Fourteen years after his famous best-seller on Canada, a noted journalist sets off again — at Maclean's request — for another searching but informal look at the nation, from Newfoundland to British ColumbiaBruce Hutchison December 10 1955
Fourteen years after his famous best-seller on Canada, a noted journalist sets off again — at Maclean's request — for another searching but informal look at the nation, from Newfoundland to British ColumbiaBruce Hutchison December 10 1955
FOURTEEN years ago Bruce Hutchison set out across Canada on a voyage of discovery. The result was a bestseller called The Unknown Country which has become a Canadian classic. Since the book was written, Canada has undergone a postwar transformation so great that Maclean’s felt it appropriate to ask the same writer to make a second coast-to-coast report on the state of the nation. The results of this rediscovery of a land that is still in many ways an “unknown country” will appear in fifteen articles commencing with the one on Newfoundland in this issue. These articles are not intended to “describe” the country or to catalogue its assets in formal terms, but to capture, in Hutchison’s own vivid style, something of its flavor and its spirit. Hutchison himself has interpreted his terms: “What does a man actually see far from the pavement in the little places that never get into the newspapers, among nameless men the public will never hear of? These are the only questions my series will try to answer.”
"These people will not become Canadian for a lifetime yet . . .
But they are the materials of a richer Canadianism . . .
These people have given us those qualities that come only out of hardship, endurance and the cold mandate of the sea”
THE twine loft of Bauline was perched high on crazy stilts beside the frozen sea. A smoky stove distilled the ancient odors of cod, tar, paint, salt and sweat, the native reek of Newfoundland, long impregnated in the lurching shed and in its owners. This tiny refuge of warmth and habitation contained six men, a ton of coiled fishnet and the inner substance of Canada’s latest legacy, which we have yet to count or comprehend.
Roses bloomed that day in Vancouver, grain sprouted from the prairie earth, blossoms blew in the Niagara orchards and nine provinces felt the first breath of spring. The village of Bauline shivered by its idle boats and watched a mile of ice grinding the eastern shore of Newfoundland, choking every cove, leaving the fish hordes uncaught and isolating the tenth province behind a woolly curtain of fog.
All the villages of this shore had lost a portion of their brief harvest and only livelihood as the ceaseless nor’easter blocked their fishing grounds. Cod had surged in from the Atlantic, were “eating the rocks,” and no trap awaited them.
The men in the twine loft made no complaint. Any day now the wind would change, the ice would disappear and Newfoundland’s short, genial summer would heap its old abundance on the beach. So Bauline waited patiently as its fathers waited through many a forgotten spring.
“Newfoundlanders are, as the literal meaning of the word. more simple than most Canadians. They have yet to feel the smartness, speed and resulting disillusionment, tension and fury of North America. They therefore possess a patience, an outward cheerfulness, and I suspect, an inner contentment deeper than ours.”
Four centuries of poverty, shipwreck, war, sudden death, plague, fire and survival have taught these men patience; yes, and driven them together in separate nationality, printed on their faces the unmistakable image of their kind, shaped their thoughts in distinct pattern, and produced a great people who have lately joined our nation. But that people—older than any of us in joint experience, more united, more homogeneous and harder-packed—will not become Canadian for a lifetime yet.
Anyone who supposes, however, that in Newfoundland we have inherited only a political problem, a social liability and a financial burden, should have seen the twine loft of Bauline on the fifteenth day of May.
The youngest fisherman of the crew, his cheeks pink from the salty wind and not yet grooved by time and weather, was mending a net in the twine loft. His wooden needle danced in his fingers like a living thing, and as he worked he hummed a merry tune.
A second man, of gigantic girth and face roughly carved out of roast beef, the veteran net maker of Bauline, lolled on a stool, stretched his gum boots closer to the stove and observed the apprentice with silent condescension. His working days were over but once he could weave a complete cod trap in six months.
The third man, a replica of a Chinese idol carved in teak, was squinting out of rheumy eyes, chewing tobacco with toothless gums and painfully bringing himself to the point of utterance.
“Why, ’tis easy now,” he said at last, in that odd accent derived from Devon and Ireland and the talk of foreign sailormen. “ ’Tis easy indeed fer fishin’ when they’ve de engines and all. We used to row at de oars.”
He held up his hands to show me how they had been twisted to the oar handles in fixed, circular grip like talons.
“De young,” he added, “don’t know nawthin’ about work in Newf’nland.” (He pronounced the name with a slur, like all Newfoundlanders, the emphasis heavily on the last syllable.) “Why, nawthin’ a-tall.”
The retired net maker permitted himself a grunt of approval. The others laughed, as Newfoundlanders are always laughing at some secret joke of their own. But the captain of the crew, a giant of middle age and squarely chiseled, crimson features, allowed that the work was hard enough, even with engines in the boats.
“Me fadder,” he said, "worked all of his life and not a penny to show fer it, and his fadder before him, and his fadder, too. And dat’s the truth of it. ’Tis always so wid fish.”
He spoke of fish as if the word itself explained the whole history of its people, and so it does—the cod swarm that brought men here in the beginning and still holds them on this barren shore against climate, misfortune and the magnet of the Canadian mainland.
I asked him if things had not changed for the better since Newfoundland joined Canada.
"Ah well,” said he, "de pensions fer me kids and me mudder, dat’s good all right but ’tis de price of fish, you see, dat spoils it all.”
Why did he keep on fishing when he could get a good job on the mainland? The question seemed to take him by surprise and he gave me a suspicious look with his hard blue eyes. No one, I dare say, had ever asked him about Canada before.
"Sir,” he answered, after reflection, "I’ll tell you wot it is: we lives a good life and ’tis de only work we know—a good life indeed when a man’s his own boss and no one to tell him come or go, and de fish ready to de net and de price fair.”
His voice took on a tone of craftsman’s pride: "Dawn to dark we pulls de traps and a woman workin’ on de stages, makin’ fish, fer every man afloat. Man and woman, we’ve bin happy here a long, long time.”
I looked through the door of the twine loft at the place where men and women of this breed have been happy for a long, long time.
The flat-topped houses of Bauline had been fastened like the nest of some monstrous sea bird to the base of a naked cliff. No discernible street, only a rough track wriggled between them and nothing moved on the cramped sea shelf but a few sheep and two lean cows.
A little church and, close by, a newly painted school told their story of this people’s struggle for religion and learning. A shaft of cut stone held the names of twenty-five men who died in two world wars—twenty-five men from the fifty-two families of Bauline. Beyond this scant acre of man’s possession stretched six thousand miles of coastline, the solitary island and the misty sea.
Such a scene—the stark headland by a tumbling cataract, the huddle of houses, the boats on the rocky beach, the solid May ice floe and the six men in the twine loft waiting dumbly for the wind to change—could be found nowhere else in Canada. Then I remembered that this was not Canada, except by legal contract and marriage of convenience. In every other sense Bauline and all Newfoundland remained foreign soil and their people strangers.
The captain, perhaps guessing my thoughts, climbed up on the pile of nets and took from the rafters a rusty weapon eight feet long. it was not likely, he said, that I had ever seen in Canada the mate of this sealing gun used by his grandfather. No one bothered with guns these days. It was easier, and saved ammunition, to walk out on the shifting ice and club the seal pups with a boat hook. Yesterday he had killed five, a mile from land. Their pelts wouldn’t bring much, but every dollar helped when you couldn’t launch a boat or spread a net to fish,
Few Canadians, I admitted, had ever seen a gun like that and, pressing the point, I asked him what he thought about Canada. The question stirred something deep in all these men. The stout net maker grunted again, the eyes of the Chinese idol glinted knowingly and the needle of the youngster paused in mid-air.
"Well,” the captain said at last, like a man announcing a weighty judgment, "dey tell me ’tis a very rich country. Yes, an’ it might be a very good country, and good folk, fer all of dat.”
Had he ever seen it? No, he had never seen it and he didn’t expect to. Canada was far away and a man heard little from over there.
What did he think of Newfoundland’s union with Canada? Well, for all he knew, Confederation might be a good thing, too, and provided a lot of money, he’d been told. But with the invariable courtesy that marks his race he let me understand that he felt little interest in Canada.
Why should he? In all its four centuries of separate life Newfoundland has had little contact with Canada and, until a few years ago, found little welcome among Canadians.
Its business was concentrated in Britain, the United States, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and South America. Its mind was concentrated on its own island, that oddly shaped door knocker hanging from the eastern wall of the continent.
Salt Cod is Losing Out
When Newfoundland knocked on Canada’s door for admission sixty years ago it was rebuffed and, as it thought, insulted. Therefore, its loyalty beyond its own coast extended only to Britain and its final entry into Confederation was barely accomplished by a combination of accident, two men’s genius and some pretty fancy back-room politics. "Come here at your peril, Canadian wolf,” is the best-remembered line in Newfoundland’s homemade balladry. It tells a long and tragic tale.
The skipper in the twine loft, being a Newfoundlander and one of nature’s gentlemen, did not remind me of those facts and in any case had little time to brood on them. He and every man like him on the island is grappling with an economic revolution that threatens the life of an inshore fishery unlike any other in the world—and soon must grapple with another, more complex revolution of the mind scarcely glimpsed so far.
The machine age is outdating the trap; draggers are dredging the distant sea floor with power scoops; the drying flakes, which used to cure the entire hand-made catch in the sun, are being rapidly replaced by factories, and salt cod by processed fish sticks to suit the modern housewife.
Of some twenty-three thousand men who salted cod ten years ago only ten thousand are left today. On the beach of Bauline the skipper showed me the last two boats left in this port which once supported fifty.
These men had everything they needed, except fair prices, and asked only a few hundred dollars of income a year. They seemed unaware that their living standard, as reckoned by economists, was about a third of the Canadian average. What economist could reckon the true standard of their life? It is to be reckoned only in contentment, memories, adventures, laughter, and the lonely freedom of the sea.
The mechanical and economic process now changing the face of the world has been telescoped in Newfoundland so rapidly, with a muscular push from the provincial government, that the men of Bauline cannot grasp its meaning, much less the political, social and spiritual revolution launched by union with Canada. If I wanted to know about politics and suchlike, the skipper said, I had better talk to Joey, the only Newfoundlander who had got his mind around these things (and he by no means completely).
As it happened, Joey—for no one calls Premier Joseph Smallwood by any other name—was standing that day on a hill outside his capital of St. John’s, leaning against the bitter wind and entertaining a vision. The black Homburg hat, rammed down on his ears, the invariable bow tie, the bespectacled face and sparrow’s figure might not look prophetic, but this little man was gripped by almost apocalyptic revelation.
He recognized us on the road, flung out his arm and pointed to the interior of his island. There, in those barrens, in an endless sweep of moor, rock and stunted trees, wealth beyond calculation awaited the touch of man. And he proposed to provide that touch. Sheep, he shouted above the gale, sheep were the answer, and he would populate the interior with sheep as he had already populated his own farm.
Sheep, therefore, have become the latest inspiration of an extraordinary creature who is part politician, part prophet and already an established figure in Canadian history. Sheep will provide the next installment of his economic revolution but not the last. Whether he is the man to guide the larger revolution of the mind inherent in Confederation remains to be seen.
Preoccupied with his current pursuit, Joey advised me to see for myself what was happening at the grass roots. He dashed off alone in his mud-spattered Cadillac (with a shovel in the trunk against emergencies) and I soon found myself in Petty Harbor, an outport south of St. John’s, whose elders were assembled to consider the ruin of their village.
The parliament of Petty Harbor appeared to consist of three men, in gum boots, overalls and tattered cloth caps, standing on the beach and blinking gloomily at the ice, the broken stages, the ragged cluster of houses, and the prospects of a barren year.
These men were not hostile — no Newfoundlander is hostile — but they were shy, and skeptical of an obvious stranger from Canada. At first they answered my questions in glum monosyllables and in an accent so queer that I could hardly translate it. Having sized me up as harmless, they evidently relished the chance of leisurely conversation.
The leader of this triumvirate—a massive fellow who had distended his moon face with a formidable wad of tobacco—called it a bad year, the worst he remembered, but then it had always been a hard life hereabouts.
"I t’inks,” he said, " ’tis de hardest work dere is, haulin’ traps, but ’tis no matter if dere’s fish and proper prices. Last year de fish was good.”
He shifted his tobacco thoughtfully, groping for an adequate description of the catch, and eventually hit on an unlikely word. "De fish,” he said, "was numerous, very numerous. But de price dis year no good a-tall.” After a long moment of cogitation he stated a basic fact of Newfoundland’s life: "Ah, if we only had land to farm!"
Around this sterile inlet of stone, though it would excite any artist, there was hardly land enough to nourish half a dozen cows, or even to hold the cod flakes.
A wizened little man, his eyes blurred by thick glasses, intervened to tell me that a hundred and fifty boats used to fish out of Petty Harbor, and now only thirty-six. "She’s goin’ under,” he said, and peered hopelessly at the stages on their rotting, lime-green piles.
The third man said nothing. He was incapable of speech, a flimsy, bewhiskered scarecrow, who suddenly shook with a wrenching ague as if he would fall to pieces.
I repeated the question I had asked at Bauline why did they stay with the unprofitable shore fishery? The leader’s answer was prompt and decisive: "Too old.”
"Too old” and all the upheaval, the misery and yet the fair hope of the revolution were compressed in those two words. "Too old”—and the moon-faced man searched my eyes for a glint of understanding, the little man behind the spectacles muttered to himself and the ancient mariner was shaken bodily by some unseen hand. "Too old”—what more was there to say?
That point established, the parliament of Petty Harbor fell into dismal silence. As we stood there in the cutting cold, our communications severed, a fourth man joined us and quickly established himself as leader of the opposition.
He was a tall, rugged man of bulging frame, his face lined but unconquered by toil and adversity.
"Confederation?” said he. "Why, ’twas de bloodiest fool thing we ever did. And Joey spendin’ millions on his new industries and not one of ’em any good. Oh, they’ll all go broke, you’ll see, and when de Americans finish spendin’ money on de airfields Newf’nland’ll be finished, too.” He laughed bitterly and added for my benefit: "Then Canada can take care of us.”
If I wanted to see the true state of things, he said, I should drive down the bay to Maddox Cove, his birthplace. A zigzag path between an avalanche of pink boulders led me to the Cove and the only human being in sight.
He was such a man as Rembrandt would have painted and Shakespeare might have taken as a model for Falstaff a squat, barrel-shaped man, his swollen face as purple as old Burgundy and his job was to fix the track called a road.
What had happened to Maddox Cove? The wine-faced road man replied in brief, every word emerging as a separate, hoarse agony. "All gone,” he said. Joey was a great man and Confederation a good thing but no one could salvage Maddox Cove.
His face turned a deeper purple as he thought of it; he uttered a final verdict: "Nobody’s happy any more, nowheres.” And dragging the words from a bottomless despair, he pronounced his sentence on life: "Let ’em drop de bomb. ’Twon’t make any difference.”
The restaurant a few miles down the shore at Bay Bulls serves excellent food and has been equipped with civilization’s masterpiece, a juke box. Since his freight schooner was fast in the harbor ice, a bronzed skipper was hoisting too many beers and plugging the juke box with nickels. We could never have met before but he instantly recognized me as an old friend, reminded me of a riotous party we had enjoyed together last winter in Placentia but promised, with a solemn wink, to keep that affair dark.
He was having a bit of fun, he confessed, but when the ice went out and his ship could move, there’d be no more drinking and no liquor on board. I believed him. The sea and the mastery of it were legible in that man’s salt-cured face.
He started the juke box playing a lively air and, for my benefit, danced a Newfoundland jig until he slumped down, winded. The new-fangled music, he gasped, wasn’t like the good old native tunes.
So they have danced here, in the face of weather and calamity, these four centuries.
It’s Cheaper to Build a Boat
On the beach nearby a plump youngster, Irish by accent, face and impudent blue eyes, was tinkering with his boat and singing to himself.
"Why sure,” said he, in an opulent brogue, "you’ll hear ’em complainin’ at Petty Harbor. Always they complain at Petty Harbor. But mark you, sir, I’ve bin about in my time, all ’round ! the world in ships, and there’s nothing as good as right here. Leave me alone to fish, me and five brothers, and that’s , all I ask. Ah, it’s grand thing fer a man.”
He remembered that I was from Canada and quickly added that Confederation was grand and Canadians were grand, too, "a lovely people, a very lovely people.”
Not far off, on Witless Bay, a lad hardly out of his teens was building his first boat—an unconscious testament to the future. It could be built for $150, he said, when you cut the keel and ribs out of the forest, and it would soon pay for itself in these good times. Move to town? Not he, when Witless Bay was full of cod and he was his own boss, with his own boat. In him the eighteenth successive generation of Newfoundland fisherman was putting out to sea.
At Tors Cove three aged characters huddled for warmth over a beach fire. The salmon swarmed out there under the ice, worth seventy cents a pound at this season, a fortune to these men, and already they had lost half the brief season’s catch. "Still and all,” said the oldest of the three, "it’ll be a good year, you’ll see.” Why, a man might make a hundred dollars in a few days when the salmon were running. So they waited by their fire, staring at the ice but never doubting the sea’s unfailing crop.
Outside Portugal Cove three small boys of ruddy complexion were walking three miles home from school. They climbed eagerly into our car, speechless with excitement at this chance of a ride, but under close questioning informed us that they had learned the words of
O Canada and had seen photographs Ottawa. The slow process of Canadianism was beginning.
The inhabitants of the Newfoundland coastline were poor but never pathetic—too intelligent, polite and proud to be patronized, too strong need anyone’s sympathy, too independent, roughcast and deeply grained lose their character in a world of smooth conformity, too settled in their own ways to change them by constitutional Act of Union with Canada.
If these four hundred thousand people are not yet Canadians by any compulsion outside the statute books, they are the material of a stronger, richer Canadianism. They have added a new strain, a different outlook and temper, a friendliness and whimsicality, a certain extra dour zest to our life. They have given us those qualities that come only out of hardship, endurance and the cold mandate of the sea.
Their lean faces and shrewd eyes, their soft speech and never-failing laughter, their unspoken love of these native rocks, forests, villages and lonely waters have been shaped by ferocious and little-known history.
From the beginning of settlement every policy that any government could contrive, every obstacle that avarice could imagine, every disaster that war and weather could invent have combined to suppress this race of men.
Once Cabot had dropped a basket this coast in 1497, hauled up a bushel cod and reported the wealth of a "Newfoundland,” it became a prize war, commerce and conspiracy, victim of conqueror, exploiter and bungling politician, a pawn of Europe’s quarrels, a place where settlers were forbidden to live and yet settled unknown coves and distant uplands, flourished in secret and finally possessed their harsh, beloved soil with all the waters around it.
What a procession of men and events has passed these shores! Humphrey Gilbert arriving with Queen Elizabeth’s charter, proclaiming England’s first colony to a band of foreign fishermen in the crowded harbor of St. John’s and drowning in mid-Atlantic with the famous shout: "Cheer up, lads, we’re as near heaven by sea as by land”; the "admirals” from Bristol who became legal governors and tyrants by reaching St. John’s first in the spring; the first English tax collector who discovered that "ye fishermen be stuberne fellows” with a rooted aversion to taxes; Dutch raiders and French in lawful war and uncounted pirates in casual pillage; settlers, now legally established, struggling for responsible government and winning it; shipwreck, fire, disease, hunger and religious riot among the poor; commercial feudalism, sudden fortune, sudden ruin, revelry, routs, scandals and stuffy Victorian pomp among the rich; abundant fish harvests, lean seasons, lost markets, boom, depression and bankruptcy; fifteen years of commission government; and at midnight, March 31, 1949, the birth of the tenth Canadian province—such is the record of man’s adventures Newfoundland.
If Newfoundland had not rejected Confederation in 1867 much time, money and misery would have been saved. If Canada had not rejected Newfoundland’s offer of union in 1895 —a miserly quarrel over four million dollars, a shameful Canadian failure— and humiliated a proud people in their moment of ruin, the tenth province would be a spiritual ingredient of the Canadian state today.
Instead, four centuries of alternating wealth and poverty have taught Newfoundland something of the world, little of Canada and less to admire imitate. Its eyes were never turned westward to us, but eastward to the sea.
Why should we suppose that such a people, nurtured in such a region, distant in space, much further away in experience and memory, could possibly be like other Canadians? They are different in a hundred ways too subtle to be identified but instantly felt by the stranger.
He will perceive, to begin with, that Newfoundlanders are, in the literal meaning of the word, more simple than most Canadians. They have yet to feel the smartness, sophistication, speed and resulting disillusionment, tension and fury of North America. They therefore possess a patience, an outward cheerfulness and, I suspect, an inner contentment, deeper than others.
Having never enjoyed, they do not greatly miss the benefits of modern industrialism which most of their newly adopted countrymen take for granted. Satisfied with far smaller material rewards, generally living at the physical level of their grandfathers, and united by the common peril of the frontier, they have devised their own amusements, thought their own thoughts, written their own robust folklore, shared a kind of family joke and built their own private myth.
If they have not received the full rewards of the machine age they have not suffered the blight of uniformity. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that every native of Newfoundland is a character, often an eccentric, Dickensian character, unpolished and untamable. Though less educated, these people are more articulate than any Canadians outside Quebec, because lonely men must talk, and they talk ceaselessly. More religious than most of us, they still nourish superstitions, ghosts and legends that older Canadians lost long ago.
A Weakness for Gossip
Like all people, they have the defects of their virtues. For example, in their fierce individualism, they could win responsible government but have never truly mastered the parliamentary process. Separated by long distances and far behind the rest of Canada in public education, they have been unable so far to maintain stable political parties or often to resist the appeal of demagogues.
As an electorate they are argumentative, litigious and refractory. They have a weakness for rumor, gossip and the distorted tittle-tattle that thrives in the absence of the printed word.
These are only a visitor’s vagrant impressions. No one can doubt and no Newfoundlander of my acquaintance denies the fact that first assailed me in the twine loft of Bauline—Newfoundland is Canadian only by constitutional arrangement and not by instinct, emotion or understanding. The sovereign force that holds Canada together, the force of a nameless yearning, has yet to touch this island.
Its people are not transplanted Englishmen or Irishmen either. Four centuries of separation and a century without immigration have made them Newfoundlanders and nothing else— a race, a true nationality and, by every definition, a people.
It will be well worth all our expenditure of trouble and money to make this people Canadian. Newfoundland rounds out the natural boundaries and completes the defense perimeter of Canada. Mackenzie King, who instigated, nursed and finally accomplished the union, in partnership with Smallwood, held that Newfoundland, emerging from a term of commission government, eventually would join Canada or the United States. The leaders of Newfoundland today agree absolutely with King. No one agrees more firmly than Smallwood.
Besides the imponderable asset of a complete transcontinental state, we have secured two ponderable assets—the people and their undeveloped physical resources. Nowhere else on earth do less than half a million people own so much real wealth of timber, fish, minerals and waterpower, according to Gregory Power, the gangling, sad-looking finance minister, leading poet and largest poultry producer of Newfoundland. While Power worked for Confederation as Smallwood’s gag man and lampoon writer he was waiting, he told me. for Newfoundland’s "historic moment”—certain to dawn as soon as the world discovers its raw materials.
That moment was not apparent to the naked eye when Power showed me his chilly homeland. The rusty whaling fleet was locked in the ice of Harbor Grace. The dismal town of Carbonear told us nothing of the heroic day when Pierre Le Moyne, Canadien scourge of the New World, drove the townspeople to a distant island, could never make them surrender and retreated after the only failure of his brutal winter march of destruction along the Newfoundland coast. Then on the horizon loomed the whale’s back of Bell Island and great ships loading iron ore from shafts miles under the sea.
At last we climbed up through drifts of snow to a moorland as empty, cold and silent as the Arctic and out upon a cliff high above a pounding surf. Power pointed to a range of hills unchanged since the early hours of creation. The last ice age had shaved them clean and left a surface of burnished glass.
"The mountains of the moon,” said Power. "They make you think.”
This scene, he explained, probably represented most foreigners’ notion of Newfoundland, but a hungry world would soon grasp the true dimensions of the wealth here in this earth and would need it. Meanwhile Canada has secured these resources by a bargain which most Newfoundlanders consider one-sided and which Smallwood is determined to improve.
He is not depending primarily on better Confederation terms from Ottawa. He has spent about twenty million, saved by the former commission government, to subsidize nearly a score of new industries. He believes all of them will succeed. His enemies believe most of them will fail. Factories making such things as plywood, gum boots, gloves, leather, textiles, storage batteries, cement, machinery, electronic devices, chocolates and knitted wear represent the first installment of Smallwood’s industrial revolution.
To see the raw material of larger installments ahead, you must penetrate the island interior on Canada’s most maligned, interesting and friendly railway. From Port aux Basques, directly opposite Nova Scotia, a narrow-gauge train of two locomotives, two diners and five crowded sleepers moved off, clanking and snorting in a kind of rough trot which a horseman soon masters by the rhythmic, vertical motion called posting.
The natives always jeer at this railway but they love it as a friend, they remember it as an engineering feat of wilder enterprise than the CPR, considering the builders’ resources, and they have made the journey across their island a family party, a festival and a lark. Actually this seems to be a well-managed line, now part of the Canadian National system, and the friendliest in the nation.
The traveler realizes at once that everything he has read or heard of Newfoundland is absurd.
He has imagined endless flat muskeg and sees the Rockies in blue miniature, flecked with snow.
He expects a bare horizon of rock and is moving past noble forests, myriads of winking lakes, spacious green valleys and some fat farm lands beside rivers of clean, dark water.
He has pictured only mean fishing hamlets and presently is in the thriving little city of Corner Brook, beside a mountain of pulp logs and one of the world’s largest paper mills.
He has dreaded the monotony of the interior barrens and finds them as brilliantly colored as the moors of Hardy’s England, as mysterious and haunting as Wuthering Heights.
He has studied the map of a twisted coastline, first drawn by some nervous hand, has supposed that every mile will be the same, and looks out on sea vistas of Norway, Cornwall, Spain and British Columbia.
All day I watched a montage of changing landscape and at daybreak next morning beheld the dazzling glitter of Conception Bay, where huge swans of sculptured ice floated in a jewel box of sapphires and emeralds.
Like a horse in sight of barn and manger, the train shifted from trot to gallop and scampered down a winding grade into the foreign metropolis of St. John’s.
No city could have looked more foreign to a mainland Canadian than this dark lichen growth crawling up the sea rocks, no spectacle more unlikely than the ice-coated harbor, a white and shiny bath tub of porcelain full of a child’s toy ships.
St. John’s is foreign to us in history, architecture and spirit, and older by a century than our first Canadian town of Quebec.
There may be touches of an English port along its crowded wharves, memories of Devon in its tangled rigging, a flavor of London in some walled garden and crooked street. Yet this agglomerate of sea, stone and wood is not derivative.
It is original and native, built by native craftsmen to a native design as an authentic capital of an authentic nationality, the homemade refuge of a seagoing race. And the sea more than the land has shaped and colored it, penetrating every cranny and aching bone of the town with storm, fog, salt, fish smell and old memories.
The place is bleak and ugly, I suppose, by the usual definition. Its tiers of wooden houses (built overnight after the last of three total conflagrations) are packed cheek by jowl, are antiquated, shabby and identical in every line. Its business streets, for all their crowded traffic and modern goods, have still a dingy Victorian look.
But stand off a little way, stand on Signal Hill above the canyon of the harbor gate and observe St. John’s whole. Its ugliness, like the ugly face of an old friend, turns into a wrinkled, scarred and timeless beauty, the beauty of a character, experience, toil and human adventure beside the calm and awful beauty of the sea.
On this May morning St. John’s waited, in a murk of fog and coal smoke, for the northeast wind to change and clear the harbor.
Water Street, already a fisherman’s trail when Cartier reached Hochelaga, was as busy, crowded and dangerous to the pedestrian as Sherbrooke, King or Granville. The men of business bustled about in their universal uniform of well-tailored suits and bulging brief cases. Their club at the noon hour presented a cartoon out of Punch, replete with a company of merchant princes, billiards, cards, leather easy chairs and strong appetizers of West Indies rum.
The inmates of this club represented a dying age and they knew it. Most of them deplored Confederation; one scholarly gentleman described himself as "a British subject, resident in Newfoundland”; all of them predicted the ultimate ruin of the Smallwood government and a financial crisis when the subsidized industries inevitably collapsed.
Men of this sort—as able, educated and widely traveled as any of their contemporaries in Canada—have watched this harbor since the days when Sir Richard Whitbourne repelled a boarding party of amorous mermaids with rosy flesh and hair of cobalt blue; when pirates were barred from the harbor mouth by iron chains; when the sealing fleet set out on its spring voyage amid cannon fire and cheers from the shore; when ladies of fashion, their virtue questioned by an English governor, ''did hamstring him, making him a cripple for life”; when fire, storm, plague, riot and foreign enemy engulfed but could never destroy a town that knew not how to die.
The past still lives in the clubs, offices and warehouses of Water Street. The future was visible next day in the restless figure of Smallwood governing his province as unquestioned boss from a curious citadel. He inhabits as home and office a vast wooden house, the folly of some forgotten magnate. His anteroom, once the kitchen, as a sink in the corner attests, is guarded by a faithful sentinel puffing a rank cigar, observing me suspiciously out of his knowing old eyes and grudging even the admission that the spring was late.
A Visitor from Mars
Among the stream of visitors pouring through the anteroom was a woman of middle age, a housewife from a poor home in some distant outport, dressed for a great occasion in her best mail order clothes and nervous, on the edge of her chair, at the prospect of meeting her hero.
When I ventured to remark on the weather, and doubtless betrayed my mainland accent, the flood gates of that woman’s life opened to release all its contents of suffering, hope and discovery. The suffering was written on her lined face, the hope in her eager eyes and the discovery, oddly enough, on some colored postcards. These frayed exhibits from her handbag, more profound in their meaning than any official document, pictured in crude hues the cities of Canada. She asked me if I had actually seen them. I said I had and she looked at me as at a visitor from Mars.
Some day, she said, when her five sons had grown up and she could save a little money, she intended to see the mainland before she died. Then, uttering her discovery, she shyly touched my hand and whispered: "We’re all Canadians now, you know. It’s our country, every bit of it. My, what a thing to think about! And remember, Joey did it all by himself!”
This is only a slight exaggeration, even if Newfoundland’s opinion of Smallwood’s genius strikes the stranger as almost grotesque. Still, no one entering his crowded lair can fail to feel a certain hypnotic power.
The parlor converted into an office looks more like a museum or secondhand store. It is crammed with such items as a model schooner, a bronze horse, two incongruous totem poles, innumerable busts, photographs, maps, charts and papers. The owlish face peering from this chaos, the nervous movements and the perpetual flow of sound make the visitor think at once of a caged bird. Smallwood is not caged. In a cabinet of apprentices this inspired but somewhat bewildered amateur has neither rival, adequate successor nor, I suspect, any settled philosophy.
He is the product of poverty—so poor as a boy that he could not attend school when his only pair of pants was being mended—of casual wandering as a tramp reporter, of a radio talent that introduced him to the entire island and then of the Confederation campaign, which certainly would have failed without his horrendous oratory and smart back-room politics.
Smallwood loves to quote blue books rescued from the welter of his desk, to reel off figures, to prove statistically that Newfoundland is more prosperous than ever and that all his industries will succeed. In fact, he knows little or nothing about business, lives entirely on intuition and plays by ear. Sometimes the intuition fails him, as when he put his whole industrial program into the hands of Alfred Valdmanis, a crooked adventurer from Latvia who systematically looted the treasury before going belatedly to jail.
Smallwood as a person is the most interesting of our provincial premiers but knows little of Canada below the surface and remains an unchangeable Newfoundlander. St. John’s is the centre of his universe. His people, he says, are learning to become Canadians and now speak of the "mainland” as part of their own country—"a great watershed has been crossed in that word.” When O Canada is played in public, he protests, he can hardly fight back his tears. But tears, laughter, eloquence, improvisation and anger come easily to this man, and trouble is coming also.
When he has spent his government’s accumulated savings, when some of his weak industries need money, when he wants more from Ottawa than any national government can deliver, a conflict of some sort is hound to follow. Already he has announced publicly, as a buildup for a revision of the Confederation terms, that he can lead Newfoundland out of the union as he led it in. This he must know to be impossible, and he says he cannot imagine conditions so unjust as to provoke a secession movement. Nevertheless he can make trouble for the Liberal Party, for John Pickersgill (already established as perhaps a more durable power in Newfoundland than Smallwood himself), for Canada and for himself.
If Smallwood is aware of these possibilities he does not show it. Everything is going fine, only a hundred electors in the whole province would vote against Confederation today, and the tycoons of Water Street, who fought union to the bitter end, would never lift a finger against Canada because they are sleek with unprecedented prosperity.
As Smallwood rattled along in this fashion the telephone rang; he picked up the receiver and in the middle of a sentence listened to a colleague’s voice and, as if addressing a public assembly, laid down a thundering dictum: "Oh yes, it’s fine to have the strength of a giant, but to use it is tyranny!”
That sentence is the key to his mind. He talks in round, general and limitless ideas. He lives on hyperbole. He writes on the sky. How long can such writing last? And how many Newfoundlanders, including Smallwood, understand or even suspect the larger events in flow here or the meaning of Canada, their nation? Not many.
But when I beheld from the train window the first blazing day of spring on a lonely moor I suddenly remembered the men in the twine loft of Bauline. Those men had learned many things, mastered a hard life in their time and seen through the Atlantic mists of the centuries. They, or their sons, will penetrate the political mist of our time and finally glimpse the shores of Canada. ★