My Canada Alan Doyle’s ode to New­found­land

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MY PAR­ENTS WERE born in a place called New­found­land in the 1940s. I was born in the same place 20 or so years later. But we were born in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. Mom and Dad were born in a coun­try they called New­found­land, and I was born in a coun­try called Canada. My fam­ily never moved homes or crossed a bor­der but, in the strangest kind of cir­cum­stance, I am a first-gen­er­a­tion Cana­dian. And like many New­found­lan­ders my age, I spent my youngest years hear­ing peo­ple of my grand­par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion ei­ther pat­ting them­selves on the back for vot­ing in favour of Con­fed­er­a­tion just be­fore the 1950s or lament­ing how they or those around them voted away their in­de­pen­dence

as a na­tion. Some even down­right re­fused to ac­cept the re­sults of the nar­row 51-49 vote. “So you are goin’ up to Canada, are ya?” This ques­tion was asked many times in my lit­tle fish­ing vil­lage of Petty Har­bour as the older folks rubbed their heads as an­other of their kids left their coun­try for an­other, as far as they were con­cerned.

Quite rea­son­ably, as a young fella in the 1970s, I was not sure which flag I was sup­posed to fly: the New­found­land one or the Cana­dian one. I was not even sure if they were the same place or dif­fer­ent. Some of the adults around me swore they were from New­found­land while oth­ers swore they were from Canada. I was happy to be a New­found­lan­der as I loved my young life in a pic­ture-per­fect fish­ing com­mu­nity with my won­der­ful fam­ily in our very mod­est yet com­fort­able home filled with home­made bread and mu­sic. I was also happy to be a Cana­dian as I loved what lit­tle I knew about the place, which was more or less lim­ited to Hockey Night in Canada and The Tommy Hunter Show. So, my Canada was a largely un­known, far­away place that I felt I knew very lit­tle about and had very lit­tle chance of ever get­ting to ex­pe­ri­ence first-hand.

But in my early 20s, a hand­shake on Water Street in St. John’s led to a jam in a liv­ing room over a bot­tle of rum and some Figgy Duff and Won­der­ful Grand Band records. That led to four young fel­las start­ing a band called Great Big Sea, a band that would fuse con­tem­po­rary mu­sic and tra­di­tional New­found­land songs, and set in mo­tion a jour­ney of a life­time. I was goin’ up to Canada.

I was ner­vous the first time I stood on the deck of the ferry leav­ing Ar­gen­tia, watch­ing the last lights of the only home I’d ever known fade into the dis­tance and dip into the ocean as we made an 18-hour jour­ney to Nova Sco­tia. If you had asked me right there and then if I was leav­ing one place and go­ing to an­other, my an­swer would have been a re­sound­ing “yes.”

But a short while later, af­ter the warm­est welcome at the Lower Deck in Hal­i­fax, I be­gan to feel a lit­tle more at ease on the main­land. A sip of moon­shine in P.E.I. and a ses­sion pee­ing up­hill in New Brunswick cer­tainly helped make Canada feel a whole lot more fa­mil­iar. Turn­ing a near bar fight in Que­bec City into a mo­ment of mu­tual re­spect and un­der­stand­ing made me wish I could spend more time in La Belle Prov­ince. Stick­ing up for New­found­land at a con­cert on Par­lia­ment Hill in On­tario ter­ri­fied me but ul­ti­mately made me stronger and, I think, made a lot of peo­ple want to learn more about a place they thought they knew. A full house of diehards at the Horse­shoe in Toronto got us a ma­jor record deal and an­nounced to us all that Cana­di­ans liked what they heard from New­found­land. I thought for sure I blew all good will in Man­i­toba when I in­sulted a gent in a wheel­chair, but he and ev­ery­one else there danced on to the jigs and reels. I never ex­pected peo­ple from Saskatchewan would be the most like New­found­lan­ders but I was so happy to find out they are. Land­locked towns in Al­berta are easy places for bay­men to get lost, the moun­tains are as awe­some as the ocean. And when B.C. log­gers danced as hard for the ac­cor­dion as they did for elec­tric gui­tars, I felt for the first time that de­spite be­ing far­ther away from Petty Har­bour than Berlin, maybe I was not that far from Home af­ter all.

When I got back to New­found­land, a re­porter asked me if I was New­found­lan­der or a Cana­dian at heart first and fore­most. I replied, “As a young per­son, I won­dered if New­found­land and Canada were re­ally two sep­a­rate places. Now, as an adult, I am very happy to tell you that they are not. Just like so many other cul­tures and races, mine has been wel­comed and cel­e­brated.

“I have been de­lighted to learn I don’t have to choose to be a New­found­lan­der or Cana­dian be­cause I am both.

“I am a Cana­dian from New­found­land. I am a New­found­lan­der in Canada.” Alan Doyle’s lat­est mem­oir, A New­found­lan­der in Canada, is out this fall from Dou­ble­day Canada.

Doyle jam­ming at a camp­fire be­hind Mal­lard Cot­tage, chef Todd Per­rin’s much-lauded restau­rant in Quidi Vidi with fel­low mu­si­cian Mur­ray Fos­ter

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