Letters from a Wonderful Strange Place

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Great Big Sea Men

Great Big Sea veteran Séan McCann has just launched his own site at greatbigsean.com to accompany his debut solo album: Lullabies For Bloodshot Eyes. McCann seems to be a little more active than his GBS bandmates on the interweb. Among other things he’s a fairly regular (and pretty entertaining) tweeter: twitter.com/greatbigsean.

I’ve only listened to the previews but so far I’ve taken a shine to ‘Peace Among the Bones’. I likes the cover art too.

Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes cover art

February 10, 2010   No Comments

Old Places and Old People

Dramatic population aging and decline is, in historical terms, a relatively new phenomenon in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador – it is fair to say that the critical turning point occurred in 1992, with the cod moratorium (a turning point for many things). Nonetheless the phenomenon is much talked about. It even gets a mention on the Heritage website.

For years the talk was about outmigration. It seems like I grew up with the word, actually, being a teenager in the 1990s. But outmigration has apparently tapered off somewhat these days, and the discussion has shifted to the fact that Newfoundland is getting to be an island full of old people.

In a recent article by political writer Jeffrey Simpson, the subject got some attention at the national level. Simpson’s demographic data was gleaned from a recent paper by MUN’s Keith Storey, which is accessible on the Harris Centre website as a presentation: “Help Wanted”: Demographics, Labour Supply and Economic Change in Newfoundland and Labrador. Gary Kelly also published a recent blog post focused on similar demographic issues in the Corner Brook area in particular.

Some of the most troubling facts are:

  • Population has declined by 12% since 1992
  • Newfoundland has the lowest birth rate in Canada (down from the highest a few decades ago)
  • Our death rate is higher than our birth rate
  • Our population is rapidly aging: the median age in 1971 was 20.9, in 2008 it was 42.

And, to top it all off, despite these facts, the urban areas of the province (primarily Town) are stable and actually growing. Which underscores the fact that population age and decline are primarily happening in the outports and in rural Newfoundland and Labrador generally.

The purpose of Storey’s presentation was to identify the looming macroeconomic issues which are a natural consequence of the demographic shift (such as labour market imbalance, health care costs, and declining municipal revenue bases) and to address the policies and possible strategies to deal with those issues. I don’t mean to discuss any of those practical concerns here – although they do weigh heavily on my mind – but really only feel compelled to share my personal reaction to all this.

The Fading of Old Places

One of the consequences of the slow aging and trickling away of people in the outports is the death of places. The capital-‘R’ Resettlement we all know about happened in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s (my mother-in-law is from a resettled community). But in recent years resettlement has quietly returned. 2002 saw the resettlement of the residents of Great Harbour Deep. Next year will see the upcoming resettlement of Grand Bruit.

In terms of recorded human history no European settlement in the New World is very old. So, Great Harbour Deep couldn’t as easily have been called an old place in comparison to, say, Athens, which has millennia of continuous human settlement. But there were people (French people) in Great Harbour Deep in the 17th century, which, in New World time, made it pretty old in 2002. And there is something very sad about a place that has had people as long as that suddenly disappearing from the map.

People leave their homes all the time to pursue opportunities elsewhere in their countries or in the world. But usually they leave a place full of people behind them. What does it feel like to be the last person in a once-lively place to close your door and never go back, knowing the place is empty save for ghosts, memories and the wind?

I think of the places that I have a personal connection to that have seen more vibrant days: Bishop’s Falls, where I was a child, Norris Arm and Comfort Cove in the Bay of Exploits (my mother’s side), and Hillview and St. Jones Within in Trinity Bay (my father’s side). Although I rarely visit these places now, imagining the possiblity of their complete abandonment by people is – so to speak – unsettling.

Detail from Samuel de Champlain's 1612 map. Great Harbour Deep appears as Baye dorge.

Detail from Samuel de Champlain's 1612 map. Great Harbour Deep appears as Baye dorge.

November 30, 2009   4 Comments

Bonfire Night

Remember, remember the fifth of November

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

This is the first verse of an English nursery rhyme about Guy Fawkes and the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. The (foiled) plot is the basis for the celebration of Bonfire Night. For more information on Guy Fawkes and bonfire night, have a look at www.gunpowder-plot.org, which is very good, or www.bonfirenight.net.

Gunpowder Plot conspirators

Gravel Pits and Blasty Boughs

On the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website the contributors maintain that most Newfoundlanders who observe bonfire night probably wouldn’t be able to say who Guy Fawkes was. That’s probably true. When we were growing up it was always just “bonfire night”. I don’t think I learned about Guy Fawkes until I was maybe eleven or twelve and read about him in a children’s encyclopedia about holidays.

That said, I remember bonfire night being something that we actually used to get excited about. I still have vivid memories of heading out to an old gravel pit near our town in clear, cold weather and throwing blasty boughs on a really big fire. I haven’t had a November 5 bonfire in years, in part because bonfire night doesn’t seem to be as big on the west coast of Newfoundland as it was in central, and maybe in part because bonfire night seems to be fading fast as a custom.

Some communities still organize an event with a great big fire and fireworks. My sister spent the last few years living in Harbour Breton and I know that they do that there. If you’re interested in going to a bonfire, it shouldn’t be hard to find one if there’s one to be at.

Although it’s been awhile since we’ve done it, every November this time I get a little excited about bonfire – and I’m always a little disappointed on November 6 after not having one.

Maybe I’ll start doing it again with my own family, if for no other reason than to give my daughter the chance to remember November too.

November 5, 2009   No Comments

Dictionary of Newfoundland English

I’ve decided that reviewing or drawing attention to books about Newfoundland and Labrador would be a sensible thing for me to do, given that i) I like to read them and, ii) the content of this site.

I thought I’d start with a text that is fairly well-known here but maybe not as well-known elsewhere.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English

Story, G. M., W. J. Kirwin, and J. D. A. Widdowson, eds. Dictionary of Newfoundland English, Second Ed. Toronto: U of T P, 1990.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English was first published in 1982. All of its entries are taken from materials written in or about Newfoundland from the early seventeenth century until the twentieth, and include definitions, pronunciation and contextual usage.

First and foremost the dictionary was an academic undertaking and contains a lot of technical and bibliographic information that will not be of considerable interest to everyone (although those who are so interested will no doubt appreciate the rigour and scale of the project). But, non-Newfoundlanders with some interest in Newfoundland culture or in languages generally will no doubt find the text entertaining to browse casually or even useful in conjunction with any Newfoundlandia which employs Newfoundland words or dialect.

As a someone who grew up in Newfoundland, the dictionary is actually a lot of fun. A lot words are unfamiliar, either because they were used in a different part of the island or because they have fallen out of common usage. But I get a tickle out of reading words that I am familiar with. Some of them you haven’t heard in awhile and the dictionary can stir memories (as Newfoundland English is being inexorably lost to ‘correct’ Canadian and American usage, dialect is stronger among older people, like my grandfather). Or, some words are familiar and your attention is drawn to the fact that the way you use a particular word is a little different from the way that other English-speakers do, if they use it at all.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English is also a good place to get ideas for other things to read, again because of the extensive bibliographic references to several centuries of literature.

For a quick look, the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage web site has a partial online version of the dictionary.

Dictionary of Newfoundland English: Second Edition with supplement

October 15, 2009   No Comments

Fairies in the Trees

I was sitting around with my wife’s family one evening a few weeks ago. It was one of those cool, late-summer nights, and we got to the subject of fairies. It was maybe because a few weeks before that night my wife and a crowd of her family went over to Woods Island, where some of her people had been resettled from.

In the harbour at Woods Island

The Fairies on Woods Island

They were joking that an older cousin of theirs who came from the island was a firm believer in the fairies. Which sort of belief was not always so unusual. I would venture that it’s a rare one now that believes in those kinds of things, but the days are not so far gone when the fairies were more than stories. I’ve been told that believing in fairies was especially common among the people from Woods Island. Or maybe those people just let go of old things a little more slowly. Anyway, on Woods Island it was important, especially for children, not to stray out after dark or else the fairies would come out of the trees and down to the houses and get you.

Mind the Children

Because, at least to my knowledge, there were no good fairies known in Newfoundland, or least not on Woods Island. Fairies were always bad. The really bad ones were known to take unwatched infants through open doors and windows and leave fairy children in their place.

Nobody believes in those things any more. And shortly after all this we gave up the stories for the night. I have to admit though, that I had to go and peek at our three-month-old daughter, who was sleeping in our room. The window was open after the hot day, and a cool breeze was shaking the leaves on the old tree in the garden. Just for a second, in the dark, I was superstitious enough to close the window little, and have a close look at the baby. I immediately felt very foolish.

At least until a few days later, when I was wandering around the bushes in the garden.

Fairy ring in the garden

September 22, 2009   No Comments

How Newfoundland got its Name

Some recently publicized documents, including a letter written by King Henry VII in 1499, have revealed the existence of a forgotten expedition to the New World. The story has received media coverage in The National Post and The Times. As well, check out the Tudorhistory.org blog.

Details about the expedition itself are scarce, including whether it even took place. University of Bristol historian Evan Jones has written an article on the letter.

In any event the letter itself is an instruction from Henry to his lord chancellor, John Morton, to suspend legal proceedings against a hitherto obscure Bristol merchant named William Weston, who was being sued in the Court of Chancery.

The King stepped in because he wanted Weston to make the voyage to the land discovered by John Cabot in 1497:

Soo it is that we entende that he shall shortly with goddes grace passe and saille for to serche and fynde if he can the new founde land.

It will never likely be known for certain when “new found land” came to refer to the island of Newfoundland in particular, but King Henry’s letter is the earliest known use of the phrase.

King Henry VII

King Henry VII

September 20, 2009   No Comments