“Newfie” panel discussion

NB: Neil Butler
Actor and writer. Tracks the online use of the word “Newfie” at ­newfieinuse.blogspot.com

RL: Ruth Lawrence
Actor, director, filmmaker. Executive Director of the Nickel Film Festival.

DB: Dan Banoub
Graduate student completing an honours thesis in Anthropology on the subject of Newfoundland identity and (former) employee of Fred’s Records.

TP: Tom Power
Musician and CBC Radio Two host of the weekly folk music program Deep Roots.

BJ: Bruce Johnson
Fine art curator at The Rooms, currently putting together an exhibit on the subject of Newfoundland identity for later this year.

What do you think when you hear the word “Newfie?”

NB: I’ll tell you what I want it to mean. I want it to mean someone whose misrepresenting Newfoundland at this point. I’d like to see the word redefined somehow. Someone that’s been removed so long they don’t actually know what’s going on here. But that doesn’t stop them from getting their back up whenever they’re talking about “Newfie”-land or whatever. Somebody misrepresenting Newfoundland. Let’s take the word back.

RL: It’s funny, I do think the term is going to change, I really hope it does. That other N-word I can’t say has become a prominent part of black culture, and after really so many people worked so hard for so many years to distance themselves from that word. How does the grandmother of an 18-year-old feel when she hears him say the N-word? She must think “my god, I failed, I failed.”

BJ: There seems to be two contexts for the word “Newfie”. Or there has been traditionally, when I heard it as a kid. One of them was from outsiders talking about Newfoundlanders—a “Newfie”. But then there was the export of the term “Newfie”. The “Newfie” brand was exported.

But now I think the culture has come into it’s own in a whole other way. Not that it hadn’t in the past, in the 70s that happened with CODCO, and lots of other things, people coming into their own. But I see a new kind of assurance these days. I work a lot with artists who are here. Twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, and I think some of their attitudes are very self-assured.

NB: Newfoundlanders are always known, I guess, for going away. In the past it was on boats, I guess, but now Newfoundlanders are going away, seeing the world, and coming back.

BJ: Like going to the Giller Awards.

[laughter]

BJ: It filters into this idea that interests me—this nationalism that has popped up again now, and it’s beginning to be a bit of a fashion again. We’re reconsidering Newfoundland nationalism.

NB: I hope it lasts longer than a month this time.

BJ: Well I think there’s good reason now. Plenty of people are happy about lots of things. That “have”/”have-not” status change meant a lot to all of us, including people like me who had been a CFA 16 years ago. Changes are coming, and I think the word “Newfie” could be reclaimed. Just look at “queer”— that got reclaimed.

NB: About a year ago I changed my point of view on the word “Newfie”. I was like you, Ruth, and I said I wasn’t going to use that word, shag that word.

I self-identify as “fag.” I love that I’m a fag. Deal with it. But I realised there are people I respect and they call themselves “Newfie”. Nobody has a right to tell me what I’m going to call myself, so if someone says “I’m a Newfie,” well then, I’ve got to look at that word again.

RL: I have lots of friends who use it.

DB: A lot of people are not being mean when they’re saying it. I work at Fred’s and all summer I heard “I want to hear some ‘Newfie’ music.” They’re being nice, and they really do want to hear music from here— but should I tell them the word is kind of annoying? I’m always in that weird position. ‘You’re a nice person, you don’t mean anything bad by it, but you’re still kind of pissing me off.

RL: I’ve totally had people say it to me in an endearing way. It’s just one of those things that’s hard to judge. But its roots—in my experience the word has its roots in degradation. Anything that has its roots in degradation I have a really hard time seeing the other side of.

BJ: But even at Fred’s, when someone really nice comes in and says “we want to see the ‘Newfie’ section,” though it’s nice in intention, it’s based in paternalism, right? Like the minstrel show.

NB: I totally hear you. If it’s not that bad, it doesn’t have the violence associated with it that the other N-word does, should we suck it up? If we’ve been able to live on this rock with no topsoil for 500 years, why are we getting our jeans in a knot about it?

RL: Look at the cultures who’ve been joked about. The easiest example is Ireland. Suddenly Ireland became a thriving economy, with lots of their money coming from being the knowledge sector, as opposed to farming and traditional way of life, and suddenly, whose out making Irish jokes?

TP: Everyone. When I was in Europe, instead of two mainlanders and a Newfie, it was two English and an Irish. The Irish are still being made fun of.

And they’re still perpetuating the whole shamrock thing in a lot of areas of Ireland. You find in Cork they’re not so bad, but if you got to somewhere like Dublin, to the Trinity bar—the Irish jokes, the Irish pubs are there.

RL: It’s not that different from George Street in St John’s. I fully expect to hear a Newfie joke if I walk down George Street.

BJ: We often overlook the stereotypes that we like, that we embrace.

I went and asked a bunch of people today who were born here about the word “Newfie” and I was surprised by a lot of the answers, because a lot thought it was “endearing”, “it’s okay”, “it doesn’t bother me”, “why are you going on about it?” But immediately after I said that, these three people said, “well we like the name because we are such hospitable people, because we don’t have the kind of problems they have elsewhere; we aren’t racist…”

There are a lot of stereotypes there. Look at our tourism ads. They’re based on a stereotype we love, about Newfoundland being a friendly, safe place. And they’re based in some reality, I’m not saying they’re not. This is a safe place to bring up your kids, and people are generally friendlier than other places, but we do add a bit of hyperbole. And that hyperbole is an export, and we like to believe it.

So I think that goes with the word when we use it too. It goes with these other stereotypes which aren’t just about keeping your head down but are about keeping your head up. I think they both exist here.

TP: Maybe somebody whose dad owns the Irving in Appleton would have a completely different viewpoint on all this. …There’s a part of me that’s really hesitant to say anything because I feel like we see Newfoundland in a different way than many do. I’ve never had to live in Fort MacMurray and feel that loneliness and desperation and have to identify in that way in order to get along.

NB: Nope, I’m done pitying the “Newfies.”

TP: No, I’ve also never been in a place where you want to identify with other people who identify themselves as “Newfies.” I’m just saying, I’ve never been in that situation and I don’t think any of us have.

TP: …I really want to talk about Simani. They’re the best-selling Newfoundland group of all time, they sold more tapes of any other band within Newfoundland, and they’re not shilling to Alberta, they don’t play outside of St. John’s, and when I hear their music I love it. This is what real Newfoundland music is to me. And they have the line in one of their songs: “By the Lord dyin’, by the t’underin’ gee, how are you doin’, you son-of-a-bee? You can’t fool your old man by dressing like that, you’re still just a Newfie in a Calgary hat.” [Saltwater Cowboy] Why doesn’t that make me feel like they’re being pejorative? They’re not wearing oilskins, they’re not wearing rubber boots, and they’re not selling anything to mainlanders—they’re not even dealing with mainlanders. But it feels down home, the way people would talk to one another, and would never use it with anybody else. In kind of a “Oh, you’re a Newfie, b’y” way.

DB: We sell a lot of Simani records at Fred’s.

RL: Because, you know, it’s listenable. It’s good Newfoundland music. It’s appealing, and it’s not hurtful and I think you’re right, there’s an uneasiness about the word. In certain situations like that we can accept it, and then other situations we find it a little bit harder to. It’s interesting to see where that’s all going to go.

BJ: Well, we wouldn’t have had this conversation twenty years ago. I think we’re more conscious as a society across the country, but I honestly think we have a different sense of self-assuredness in the province now. I’m not saying that we weren’t self-assured before, but it’s different.

TP: I think I might disagree there because I know that, well, let’s take the “Newfoundland Renaissance” as they put it in that article in Saturday Night magazine about Al Pittman, about Pat Byrne, about Gerry Squires, this was the first crop of Newfoundland born artists who were making serious art movements in Canada, and I think they were really concerned with identity. And then out of that sprung CODCO, and the Wonderful Grand Band. So, yeah, I think this debate’s been going on for a really long time.

BJ: I agree. I just mean that no one’s willing to put up with the Globe and Mail in this province saying certain things any more. I agree that the artists and a whole bunch of people were fighting that, but now no one’s willing to have people say things like that. The province is self-assured of its place in this country.
This place could change in radical ways in the next twenty years.

RL: Oh, it will.

BJ: It could change in terms of who lives here, in terms of what we do, and all that’s going to change everything. I mean, some core things are going to stay, but everything could change in radical ways.

RL: Well, if you look at how our population is changing, with the in-migration and out-migration, it already is changing. Rural and urban Newfoundland is changing.

DB: But it’s in-migration to St. John’s or just outside St. John’s. Rural Newfoundland is not in the best spot right now. Trinity’s a good example. A lot of people bought up the houses that were left there, and they come here for a couple weeks in the summer and they hang out. Soon I could imagine that’s going to be the only kind of life that’s in rural Newfoundland, people coming for a few weeks to experience being around the bay.

TP: Kind of like a reality show.

DB: Survivorman: around the bay.

BJ: I think the divide between urban Avalon, and maybe some other urban centres, and the rurals, is huge.

TP: It makes me uneasy, man. It makes me uneasy talking about all this without having someone who is currently living in all those communities being here. On a personal level, nothing outside of that, but I feel uneasy talking about it.

BJ: The youngest person in the community where I bought up a house—I’m one of them—is about 52.

RL: One of the things that I was going to say earlier is that it’s interesting… I don’t know why we do this, but definitely in Newfoundlanders there are often divisions between the traditional and the contemporary. I have and I know lots of people who have an appreciation for such a wide breadth of the traditional and the contemporary. Like you were saying about a Newfoundland artist being a Newfoundland artists and all the things that go with that. I can’t help but wonder if the larger discussion is about how we look at ourselves and about how we pit ourselves against each other, and maybe the use of that word exactly exemplifies what we’re doing, and how we’re acting as a culture. There doesn’t appear to be an overall embracing of anything of this place. Some people appreciate this part, and some people appreciate that part, and maybe that’s why there’s such a contention, because we can’t really find…

BJ: Because we divide the traditional and the contemporary! But the best art here is on that continuum, the Lisa Moores, the Michael Crummeys are from a long tradition of very similar work. And even Hey Rosetta! with that kind of orchestration, and their work reminds me so much of the music that I’ve come to know since I’ve been in this place that values music, and a radically different type of music that I would have grown up with in Nova Scotia. A different sense of instrumentation.

NB: More piano. [laughter]

BJ: So I see it all as a continuum most of the time, but we tend to divide things.

RL We do. Well people say well, we can’t really fund that because you’re not really writing about here, and I’m like, well, I fucking live here, of course I’m writing about here. Take people making a living: the way people make a living here is so different from how they made a living here sixty years ago. My family’s profession is practically dead, so now they’re spreading out in all kinds of semi-related areas—they’re working on barges in Thailand instead of on draggers in Fortune Bay.

TP: I really liked that question [Elling] asked Hey Rosetta! in that Scope article a while back: you asked Tim Baker “how did being from Newfoundland affect their music?” and Tim said it absolutely did not.

Josh—the bass player—I was talking to him three days ago and we were talking about this. Maybe we could all say that some way or another it crept into their art, but they just don’t identify as a ‘Newfoundland group’ at all, except that that’s where they’re from.

NB: That’s good for them. That doesn’t make them traitors. And maybe that’s part of the new Newfoundland identity, it goes back to your reaction about the word “Newfie”— the “well, I don’t really care” reaction. Some people don’t have an opinion on it.

It’s the same thing: “How does Newfoundland shape your music? Because it does! It must!”

“Well, I don’t really think about it.”

TP: Outside of the Thomas Trio, they are the first act to really make it big without playing traditional music.

And maybe you guys are right, maybe this place is really changing. Yeah, I think it’s those changes that are going to lead to the change in the word “Newfie”.

I find, I really do, that more people on the mainland are saying to me these days “I know you don’t like to be called a ‘Newfie.’”

NB: Good! And you know, if someone came up to me and said that, then fine, they can get away with calling me a “Newfie” and I don’t really care how they mean it. Just acknowledge that I’ve got a problem with it. And you know what? What is the problem with mainlanders, anyway?

[laughter]

WHAT DO YOU THINK?:
What do you think of the word “Newfie”? Speak your mind here.

6 comments

  1. Al Saunders · August 1, 2011

    Hey, I just got home from Greece and my bestfriend passed me a copy of The Scope and said “Dude guess what, you’re in The Scope”.And sure enough it’s on the site too.I’ll explain, the picture that of the building on Duckworth that says Newfies Rule instead of Stupid Newfies.We were downtown one day and I saw that annoying “saying”, I said enough of this garbage so I scratched out stupid and added rule.Seeing this in The Scope when I got home this morning was so exciting !! Just thought I’d let you guys know, p.s. scope = ♥
    – Al

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