Between the Rock and a hard place

Allan Fotheringham November 28 1994

Between the Rock and a hard place

Allan Fotheringham November 28 1994

Between the Rock and a hard place


The suspicion is that it was a joke. You always have to be suspicious when you’re dealing with Newfoundlanders and humor. The concert in Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto was scheduled for 8:30 p.m. That would be a halfhour after any normal concert would start. Ho ho. And Thomson was mispelled in the program.

This would be one of the most powerful evenings of the season—or any season. Folk of the Sea, the fishermen and fisherwomen of Newfoundland and Labrador in concert—93 strong. If their fish and their livelihood has been taken from them, they will take their song and story off the Rock to the mainland.

With everyone unemployed and the cod disappeared, Folk of the Sea wowed them in the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and then moved on to cruel and unfeeling Toronto.

There are a lot of Newfs in the city (including no doubt the one who said he didn’t care if Quebec separated—it would just mean it would take only half the time to drive to Toronto). The hall was sold out in September as soon as the concert was announced. This scribbler had to use the clout of a semiNewfoundland senator to get a ticket. The man to my left was bawling his eyes out only 20 minutes in.

That would be about the time the choir was singing Ode to Newfoundland. You could hear the sobs from the balconies. They love that “God-forsaken, fog-enshrouded Rock,” as someone at the microphone described it.

Someone has written that what has happened to Newfoundland this year is comparable to telling everyone in Saskatchewan that there is no wheat—and there won’t be any wheat for who knows when.

A passionate theatrical man, Ged Blackmore, decided to do something about it. To show a celebration of the gifts of these tough people. They’ve had a 500-year toil with the sea, ever since John Cabot went into ecstasy at seeing so many fish.

They’ve farmed the sea from a rock for five centuries—just as Saskatchewan’s finest

farm the soil. As their program notes: “Our speech, our songs, our common memories, that disposition and temper we recognize as characteristically Newfoundland, flows, almost genetically, from the ocean and its life.”

That says it. People who live tough times sing. It’s in the Welsh, derived from their dark valleys of coal. Anyone who has ever been at an international rugby match in Cardiff and has heard them sing—they come an hour before the whistle and boom hymns from the stands into the sea—can never forget it. The Nova Scotia miners with their Men From the Deep choir, celebrating death and tragedy, are the same.

The history of Newfoundland has always been an act of defiance—against an unforgiving climate and their own fortunes. And so they gathered the Folk of the Sea from outports and fish plants. Among the 93 onstage, there is Francis Littlejohn from Harbour

Grace and Kevin Fitzgerald from Gooseberry Cove. Hubert Rideout is from Valley Pond, Charlotte Story from Portugal Cove.

They are from Quirpon, Carbonear, Petty Harbour and Conche. Plate Cove, Coomb’s Cove and Admiral’s Beach. Men with great beer bellies and shaggy sideburns. There are women from fish plants and from the fish boats. From Little Catalina, Twillingate, Port de Grave, Bird Cove and Bonavista.

And so they sang. Make and Break Harbour. Boil Down the Cabbage. Petty Harbour Bait Skiff. Salt Water Joy. Waltz and Jig. Ah, the Sea. Come Home to Newfoundland. Sailor’s Prayer. They wore simple green sweaters and beige trousers and skirts. The two emcees, handsome young fishermen, were outfitted in the finest tuxedos that made them look right off a Hollywood stage and when they opened their mouths emitted an

accent that you could cut with an oyster knife and could make you weep.

There is someone on the spoons, of course. A stepdancer. Accordions, naturally. A mouth-organ artist. Even a yodeler—“from the Newfoundland Alps.” There was an ode to Sir William Coaker, founder of the fishermen’s unions that brought them semi-justice after years of exploitation and death.

Brian Tobin, the federal minister who is trying to succeed John Crosbie as the Rock’s champion, was there. So was Richard Cashin, the fiery conscience of the fisher folk. So was Bob White, the labor chappie who would like to be PM but doesn’t want to work at it. At the end, the 93 who have had their livelihood taken from them sang We’re Folk of the Sea/Who is My Brother?: “You are

my brothers, my sisters and my friends/We share a treasure, the peace that never ends.”

Implicit, of course, was the questioning of a contract that has kept Canada—an improbable nation—going this far. The belief that the strong help the weak in troubled times. There was blubbering all over the place.

If someone, somewhere, does not find a way for this show to get to Winnipeg and Calgary and Vancouver, then we are all blind. The beer bellies in the green sweaters are paid nothing, simply donating their rich baritones for expenses to a cause, since their way of life has been castrated by either bureaucratic stupidity or foreign predators.

I would love to see this show in Montreal, and defy any critic not to be moved by its message.

At the close, the white-haired little lady to my right turned and said: “My father was still step-dancing in his 80s.” She said it defiantly.