I am a Newfoundlander, born and bred.
Often featured at kitchen parties, weddings, and festivals – this popular ditty is something that many Newfoundlanders have grown up listening to. And with the catchy, gritty, and chant-like tune, it is easy enough to get swept up by its nostalgic, nationalistic sentiment.
When I moved away from Newfoundland and found myself surprisingly homesick (see my first blog post), I sought out the music that reminded me of home, and that included “The Islander”.
However, with my newfound ‘expat identity’, I was starting to defamiliarize and deconstruct my own ‘Newfoundland identity’.
I actually listened to and processed the lyrics in the song: “I’m a Newfoundlander born and bred and I’ll be one till I die.”
For the first time, the words made me cringe rather than swell with pride.
The words “born and bred” just felt so calculated and restrictive to me. It is as if to say your level of Newfoundland identity is directly linked to how long your ancestral line has been confined to the shores of the island.
Isn’t there more to being a Newfoundlander than just being born on this island?
Susan Tilley has written extensively about being a Newfoundlander and the often “troubling” and “complicated” process of identity making (127). Citing her own experiences as a Newfoundlander living away from the island, she says, “I claim, as many other Newfoundlanders do, an identity that evolves out of hard-felt connections to the concrete, material land and sea, to the island. I make claims to a home that is a fixed geographical space, a home that is solid, touchable, and able to be seen” (128).
She compares this personal experience of home with James’ (2005: 248) more theoretical interpretation, which argues it “is not a fixed entity, space, or place with boundaries and/or borders, but is a fluid construction that is informed and mediated by an individual’s life-stage, context, and situation” (in Tilley 128).
On the topic of Newfoundland nationalism Shane O’Dea (in Bowering Delisle, 2013) states: “over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as more people came to be permanent inhabitants and, more importantly, descendants of permanent inhabitants, the sense of person-linked-to-place which is the essential for nationalism, grew into being” (18).
At the same time, this relationship between identity and place is interrogated further by Jennifer Bowering Delisle (2008) as she argues: “Newfoundland identity is not dependent merely upon place of residence, but is rather a more complex affiliation involving nationalism, genealogical kinship, cultural heritage, collective memory, and feelings of marginalization in relationship to other Canadian identities” (68).
We can see from such discourse that there is an ongoing fluctuation between the fixed and the fluid on our sense of identity. While the connection to the land and borders undoubtedly have an influence on the personal experience of Newfoundland identity, we cannot forget the driving forces of more social and political forces such as nationalism and collective memory.
We can even see a similar dissonance between the ‘fixed’ and ‘fluid’ experiences of Newfoundland identity in our title song. From the opening lines, it is claimed that being a Newfoundlander is something you are born into, but at the same time, it is also a state of mind – one that is as “free” as the wind and the waves.
The song also tackles geographical and political borders as grounds for Newfoundland pride:
“In Montreal, the Frenchmen say that they own Labrador,
Including Indian Harbour where me father fished before;
But if they want to fight for her, I’ll surely take a stand,
And they’ll regret the day they tried to take our Newfoundland” (Moss, 1982)
Although the song is titled, “The Islander,” and thus confining such a ‘provincial identity’ to the island portion of Newfoundland and Labrador, there is still a staunch political statement about the geographical and political ownership of the land of Labrador. Furthermore, designating a ‘Newfoundlander’ as purely an islander, leaves Labrador out of the picture altogether – that is until it comes to claiming stakes to the land.
The politics behind the boundaries between Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec are beyond the scope of this particular blog post, but it does make me think about the ownership of land as a basis of nationalism and subsequent identity formation.
For a song making claims of ancestry and land as grounds for provincial pride, I would feel amiss if I did not point out the fact that the majority who claim to be Newfoundlanders, “born and bred,” are descendants of European settlers. What about the people that were truly indigenous to this island? Where do the Beothuk and other indigenous groups stand in the experience and expression of Newfoundland identity?
Although individuals may feel as though their identity is deeply rooted in the physical landscape, this does not mean that it is completely fixed and devoid of political meaning. The very fact that we can call a land our ‘home’ is political in itself.
As an undergraduate student here in St. John’s, I volunteered as an English as a Second Language conversation partner. When I was just starting out, I read through some of the resources for international students and came across a section on Newfoundland culture. It praised Newfoundlanders as being friendly, but immediately warned that they have a tendency to be cliquish when it comes to welcoming newcomers into their peer groups. I was disappointed to read this – and not because it was untrue.
We have a tendency to immediately designate non-Newfoundlanders living in Newfoundland as “come-from-aways,” and to label non-Newfoundlander Canadians as “mainlanders”. It would seem that ‘our’ islander identity creates a kind of knee-jerk reaction to consistently differentiate ourselves from anybody not originally from this island.
Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves: what really makes a Newfoundlander? Is it how we sound? How we look? Is it in our blood, as “The Islander” proudly claims? And at what point can one become a Newfoundlander, if at all?
Clearly, what constitutes a “Newfoundlander” is becoming increasingly complex. Or maybe it has always been complex, and only now are we beginning to see through the clouds of nostalgia and sift through our muddied past.
Bowering Delisle, Jennifer. The Newfoundland Diaspora: Mapping the Literature of Out-Migration. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013.
Bowering Delisle, Jennifer. “A Newfoundland Diaspora?: Moving through Ethnicity and Whiteness.” Canadian Literature 196 (2008): 64-81.
James, C.E., ed. Experiencing Difference. Halifax: Fernwood Press, 2000.
Moss, Bruce. “The Islander.” Quay Records, 1982.
Tilley, Susan. “Re-Searching Ties to Home: ‘Troubling’ Notions of Identity.” Despite This Loss: Essays on Culture, Memory and Identity in Newfoundland and Labrador. Eds. Ursula A. Kelly and Elizabeth Yeoman. St. John’s: ISER Books, 2010. 127-136.
© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2016