Newfoundland & Labrador
Alrighty, you all. We are not in Oldfoundland. We are not in Newlostland. And we are CERTAINLY not in Oldlostland. We are in Newfoundland, or Terre Neuve as the French call it! And we couldn’t be more excited. After a long excursion from Ontario, we boarded a large ferry in Sydney, Nova Scotia bound for “the Rock” (no, fortunately, we were not going anywhere near Dwayne Johnson), and we’ve now been here nearly a week.
Newfoundland is like the Canada of Canada…it’s sort of hanging out up here, keeps mostly to itself, and the people are very friendly and welcoming. They are also almost like mainlanders, but the long independent history of the island has produced a few differences. For one thing, Newfoundland was still a colony of the British Empire until 1948, meaning that there are quite a few people still alive who were born as citizens of Great Britain, not Canada. The Union Jack still flies most places on the island, and relationships with the rest of Canada has sometimes been contentious (peaking in the removal of the Canadian Flag from all provincial buildings during then-Premier Danny William’s spat with Ottawa over oil royalties), but for the most part Newfoundlanders greet those “from away” with open arms.
As always, we listen to CBC Radio One wherever we end up. A life made up of continuous travel leaves little room for consistency, so hearing the same voices reading the national news always helps to assuage our homesickness. At the same time, we get to hear from the various regional broadcasters in the timeslots devoted to local programming, and a couple of strange Newfoundland things have caught our attention. Consider the following an incomplete guide to understanding current affairs in Terra Nova.
1. The Royal St. John’s Regatta
This boat race, held annually on the first Wednesday of August, is reportedly North America’s longest continuous sporting event–documentation exists of races dating back to 1816, and unverifiable reports indicate that water racing was taking place as far back as the 18th century. If the weather is appropriate, teams of rowers and crowds of merrymakers convene on Quidi Vidi Lake for a day of eating food while ostensibly observing a sports event. It’s a carnival atmosphere, and people really seem to like it.
Okay, so why is this strange? Well, it turns out that Regatta Day is a civic holiday in St. John’s, and it is only observed if the event actually goes ahead. Inclement weather can cancel the event, as can events surrounding the British monarchy to which the Newfoundlanders are very loyal (fortunately, Prince George’s birth did not throw too much of a wrench into things). It’s not surprising, then, that weather reports were intensely well observed for the last week or so. Thankfully, today was a beautiful Regatta Day and all of St. John’s’s (sic) rowing enthusiasts and revellers at the previous night’s George Street Festival could breathe a sigh of relief. Not as relieved are retail workers in the neighbouring municipality of Mount Pearl–Regatta Day is almost as well known for shopping as it is for racing.
2. Cucumbers Galore
Imagine that someone on a radio show says the following, as if it’s totally normal: “When most people think of cucumbers, they think of government boondoggles and lights on the hill.” The following story is about issues in the fledgling sea cucumber fisheries on the island’s south coast (which is strange enough–apparently the harvested sea cukes are dried and sold to Asian markets to flavour soups), but I was still thrown because when I think of cucumbers I think of long green vegetables that will one day become pickles.
As it turns out, the cucumber issue is one of the best known political failures in Newfoundland’s recent history. In 1987, a Calgary businessman named Philip Stroud convinced former premier Brian Pickford to launch a phenomenally expensive project to build greenhouses on the outskirts of St. John’s to grow, among other things, cucumbers. Anyone who has been to Newfoundland, particularly Newfoundlanders, will tell you that the island has many lovely attributes but the ability to grow a variety of hot climate vegetables is not among them. Still, the province’s dire employment climate at the time was enough to push the project into action.
It became clear within months that the Stroud Greenhouses were doomed to failure: production delays, spiralling costs, and the blight of an entire crop of cucumbers caused the initiative to go into recievership in 1989 at a cost of $22 million to the public. Brian Peckford resigned, and his Progressive Conservative Party that he had helmed went down to the provincial Liberals in the next election (fun sidenote: we interviewed the man who was Premier in Peckford’s absence for the month between his resignation and the Liberals’ victory as part of our Baie Verte documentary).
So now you know the true definition of a Newfoundland pickle!
3. Screeching In
Want to be a Newfoundlander but sadly your parents weren’t foresighted enough to hop on a Marine Atlantic ferry when your mom went into labour? Well, tough toenails. Being a Newfoundlander is the right of the island’s born only. But you can come close, and it doesn’t even have to involve reincarnation.
“Screeching-In” is the island’s way of making an “Honorary Newfoundlander” out of a mainlander, and it has been hanging over our heads the whole time we’ve been here like the continued threat of having to run the gauntlet on your first night at summer camp (although in this case there is less paddling). As we understand it, the ceremony can only be administered by an honest-to-goodness Newfie, and goes as follows:
STEP ONE: The “victim” (that’s you) is outfitted in a Sou’wester and made to stand in front of the host/MC and a group of witnesses.
STEP TWO: The group prepares a shot of Newfoundland Screech Rum (originally some kind of crazy brew from the West Indies, now it is Jamaica rum).
STEP THREE: Enter the fish. The victim must kiss a real fish on its lips, and the witnesses will judge the authenticity of the smooch and may demand a redo if the sincerity is felt to be lacking. To adhere to tradition completely, the fish must be a cod (though with the cod fishery the way it is, who knows).
STEP FOUR: The host/MC asks “Is ye a screecher?” and the victim replies, in his or her best imitation of a Newfoundlander’s accent: “Deed I is, me old cock, and long may yer big jib draw” (English: Indeed I am, my old friend, and may the wind be in your sails).
STEP FIVE: Down the rum!
While the ceremony in its current iteration is probably by and large a product of promotions by bars and pubs (and the makers of Screech Rum, the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation), the fish kissing at the core of the ceremony is reported to have its roots in good luck rituals performed for sailors who were bound south (presumably to pick up the rum). Apparently it sometimes also includes eating of the “Newfoundland Steak”–a thick slice of baloney.