My Canada Alan Doyle’s ode to Newfoundland
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