Newfoundland takes off

Lawrence O’Toole July 2 1979

Newfoundland takes off

Lawrence O’Toole July 2 1979

Newfoundland takes off


Lawrence O’Toole

At a Tory rally in St. George’s on Newfoundland’s arable west coast, an elderly man with one leg dropped his crutches and began dancing. Up on the stage an accordion player and fiddlers were turning out tunes a mile a minute. Urged by encouraging voices whose rapacious Irish tones would have made James Joyce jump for joy, the one-legged gent kept at it. “If you doesn’t have two,” he said, “then you does it on one.”

If there’s an image of Newfoundland—a province so misunderstood that its stereotype is the strongest of allquaint coves, cod, dumb Newfies—it’s that of dancing, not just walking, on one leg. Now, with Canada’s second youngest premier* at its helm, 36-yearold Alfred Brian Peckford, it’s headed for what seems to be an incredibly affluent future. Last week, after one of the most unorthodox and exciting turns of political events in recent memory, the Tories trounced the Grits 33 seats to 19, gaining more than 50 per cent of the popular vote. For Peckford, the Outport Premier, it meant a clear mandate to develop Newfoundland’s burgeoning resources “in our own way, in our own bay.” For former minister of external affairs Don Jamieson, the most widely known figure there (next to Joey Smallwood), who rushed back to lead the Liberals after the surprise election was called, it meant rejection. Though a na-

*Youngest: Bennett Campbell of P.E.I., a year younger to the day.

tive son, he had spent too much time (13 years) away in Ottawa. For the Liberal party of Canada, it means nothing less than annihilation after a last-gasp chance to regain a foothold in the country.

Peckford wants total provincial jurisdiction over off-shore oil which, if it produces as much as predicted, could make Newfoundland “the Alberta of the East.” More than $1 billion in investment flowed into the province last year, even more is expected in 1979 and the gross domestic product is forecast to go up a robust three per cent. Hydro power, forestry and fisheries (apart,

perhaps, from depleted cod—see box) are teeming with promise and unimaginable amounts of ore may be hidden in the barren, unexplored centre of the island. Peckford has vowed to bring Newfoundland into the ’80s after “squealing and squawking into Confederation.”

As minister of energy, mines and resources in the previous PC government under Frank Moores, the Outport Premier fought foreign investors for control of off-shore oil. They took up their derricks and went home. He waited them out. They came back—but on his terms. He is now applying the same tactics to the sale of the Come By Chance oil refinery—one of Canada’s largest bankruptcies—and is holding off on the signing with First Arabian Corp. SA until environmental safeguards and a return on the province’s $50-million mortgage are assured. “We’ve allowed the mainland and the U.S. to tell us who we are. I’m sick and tired of that,” he storms, claiming that no development will take place unless it benefits what he and other Newfoundlanders endearingly call The Rock. As he puts it: “I love this old Rock.”

Peckford’s stress on pride of place and heritage during the campaign worked wonders. He appealed to a burning desire to trample the province’s inferiority complex, calling for a “revolution between the ears.” A man-of-thepeople in extremis, having grown up angry at the Newfie stereotype, he blasted “superficial ways of acting ‘Up Along.’ ” Be true-blue Newfoundlanders and proud of it was the thought at the vanguard of his campaign. Therein he found the perfect common denominator: he explained the rationale behind his position on off-shore oil by turning it into a Newfie joke, with the mainland the subtle butt of it. Newfoundland, he said, wouldn’t be satisfied with accepting transfer payments for rights from Ottawa—it would be like someone winning a big lottery and afraid to pick up the prize for fear of losing his unemployment benefits. The audience at the rally howled—and understood.

down as leader a few months ago.) The Liberals, dispersed like the residents of Babel after the 1972 defeat, were still scorned for their past sins. And that new political consciousness led the way for the election of a virtual unknown outside his province, Peckford, over an international figure, Jamieson.

What sets Newfoundland apart from other provinces, besides a lot of water, is the equal fervor applied to fact and feeling. That hasn’t changed, and that’s why campaigning in Newfoundland isn’t your run-of-the-mill glad-handing and being intimate with infants. In isolated Grand Bruit, on the rugged southwest coast, a village of 100 souls, accessible only by boat or helicopter, marvelled at the arrival of a giant mechanical bird carrying Peckford through the sky as though it were the mothership from Close Encounters. It was the first

time a Newfoundland premier had set foot there. Rain pelted down. A wild wind whipped the already ruddy faces. “I’m too excited to be cold,” said one shivering woman. Farther along the coast at Petites, isolated too, a 60-yearold fisherman, Maxwell Courtney, summed up Newfie spirit referring to elections: “You asks for everything, b’y, and you hopes you gets something.” His wrinkles rearranged themselves into a smile which, in the future, will probably be there more often.

No matter the inclemencies of weather and fortune, Newfoundlanders still use politics as an excuse to have a good time. In Clarenville, a blonde and buxom woman grabbed Liberal leader Don Jamieson and gave him a couple of vicious whirls around the floor until he was out of wind and arrived on the stage, face flushed and puffing to beat the band. The PCs flew in an octogenarian fiddler for the St. George’s rally. In Port-aux-Basques, Minnie White squeezed songs out of her accordion and tapped her left foot as though there were no tomorrow. All over the island it was “swing around this one, swing around that one.” People got up from their seats to step-dance. It was enough to tire the Devil. And fun.

That was precisely what Peckford provided in his campaign, juicing up every speech with jokes, ladling on the viscous accent. He has enough corn in him to fill a silo, enough charisma to have some left over for Joe Clark—and that’s a lot. With his booming, clarion voice and Svengali-like eyes, he fixed his audiences. His oratory owes something to Joey Smallwood—he shoves his hands in his jacket pockets the way others place thumbs in suspenders, thrusting forth his torso in a brazen display of cockiness. In Newfie terms, he can be “real saucy” when called upon.

And he’s a dynamo. Whereas Jamieson hit, say, five communities a day, Peckford made 10. His helicopter grounded one day, he got out on the road and hitched to the next rally. He wolfs down his food as though a second set of teeth would take care of the chewing. To the waitress: “That was just lovely, darling.” It was “sweetheart” and “darling” and “b’y” to all. As Alice Mainse from St. George’s put it, “He’s, well, you know, so common.”

In the rush to judgment last week, brash “bay boy” Peckford totalled biggun Jamieson. Jamieson’s a “townie,” Peckford’s from South Brook, an outport. The difference between the two is more or less the difference between a Newf and a mainlander. Some resentment reared its head in the form of people feeling cheated because Jamieson’s federal district alone benefited from his stay in Ottawa. Sneered one St. John’s fellow: “In his own district everything

Consistently and poignantly generous to a fault in the past, Newfoundlanders have stood by trustingly as their plenitude of resources—especially mining and energy—has been raped. Since it became part of Canada 30 years ago, Newfoundland has been steered along its rough course by Joey Smallwood who, having acted as midwife, moved into motherhood with a terrible tenacity. In 1972, it finally cut the umbilical cord to Joey and the Liberals after 23 years, thereafter becoming politically aware in a way it had never been before. Even the Moores government came under the sternest scrutiny when reelected in 1975, plagued by outcries of alleged corruption. (Moores stepped

that don’t move is paved.” On June 18, Newfies extended their legendary hospitality only so far.

When Peckford cunningly called an election just days after the Tory win nationwide, a PC majority appeared a fait accompli. There was great dissension in the Liberal caucus and it was caught by surprise. That is until the party executive “drafted” Jamieson to lead them. It was enough to start a small sweat in Tory ranks.

Jamieson’s arrival in St. John’s was heralded as an event of messianic proportion. Feeling ran high those first few days as party members and nostalgic Newfoundlanders (Jamieson read the evening news for years on CJON TV) rallied round what seemed a surefire slogan—BRING DON JAMIESON HOME FOR GOOD. (One open-line caller was moved to inquire whether he should bring his own palm fronds.) But the very day Jamieson arrived was the apogee of a hurried, poorly organized Liberal campaign. The romance of the return faded and, at his last rally, careworn after two months of campaigning federally, Jamieson looked frail. His speeches were amorphous, his program paltry. He studiously avoided mentioning how the provincial coffers could cope with his one promise—a three-year freeze on domestic electricity rates costing $10 million dollars a year in revenue.

Meanwhile Peckford, with the help of The Fish and Chips Kids home from Ottawa—Fisheries Minister Jim

McGrath and Finance Minister John Crosbie—was making good on his achievements, which he loudly trumpeted: the sale of a vacated linerboard mill to Abitibi Paper Co. followed hard on the heels of a federal-provincial agreement for $15 million toward converting the mill into newsprint production. The feds also picked up 90 per cent of the tab on $26 million for an industrial park in Corner Brook, and an $11million agreement on forestry development, an area previously neglected. They will pay the total cost for a $15 million syncrolift for the St. John’s dockyard.

But despite the province’s rosy state of health, Newfoundland still has the highest rate of unemployment in Canada (16.5 per cent). The provincial debt, abetted some $1.5 billion during the previous Tory rule, hovers around $2.6 billion. And in addition to that, there’s the estrangement of Labrador to worry over. As much as Newfoundland may be set adrift from the mainland, so are the 30,000 inhabitants of Labrador from the island itself. Almost three times the island’s size, it has been unwieldy and largely neglected. The vote there was split down the middle and there have been rumblings of separation which one resident said “weren’t idle and were

gathering momentum.” Peckford attributes the alienation to “sheer communications problems.” For that reason an immediate priority will be to elicit “meaningful input” from Ottawa in areas of transportation. Newfoundland wants the Trans-Canada Highway upgraded and . its own railroad — “forever.”

Peckford now stands, enviably, watching a horizon ready to expand beyond the province’s dreams. The former schoolteacher, who reads Locke, Hobbes and the Romantic poets, wants The Rock to reap from its own resources. And he wants to preserve the unique culture there: “You can have all the oil and gas you want, but if you don’t have happy people then it’s just no good.”

The word is out that Newfoundland, for so long hobbling along on one leg, has now got a new one. “If man is an island,” muses Peckford about his philosophical bedside reading, “then we’ll make it a good island, won’t we?”

With the province so rich in the future, what about all the Newfies who have left? “We’ll give them a free trip home,” he says, squeezing an expatriate’s arm. “You can take the boy out of the bay, but you can’t take the bay out of the boy.” rÿ