A few months ago I flew via Iceland to Alaska, which is as far west as you can go in North America. En route my no-frills aircraft passed over Greenland and Canada’s Northwestern Passages, revealing moon-like landscapes of mountain tops protruding from blankets of snow. I guess we must have flown over the northern tip of Labrador, although I wasn’t conscious of this at the time.
I’d already made plans to finish my journey in Newfoundland (the island below Labrador), a Canadian province that had long interested me, not only because it’s a relatively new part of Canada (it joined the confederation in 1949, a decade before Alaska joined the United States), but because of its strong Scottish and (particularly) Irish heritage.
I remember hearing Nicola Sturgeon claim during the Scottish independence referendum that no country had ever voluntarily given up
its independence. Well, within living memory Newfoundland did precisely that; long a self-governing British dominion, in 1948 its people voted in two separate referendums. In the first, 44.5% supported 'responsible government' (i.e. independence) while 41.5% chose confederation with Canada.
As neither had gained more than half the popular vote, the British government held another ballot which produced 52.3% for
confederation and 47.7% for self-government, a Brexit-like margin which produced controversy then and since. Negotiations followed, and once the British North America Act had passed through parliament in London, Newfoundland officially joined Canada at midnight on 31 March 1949.
The backstory, naturally, concerned money, chiefly an extremely high debt load arising from the first world war and construction of the Newfoundland railway. In the capital of St John’s, the eastern railway terminus still stands, now a museum devoted to transport on the island, although the railway itself last chuntered westward in the late 1980s. A quid pro quo for the loss of the railway (and the dominion’s) independence in 1949 was the transfer of the debt liabilities to Ottawa, but even after confederation the railway struggled to turn a profit.
In its heyday, however, whole families of Scottish immigrants – most notably the Reids – had managed the Newfoundland railway, while the associated fleet of boats, a logistical necessity given Newfoundland’s island status, had all been constructed in the riverside cities once renowned for shipbuilding: Glasgow, Dundee, Paisley and Greenock. The Railway Coastal Museum in St John’s included beautifully-maintained models of every one, once familiar to generations of Newfies.
But it’s Newfoundland’s Irish heritage that dominates. Downtown St John’s has the biggest concentration of Irish bars I’ve seen anywhere since Detroit, while the headquarters of the Irish Benevolent Society and the twin spires of St John’s Cathedral dominate the Fort Townshend area of the city. More strikingly, many of the locals speak with a distinctly Irish accent. So high was the population flow from southern Ireland that the distinctive pattern of speech embedded itself, passing from one generation to the next.
Judi Dench captured it well in the film of Annie Proulx’s novel 'The Shipping News', which also features Kevin Spacey as a small-town reporter. The movie (and I assume the original book) repeatedly emphasises Newfoundland’s distinct geography, location and spirit, all of which strike the visitor too. When I was there St John’s and the surrounding area was covered in a foot of snow, which the local authorities seemed to be doing little to shift from the roads and pedestrian thoroughfares. I didn’t mind so much, for it added to the already considerable atmosphere.
One day a friend of a friend drove me to Cape Spear, with its windswept views of St John’s Harbour, and then to Signal Hill, where Marconi received the first transatlantic morse code transmission (from Cornwall) on 12 December 1901. Before that it had witnessed the final battle of the seven years’ war.
The French actually still retain territory off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador (as it became in 2001), an overseas ‘collectivity’ called Saint Pierre and Miquelon, the only remnant of the colonial empire once known as New France. Just over 6,000 ‘New French’ remain on the island, spending their euros and voting in elections to the European parliament, while later this year they’ll help elect a new president.
‘Newfoundland French’, meanwhile, refers to the language spoken on the Port au Port Peninsula of Newfoundland, which can trace its origins to the continental French fishermen who settled there in the late-19th and early-20th centuries rather than the Québécois. The Basque and Portuguese also fished seasonally in the area, further adding to the dizzying array of nationalities packed into the island.
Today there’s a secessionist movement of sorts in Newfoundland, mainly
based on perceived ‘broken promises’ arising from the 1949 confederation agreement. Much of it concerns flags, while potential premiers habitually appeal to a strong sense of Newfoundland identity in order to win office, so not so different from another stateless nation I know well.