On Newfoundland and being a ‘Newfoundlander’

What is Newfoundland and Labrador? There are many answers to this question, and most are relatively straight forward. The Island of Newfoundland is England’s Oldest Colony in North America, claimed by John Cabot for the Crown in 1497. Newfoundland and Labrador is also Canada’s youngest province (1949) – even though the Dominion of Canada and the Dominion of Newfoundland existed at roughly the same time in history.

Geographically, and culturally, it is quite different from the rest of Canada. It is home to a number of rich indigenous cultures– Mi’kmaq, Innu, and Inuit – and also shares a cultural heritage that has much in common with Ireland and England. It is sometimes referred to as Canada’s “Far East” and many mistakenly believe it is part of the Maritimes. It isn’t. But it is part of Atlantic Canada.

But….what does it mean to be a ‘Newfoundlander’? That is a very different question that cannot be answered by simply saying “it is someone who was born here’.  A more nuanced answer is that “it is someone who is of this place’. Not the same thing at all.

When Newfoundlanders meet each other one of the first questions they ask is “where are you from?” It isn’t an idle question, it is meant to set the stage for the rest of the conversation about who your people are, and who do you know in common. Now, if in conversation you meet someone who is visiting the province from elsewhere then you place them in the category of “From Away”. From Away is anyplace that isn’t Newfoundland and Labrador. And if another party asks who they are, in the third person, then the response is he or she “Comes from Away”.  It is an accepted and innocuous way of sorting a person and setting the stage for a conversation. It happens so often it has its own acronym – CFA.

In some minds, the terms Newfoundlander and CFA are a way of dividing people into two groups – those who are born here and those that were not.  A simple distinction that is true when speaking of a people who live here and differentiating them from those whom are visiting as part of a vacation.  It is a distinction that does not apply however when a visitor decides to make Newfoundland and Labrador his or her home.

Let us return to the definition of a Newfoundlander as “someone who is of this place”. What does that mean? In its simplest form it means someone who chooses to live here.  But nothing about choosing to live here is simple. Its not like growing up in Manitoba and moving to Saskatchewan or being born in South Dakota and choosing to live in Montana. Although there are undoubtably differences it wouldn’t be too difficult to make the adjustment.

No – choosing to live in Newfoundland and Labrador is not the first thought that pops into the head of someone who wakes up in the morning in another part of the world.  And for those brave souls that make the decision to do so? Well…. there are a number of realizations. 

The first thing you realize when you choose to live here is that the province is small.

Not geographically – we have over 17,542 kilometres of coastline. The Island has a landmass of 111,390 square kilometres and Labrador has an additional 294.330 square kilometres. No, we are small in the sense that living here is intimate. Our culture is largely harbour and outport based. Even our largest City – St. John’s – is known as our biggest Outport.  Our bonds are close – and our communities of interest are small. They are also inclusive and embracing.

The second thing you realize when you choose to make this place your home is that the weather is raw.

There are several definitions of raw but we choose to define it as “Rugged, Awesome and Wicked”. Not your typical rugged awesome and wicked as in a metaphor for ‘that’s a jolly good thing’. No, we mean it literally.  Our weather is variable – we have no spring to speak of and our winds are something to behold – they will literally leave you gobsmacked.

Speaking of gobsmacked the third thing you realize when you make this place your home is that the predominant language is English, however it is a somewhat ‘different’ form of the English language.

It is a language that retains parts of the ‘Old Speech’ that once lived in the counties, fens, highlands and lochs of England, Ireland and Scotland interspersed with nuggets from indigenous and Nordic languages. But don’t worry, there is an official Dictionary of Newfoundland English that will help you navigate your new home.

The fourth thing you realize as you settle in, is that the distances are huge.

If you were the type of person who lived in Ontario but could only travel from Ottawa to Montreal for the weekend because of the distance, then living in Newfoundland is going to introduce you to a different scale of travel.  If you are originally from Europe, then you may be used to travelling across multiple countries while driving 900 kilometres. That distance here will get you cross the Island from St. John’s to Port Aux Basques. And that is only on the Island portion of the province – you haven’t even been introduced to the ‘Big Land’ – Labrador – one of the largest and most majestic places on the planet.

The fifth realization is that we love the arts.

You will see that in the number of live performance companies and venues for theatre and music. You will see it in kitchens and sheds when people get together socially. And you find it in our pubs and bars. And holidays – we love celebratory holidays. We have Holidays for everything – in fact there are no less than 14 holidays on the Calendar – everything from Saints Days to the Queen and all occasions in between.

If you have chosen to make this place your home, then it is probably because you have embraced these realizations. If your life choices include living with a sense of community, participating in a social fabric of vibrant music, theatre, and the arts, learning a new language, travelling a diverse landscape of towns and villages uniquely rich in their own cultures and people, and embracing mother nature in her full unvarnished state – then you share that love with the others who live here. In essence you are “of this place”, and you are a Newfoundlander.

Welcome home.

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Food, drink, and good company - the Newfoundland Embassy is a traditional pub and eatery in downtown St. John’s. 

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