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This Island That We Cling To

I wrote what follows this paragraph a while back, for the National Post, when commenting on the generous response Newfoundlanders in central Newfoundland (Gander, Lewisporte, Gambo) gave to stranded Americans during the days following Sept. 11 2001. Much of what is here underlies the questions asked in the pieces airing on The National on the 20th anniversary of that gloomy act, the moratorium on the Newfoundland cod fishery. So I offer it now...

The fishery is the real "school" of Newfoundland life and the Newfoundland way.  It has inflected the Newfoundland character.  The underlying question - for me - of the 20 years since the moratorium (and beyond) is how much, and what, has been subtracted from Newfoundland as a result of the closure of the cod fishery, and the consequence decline of so many of our outports.

The history of Newfoundland has been stern.  Living here up to the middle of the last century has been for most a lifetime test of endurance.  It has always been at best a stripped -down existence.  Isolation, poverty, a harsh climate and the mixed boon of maritime life - the bounty of the sea always carried an extortionate price - brought people early and of necessity into a tacit pact with their fellows.  

All other things absent, one's only present help in a time of trouble was one's neighbour.  The thought that a neighbour's fate was in some ways one's own was never formulated as a doctrine, it did not come by way of books or ideology.  Nor did the idea that the stranger, if that stranger arrives in distress on your shore is your neighbour as much as he who lives literally next door... that idea did not come from any school, save perhaps the pervasively infused idea of Christian charity.  

It's most powerful source however was the school of life as lived in Newfoundland itself.  Successive generations refined the impulse to help, to intercede with tact into the distresses of others, into something of a common and general reflex.  It wove itself into people's very idea of themselves, and more generally as a greatly revered feature of Newfoundlanders common character.  To give, even when little was owned; to extend help whatever the exertion might cost; not to seek gain out of others' plight - all were practices elevated into the Newfoundlander's ideal set of social virtues. What happened in September 2001 here in central Newfoundland was, in this sense, just a late manifestation of a code long ago acquired and learned.

Whether these deep set virtues, born out of a time and in circumstances long vanished, can be retained is a good question at this late day in our history.  Much change has come to Newfoundland, and its central and deepest culture has endured the great shock of the fishery's collapse, and the consequent enervation or outright passing of outport life and habits.  Some central elements of this province and its character are now but shadows of their former presence, and these radical changes are not, to my mind, either being marked or, in any real sense, resisted.

These are, or should be, the central concerns of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Not the offshore - for all its benefits; nor our unwonted status as a 'have' province; but whether the decline of the outports, and the accompanying decay of the practices of generations, will steal from Newfoundland and Labrador the essence of its remarkable charm and enduring allure.