Newfoundland and Labrador: "Discovery" & Regional Stereotypes

Lisa Wade at Sociological Images and Thea Lim at Racialicious have both commented on an advertisement for tourism in Newfoundland and Labrador.

(Text reads: Discovery is a fearless pursuit. Certainly, this was the case when the Vikings, the first Europeans to reach the new world, landed at L’Anse aux Meadows. While it may only be a three-hour flight for you, it was a considerably longer journey a thousand years ago. But it’s a place where mystery still mingles with the light and washes over the strange, captivating landscape. A place where all sorts of discoveries still happen every day. Some, as small as North America. Others, as big as a piece of yourself.)
Their comments are quite astute: Lim points out that talking about the "European arrival in the Americas “Discovery,” rather than Colonisation or Genocide," both effaces a lot of colonial history, and effectively dehumanizes the indigenous peoples who were in Canada at the time of European arrival. She also points out that the discussion of "the land – or indigenous people, or their culture – as so mysterious and spooky" is at once way of dehumanizing and romanticizing indigenous peoples. (SocImages mostly restates Lim's analysis.)

Perhaps one of the most problematic elements of Canadian culture is the tendency to claim victimization (at the hands of our British rulers or our powerful American neighbours), while apparently forgetting that the nation only exists because of a seriously brutal colonial history. (Or, frankly, while apparently forgetting that we rejected the American Revolution because we wanted to be part of the British Empire.) So -- Lim and Wade are both 100% right about the problems with framing this ad. That said -- I'd like to add a little nuance, because there's more going on here.

First, Wade refers at one point to the Vancouver Olympics as "remind[ing] us relentlessly [that] Canada was home to many peoples when the Europeans arrived." That's true, of course, but it's a bit historically imprecise to talk about the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows as part of that bigger European arrival, or bigger colonialist project. L'Anse aux Meadows appears to have been maintained quite briefly around 1000 AD. Leif Ericson didn't "discover" Newfoundland, but neither did he try to settle it beyond the one temporary outpost. (And, of course, this all happened about 500 years before Cabot made landfall in 1497, marking the beginning of real European rule of the region.)

All of this seems to confirm the suggestion that this ad "effaces" colonial history -- in part by reframing European arrival as something separate from a bigger colonial project. It was, in the case of the Vikings at the beginning of the last millenium -- but in the 16th century, it wasn't. And as on the rest of the continent, it was brutal. The Beothuks, as you all probably know, weren't represented at the Vancouver Olympics because the last of them died in the early 19th century.

Second, I'd like to add that this advertisement is also seriously problematic in its representation of Newfoundlanders. (Full disclosure: I've never lived there, but my relatives on both sides go back several generations in NL.)

It's difficult, in general, to talk about Newfoundland in one breath with the rest of Canada. The province joined Confederation in 1949, making it by far the last province to do so. Until that time, it was a separate Dominion of Britain, and was more-or-less directly under British rule. Historically, it's been an economically poor ("have-not") province -- and it's been regarded as a bit weird and backwards by the rest of the country. Newfoundlanders are stereotyped as poor, uneducated, backwards simpletons with bizarre accents.

The children in this ad seem to be embodiments of this outpost stereotype. They're pictured with dirt-smudged faces, in clothing that looks to be homemade (the cable-knit sweater) or cast-off (the rest). They're playing with rocks in a grassy field, as what looks to be a bad storm rolls in. Unless I'm missing something, this is not how Newfoundlanders live. Certainly Newfoundland is beautiful,  has a pretty distinctive landscape -- and certainly most Newfoundlanders adore it for that reason. But, believe it or not, they're fully modern there. Rural mostly, yes. But if you're going there to see children with fairy-crowns of curly red hair whose parents for some reason don't tell them to come inside when it's obviously about to start pouring rain, you're going to be disappointed. (Especially after making that three-hour flight, all the way from Ontario or the northeastern US.)

1 comment:

S said...

Their website is just as bad. The end of the blurb has some promise, but would one really expect an apologetic statement about colonization and genocide on a tourism website?