Here is a story of small town solidarity that is sure to warm you heart. When parents in Middle Arm, Newfoundland and Labrador, found out a government-subsidized “gay class” was coming to brainwash their kids into trans lesbian communists, they banded together to pull all but 13 students out of school for the day. Wow! It’s amazing what a community can accomplish when they put aside their differences and work together against the actual concept of Difference. Not today, Satan: Middle Arm is giving you the middle finger.
Sorry. Black humour is one of the many coping mechanisms I developed growing up in a small rural town in Newfoundland dominated by Christian fundamentalists. It’s heinous to discover that the Get Real Movement has been travelling all over Canada talking to students about LGBTQ inclusion and Middle Arm is the only place where nearly the whole town had a homophobic meltdown. It doesn’t help that this comes less than a month after the town council of Springdale, another small town in central Newfoundland, twice rejected a proposal from a student-led Gender-Sexuality Alliance to paint a rainbow crosswalk in front of their highschool.
(That it comes just days after a dumbass online meltdown over Anthony Bourdain is rubbing salt into the raw wounds of see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil Newfoundland boosters everywhere.)
So about that: I’m not sure when everyone online/in St. John’s decided that the so-called progressives had won a bloodless culture war in Newfoundland and Labrador. Every time some small-town ignorance is blown up under a microscope, there is a tendency to express shock that attitudes like this still exist. That it’s Current Year, that we should be better than this, that the long march of historical progress is supposed to be moving faster, etc.
What happened in Middle Arm is heinously backwards, and being introduced to an enlightened attitude about sexual desire as a teenager would have saved me and a lot of friends a tremendous deal of grief. That there was even an LGBTQ inclusivity presentation to boycott in the first place is, perversely, a big improvement over my days in school. But anyone who thought having town cops and local politicians pose under a rainbow MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner meant the war on bigotry was over is in for a rude awakening.
Once upon a time religious sectarianism was the alpha and omega of Newfoundland life. Pre-Confederation cabinets had to be carefully balanced between Catholics and Protestants, and the churches controlled all public schooling in the province up until 1997. And while twenty years is probably not enough time for such deep-rooted social religiosity to vanish overnight, the timing did dovetail nicely with the decline of mainline Christianity among millennials. (The Mount Cashel sex abuse scandal probably didn’t do much to help things either.)
So while St. John’s feels more secular than ever—school buildings all named SACRED HOLY HEART OF MARY MOTHER OF GOD notwithstanding—nearly everywhere else on the island west of Clarenville has been ceded to fundamentalists for decades. I grew up in Grand Falls-Windsor; my 2005 high school graduation was held in a Pentecostal church and it could have doubled as a church service. I remember sincerely trying (and failing) to convince classmates that praying wasn’t a good substitute for studying. We were a thirty-minute drive from the unofficial buckle of the Bible belt: the Miracle Temple next to the highway at the Lewisporte junction, a squat little brick nightmare lit up with neon signs that say JESUS SAVES and SINNERS GO TO HELL and an enormous billboard covered in flames and a mad-eyed preacher shouting HEY! WHY BURN? COME TO CHRIST AND SAVE YOURSELF!
There’s no ambiguity out there in the woods. The Christ my people worship comes not to bring peace, but a sword.
This isn’t a Newfoundland and Labrador specific problem. The members of Alberta’s United Conservative Party are thirsting to make homophobia an election issue, and a crashing wave of social conservatism is trying to propel Doug Ford into the premier’s office before people realize they’re allowed to vote NDP. Also: have you seen America lately?
But neither is homophobia an inevitable feature of rural life here. After Springdale vetoed their own rainbow crosswalk, a number of them sprang up around the province—Stephenville voted to install four. (Don’t spend too much time trying to sort out how much of that is a genuine commitment to social progress and how much of it is an irresistible chance to one-up your neighbours.)
But it should be making people stop and think: isn’t it strange that we haven’t seen that kind of explicitly reactionary politics show up in Newfoundland and Labrador yet? The place is ripe for it.
A whole generation of rural Newfoundlanders have grown up under the shadows of economic decay and political neglect. We’re served by a shockingly under-resourced education system and we have a mass culture at best indifferent to change and at worst openly hostile. Shake it up in the tumult of the 21st century media ecosystem where it is increasingly difficult to tell truth from error or outright lies, where local journalism is systematically replaced by the transnational hot takes of your ideological preference, and consider that the apps and platforms we use to consume this media present us with a false window to the outside world that is in fact a finely tailored hall of mirrors curated by invisible algorithms processing our preconscious desires.
Trust in political institutions is at an all time low and half the province is blindingly furious over any given issue at the drop of a dime and has nowhere productive to put this energy unless the sun is out. That more of the province’s social, political, and cultural exchanges play out in polarizing online spaces means we’ll probably see more towns galvanized into contrarian backwardness by the glare of the news cycle before it’s all said and done.
In my heart of hearts, I do genuinely believe that on the whole Newfoundlanders are an exceptionally genial people. But it’s also time to admit that the politics of resentment fit us like a glove.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.
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