“How long are you in Canada for?”
Honestly, I kid you not. That exact question was asked of me while I was on a student exchange trip in rural Manitoba. I was in grade ten. While I knew a little about Confederation and our late entry into it- I had, after all, interviewed the one and only Joseph R. Smallwood for a grade seven Newfoundlandia assignment- I was pretty sure Newfoundland was part of Canada. I mean, what kind of messed up question was that? But more peculiar? I responded as if the question made absolute sense. Boy, I wish I had that moment back.
But perhaps my shaky confidence could be forgiven. And perhaps that woman’s questions made some sort of sense. In the early days of Confederation, right up through the 90s, who were we in this nation of ours anyway? Newfoundland and Labrador often had the highest unemployment rate in the country. We were, in the eyes of the rest of the country for sure, a province filled with poor fishermen. As any Newfoundlander who traveled about the country in the 70s, 80s and 90s knows, questions like; “do you live in real houses?” and “what do you use for currency?” or (groan) “can you tell us a Newfie joke?” were common.
But what could we expect? We certainly were not a ‘have’ provence back then, and no one ever left their province to head to ours for work, or for anything for that matter. A spot for tourists? Yeah right. Newfoundland was a place to get by in, not a place to go to.
But things changed. Oil was part of the reason. But it was more than that. One former premier deserves much of the credit. Everyone, no matter what province they live in, remembers when Danny Williams ordered the removal of all Canadian flags from provincial government buildings in retaliation for an offer from the federal government on offshore royalties.
Williams said that the Canadian flags would be taken down and kept out of sight until Ottawa offered our province a fair deal.
“They’re slapping us in the face. I’m not willing to fly that flag anymore in the province…They basically slighted us, they are not treating us as a proper partner in Confederation. It’s intolerable and it’s insufferable and these flags will be taken down indefinitely,” Williams told reporters.
When those Canadian flags come down, a Country suddenly paid attention.
Then, in 2008, awash with oil money, we once again grabbed national headlines when we finally ceased receiving equalization payments and shed our image as a “have-not” province for the first time since joining Confederation.
“This is a very proud day for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians,” Williams said at a press conference at the time, adding,; “I don’t think the Newfie joke is there anymore. I think we’re now an example to our fellow Canadians of how it can be done and how to work your way through hardship.”
And, guess what? In a surprising reversal of fortunes, Ontario joined Quebec, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI as equalization payment recipients.
Tough to be them.
And how are we doing now? According to a report issued by the Conference Board of Canada, our little province is expected to be the runaway leader in economic growth among all provinces this year. And next year too.
Well, who’d a thunk it.
Almost ten years after Williams hauled down those flags my family went on a little vacation in Ontario. Our accents were noted, but not one person ask us to tell, nor did they attempt to tell us, a joke that refered to a Newfoundlander. Many we spoke with had either been to our province on vacation, or really, really wanted to come. A few people actually told us that a visit to this wonderful province of our was on their “bucket list.” And a few we spoke with actually had a family member who had moved to our province for work. And not one person asked us how long we would be in Canada for.
It’s great to be Canadian. Finally.