone starts electing senators like they do in Alberta, who is ultimately appointed is still the Prime Minister’s decision: and let’s be honest, can you imagine anyone appointing a Bloc Senator?
Back home on the Island, of course, our democratically elected officials are giving us grief with a distinctly 21st century problem: it turns out the provincial government has a high-school calibre inferiority complex. Public luminary Paul Lane was caught with his proverbial pants down after a series of leaked Blackberry messages revealed that, despite his earlier claims to the contrary on VOCM, he took a leading role in pressuring Tory MHAs and staffers to actively cook online opinion polls to make the government seem more popular. Partisans are not only instructed how to vote in each poll, but are also issued with instructions on how to game the websites and vote multiple times to ensure that the party line wins by a landslide. For about a week after this broke, Lane was uncharacteristically silent and refused comment, so Kathy Dunderdale came to his rescue by shrugging it off and equated this with phone-bombing votes for Rex Goudie on Canadian Idol. In fact, this whole thing is really a non-story and we should all just move on to caring about more pressing things, like a looming multi-billion dollar budget deficit, a public sector hiring freeze, rumours of layoffs, and impending labour agitation. There are a bunch of serious things to get mad at the government about, so we shouldn’t make mountains out of molehills.
Fair enough. But if these polls really are irrelevant, it does raise the question as to why government members are so emotionally invested in manipulating the results. Tory stalwarts are spending an awful lot of time and effort jigging polls whose results they allegedly ignore, which suggests more or less the opposite of what the Premier claims—that it’s a weirdly big deal. Other recently-released media documents reveal a communications office dedicated to meticulously recording political criticism on Twitter, suggesting a government that is seriously distressed about its own public image. You can’t publicly shrug off criticism and then anxiously order your underlings to hit ‘refresh’ a hundred times on VOCM’s Question of the Day without generating the kind of cognitive dissonance that hints at unresolved self-image issues—especially considering that these are non-scientific polls designed largely for entertainment purposes. This might not be the corruption fiasco that Con O’Brien & The Known Critics have been hoping to turn into a platinum hit, but it does underscore just how much the Tories are concerned more with style above substance.
Speaking of substance, I’d like to end with a shout-out for Brad Cabana’s Constitutional Challenge against Muskrat Falls as it finally gets underway at the courthouse in St. John’s. It’s super important to never give up on what you believe in, no matter how many people rudely insist it has questionable legal grounding or that it is a waste of the court’s time and resources. Dare to dream the impossible dream. The only peace is in the struggle, brother: rock on.
Fri, Mar 1, 2013
Sometimes bad things happen to us. They fall out of the sky. We don’t ask for these bad things, but they happen anyway. And the only thing we can control is how we react. Often, we’re paralyzed. We try and forget. We stuff these bad things inside us, where they fester. Because we don’t speak about them, they take on power and grow strong.
This year, a random bad thing happened to me. It presented me with an opportunity, cloaked in an assault on my autonomy.
But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.
On January 12, 2013, I went dancing with my friends K and B at a night of DJs playing music from different decades, one decade per hour. I can remember until midway through the ‘70s, then nothing. Several hours later, the sensation of a blood pressure monitor on my finger and the rim of a bucket embedded in my forehead. A male voice I didn’t know was saying my vitals were fine, it was good that I threw up because the drug didn’t have a chance to get too far. I recognized the couch cushions from B’s house. My body felt like concrete. The voice was asking whether I wanted to go to the hospital to get bloodwork, a lifelong phobia of mine. Concrete-brained, scared and sick, I didn’t say yes. I couldn’t even raise my head to see what he looked like. Had I foreseen that I was about to become a posterchild for drug-related sexual assault, I would have chosen to get the bloodwork done, despite everything. Then the words ‘allegedly’ or ‘believes she was drugged’ wouldn’t have appeared in the interviews, like maybe nothing had happened after all.
According to K, I was dancing happily, and then something went wrong. The change in my behavior happened quickly. We’d each had two drinks. Yes, we had laid those drinks down, but they were on a ledge that we were dancing next to, with no one between us and the ledge. The room was full of people we knew. It was about as safe as you can get and still go out, or so I thought. This s**t still happened, though.
With one simple, almost imperceptible action, an anonymous person shook my life to its roots.
I don’t remember the next part, but K told me later that I ran toward the washroom, didn’t make it, and began puking in the corner of the bar. She brought me to the bathroom and I kept vomiting. She said I was, amazingly, puking into actual receptacles like sinks and trash cans before I became so dizzy and f**cked up that I just lay on the floor, crying and apologizing, saying I was going to die. She went to get B, and the two of them got me up off the floor and into a cab. By the time we drove the few blocks to B’s house, I was vomiting out the open cab door. They got me up the stairs and situated with my trusty bucket, and called emergency response.
I’m so grateful to my friends for being there that night. I shudder to think what might’ve happened if I’d been alone. I was disoriented, and my body wasn’t working properly. I wasn’t in control, but was still conscious. I was pretty much a zombie. It would’ve been easy to manipulate me, to get me wherever I was intended to end up when Person X put Substance X in my Jameson whisky. And I wouldn’t have remembered what they did to me.
When I woke up the next morning I was nauseous, with a blinding headache and tingling in my arms and legs, and I was really upset. More than that. I was angry. What kind of person drugs someone else? Who would strip another human being of their independence in such a casual way? Did they mean to hurt me? Rape me? Rob me? Was it peer pressure? Done for a laugh, or by someone in so much pain themselves that they’re driven to harm someone else? I had not been raped, but I’d been violated. I felt used up.
That afternoon, I posted on Facebook that I’d been drugged and over the next few days, I received an avalanche of responses, many in sympathy, but some from people telling me their own stories of drug-related assault. Most of the accounts had happened within the past year, in bars, house parties and cabins. And contrary to the usual stereotype, not all of the victims were young women. I had two people their fifties contact me. I heard from straight men and from gay men. Four people told me they’d been drugged multiple times, and two others said they’d been drinking water when it happened to them. One person blacked out for over 24 hours. Another recounted how, at fifteen, they lost their virginity during a drug-related sexual assault.
Krissy Holmes at the CBC read my post and contacted me about doing an interview. I began to see how this random bad thing could somehow have a positive outcome. I could use this opportunity to encourage public discussion, not just for myself, but for all those other people who have suffered similar, and far worse, assaults without the possibility to speak about it.
A media blitz took up the next week of my life. In between, I cried. I was still shaken from the drugging and reeling from how quickly the story took on a life of its own. People said I was brave, and at first I didn’t understand why.
Then the online comments started.
Once you say something in the media, it isn’t yours anymore. Things get taken out of context, misquoted, passed from person to person like the telephone game. I’m learning some serious life lessons right these days, and a major one is that you can’t predict how something you say or do will be taken by other people. You have to forge ahead, following to your own inner compass.
There have been comments via email, Facebook and on media sites saying I probably just had a stomach bug, or that I drank too much and was embarrassed so I tried to pass it off as a drugging. Or that I was trying to frame the bartender. That I was out to ruin the bar. That women just can’t hold their alcohol. That I shouldn’t have said anything without a blood test, because it probably didn’t happen anyway. That it was my fault. After a few days I just stopped reading them.
Fortunately, those negative voices are, by far, outweighed by the flood of good energy that has surrounded me. Empathy has come from friends and strangers. One kind soul brought me balsam fir tea for my post-vomiting sore throat. Two others made me a cake. Each stranger who sent me their story made me feel less alone. The new Downtown Community Watch group has brought people into my life with similar values to my own (like, say, not assaulting others), and has opened me up to a network of friends and allies that I didn’t have before this bad thing happened.
For every a**hole who commits assault, there are many more good people out there, and that’s a sturdy thought to cling to when times are tough.
Looking back on it now, I think the person who drugged my drink that night got the opposite of what they wanted. Instead of isolating me and taking my power away, they gave me agency. They gave me community.
Next time I go out, I’ll be sure and toast to them for that.
By Sara Tilley
A community group called the Downtown Community Watch has recently formed to discuss ways to make downtown safer for everyone (downtowncommunitywatch.blogspot.ca). Find them on Facebook. If you have questions about drug-related or any other type of assault, you can call the NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre hotline, anonymously, 24 hours/day, 1-800-726-2743.
Fri, Feb 8, 2013
A YouTube music playlist compiled using the Twitter hashtag #LyubovOrlovaThemeSongs for the Russian cruise ship the M/V Lyubov Orlova, which broke its towline while being led to the Dominican Republic for demolition and is now empty and adrift in the North Atlantic.
Below are some of the folks on Twitter who gave suggestions. Have a video for the playlist? Leave a link in the comments.
Wed, Jan 30, 2013
An interview with Greg Malone by Drew Brown.
Greg Malone has written an excellent book called Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders: The True Story of Confederation with Canada. It recounts, in great detail, the confidential negotiations that took place between the British colonial administration in Newfoundland, and Canadian authorities in the years leading up to our political union in 1949.
I do have some reservations about the book. I didn’t come away newly convinced that the actual vote outcome was rigged (the 52-48 margin looks different when you consider the overwhelming support for Confederation in the outports). I’m also a little wary of the romantic lens through which we’re shown the ruling class of pre-Canadian St. John’s. (Grad school sucks the fun out of everything!)
That said, I think it’s worth a read. Conspiracy theory aside, Malone does a good job of highlighting just how shoddy the confederation process was. It may not have been rigged, but the deck was certainly stacked in confederation’s favour. By not restoring responsible government after World War II, and then overruling the decision of the National Convention to keep confederation off the referendum, the British disrespected Newfoundland’s right to democratic self-determination. While I’m sympathetic to Confederation, I’m left raw after reading this book.
But probably the most compelling reason to read Malone’s book is because it is probably the best articulated statement of Newfoundland nationalist politics to date. It will get you thinking—and talking—about our democracy, our history, and our place in Canada.
It certainly got me thinking, so I caught up with Greg Malone to talk more about it.
I really liked the book, and I get the sense that it was a long time coming for you. How long have questions about Confederation and Newfoundland’s place in Canada been on your mind?
All my life actually. Since my early adult life. As I say in the book, I came to Toronto a Canadian and went home a Newfoundlander because I didn’t realize the differences and the prejudices that were about Newfoundlanders.
When I came to Toronto in the 70s, I was very much an internationalist; a citizen of the world. I had been to London and I came to Toronto to make it in theatre. But I couldn’t believe the stuff people would say to me. They’d say, “Oh you’re from Newfoundland,” and they’d laugh and they’d say, “Do you live in an igloo? Have you ever seen television?”
I guess I was flabbergasted. We did “Cod on a Stick”, which was laced heavily with political satire about Canadians’ attitudes and about our own attitudes. It was a direct response to that whole wall of prejudice. And so my whole life has been dealing with that issue, in a way. And here I am dealing with it in a scholarly way, 50 years later.
It’s amazing, the attitude is still there. I’ve got a lot of great Canadian friends. Canada’s a great country and it’s done a lot of great things, but the point is, this is not one of them. This is the low point in Canadian history, you know?
The correspondence you go over between the British and Canadian governments—it’s fascinating, but it’s horrifying. It seems almost like they were deliberately being malicious. Why would they act this way?
It’s interesting to note too that they were lying to their own parliaments and their own populations because they were afraid that their own people would disagree violently with what they were doing in Newfoundland. Which is true of course. We were lied to, but everyone else was lied to as well.
There are a couple of points where you talk about how different British MPs and even Canadian MPs—some staunch imperialists—were thrown off by how it was being handled.
That’s what amazed me. The amount of opposition there was in London and Ottawa as well as St. John’s was astounding. Even in the caucus of Mackenzie King there was a big split and a vicious fight over what they were doing in Newfoundland with Lester Pearson, and Norman Robertson, and Wishart, and McCann and him saying, ‘This is wrong. We shouldn’t be even on the ballot in a referendum in Newfoundland. You got to wait ‘til they get their government back and do this thing properly or there’ll be problems forever.’ And they were right.
And in Britain, they were saying the same thing. Lord Beaverbrook and Churchill were down in the bunker arguing about Newfoundland as the bombs were dropping overhead, and Beaverbrook was saying, ‘We’re in an illegal position over there. We need to get out. We need to give them back their government and put this thing right because we’re going to be in an awful position after the war.’ So there was a tremendous amount of conflict in both governments about what was being done. That was very interesting to see and quite heartening to see.
On the one hand it’s awful that this is how it happened, but it’s nice also that it wasn’t monolithic. There were people that were pushing for fair play.
Exactly, and I think that even though it’s a difficult and painful history, and it’s a very shabby kind of a sad history, I think people are going to feel a lot better after they know it, because it’s everything they suspected anyway. To have the truth confirmed is so therapeutic. I think this is going to empower people when they see the real truth and the real way people behaved.
I could see that. Even in the more generous histories of Confederation everyone still seems to lament how badly it was carried out. And after reading this book it seems like that’s putting it mildly. You raise an interesting point toward the end of your book about the weird legal limbo that the Terms of Union actually exist in. Do you think this might be something that could be challenged in court?
Oh, yes. The Terms of Union are a fraud. No Newfoundland authority ever negotiated, accepted or approved them. Ottawa unilaterally imposed them. They were accepted and approved and negotiated by the British government in St. John’s that got a group of cooperative Newfoundlanders to sign it. That’s the best that can be said for it. I don’t think they’re legal or binding on Newfoundland at all. I think we’re Canadians by usage and custom, but not legally.
That’s fascinating. It seems like this has the possibility to open up a whole new avenue of politics. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that you’re in favour of a Newfoundland separatism, but, I mean, logically, where else could our politics go at this point? Especially after reading of the process and the results of Confederation for 60 years, how can you not come to that conclusion?
I think Confederation has suffered chronically because of this. I think it’s crippled. Confederation was manipulated as a tool of empire. All they wanted was resources, so you have a case where the heartland, Quebec and Ontario, are running the country, and they have no idea what to do with the east coast. They didn’t want it. They had no idea what to do with the west coast; the west has kind of slashed and burned its way in now because they’ve got economic power. They’ve pushed their way in.
But Ottawa has had no vision for building the country. We need a proper, mutually-respectful Confederation where everyone can get in and build this country or it’s not going to happen the way it needs to happen. And so we really do need to take a fresh look at these lies and deal with them; get them out of the way. We will never move on if we don’t deal with this.
Yeah, it’s hard to imagine how the country can go forward if we were, like you say, bounced into Confederation. God knows everyone out west has not stopped being mad about it either. It’s almost like we need to actually just reopen the Terms of Union for everybody. We need to refashion the Canadian cooperative.
Definitely. We need to mutually recommit to this thing or it’s not really going to move for us. The whole notion that Newfoundland was a basket case, and that Canada had to save us, and that Canada was our saviour—that’s all bull. If Canada hadn’t got Newfoundland, they would have been the ones who would have disappeared, not us.
That’s what Jack Pickersgill was terrified of; that if the States established themselves in Newfoundland and Labrador and had Alaska, where would Canada be in 20 years? It would be a part of the States. It wouldn’t have any power.
So they had to have Newfoundland. Newfoundland saved Canada, not the other way around. That’s the point of this whole thing.
I just have one last question, and I almost hate myself for even broaching this topic, but I do have to ask: What do you make of the present state of democracy in Newfoundland? Do you ever get the sense that we’re facing a similar situation where say a government that shall remain nameless may be playing fast and loose with our own democratic institutions for say maybe a resource deal of some kind?
Isn’t this funny? It’s all too familiar, isn’t it?
I think that any government that suppresses democracy, suppresses information or weakens the democratic institutions doesn’t do their country any good. They’re not doing Newfoundland or Newfoundlanders any good if they do that. When those dictators go, or those premiers and prime ministers, whatever you want to term them as, all you got left is your system. It’s a process. The democratic process, that’s all the people got. That’s what’s theirs.
If you’ve degraded this, you’ve left your country worse off than when you came in, so you’re not doing your country any good. They do it time and again if they smash freedom of information and suppress democratic procedures in the parliamentary committees. It really, really rots me. That’s treasonable if you ask me. That’s working against your people.
Is there anything else you’d like to let people know?
I wrote this for Newfoundlanders. I felt like it was needed. I really feel that talking about this has the power to liberate us and heal us, really, and make us feel better about ourselves by dispelling the lies of the past. I really hope it does give everyone energy and inspire people.
Wed, Dec 5, 2012
It was a bleak year for freedom of information in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In June, the government passed Bill 29, a proposed set of changes to the province’s Access to Information and Privacy Protection Act. Those changes will make it tougher for journalists and citizens to access inside government information.
It was one of the biggest freedom of information-related stories in the country this year, winning coverage from national media and scorn from democracy and freedom of information advocates.
Here’s the deal.
The purpose of the Access to Information and Privacy Protection Act (ATIPPA) is to provide accountability and transparency in the provincial public sector while ensuring that those organizations respect the privacy of personal information.
For example, ATTIPA specifies what kind of documents can be made public and how much personal information public bodies are allowed to disclose.
Anyone can ask the government for information by filling out an access to information request. The form is available on the government’s website.
You can ask to see what personal information the government has about you, you can ask to see your MHA’s emails from a certain time period, or you can ask to see government reports and safety assessments. Before they were posted online last month, you had to file an access to information request to see health inspection reports of the province’s restaurants.
Journalists use access to information requests all the time and many important stories, like the controversy surrounding the search for Burton Winters, come about because of information obtained through these requests.
Requests are evaluated by government employees according to the act: if you receive a pile of papers with blacked-out paragraphs, those paragraphs were blacked out because the information is classified under ATIPPA.
If you file a request for access to information and feel that you received less than what ATIPPA entitled you to, you can file a complaint with the Information and Privacy Commissioner, Ed Ring. Ring is the province’s independent access to information watchdog. In the event of a complaint, he’ll review the documents in question and then determine whether ATIPPA was used correctly in the decision to release or withhold those documents. He can’t make the government do anything, but he can take the case to the courts, who can.
The ability to file a complaint to an independent body for independent review is pretty key in maintaining government accountability.
The Commissioner has had his share of difficulties with the government: sometimes he isn’t given access to information, either. In January 2011, he said in a release that he was the only Commissioner of access to information law that couldn’t review documents that fell under client-solicitor privilege. That went to court and, after an initial loss and an appeal, he was awarded the right to review those documents.
ATIPPA was up for review in 2010, so the government appointed Commissioner John Cummings to have a look at the legislation and see where it might be improved.
Bill 29 was the government’s response to Cummings’ report, and it was tabled in the House of Assembly on June 11 by Felix Collins, Minister of Justice and Attorney General.
It proposed the adoption of 16 of 33 recommendations highlighted by Cumming, some with a few modifications.
For example, the report recommended that requests for information deemed “frivolous or vexatious,” “made in bad faith,” or “trivial” be dismissed, so long as the Information and Privacy Commissioner gave it the okay.
Bill 29 took that up, but gave ministers the power to determine what was frivolous and what wasn’t.
The bill also expanded the scope of cabinet records exempt from access to include briefing notes, documents pertaining to deliberations and “all factual and background material prepared for the Cabinet.” A special class of cabinet record unavailable to even the Information and Privacy Commissioner was introduced.
Deadlines to respond to certain information requests would be expanded and the fees to file a request and have it processed would go up. Only salary ranges of government employees, and not their actual salaries, would be disclosed.
And the court decision that let the Information and Privacy Commissioner review solicitor-client privileged information would also be overturned.
After days and nights of non-stop debate in the House of Assembly that involved accusations of racism and barrels of coffee, Bill 29 was passed in the wee hours of the morning on June 15.
ATIPPA has been amended accordingly.
The changes made headlines both provincially and nationally.
Democracy Watch, a national organization that advocates for for government transparency, said the changes were “dangerously undemocratic.”
The Centre for Law and Democracy, asked to review the proposed changes by the CBC’s On Point with David Cochrane, determined the new measures would put Uganda, Ethiopia and Guatemala, among others, ahead of the province in terms of freedom of information laws. (Felix Collins then issued a release stating that all the G8 countries also ranked below Uganda, Ethiopia and Guatemala.)
And Newspapers Canada’s 2012 Freedom of Information Audit said they constituted the country’s “biggest setback” of the year.
As reported by the CBC, the Information and Privacy Commissioner felt that, even though Bill 29 had passed and that there will be oversights, ATIPPA was still robust enough to protect people’s right to access information.
And, hey, at least we can always go to court.
Meanwhile, the CBC reported in November that the Yukon Territory is looking at similar changes to their Protection of Privacy Act that would restrict public access to “briefing documents, reports and recommendations.”
The Yukon government claims the changes would put the Territory’s information laws on par with other Canadian jurisdictions.
Wed, Dec 5, 2012
Ho ho holy hell you guys, 2012 is almost finished. If the Mayans are right, that means it’s less than a month until the world is plunged into cataclysmic darkness or the sun explodes or whatever is supposed to happen when their calendar runs down. I’m personally a little skeptical anything will come of this, but if you’ve been following politics in this country over the last 12 months you might think blowing it all up is not such a bad idea.
The big story coming out of Ottawa in 2012 has been ROBOGATE, which is unfortunately way less exciting than a robot apocalypse, and roughly as bad if you care at all about fair elections. Last February the Ottawa Citizen broke the story that during the 2011 federal election campaign, a mysterious figure named “Pierre Poutine” (living on “Separatist Street” in Quebec, naturally) sent out a series of automated calls impersonating Elections Canada or local Liberal candidates trying to misdirect voters away from polling stations.
At least 7600 fraudulent calls were made in Guelph alone, and Elections Canada has reported complaints of similar calls in up to 100 other ridings. The big kicker is that all the calls were sent to people who had been identified by the Conservative Party of Canada as non-Conservative voters, meaning there’s a pretty good chance that ‘Pierre Poutine’ was a party staffer who had access to the CPC’s voter-ID registry and was using that information to suppress non-CPC votes in especially tight races. So far neither Elections Canada nor the RCMP have been able to track down the offender, and the Harper Government’s official response to the scandal has been to deny all involvement and let MP Dean Del Mastro bloviate endlessly that Elections Canada is a left-wing conspiracy. At least they didn’t arbitrarily prorogue parliament this year when questioned about it! Yeah, it’s important to keep the bar high.
Speaking of blowhards afraid of left-wing conspiracies, bumbling Toronto mayor Rob Ford was turfed out of office at the end of November for failing to read his own job description.
Federal and provincial political parties across the country have also had their share of leadership musical chairs over the past year. Thomas Mulcair ascended to the throne of St. Layton last Spring and graciously kept his beard, giving the federal scene much needed 19th-century flare. When Justin Trudeau is inevitably crowned Liberal leader, I hope he grows another 17th-century Van Dyke and rolls the men’s facial fashion clock back even further. The top Liberal job is also open in Quebec, where they recently lost to the PQ (where it turns out people take the rule of law really seriously!), as well as in Ontario, where the premier just decided to bounce and shut down the government. No word yet though about the Alberta Liberals, who are decidedly background noise in that province’s conservative civil war. Did Albertans actually show a more progressive side in re-electing a party that’s been in power since 1971, or was it a more conservative move than voting for the Wildrose Party? Another holiday brainteaser is how we got to the point of ‘Communist’ China buying up the tar sands. How is this sentence even logically possible?
Logic, of course, is a foreign entity to anyone familiar with the drama of the Newfoundland state this year. When the House of Assembly finally re-opened in March, the Dunderdale Tories wasted no time in reminding us just how dysfunctional it actually was (both institutionally and physically—the renovations on Confederation building have gone over budget). MHAs on all sides of the House brought being insufferable jerks to new heights and “local politicians saying dumb stuff on Twitter” became a legitimate category of news (I’m not complaining, it keeps beer in my fridge). If you’ve ever wanted to see folk singers scream incoherently at journalists or enjoy the rap stylings of Sandy Collins, #nlpoli might be the hashtag for you.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are no doubt feeling like the words ‘Muskrat Falls’ should constitute a cuss. When the Public Utilities Board, charged with reviewing the project, announced earlier this year that they didn’t have enough information to fully assess and endorse it, the government dismissed them and instead declared this lack of arms-length oversight would be made up for by a special debate on the project in the Assembly’s fall sitting. Hooray, right? In the interim, the government triggered a week-long filibuster when it introduced some of the worst Access to Information legislation in the country and Lorraine Michael accused the Justice Minister of secret racism and the whole thing was just a gongshow. Word is it made Tory stalwart Tom Osborne go Independent too, though a less charitable reading says he’s huffy about being turned down a cabinet position. Meanwhile, the provincial Liberals continued a slow-motion implosion all year that culminated in self-styled saviour Dean Macdonald washing his hands of the whole party less than a couple weeks after concluding the cross-province Renewal Tour he championed. Can you feel the excitement? Oh, and just a heads up: when the leadership happens, I’m endorsing Danny Dumaresque.
It gets better. When the House reopened in the fall, the promised special debate on Muskrat Falls was almost immediately shelved when the Tories categorically refused opposition demands to bring expert witnesses into the legislature like you would see done in any other jurisdiction in Canada. This has been roundly denounced by at least two local Political Science professors, but it’s not like expert opinion carries any weight in this province if it’s not bankrolled by Nalcor. The project’s sanction will also take place via private member’s bill, letting Dunderdale avoid another filibuster and approve a $7.5 billion megaproject in less time than it takes Keith Russell to get kicked out of a children’s hockey game. A little rushed, sure, but shag it—they’ve already spent a couple million building the dam thing before its formal approval, so they may as well just give’r now. Democracy, as usual, is an impediment to progress. Develop or perish!
And that’s a snapshot of 2012. I’m not even going to touch the rest of the world, because, jeez, between Syria and Gaza I’m drove to drink and between the prospect of the Eurozone eating itself and the Americans rolling over a ‘fiscal cliff’ on New Year’s Day, 2013, I’m starting to think the best place for my money is buried out back under the shed. But, maybe I’m being a bit too gloomy. No reason to think this won’t be our year. The cod might finally come back, or perhaps even more miraculously, the NHL.
Like they say, 13 is a lucky number.
So cheers b’ys. To another great year of nonsense.
Wed, Oct 31, 2012
I spent all month agonizing over what to be for Halloween, but I finally figured it out: I’m going to tape a megaphone to my butt and go door-to-door as “the Muskrat Falls debate.” Subtle, right? I wanted to go as the Spectre of Communism but my ghoulfriend said it would be too boooo-ring.
Ha ha, I’m here every month, folks!
I can’t think of a better time to go vegetarian than this past October. People all over North America spent the last two months anxiously refreshing the XL Foods website as exponentially more E. coli-tainted meat from the Alberta processing plant was recalled every day. Fortunately for Canadian carnivores, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz—who you may remember as the guy presiding the last time Canadians got sick from poison meat—was on hand to keep the public safe by letting the plant stay open for a while after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency was informed there was a bacteria problem at the plant. While this might seem like a good opportunity to reflect on whether or not a system of factory farming that sees 35 per cent of all beef in the country processed at a single, self-policing mega-plant is a good idea, the CFIA has given XL Foods the green light to reopen so thankfully there’s no need to think about the meat we eat or where it comes from. Whew! Anyone else in the mood for a celebratory hamburger?
Sour steaks aside, the federal government has had a lot of other stuff on its plate this month. So far, Conservative MPs have been really busy living up to Stephen Harper’s promise not to re-open the abortion debate by giving monarchy-themed medals of honour to a couple of anti-abortion activists currently serving jail time. I hear the Queen is positively Jubilant about it, but she’s not nearly as excited as the federal Liberals are over the Second Coming of Trudeau (and his princely good looks). But while everything might look rosy in Ottawa, in Toronto things are more immediately grim: Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty held a surprise resignation this month after suspending the legislature in order to keep his minority government from collapsing in the wake of a power plant scandal, which is totally not an abuse of power at all! Considering how good McGuinty is at busting up democracy whenever it suits his purpose, he should definitely consider giving Trudeau a run for his money; he’s already got a good handle on all the qualities we’ve come to expect from a Prime Minister.
Speaking of abusing democracy, October marked the beginning of Convention Season in Newfoundland and Labrador. Party Conventions are magical places where politics comes alive. For instance, within 24 hours of the first convention, PC Backbencher Sandy Collins had already challenged NDP MHA Dale Kirby to a charity boxing match (which Dr. Kirby seemed to interpret as gladiatorial combat). Outside of that, Premier Kathy Dunderdale stole the show at the Tory convention when she frankly admitted that the government has been grossly overspending for some time before announcing the creation of a brand new and totally superfluous Department of Public Engagement less than a week later. This new department is devoted to enraging—I mean, engaging—the public through Twitter and proving how dedicated the PCs are to freedom of information by spoon feeding us whatever information the Premier’s Office wants us to know. It’s like Bill 29 never even happened! As to how Paul Lane wasn’t appointed as the literal Minister of Twitter, I can neither understand nor forgive. Also, we’re now at war with Quebec.
Not to be outdone, the NDP held their largest convention ever, with over 200 delegates turning the Battery Hotel into a beacon of self-righteousness in the sky above downtown St. John’s. No word yet on whether or not Dale Kirby fought anyone.
The Liberal convention is also coming up, and Lord knows that’s a hot mess. This particular episode in the NL Liberals’ drama would be a good time to have Scrooge McDu– er, Dean Macdonald—finally announce he’s ready to ride in on a white horse, slay the Liberals’ debt dragon, and restore the party of Smallwood to its ancient splendour. Regardless of what actually happens though, you can rest assured that Open Line and Twitter are bound to be as suffocated by partisan hacks of all stripes as they were during the other two conventions.
And that’s basically October. In more inconsequential news, Americans head to the polls on November 6th to decide the fate of (vaguely) public healthcare, abortion, and Big Bird. Can Mitt Romney’s Binders of Power contain the forces of both the American debt and Women’s Lib? Will Barack Obama get to spend another four years as the only Nobel Peace Prize winner whose day job requires actively deciding which foreign militants get murdered by flying robots? Or will the American people finally wake up, seize control of their destiny, and elect Roseanne Barr to the White House on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket? We live in absurd times and only an absurd Presidential candidate will see us through. Let Roseannearchy reign!
Thu, Oct 4, 2012
Attention Margaret Wente: feel free to steal as much of this column as you like. I know times are tough out there in that Ontarian welfare ghetto known as Toronto, and Lord knows it wouldn’t be Christian of me to hoard all this A-material to myself while lesser columnists go starved for ideas. So fill yer boots missus, ‘cause this harvest season we’ve got a bumper crop of news.
Holy smokes b’ys, it’s election season again south of the border. As expected (because American politics are nuts), the race is neck-and-neck between Nobel-laureate Barack “infinite Drone War” Obama and Mitt “I literally strapped a dog to the roof of my car on a cross-country vacation once” Romney.
As governor of Massachusetts Romney basically invented the healthcare reform package he’s now campaigning against, his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was upstaged by an elderly movie star yelling at an empty chair, and in the last two weeks alone he came within a hair’s breadth of blaming Obama personally for murdering an American diplomat in Libya and was caught on tape explaining to a closed room of millionaires that he really doesn’t care about half the voting population. It’s a safe bet Obama’s laughing all the way to the bank on this one—when he’s not drone-striking his way into America’s heart, he’s just Biden his time.
Other than some very silly claims from the Conservatives that the NDP’s cap-and-trade carbon tax scheme would destroy Canadian jobs (despite it being the exact same policy the Conservatives themselves held a few years ago), the first major debate to crop up in the House this session is about abortion. Tory backbencher Stephen Woodworth’s bill—which would aim to establish a parliamentary committee to investigate the question of when exactly life begins—was shot down by in an overwhelming 203-92 vote, but it’s more than a little disquieting that the Minister for the Status of Women stood in the House and voted to throw women’s reproductive rights in jeopardy. Couple that with a Science Minister who doesn’t believe in evolution and a Labour Minister who would love nothing more than to grind unions into the dust and you’d almost start to wonder about how, exactly, this country’s being run.
Meanwhile, the federal Liberals decided to remind us that they still exist and announce that Justin Trudeau was finally going to ascend to his rightful place on the party’s throne. Is this a last, desperate shot at glory before the party is absorbed by Thomas Mulcair’s Big Orange Machine, or are we standing on the cusp of a new Trudeaupia?
But while it might be smooth sailing for the Tories in Ottawa, here in St. John’s things are a little less rosy. It’s been a rough month for our own boys (and gals) in blue; polls have the approval for both the Premier and the party slipping, they’ve had the first floor-crossing in the House of Assembly since it was part of Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood, and they just can’t shake off the stink of spending the summer ramming through the most regressive access-to-information laws in Canada.
Fri, Sep 14, 2012
I don’t know about you guys, but on her way through here Leslie took my girlfriend’s screen door and frightened our cat to death. It also blew the lid off her landlord’s shed, just like I’m about to blow the lid off a few of these news stories.
I also totally understand if you want to offer me up as a blood sacrifice to ward off the next tropical storm, because that line was terrible.
Quebec voters said au revoir to Jean Charest and the provincial Liberal party last week, opting instead to give those lovable separatists in the Parti Québecois another shot at running the show –- albeit, this time with a minority government. There’s a good chance the turnover was prompted less by a legitimate desire to rip Canada in half and more by a desire to shake up the hilariously corrupt political establishment (and to express disapproval with the party that stomped all over their basic Charter rights in attempts to curb the student protests last spring), but it’s still a safe bet that we’re in for some good ol’ fashioned French-Canadian sabre-rattling. That said, the PQ might want to scale back its aggressive rhetoric a little in light of the events that transpired at their victory rally, when an elderly man in a blue bathrobe attempted to crash the party, set fire to the back door, and shot two people (one fatally) while shouting “the English are waking up!” While the tragedy was likely just the hideous intersection of untreated mental illness and contentious politics, it probably wouldn’t hurt the PQ to tone down the quasi-racist chest thumping. That and, you know, maybe a system for keeping track of who actually purchases semi-automatic weaponry wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
In significantly more hilarious news, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was named ‘Statesman of the Year’ this week by the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation. The reward recognizes him specifically as a “champion of democracy, freedom, and human rights.” This designation is pretty impressive, considering he’s the only Prime Minister in the history of the country ever to be found in contempt of Parliament, he slashed funding and shut down numerous organizations devoted to promoting human rights both at home (e.g. the Court Challenges Program) and abroad (e.g. KAIROS), and has spear-headed an expansion of the prison system so drastic that even the law-and-order- obsessed Republicans in Texas cautioned him to ease up a little. This award will also be presented to him by none other than Dr. Henry “let’s just carpet-bomb Cambodia” Kissinger, conclusively ensuring that all the jokes in this paragraph wrote themselves.
Locally, Leslie wasn’t the only one blowing winds of change across St. John’s. In a surprise press conference on Thursday, long-time PC stalwart Tom Osborne announced he was quitting his party of 16 years to sit as an Independent in the House of Assembly. According to Osborne, the two big catalysts for his leap from the Tory Dory were his issues with Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s leadership, or lack thereof, and the ATIPPA-cally awful Bill 29 that the government rammed through over the summer after a week-long opposition filibuster (one wonders why he didn’t say anything sooner). Never ones to take this sort of thing sitting down, backbench all-stars Sandy Collins, Stephen Kent and Paul Lane (Paul, if you’re reading this, please unblock me on Twitter… I miss you) were quick to get online and express how much stronger the Dunderdale team was despite losing one of its most experienced members, and the Honourable Joan Burke broke a 20-day social media fast to pithily tweet “good riddance.” Osborne may as well change his first name to Ozzy, because from the sounds of his ex-comrades he’s the veritable Prince of Darkness. You can’t blame the Tories though, because between the plummeting opinion polls and veteran politicians jumping ship, I’d be worried too.
And that’s the news! Without touching on the gongshow that is the US Presidential Election, at least. Clint Eastwood literally argued with an empty chair on national television for 15 minutes at the Republican National Convention the other week! Isn’t it great to be Canadian?
(Stephen Harper portrait by Margaret Sutherland)
Wed, Aug 29, 2012
Did you know that the French Revolutionary calendar actually had the New Year starting in autumn? I’m not completely sold on the whole Reign of Terror bitbut singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in September might not have been such a bad idea, especially considering the way St. John’s springs alive when the dog days of summer come to an end. I say ‘dog days’ because while the rest of you were probably out having Super Fun Summer Adventures I was paying attention to the news. So without further ado, here’s what you missed if you were actually out enjoying the sun or something.
The 2012 Summer Olympics in London was apparently a big deal. The world’s top athletes got to hang out (and hook up) together for two weeks this summer in the Olympic Village as they vied against one another to bring pride back to their home countries in the form of Magic Sports Amulets. And everyone’s favourite performers were there! Michael Phelps proved you can take bong rips and still win more Olympic medals than anyone else in the history of humanity, Usain Bolt showed off some very cool runnings (sorry), and it turns out that the world’s best trampolinist is a Chinese dude named Dong Dong (or Dong2).
Meanwhile, Canada’s most impressive showing during this Olympics—other than having our female athletes far outshine the men—was easily in the ‘provoke an international incident with Norway over soccer refereeing’ event. Unfortunately there is no medal for this, but Team Canada brought us back another prize beyond price: the sweet, sweet catharsis of getting to scream at the television.
Speaking of screaming at things, I will be soon if I ever hear the words “Muskrat Falls” again. The “debate” about this hydro-electric megaproject could never really be described as ‘enlightened’, but things started getting extra wild and wooly back in July when local oligarch Danny Williams and his Labrador mining firm SLAPPed beloved local blogger Brad Cabana (and VOCM BackTalk fan-favourite environmentalist Bruno Marcocchio) with a defamation lawsuit. Never one to take this sort of thing sitting down, Cabana, who is representing himself in court, filed his own defamation suit against Williams, meaning that the next few months of this spectacle should provide enough material to get us a legal comedy spinoff out of Republic of Doyle.
A few weeks later, five political and legal veterans—including former senior Peckford aide Cabot Martin, Liberal leadership contender Bern Coffey, and labour firebrand Richard Cashin—joined forces to form 2041 Energy Incorporated, an anti-Muskrat Falls lobbying group. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the provincial government’s response to this was not to actually dispute any of their claims but instead to let bumbling backbenchers Paul Lane and Steve Kent flood the media with puerile sniggering about how their critics are not ‘real’ lawyers or that Cabot Martin is trying to sabotage the megaproject in order to rig the price of natural gas or something. It’s regrettable that the level of discourse surrounding this multi-billion dollar development project has degenerated into something you’d hear hissed between children in the back row of a seventh-grade sexual health class and I don’t know about the rest of you, but I Kent take much more of this.
As far as nonsense goes, there was no shortage of it this August in Ottawa. Turns out that the Bank of Canada’s original design for the new plastic $100 bill actually featured an Asian-looking woman on the back before it was pulled because focus groups expressed alarm at the idea that our currency might get a little ‘too ethnic.’ Participants repeatedly emphasized that putting an Asian on the bill wouldn’t be representative of Canada (with one Fredericton participant calling the image “ugly”), and the Bank of Canada was quick to re-draw the bill with a less threatening, ‘neutral’ (read: white) person in its place. I think this is a great step forward because if there’s one thing this country needs in order to better reflect our diverse, multicultural society, it’s making sure we only put white, ‘normal’ people on our money. The only Canadian news more offensive than this racist debacle is word that Chad Kroeger is getting married to Avril Lavigne.Woe, Canada.
So! You’re now up to speed enough to know that staying up to speed might not be the best thing for your mental health. It’s not all totally dour though—NASA put a new rover on Mars and they opened a Smoke’s Poutinerie down on Water Street. And yes, being able to get a curry chicken poutine while stumbling home from George Street at 3 AM is just as significant as furthering humanity’s baby steps into the Final Frontier. If you think otherwise, you’re the real space cadet.
Sat, Jul 7, 2012
Today is the final day of the Fishing For the Future Film Festival, a festival showcasing film and video work on maritime communities, oceans, marine fisheries and aquaculture in Canada and around the world. The festival coincides with the anniversary of the announcement of the cod moratorium this week, which resulted in the biggest layoff in Canadian history, which left 40,000 people out of work and drastically changed the history and culture of Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s considered one of the biggest ecological disasters of the twentieth century.
Petty Harbour resident Bernard Martin was, and is still, a fisherman. His father was also a fisherman. His grandfather was a fisherman. His great-grandfather was a fisherman.
Throughout his life, Martin has been outspoken about marine conservation. In 1999 was awarded an international award, the Goldman Environmental prize, for his work speaking out about fishing practices that were harming the stocks, and his work helping organize inshore fishermen in Petty Harbour.
Elling Lien sat down with him to talk about what it was like for someone whose family history was so linked to cod, and who had long been fighting to protect the future of the stocks, to have the it taken away on July 2, 1992.
Where were you when you heard the announcement of the cod moratorium?
It was the beginning of the season so we weren’t quite into the swing of things. I seem to recall that the cod was pretty scarce and late. Late coming inshore that year. Some guys had cod traps out, but, like I said, there wasn’t very much fish being caught at that moment when the moratorium was declared. But people were certainly geared up and prepared to go fishing.
I happened to be on the road at the time, I was with Neil Tilley [of the Community Development Co-Op] and a bunch of other guys and we were on the road doing a speaking tour across the island talking about this issue. The collapsing cod stocks.
We were in Grand Falls, we were getting ready to give a talk and so we were in some motel room getting ready for the next day. We were going to do a talk to some local people or organization. We were sitting around looking at the TV, watching the news, and we saw all the guys down at Delta Hotel, and John Crosbie was in there making the announcement, and the fishermen were…
Barred outside. The doors were barred and they all started banging on the doors.
Jeez. For me that was a pretty emotional time. Because I wanted to be there, right? I was in Grand Falls and I was just like, “oh jeez, I wish I was there.”
Even though I think everybody expected it, it was a real shock to everybody when it hit home, you know? The fishery’s closed down for the first time in… Well, it was the first time in history that it was shut down, because there was no fish left. There was so few fish left that there was nothing else left to do — only shut it down completely. So that’s where I was at at that moment.
You were doing a speaking tour about the cod stocks, so it couldn’t have been much of a surprise for you.
No, it wasn’t too much of a surprise, no because I think a lot of fisherman, not just myself, especially inshore fisherman… I’m sure other offshore fisherman could see the writing on the wall too. Years before the moratorium a lot of inshore fisherman—from at least the mid-1980’s to the early-90’s—they saw their catches declining, and they saw the average size of cod declining. They had to spend more time on the water to catch, in some cases, smaller amounts of fish, smaller fish. So they were spending more time on the water, they were having to use more gear, more gillnets, more cod traps, or having to spend more hours with their hand lines or whatever to catch smaller amounts of fish. And smaller fish. So those are the warning signs that we took, we took that to mean that the stocks had something very serious was happening with the stocks.
Was there a particular moment when you were fishing where you were particularly shocked about what you were seeing?
I don’t recall any particular moment, no. There was just the general realization. There was just sort of a grim realization that, “jeez, things are not getting any better.”
Stocks were in decline. And, you know, inshore fisherman tried to do something around around mid-1980’s or something. There was an organization of inshore fisherman called NIFA, the Newfoundland Inshore Fisheries Association. Tom Best was heavily involved in that, and Cabot Martin… One of their big efforts was to try and get the fishing on the spawning stocks in the winter time, trying to get the draggers to stop fishing in the spawning grounds during the winter months. Because what happens in winter, cod sort of congregates in certain areas to spawn, to mate and to spawn and because the cod is so concentrated they’re an easy target for the draggers. So you had draggers at that time, mostly the Canadian dragger fleet because this is after the 200-mile limit, so it was mostly Canadian dragger fleets that were fishing the cod stocks during the winter spawning season.
And through talking to some of the offshore fisherman, we got this picture of the draggers fishing through the spawning cod, through these dense schools of spawning cod and coming up with huge nets full of cod; dumping the cod out on the deck and literally seeing the spawn running out of the females.
I don’t know how much is exaggeration and how much is fact, we heard stories about the fisherman on the decks on some of these trawlers, sometimes standing knee-deep in spawn and milt.
You know, it’s horrible when you think about it, right?
What we can do with technology. Somebody invents a technology that’s so efficient that it’s way too efficient and it ends up destroying the stocks. What NIFA tried to do was to take the federal government to court, because it was DFO’s responsibility to protect fish habitat. It’s one of their prime mandates, right? So NIFA says, “Well wait a second… Why is DFO allowing draggers to fish on the spawning grounds during the winter months?”
So they somehow managed to take DFO to court, but the judge ruled that the burden of proof was on NIFA to prove that damage was being done.
So that failed. They weren’t able to stop the fishing the spawning grounds through legal action. Yeah so, fishery scientists were basing their estimates of stock abundance on, well, they had their own random surveys… Fisheries Research boats would go out and do random surveys here and there, and all over the range of the northern cod. The random surveys were coming back with numbers that indicated that the stocks were in decline, but the other information they relied on to make their stock assessment was the catch per unit. CPUE, catch per unit of effort I think is how it is. The catch per unit of effort for the offshore dragger fleet. I guess most people just call it catch rates.
Their catch rates stayed quite high right through the 1980’s, and it was only just before the moratorium that they started to go down, right? So based on the catch rates of the offshore dragger fleets, everything looked fine. But what they weren’t taking into account was that they were using more and more sophisticated technology to catch and find the fish.
The technology was such that they could find the last concentration of cod, and get their quotas, and the catch rates were going to stay high right up until there was almost literally no more big schools of fish to find. And then that’s when the catch rates for the offshore trawler fleet started to drop off. And that’s when the warning bells went out in Ottawa.
But before I finish that thought, at the same time that the scientists were getting their results from their random surveys and that was showing a decline, the offshore catch rates were going along just nice and level.
That’s offshore. Meanwhile, the inshore catches were declining throughout the 80’s and for some reason the inshore catch rates they weren’t as clearly understood or measured or something or other. Also, the anecdotal information, the fisherman telling how they had to use more nets, or more traps, or more hours hand lining, and the fish were getting smaller and smaller. That whole story wasn’t being taken into account, as far as I understand. So you had all those three things going on.
So at the point where the offshore dragger catch rates started to go downhill pretty quickly, that was when the Fisheries Minister acted and slashed quotas. Around 1990 they slashed the quotas, but I guess it was too little too late.
And then 1992 came. The draggers went out to fish their normal fishing grounds and they came back, “No, can’t find any cod.”
And then that was when the decision was made to; well I don’t know if it was that dramatic but they came back certainly, you know they weren’t able to fill their quota. So that was when the decision was made: well there’s nothing left for us to do, only just closed it down.
That was in the spring of 1992.
So I mean the decision wasn’t actually made until July—July 2nd.
Your family I mean… Your grandfather, great grandfather, and father all fished. And to hear that. I can’t even understand.
Yeah, I know, yeah.
I did speaking tours across Newfoundland, across Canada. I did a speaking tour in Alaska with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. I did another tour in New Zealand with the Greenpeace New Zealand, and I was also involved at Oxfam in small-scale fisheries development in Nicaragua and Eritrea. And I spent 10 days down in New York City at the UN High-Seas Fisheries Conference in ’93 I think it was.
I was there at the invitation of the Canadian Environment Network, and I was also sponsored in part by the Newfoundland and Labrador Environment Network… I think they’re connected or were connected with the Canadian Environment Network. So I got sent down there and was down there for 10 days.
So I got to see and talk to a lot of people about what was happening here, and everybody was dying for information and stories about: “what’s it like?”
Because it was unprecedented for such a huge fishery.
All of these fishing nations and all these fishermen, environmental organizations, conservation groups they just they wanted information. They wanted firsthand experience about it. They wanted somebody to speak about, because in many cases, their fisheries were in decline or collapsing as well. I was able to get involved because I had a particular way of speaking about the issues. I lived firsthand through the cod moratorium and the sort of years leading up to that. It’s not something that I really wanted to do.
I don’t consider myself a public speaker. I’m not that type. I’m more an introvert. I’m not out there waving my arms and shouting to crowds. But I just got into it because I felt very, very strongly about the issues and what I wanted to say in my particular take on it I. I didn’t mind saying, “It’s mainly the offshore dragger fleets.”
Not to say that inshore fishermen are angels.
I guess when I started out I used to think maybe I think I was just being naïve or something. Or maybe I just wasn’t looking at things objectively enough. But I used to think there was a conservation ethic of sorts particular to the inshore fishery. But I don’t believe that anymore.
If they could catch more, they would, kind of thing?
It often comes down to lack of opportunity. If you have the opportunity or if you have the technology, if you’re an inshore fisherman or an offshore fisherman, it doesn’t matter, you’re going to use it. You’re going to catch as much as you can. That’s just human nature.
It’s hard to get people to hold back. What did you think was different about the inshore fishery?
Yeah. I guess the thing with the inshore fishery, there were certain practices that limited how much impact it could have on the stocks. It was the seasonal fishery. Lots of years the fish didn’t come inshore or it came in small numbers or fewer numbers, and so the fishermen weren’t able to catch as much as they would like to in other years. Weather is a big factor; cold water temperatures. Those factors don’t really apply so much to the larger industrial dragger fleets.
There’s also other cultural practices, like Sunday. Nobody fished on Sundays. Right up ‘til just a few years before the moratorium it was unheard of for fishermen to go out fish on Sunday. But the idea wasn’t let’s give the fish the break. “Let’s just take one day and we won’t fish on that day so that’ll give the fish a break, we won’t be fishing.” It was, “no, we’re going to stay home with our families since we worked 5, 6 days this week really hard and we’re going to stay home on Sunday and take a break; go to mass or whatever.” For those who went to mass.
But that practice, it was, in a sense, a conservation measure. Whether it was conscious or not. It had the effect of being, at least conserving a little bit of the cod stocks. And the technology, hand lining for cod, it’s pretty simple. It’s pretty basic, and has almost no impact on the habitat of the cod.
Cod traps, well there’s problems with cod traps, but again it’s a passive technology, it’s not something like a big net that gets scraped over the ocean bottom and drags up everything in its wake. It doesn’t destroy the bottom habitat.
So like I said, there are particular problems with cod traps but nothing as severe as draggers.
I remember seeing satellite images of Chinese shrimp trawlers a few years ago with plumes of mud and silt behind them. Just incredible.
The other gear type that’s problematic is gillnets, monofilament gillnets.
The problem of ghost fishing. [Abandoned nets that continue to catch fish.] Those are all technologies that inshore fishermen use. And cod jiggers are problematic.
Really? Jiggers are bad?
Because they damage a lot of fish. We used jiggers years ago. Mostly we used baited hooks. But sometimes like late in the fall or when the fish went deep and it was harder to catch, jiggers would be used. But a lot of fish get hooked and the hook tears out, just because of the design of the hook.
So I mean like I said, there are problems with some of the inshore gear types. I think hook and line gear is probably the least offensive. Baited hooks.
Where they’re coming up to it and biting it?
So when you were going around talking to fisherman around the world, what kind of questions were they asking you?
Well they just wanted to know what the hell happened–what happened to the Canadian cod stocks. A fishery and a fish stock that was known all over the world for its abundance and long, long history, and it was just unbelievable that it just collapsed overnight, literally, or so it appeared.
So I would just tell them the story, the events leading up to it. I would generally go chronologically. Start out by saying up until 1950’s or early-60’s is when the large foreign dragger fleets started to come over here from Europe from Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and they started plundering the cod stocks. There were no rules. No regulations, pretty much. It was just a free-for-all.
And the stocks were very nearly wiped out.
And so after that the 200-mile limit was put in place?
The 200-mile limit was declared in 1977. That’s when Canada got control out to the 200-mile limit. Before that it was open water, and we only had a 12 mile territorial limit.
So in 1977, Canada took over and had jurisdiction out to 200 miles. Beyond that it was still open water, at the Nose and the Tail of the Grand Banks, and that’s still the case. And the Flemish Cap. But for the most part, Canada had control and had control of most of the range of the northern cod, and so it was an opportunity for Canada to set things right again.
And for a while after 1977 things did definitely start to improve, right up until the early, to the mid-1980’s—inshore catches were getting better, fish seemed to be getting larger. People thought, “hmm, okay, we’ve turned a corner.”
But at the same time the foreign effort wasn’t driven out, it was just removed from the inside the 200-mile limit; and that effort was replaced by the Canadian dragger fleet. And the Canadian dragger fleet started hitting the stocks just as hard. They were hitting the stock which was not yet fully recovered from the overfishing which happened throughout the 50’s, and 60’s, and early-up-to-the-mid-70’s by the foreign dragger fleets.
So before the cod stocks had a chance to fully recover, they were beaten down again.
Things weren’t as bad by the late-80’s as they were in the mid-70’s. That’s basically what I would tell them.
What kind of effect do you think that had on them? They wouldn’t have changed their fishing strategies based on that.
Well, telling the story and having people listen and act appropriately is another side of the problem. After I had done this for a few years I started to think this is getting a bit tiresome. I didn’t know if anybody was listening.
It must have been terrible to relive that so often.
Yeah. After a few years I got really tired of it and just when we got an opportunity to go to get back into the fishery, to get access to the crab fishery. I was more than happy to go back fishing.
How long after the moratorium did you get back to the fishery?
About four years. We started fishing crab in ’96. When we started out with crab fishery, we had pretty small quotas. So it wasn’t as big for us or important for us then as it is now, but still it was a start. So and we were still involved with the sentinel survey. So I was doing the sentinel survey, doing some crab fishing, and we did some lobster fishing too. Lobster’s not a big fishery in our area, but it was something to be involved in.
Were you ever tempted to leave the province for work?
Oh yeah, I was, many times. I could have, I could have. I was in a relationship at the time, myself and my ex-partner. We were together right up ’til the moratorium and shortly after. And we had a plan, we we said, “okay this is not looking like it’s going to end anytime soon. We’ve got to think about the practical problem of how do you earn a living with the fishery gone? Nobody knows when it’s coming back.”
There was some income support, but not enough to keep a family, you know? So she went out to Vancouver and started looking for work, and I was supposed to join her within six months or something. And things didn’t work out, so I stayed.
There was a part of me that didn’t want to leave, I think.
But anyway, that’s on the personal side. We split up a couple years down the road after the moratorium. And my youngest son was living in Vancouver for many years with my ex-partner because that’s where he wanted to be. And my other son, my older son, was at home with me. He was finishing high school and that’s where he wanted to be. And then he went from there to university. My two daughters — step-daughters — they were on their own anyway. They were in Vancouver; they were both out there and working.
Do you think the moratorium played a role in the family being divided?
Oh yeah, definitely, yeah.
The decision to move to Vancouver was the plan. That didn’t work out. But the decision to go was directly related to the moratorium. And lots of other people did it, they got out of the fishery, went other places, or found other work, or retired, or whatever. So I could have easily not been here today talking to you, I could have been out in Vancouver.
But you stayed with fishing. You went back to fishing after that.
Yeah, yeah. When the crab fishery opened up I decided I was going to hang in there, although it didn’t look very promising at first. Small quotas; there was only two of us that had a quota, starting out. Two small quotas. There was still some income support but that ended a couple of years later. It was difficult. I still had my oldest son living with me and he was finishing high school, starting university. But I hung in there and then a year later the crab fishery prices were up, the quotas were up and we got an extra quota, and the third partner got a quota, so we were doing quite a bit better. So things worked out in the end for us. For me, anyway.
You went back to it, so what does the fishery mean to you?
I like working with my hands. I particularly like working outdoors. I like being in a boat. So the opportunity to go fishing really appealed to me a long time ago, and it’s really stuck with me. At times it’s satisfying — very satisfying at times — but it also just depends on how much fish you’re bringing in, right? It can be very discouraging when things go wrong, but at other times you just sort of hit the jackpot and everything else gets forgotten. You forget about the last year when everything went wrong, and the price was down, and you couldn’t make your boat payment and stuff like that. Then the next year the price is up, and you’re doing good. It’s what keeps people going, right? And that’s just the nature of fishery.
So when you’re involved in it you just get used to that cycle, and you roll with it. It just becomes a part of the routine. Every now and then you’re going to have a bad year, but hopefully you’re able to pull through and keep going.
You have kids, did you recommend them to go into the fishery?
No, not really. There are too many uncertainties, and I felt like I would be irresponsible to encourage any of my kids to get into the fishery because of that uncertainty. From one year to the next, the highs and lows of your income and the frustrations of when things go wrong… Well, my son, he’s working in Ottawa, he’s an engineer and working with a company up there, I’m sure he’s got a very good income. My other son’s in San Francisco and he’s working for a software company down there, and he’s also got a very good income. My daughter is working in Iqaluit, she’s a lawyer. Adrienne. And Jennifer’s in Vancouver, she’s working for HRDC. They’ve all got very good jobs and good incomes. Better incomes than I had.
I’ve always encouraged them to, you know, do whatever you want to do. Find something that you really like and just do it, and go with it.
But, no, I’ve never said, “jeez, I’d really like you to take over this fishing business when I’m done with it.”
Like I said, I always thought that would be kind of irresponsible of me.
But so now you’re the last generation of fishermen in your family.
Yeah, yeah. Now, if one of the children came back and said, “you know, I’d really like to take over this business when you’re done with it.” Then, “Ah, sure, here, take it.” I wouldn’t deny them or anything, or refuse. But I certainly wouldn’t actively try and persuade them.
For information about the Fishing for the Future Film Festival, visit their website at www.fishingforthefuturefilmfestival.ca.
Thu, Jul 5, 2012
Chances are that if you’re reading this, you are sitting (or standing) in or around St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Congratulations! You’re in a magical world of multicoloured houses, fog, and city streets that make no sense. This city is the birthplace of British imperialism, the wireless telegraph, and our Lord and Saviour Danny Williams. Newfoundland and Labrador’s biggest exports include labour power for the Alberta oil sands, Republic of Doyle, and most recently, equalization payments to subsidize our poor cousins in Ontario.
Historically, of course, things weren’t always so rosy. The quality of life in much of the province before Confederation in 1949 could generously be described as ‘medieval’. Unemployment has been a problem here since they started keeping records, and there is also an unfortunate piece of local history where the indigenous Beothuk people go extinct. Most of downtown St. John’s has burned down a good two or three or five times too.
From its discovery until well into the 19th century, the only reason anyone came to this jagged rock off the coast of North America was its location next to one of the world’s richest fisheries. Fishing, of course, is a hard living, and it didn’t help that the economy was almost entirely structured around having fishers remain perpetually in debt to a handful of fish merchants. Also, the only thing there was to do for fun was go to church and start fights with people who don’t go to the same church—that is, unless it was Christmas, in which case you would dress up in ridiculous clothes and go around drinking other people’s booze. This is called mummering, and it’s amazing.
If the province’s economic history is a story about the fishery, its political history is one about trying to get away from it. It’s pretty much impossible to collect taxes from fishermen if the industry ensures they literally never have cash, and we know how much politicians love collecting your money. Unfortunately, the historical method of development here has generally been to find the richest industrialist(s) around, give them a bunch of land and subsidies, and hope for the best. That’s how we got the (now defunct) railway, the (now defunct) paper mill in Grand Falls, and the (probably soon-to-be defunct) paper mill in Corner Brook.
Also, for some reason, voters in the 1920s and early 1930s kept electing Sir Richard Squires as the Prime Minister despite the fact that he and his government were routinely getting busted for corruption. They were apparently willing to let it slide until the Depression hit, and in April 1932 something like 10,000 people rioted in the streets of St. John’s. They stormed the Colonial Building on Military Road and smashed everything inside, and Squires barely escaped with his life out one of the back windows.
The government that succeeded him took one look at the mess the country was in and decided they wanted nothing to do with it: in perhaps the smartest move ever undertaken by Newfoundland’s politicians, they voted themselves out of existence in 1934.
By the time World War 2 was over, the island was a lot more prosperous and people were ready for a go at politics again. The first thing that happened was an epic showdown over whether or not to join Canada. In one corner, repping “the People” and a hilarious assortment of bowties was Joseph R. “Joey” Smallwood, local radio host, pig farmer, and union activist (he once walked the entire length of the island’s railway doing a recruiting drive); in the other were the St. John’s merchants and the local branch of the Catholic Church. After two extremely close referendums, Confederation won by the tiniest of margins and, against everyone’s better judgement, Joey Smallwood became our first Premier.
Smallwood was determined to modernize the hell out of Newfoundland, and by God did he ever try. Sometimes—okay, most of the time—a little too hard. The first thing Joey did upon assuming absolute power was hire a Latvian con-artist named Alfred Valdmanis who helped him track down German industrialists to build random factories everywhere. Literally. Didn’t matter what they made or whether or not the products were even any good; if you would actually build your factory in Newfoundland, Joey would subsidize it. During the 1950s the man built everything from a rubber boot factory to a chocolate bar factory to an ugly sweater factory and even a machine manufacturing plant that Joey was convinced would create over 10,000 jobs. It didn’t: almost every single one of these plants was closed by 1960, because, as it turns out, you can’t actually just build random factories everywhere for no reason and expect them to make any money.
Not that this put a damper on Smallwood, of course: the man was always bursting with good ideas. A few of his unrealized dreams fill up a whole chapter in his autobiography: at various points in his tenure, it turns out, he considered other brilliant ideas like building a replica German town filled with actual non-English speaking Germans out in the bay somewhere as a tourist trap, swapping oil from the Come-by-Chance refinery (one of the largest bankruptcies in Canadian history, by the way) for orange juice, and introducing a herd of bison to a small island off the south coast (this last one actually happened, and it went over about as well as you’d think). Never let it be said he wasn’t one for thinking outside the box. Oh, and his government also pretty much gave Quebec a century of free hydro electricity, but this last one’s kind of a minor point that never comes up.
After almost a quarter-century of this nonsense, Comrade Smallwood was finally turfed in the early 1970s by the dashing young Frank Moores, a man dedicated to throwing sexy parties and corporatizing the fishery. But provincial politics eventually put a damper on the sexy parties, and being a man whose priorities were in order, Moores resigned a few years later. His successor was the significantly less dashing Brian Peckford, who is arguably Newfoundland’s greatest proponent of healthy eating. When Peckford wasn’t fighting with Ottawa for offshore oil rights, he was a big cucumber enthusiast; so big, in fact, he was seduced by a sales pitch that promised Newfoundland and Labrador would be the world capital of cucumbers if he’d just build a giant hydroponic greenhouse in Mount Pearl. Seriously. Sprung Greenhouse cost $23 million dollars, the cucumbers were outrageously expensive, and no one had bothered to check into the market research which showed that Newfoundlanders, on average, ate one cucumber a year. I honestly don’t know why they didn’t just grow pot, because someone in the Premier’s office was obviously high.
Unfortunately for the Tory government at the time, Peckford’s Pickle Palace wasn’t the hit they were hoping for, and they were swept out of office in the next election. Even more unfortunately for the Liberals who replaced them, they came into power just in time for the cod fishery to collapse in 1992; apparently, if hundreds of factory trawlers spend two decades razing the ocean floor, you’ll eventually catch all the fish? This probably would have been it for the province if they hadn’t also discovered oil off the coast in 1979, even though the province wouldn’t really start seeing a lot of revenue until around the millennium. In the meantime, Premier Clyde Wells metaphorically flipped off Brian Mulroney by torpedoing the Meech Lake Accord, Premier Brian Tobin sold the Marystown shipyard for a dollar before deciding to spontaneously bail on being the Premier, and Premier Roger Grimes managed to get the province’s name changed from ‘Newfoundland’ to ‘Newfoundland and Labrador’ before the party was tossed out of power by Danny Williams heading into the most prosperous time the province has ever known.
Danny Williams, of course, is probably the most popular Premier we ever had: we liked the guy as much as we liked Joey, except Danny also had the foresight to quit the game before degenerating into senility. Say what you will about him (and there are a lot of things to say), but anyone who literally runs a national campaign against Stephen Harper, motivated entirely out of spite, is pretty all right on in my books. But his achievements since leaving politics overshadow anything he did in office: dude brought the AHL back to Town. He got us hockey, b’ys! How wicked is that?This is probably also the part where I should mention what Kathy Dunderdale’s new government has been doing, but mostly, they just don’t.
And here we are. Newfoundland and Labrador’s story is still unfolding, but if this transparently glib interpretation of history teaches us anything, it’s that whatever is in store next is guaranteed to be hilarious. Especially now that our politicians are on Twitter. Can you imagine if John Crosbie was tweeting back in the 70s? Iron Sheik, eat your heart out.