pondering photographs

A yummy day with a book delivery from Duke University Press. Seriously, by this point, I should have shares in the company; that’s how many books I buy from them. Today’s haul includes Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, Elspeth Probyn’s Eating the Ocean, and Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection, all of which are destined for this fall’s iteration of the graduate feminist theory seminar. But it also included Tina Campt’s Listening to Images, an extended meditation on the counterstories that images of black diasporic subjects, ostensibly meant for surveillance purposes – identification cards, passports, etc – might tell. As she observes in the introduction, “identification photos are not produced at the desire of their sitters. They are images required of or imposed upon them by empire, science, or the state” (5). And because of the rigid rules that have often governed their production, such photos have rarely been studied in great detail. But by listening closely to them, different stories might emerge, stories that challenge the logics by which they were originally created.

In her book, Campt gets at the heart of my own archival discomforts in this project: how do I work with material designed expressly to dehumanize? And how can I read that material differently? But it also gets at another element of this project: the visual archives that remain of colonial lives and experiences. The online archives in the Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio, for example, include many photos of the so-called Coolie Depot where all incoming indentured labourers were brought to be processed. The Flickr stream of the Surinaams Museum, meanwhile, offers photographs of plantation life. But most of these photos were taken not to support those who toiled on the plantations, or those who were brought – often under extreme duress – to Suriname, but rather, to document the activities of a colonial system. How, then, to read them differently?

I’ve written previously about ethnographic refusal, and Campt, too, draws on the notion of refusal. For Tuck and Wang, refusal is about an approach to research; it’s about methodology. For Campt, however, refusal lies in the photographed subjects themselves: what are they doing – in the way they sit for the camera, in the way they dress, in the very fact that they’ve had their photos taken – to resist the narratives that have been carved out for them.

It was just over ten years ago that I found a stack of old black and white photos in a used bookstore in London, Ontario. All neatly packaged in clear cellophane wrapping,, they were gathered together under a single heading: “Instant ancestors.” I was with my mom at the time. We poked through them, holding up particularly intriguing photos, and had a good laugh. But as I think back to this collection, it strikes me that the ‘family photo’ itself as a particular series of conventions attached to it, and it is these conventions that allow us to find the humour in the photos. These conventions made it possible for us to laugh.

But these photos were out of context. Completely divorced from their ‘real’ families, their stories are much more opaque. How can we read them? And what stories might they tell?

Photographs appear in the most random of places. As a first year university student in Victoria a few decades ago, I found a photograph of a toddler with round cheeks in the middle of a book that hadn’t been taken out in twenty years. More recently, I found another, in an interlibrary loan from the University of Toronto. They’d functioned as bookmarks, I imagine, and then the borrower had come up against a due date, stuffed the books into a bag, and completely forgotten about the photos.

Like the London photos and the discarded passport photos Campt analyzed, these photos were accidents, bits of stories that somehow got away, that ended up in completely different contexts.

Instant ancestors, indeed.

[and yes: p.s., I purposely chose not to include photos.]


Campt, Tina M. Listening to Images. Duke UP, 2017.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “R-Words: Refusing Research,” in D. Paris and M. T. Winn, Eds. Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with youth and Communities. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publications, 2014.

Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research.” Qualitative Inquiry 20.6 (2014): 811-818.


Against KonMari: A Plea for Packrattery

Ok. I’ll start by saying that this is not about Marie Kondo, the famed Japanese organizing guru, as a person. Rather, it’s about the contemporary North American fad for “curating” lives, homes, families, selves, etc. It’s a response to a larger movement that seeks ostensibly to get away from a consumption model of living and to move towards an approach that is simple, streamlined, and elegant.

But what, you might think, is wrong with this? Surely, we want to acknowledge the errors of our capitalist consumption-oriented ways. Absolutely. I’m in total agreement. What do we need more stuff for, anyway?

And hey, I’ve been fed the mantra, too. In grade 2, our guidance counsellor told us that if we wanted to get good marks, we should emulate those who had good marks. And those with good marks generally had neat desks and working environments.

Uncluttered. Organized. Structured. Tidy = Joy. Inspiration. Fulfillment. Intelligence. Success.

That day back in Grade 2, I peered into the nest that was my desk and shrugged. That shit just wasn’t going to happen.


No longer in grade 2. But still a nest on the coffee table.

So maybe I’m just projecting my own self-righteous spreadery.

Maybe I’m trying to find a way to rationalize the mess that is our house at the very end of term (who am I kidding? this is the mess that is all the time).


Look! It’s genetic. I’ve passed it on to my kids, too.

Maybe I’m passive aggressively responding to our department administrator’s increasingly pointed hints that it’s time to tidy my office and that she’s going to get in there with dusting supplies. Maybe I’ve amassed too many post it notes in too many places. Maybe my pile of books is too high, my clutter of discarded mugs and plates too large. Maybe I don’t want to look to see if there’s an errant tea bag still floating around in a mug that’s been around so long that it’s become part of the display…

For those of us who work with the past, this messiness, this stuff, is what allows us to understand how societies, cultures, families, worlds… life…. operated.

The discarded selfie.
The notes scribbled onto the back of a receipt.
The doodles drawn during a particularly trying meeting (I’m particularly good at those…).

The school photo that went completely awry?
The kid that weeps all the way to camp (or all the way back to the hotel from Legoland Windsor, as the case may be)?

The frozen Cheemo perogies that you forgot in the car for two weeks when the temperature hovered around zero and tried to revive anyway (oops).

The pile of wrappers, pens, lego, notes, silly glasses, and empty juice boxes under your son’s bed, on his desk, scattered across his floor.


The funniest thing about this picture? It was only after I took it that I discovered the screwdriver that we’d been looking for for months. Magpie kid had absconded with it…

The beginnings of cranky emails that fill your drafts folder.

The mush of dirty socks that never make it into the laundry basket even tough you step over them every day.

This shouldn’t be the stuff we discard. This shouldn’t be the stuff that we clean up, beautify, hide.

This is life.
These are the stories that matter most.


the back side of my attempts at embroidery. pretty sure it’s not suppose to look like this…

One of the things that has frustrated me most in the course of this current research project has been the absence of materials created by those most affected by colonial policies and practices. The colonial infrastructure was enormous, and colonial officials were organized. They’ve left researchers like me endless documents – ledgers, logs, letters, tables, lists – you name it, and it’s there. All of this can tell me an enormous amount about colonial logics.


organized boxes filled with treasures… Maritime History Archive, Memorial University


Ship’s Logs, ca. 1870-1880. Maritime History Archive, Memorial University

But there’s precious little to learn about the lives of those whose names officials listed in their ledgers and logs.

How can we understand histories of migration if we can’t find the voices of those who experienced it, or if we find them only sideways, through hints in formal colonial archives?

This isn’t a problem unique to my project. But it’s a big one.

It matters that we can often only “find” the voices of the enslaved through their resistance.

It matters that the remains of indentured lives exist almost solely in their complaints to ship captains, in their refusal to work on the plantation, in the violence that they enacted towards each other or those in power.

It matters that trial transcripts are some of the only places where we can read the voices of marginalized women.

It matters because while all of this stuff is important, none of it gets us to the everyday. Yes, it matters that the enslaved resisted, that the indentured turned to violence, that those on trial told their stories in those spaces.

But what about their daily lives? What were those like?

What did they eat?
Who did they eat with?

What were they thinking aboard the ships that took them so far from everything they’d known? What were they feeling?

What about the anger, joy, love, despair, longing, frustration, agony?

When I researched the life of Suzanne Necker and later, the stories of those who consulted with Samuel Auguste Tissot, I had all of this. After all, these were privileged folks who wrote letters and confided in friends and colleagues. These were folks whose letters were kept for them, and as a result, folks whose stories are still available to us today. In a world that values the evidence of the written word, these folks had it good. And as a consequence, I had it good, too.

But it shouldn’t be only the privileged whose stories remain.

A few days ago, medieval book historian Bex Lyons posted a short thread on Twitter asking women to write in the margins of their books.

The problem, as she sees it, is that a) we know a lot about men of the period because they wrote in their books, and b) our knowledge systems celebrate the written word over all other. As she points out, there are many reasons why women didn’t – or couldn’t – scribble all over their books. And we do need to find ways of working differently with the material that exists.

But here’s the thing – first we need to have stuff to work with. Not just the curated, tidy stuff. Not just the bookshelves organized by colour (who invented that trend, anyway?). Not just the carefully coordinated paint colours. And not just the stuff that others have organized on our behalf, either.

No, we need the stuff of daily life itself. We need the messes. We need the chaos. We need the false starts, the bad hair days, the unfortunate accidents.


food porn gone wrong. I think it was supposed to be tofu curry.


recipes escaping their cookbook!


A tangle of shovels, tossed willy nilly by the house.

This is the stuff that matters. This is where we tell our stories. And this is where those who come after us will find them.


somewhere near the PowerPlex in St. John’s, sometime in early spring.

It doesn’t matter how many filters we apply or how many hashtags we use.

Life is #messy.
It’s #chaotic.
It’s #neverneatandtidy, no matter how much we might will it to be.

And so here’s my plea – my #manifesto – for packrattery.

Embrace the chaos.
Revel in the mess.
Write in the margins.
Argue with your authors.


Keep every scrap of paper.

Embrace your failures.
Share your grief.
Take pictures of garbage.
Refuse to clean your room.
Accept the assemblage of random trinkets under your bed.

Laugh so loudly that you make others uncomfortable and then record your joyful noise.

Keep the saggy Ron Weasley sweater that your favourite aunt knitted for you.

This mess is the archive of your life, and I promise that historians of the future will love you all the more for it.


With thanks to Bex Lyons (@MedievalBex) and Will Pooley (@willpooley) whose recent tweets and blog post got me thinking about inspiration, joy, archives, tidying up, and packrattery.

home in a mode of migration

In 2013, I participated in visual artist Pam Hall’s collaborative “Building a Village” project. The premise of the project was simple: Pam would send a house model – photocopied onto white cardstock – to any interested party and we would decorate it as we saw fit. Pam requested $1 to cover the cost of postage but other than that, we were on our own.

My house model arrived early on in the process. But then it languished on my desk as I pondered how best to approach it. Like a true academic, I overthought every step of the process. There were variables to consider. I had to think through authenticity, truth, representation, equity, justice, honesty. I had to ponder my pasts, my futures. I needed an argument, a thesis, a theory. And I had to consider my artistic desires (and also, my inevitable artistic limitations).

“What does home mean to you?”
This quickly became an angst-ridden existential question.


Lovely Greenspond, NL. There was a house for sale, right by the ocean, when we were there… and we did, for a few foolish moments, contemplate the possibility of buying it…

Because here’s the thing. I’ve lived in 5 countries on 3 continents and my histories span 2 more. I have 2 mother tongues. I learned a third language that I’ve lost completely, and then a fourth that jostles with the first two. I was born in a country that has absolutely no links to my heritage. At our Canadian Citizenship Ceremony, ours was the only family where every single member was born in a different country.

So what does home mean in this context?

All around me, Pam’s project was growing. She kept us all up-to-date with a Facebook page, sharing the new houses as they arrived in her mailbox. Some were intricate; some were colourful. Some were the work of professional artists; others the submissions of interested and keen crafters. Some, like me, just wanted to explore stories. Each one was unique. No two were even remotely similar.

The more I thought, the further my webs unspooled themselves. The more I thought, the more tangled they became.


Newtown, NL

And then, suddenly, a moment of clarity.

Home, I realized, was not something fixed.

Movement has marked my pasts; it’s also marked my presents. And so, certain of something at last, even if that something was unmoored, I photocopied some historical maps, cut them into tiny pieces, and collaged them to the outside of my house, foregrounding the cities and regions that mattered in relation to my family history, while also leaving room for some sea serpents and other creatures of the wild ocean.

On the inside, I attached my statement: “home,” I wrote, “in a mode of migration.”

Photo 2015-02-11, 3 25 32 PM

public transport, river crossing, Paramaribo

And that, I thought, was that. I felt pretty proud of myself. I’d solved the puzzle. I felt creative. I felt … certain, comfortable, right.

My little house joined hundreds of others and later became part of Pam’s Houseworks show at The Rooms. [for more views of the “Building a Village” project, click here, here, here, and here)

Imagine my surprise, then, when it dawned on me earlier this year that my enslaved ancestors lived not only in the same country, but on the very same plantation for three generations. And that most of their descendants lived in the same country for the next century.

So much for my theory.
And here I thought that creating a cardboard house caused an existential crisis.

The facts, such as are, make for slim pickings. I knew them, but I hadn’t quite put them together.

So here they are:

Sarah plantation was on the Western side of Suriname. Located along the coast, rather than along the rivers like most of the other plantations in Suriname, it was offered up for development sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century. By 1820 or so, the parcel of land originally granted to a man named Dietzel had been sold to John Bent, who appears to have been the first to manage it as a cotton plantation, and thus it was that Sarah plantation was born.

I don’t know when my ancestors arrived at Sarah plantation. The Slave Registers indicate that Frederick Noa, the patriarch, was born in 1798; his mother is listed as “unknown.” To me, this suggests that he arrived at Sarah plantation as an adult, perhaps just as it was being developed. He would have had two young children in tow at the time, and a partner, a woman who is listed as “deceased” in the Register.

And from that point on, he likely stayed at Sarah plantation. His children, including a set of twin daughters – Eva Albertina and Frederica – were born there. And later, his grandchildren, too.

It’s entirely possible that Frederick Noa didn’t leave Sarah plantation between his arrival, likely sometime around 1820 and the abolition of slavery in 1863. Even then, it’s possible that he stayed on until the end of the transition period, in 1873.

So, let’s do the math: assuming an arrival date of 1820, Frederick Noa was enslaved at Sarah plantation for 43 years. His two sons, Edward, Philip Elias were also at Sarah for 43 years, while his daughters, Eva Albertina and Frederica, were there for 36. Add 10 years if they stayed on through the whole transition period.

And now let’s compare this with my own experiences. We’re now closing on 9 years in the same house in St. John’s, which is the longest I’ve ever lived at a single address. I’ve never lived in any community longer than 11 years.

This year – 2017 – will mark 42 years since my parents and I arrived in Canada, 33 since I became a Canadian citizen. It’s one country and it’s a long time. But Canada, with its 5 time zones, is immense and I’ve lived in several provinces.


Sunrise in St. John’s, almost the eastest of east.


Tsawassen to Swartz Bay ferry – heading towards the westest of west.

I can’t even begin to imagine 40 years in one location.

How does place – and permanence – affect one’s view of the world, I wonder. How does it affect our understanding of home? If I extended them the invitation, how might my ancestors have imagined home? And can I ever hope to recover any of their imaginings?

What does home mean to you?


A row of temporary homes along Lumsden North Beach, NL… 


Fortunately, Lumsden North Beach is huge! 



Notes to Be/Longing


A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (2001) by Dionne Brand


A Poem to Belonging:

Notes to belonging


Notes to be.

For belonging



To be.

And one’s belonging is

Another’s note

To be/



When I start a new book, I like to examine the book as a text before I go any further. How is it presented for me, the reader? What kind of clues can I find on the cover that might enhance my reading experience?

Just looking at the cover of Dionne Brand’s book, A Map to the Door of No Return(2001), I notice a few things.

Firstly, I notice a map.

But of course! “Map” is even in the title of the book. I am not surprised to see a map on the cover. Moving on.

Next I notice the subtitle: “Notes to Belonging.”

At first glance, this seems straightforward. The title A Map to the Door of No Returnis quite cryptic and poetic in itself, so perhaps the subtitle merely helps describe what the book is about. In this case, belonging.

Speaking of poetry, next I noticed the testimony on the cover, which declares Brand’s “true home is not Africa, the Caribbean or Canada, but poetry” (“The Ottawa Citizen”).

Home: Not as place, but as poetry. This idea was quite intriguing to me and it is with this thought that I delved into the actual text.

Fast-forward a few hours of reading later and my mind is swirling with Brand’s beautiful storytelling and language, and shaken by her provocative exploration of identity, cartography, and belonging.

The poetry has permeated the pages.

Suddenly, I am seeing the cover of the text with fresh eyes.

Brand’s thematic connection to cartography is made quite clear just in the title of the book alone: A Map to the Door of No Return. However, Brand takes us on a journey to help us see maps beyond cartography.

 “There are maps to the Door of No Return. The physical door. They are well worn, gone over by cartography after cartographer, refined from Ptolemy’s Geographia to orbital photographs and magnetic field imaging satellites. But to the Door of No Return which is illuminated in the consciousness of Blacks in the Diaspora there are no maps. This door is not mere physicality. It is a spiritual location” (Brand 2).

Brand acknowledges that maps are most commonly perceived as visual renderings of a physical place. However, she wishes to dismantle this cartographic dominance of maps. Interspersed throughout her writing are several sections titled, “Maps”. The first one of these describes the rufous hummingbird, a curious little bird that can travel thousand of miles between “summer home” and “winter home” just through the instincts of its body (6). As Brand puts it, “it knew its way before all known map-makers” (6). From this, Brand is showing us that there are other ways to navigate the world. Maps are not the only way to know, to represent, to navigate, or to imagine the places we call home.

Moreover, perhaps they are not the most accurate either. In her survey of mapmaking history, she discovers that people need not visit a place in order to produce a map (18). She determines that maps are indeed as fallible as memory itself (60), and “in order to draw a map only the skill of listening may be necessary. And the mystery of interpretation” (18).

I look again at the cover of the book. Now the image of a map does not seem so natural to me. It has become ominous, in a way.

For Brand, maps signify a kind of dissonance. Dissonance between the experience and representation of place; between history and memory; between home and nation; between borders and belonging.

For Brand, she negotiates this dissonance through writing.

Thinking again about the quote on the cover page, if Brand’s “home” exists not on a map, it exists through “poetry”.

In a way, Brand demonstrates how poetic language can help traverse complex notions of identity and belonging.

Brand’s approach is similar to Fred Wah’s in Diamond Grill (2006). Like Brand, Wah uses maps to foray into his story by saying, “Maps don’t have beginnings, just edges” (1). Wah uses this to describe his style of writing, namely, his conscious decision to disrupt the linearity of traditional memoirs (181). Wah uses ‘pods’ of writing to structure his narrative, allowing him to jump back and forth in time and place.

Brand too uses this type of approach to the structure of her narrative. She jumps between different points in her life, from her days as a young girl, questioning her Grandfather on their origins (16), to waking at 4:45 in the morning as an adult, pondering notions of belonging (85). Her story is not constrained by temporal or narrative linearity, and this includes not only her life, but also the histories and experiences of others, in and before her time. It is through this careful threading of the personal, historical, and political where she really draws the poetry out of the prose.

For Wah and Brand, the poetry lies not necessarily in rhymes or stanzas, but through figurative language and provocative structure. Poetry in this sense allows one to break with form and negotiate the complexities of identities that are not necessarily easy to ‘map out’.

 “Art, perhaps music, perhaps poetry, perhaps stories, perhaps aching constant movement – dance and speed – are the only comforts” (26).

Returning once again to the subtitle on the cover, I would like to end with some thoughts on belonging. You might have noticed that I included a poem at the beginning of this blog. In analyzing the cover, I found myself playing with the words in the subtitle: “Notes to Belonging.” They seemed so straightforward, but when juxtaposed with a very poetic title, I couldn’t help but read (and write) poetics into it.

What does belonging entail? Can we ‘be’ without belonging? Is there a longing to belong? How is the exclusion of others disguised in the idea of belonging?

… Can we map belonging?



The Baltic Sea. October 2014. Photo: Lesley Butler



Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return. Vintage Canada, 2001.

“The Ottawa Citizen,” quoted on cover of Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return. Vintage Canada, 2001.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. NeWest Press, 2006.


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2016

The Rhinoceros

Researching the keywords ‘colonies,’ ‘migration,’ and country names (like ‘Suriname’) in an image archives will inevitably result in two kinds of images: photographs and prints. It is a reminder to me that colonialism borders pre- and post-daguerreotype. People wanted to know about the ‘brave new world’ they were occupying, even if they could not see it themselves. Those who did not travel to new and exotic lands would attend talks, read books, and view cabinets of curiosities in order to know about the things they could not see.

People were curious, and they romanticized the notion of ‘discovery’. They wanted the next best thing to being there, to understand the life there, human, plant, and animal. Researching those same keywords will eventually bring up images of animals.

Scientific discovery was closely connected to colonialism and migration. Charles Darwin‘s The Voyage of the Beagle was, and still is, one of the most popular travel memoirs, and it is a scientific field journal documenting exotic wildlife of the Galapagos. Many biologists traveled to new places, and they kept detailed descriptions and sketches of what they saw for scientific purpose. The general public also wanted to know what these scientists saw; therefore, artists were employed to illustrate books and images for talks. I recently found one of these images: a picture of a rhinoceros.


Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Two-Horned Rhinoceros.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1820. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-cefd-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

It reminded me of an image I studied in art history class, Albrecht Dürer‘s The Rhinoceros (1515). I learned about it in relation to prints artists made without having a visual basis. Lots etchings and prints were created by artists who have never seen the lands, people, or animals they were illustrating for books.

Dürer drew his image of a rhinoceros from a detailed description, and a rough sketch. He had never seen one before, and never would see one. His illustration is of an animal that looks like it is wearing plated armor, and is very detailed. Regardless of the detail, and the efforts to be accurate, both Dürer’s illustration and the one above are like a version of ‘telephone’. They are interpretations developed from secondary sources; they are based on what other people have seen and passed on through words and sketches.

There is only so much information that can be passed on through words and sketchings. It is up to the artist to interpret and fill in the gaps. I learned about Dürer’s ‘Rhinoceros’ because my drawing instructor wanted to impress upon me the importance of drawing what is real, and not what I think is real based on secondhand sight.

While I am mostly working with photographs for this research project, I cannot avoid the prints and how they were used to portray information to a curious and inquiring public. These images would colour the imaginations and opinions of the people who lived during these times. How were these prints used to feed the public’s opinions on migration, colonies, and other lands?

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca), 2016

The Islander

The Islander

I am a Newfoundlander, born and bred.

Or at least that’s how the song, “The Islander” goes. (Written by Bruce Moss, this song was made popular by The Navigators and Shanneyganock. Check it out if you can!)

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

What is Canada?

What is Canada?

Ogden Point, Victoria BC, May 2016, taken by Tanya Nielsen

Today is Canada Day and for most of the country, it is a time to celebrate the anniversary of the Constitution Act of July 1st, 1867. This usually means a parade, fireworks, cake, and the celebration of the many cultures that have come together to form this country. It is a bit different in Newfoundland though. While there is some celebration, this day is also referred to as Memorial Day, the anniversary of Beaumont-Hamel. This was a moment in the First World War where hundreds of Newfoundland soldiers died in the Battle of Somme.

Newfoundlanders still celebrate with fireworks, cake, and music on George Street, but there is a tinge of sadness to the party. The memory of those who fell is very much alive, and acknowledged today. I was warned before my first Canada Day in St. John’s, that it was a different kind of day in this province; I was warned that it can be a sensitive topic for some people. This was probably the first time I saw how this day could have a different meaning for some people; it made me question what Canada means, and what it means to me.

Canada stretches thousands of kilometres (5187 km east to west, and 4627 km north to south), encompassing the Rockies, the Prairies, the Arctic Circle, Atlantic coast, Pacific Coast, five time zones, French and English, multiple First Nations peoples, and generations of immigrants from all over the world. What does this day mean to all these people, from all these different places? What does this country represent?

My father moved to Canada from Bolivia in the 1960s, when he was eighteen years old. He had a scholarship from the Catholic church to study abroad at the Notre Dame University in Nelson, BC. For him, this country meant possibility, and hope for something more. He moved away from a tropical climate, his family, and everything that he knew, to a country known for its winters, where everyone spoke English, and everything was different.


Julio & Cecile Alvarez, Kokanee Park BC, 1970


Cecile Alvarez, BC, (date unknown)

He built a life, made friends, and eventually met and married my mother. He chose to stay, and not move back to the country he used to call home.

I remember how my father used to visit his home country every five years, regardless of whether the rest of us could accompany him or not. Even though he enjoyed his life in Canada, it was difficult for him to be so far away from his family. The years that had past had not made his absence any easier on our relatives. They were used to everyone staying close, and had difficulty understanding that my father moved to the other side of the world. For them, this country meant distance, barriers, a different language, and family they hardly knew.

My father would take a lot of photos, or make a video of our home in Canada before he would make a trip to Bolivia. He wanted to show everyone what our house looked like, our hometown, where he worked and how the rest of us looked (if we were not going with him). We wanted to show our family that we were doing well and that we had a good life in Canada. We took pictures of where we lived in the Pacific northwest coast of British Columbia, showing them how Canada was right on the ocean (Bolivia is landlocked), filled with giant trees, and small towns.


Alcan Beach, Kitimat BC, 1991, taken by Julio Alvarez

We did not take pictures of places like Vancouver, or Toronto, the Prairies, or the Atlantic coast, and we did not show them the multi-cultural background that makes up this country. Every photograph for them focused on our life, and our geographical understanding of Canada. I realize now that it was also my understanding of Canada, and I made this realization when I returned to the Pacific coast last May.


Pathway to the Marine Station,
Bamfield BC, Summer 2009, taken by Tanya Nielsen

When I think of Canada, I think of the oceans, old forests with trees so tall they block out the sun, and snow so deep one can jump off the roof of their house and be fine (unfortunately I do not have pictures of this, but I did do this). I grew up in British Columbia, a place so closely connected to its environment, that the tourism slogan is ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’. This is what I grew up recognizing as ‘Canada’, and it was what my family would talk about when we talked about this country.

When I think of Canada Day though, I think about how everyone in Kitimat would come together and celebrate their own heritage, as well as the country that brought us all together. I think about the people I grew up with, the people who understood the possibility and the hope that my father had when he moved here because they had the same dreams as him. The only difference was the place they came from.


St. John’s & the Atlantic Ocean, St. John’s Newfoundland, September 2012, taken by Tanya Nielsen

Now, when I think about Canada and Canada Day, I have composite idea from my family’s history, my relative’s impressions, my own personal history, my travels across this country, and the history of where I live now. I think about the people I knew while growing, the multi-cultural background, the struggle of immigrants, the nature that surrounds us, the cities and towns across 5187 kilometres, and the losses we have suffered in the history of this nation.

Whatever this country and this day mean to you, have a good day, and remember.

© Tanya Nielsen (tjn710@mun.ca),  2016