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A Depressing Dispatch from the Edge of the World—Newfoundland

The rest of Canada may want to start paying attention to the situation in Newfoundland.

by Drew Brown
Jan 23 2018, 5:55pm

Assets via Wikipedia Commons. 

Hello Mainland Canada. We are going to talk about Newfoundland and Labrador a little bit right now. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record these days, but things at the eastern fringe of Confederation are emphatically not OK.

They have not been OK for some time. Arguably they have never been OK—combing through the wreckage of Newfoundland history to find the exact moment everything first went off the rails is a popular pastime/coping mechanism—but they are extremely not-OK right now. Things appear to be so shagged up that the primary public discussion in this province now surrounds how bad it’s going to be when we go bankrupt.

When, not if. We moved past the speculative stage some time ago; the idea that the provincial state will collapse into insolvency in the reasonably near future (i.e. before 2030) is already a foregone conclusion for many. Brand new trucks may still be flying off the lots on Kenmount Road, but so are personal bankruptcies and consumer proposals. The Bank of Canada may or may not need to start ratcheting up interest rates to cool off the molten markets in Toronto and Vancouver, but it’s going to put this province on ice.

It’s a shame sometimes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But dassit, as the old folks would say. We’re past the point of hushed, haunted, hopeful whispers outside the operating theatre wondering why the doctors won’t look us in the eye. The patient is now in palliative, and her children are in the hallway strangling each other over the inheritance.

A localized class war is already threatening to explode in St. John’s. When news broke that the provincial government had struck a tentative agreement with the Newfoundland Association of Public Employees that included a no-layoff clause, the St. John’s Board of Trade and the NL Employers’ Council erupted. It was week of unhinged radio rants: the government has doomed us all. The clause will never be negotiated out of future contracts and the government will never be able to sack another bureaucrat. We’re borrowing $2 million dollars a day to make payroll and the union thugs at NAPE have just tied Leviathan’s sword-arm behind his back at the exact moment we need him to start gouging out his guts to please the banks.

In retaliation, the union held its own press conference to denounce the Board of Trade as a cabal of vampires, a ruthless band of wreckers who would see the whole provincial state smashed and slashed and burned for private gain. NAPE president Jerry Earle later mused on Facebook about whether or not the union’s 30,000 members should consider boycotting local businesses as a means of flexing their muscle. Say what you will about the black-hearted businesspeople hungry for our bones, but threatening to bury the province’s depressed economy alive just to prove a point is some Sopranos-level shit in its own right.

Desperate times, I suppose. Grief does tend to make people do strange things. The local priests of capital and labour were more than happy to work together on nailing together the Muskrat Falls-shaped coffin we’re all going to get buried in, so I am hopeful that at least we’ll all come together in time for the wake.

If not the wake, then at least the reckoning. This is at least the furtive hope of the judicial inquiry into the Muskrat Falls megaproject. We’ll never get that money back, and we’ll be shackled to that poisonous concrete nightmare forever and a day, but maybe we can at least crucify somebody along to way to appease our temper. No one important, of course: the real supervillain architect of Newfoundland’s demise will live a long and happy life selling shitty luxury homes on the south end of St. John’s to the very people ruined by his government.

The Muskrat Inquiry will grant the cold comfort of catharsis. But you’ve got to wonder how much even that is worth now that you’ve got former premiers on the record expecting a federal bailout as the best case scenario. It’s rarely stated, but our worst case future involves handing over the Treasury keys to the boys at Goldman Sachs so that they can starve the baymen from the coves according to The Market’s timeline.

Oh, yes. Resettlement is back on everyone’s lips. Ten or even five years ago you’d still find those in the St. John’s metro who would lament the alleged brutality of the Smallwood years. Resettlement back in the 1960s was a cruel destruction of culture, uprooting and scattering our people to the four winds was an utter disaster of government-driven social engineering. But now there is a demand that every ferry and rural hospital and outport be justified down to the dime, or else we should shutter the coasts and ship all these pre-modern peasants out to enjoy the alienated suburban nightmare we’ve come to demand as a birthright.

Mark my words: before the provincial government has spent the federal disaster relief money it needs to address the devastation on the island’s west coast last week, someone’s going to raise the spectre of resettlement. Why not just move these people instead? Why spend millions of dollars to rebuild dying communities? Why not just close them all down and ship all these aging Newfs off into one of the island’s many nightmarish nursing homes and be done with the whole damned thing? The Atlantic Institute of Market Studies is probably preparing its briefing note on the matter as we speak.

Again, this is where public discussion in Newfoundland and Labrador is lurching right now. We are not talking about if: we are talking about when. Once upon a time Sonny used to stand by the roadside and dream of the world beyond his claustrophobic little inlet, waiting for his long-lost father to return home and relieve him from the duty of tending to his mother. A generation later and Sonny’s sitting in the Health Sciences lobby tweeting that the old bag deserved it, LOL! She’s old and fat and diabetic and she’s costing the provincial treasury too much money for her morning toast and beans. Bring on the euthanasia, ol’ man: I gotta catch a Jesus plane up to Fort McMurray.

The world has ended here before. This is Newfoundland’s fourth great constitutional experiment. First we were an English fishing station; then we were a Dominion; then a bureaucratic dictatorship; and now we are a province of Canada. Perhaps we are merely nearing the end of our government’s natural lifecycle. Historically, we got about 70 years of responsible government before the British decided that we were a country of degenerate paupers unfit for the rigours of self-government. Confederation turns 69 this year.

We will soon find out the real value of the 1949 union. Maybe Joe Smallwood’s ultimate triumph wasn’t the immediate and revolutionary extension of Canada’s robust mid-century welfare state to a population stuck in the 17th century. Maybe it was securing a federal bulwark to shore us up through the next spectacular collapse of Newfoundland’s self-government.

Anyways, that’s all I really wanted to say. I’ll let you get back to arguing about free speech on campus or Tim Hortons or the appropriate amount of racism needed for strong borders or whatever else it is that you Mainlanders care about.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here staring into the sea half in the bag on Alberta Premium, wondering whether I can make a life and start a family and build a future for myself in the only place I’ve ever felt at home, or whether I’m weeks or months or a few short years away from lowering Sonny’s mother down into her grave in the shadow of a U-haul.