By Matthew Hayes
There’s something bizarre about Nova Scotia. Or, at least that’s the impression you might get from what has become an inordinate amount of mainstream media reports about odd people and occurrences in the province. Here are some of my favourites:
- Metro News reported a double stabbing: a man was stabbed and taken to hospital, and once released, returned home to stab his stabber. The two men turned out to be roommates.
- The Chronicle Herald reported that thieves stole a truck full of potato chips, which was later found in a ditch, with apparently no food missing
- CBC has a string of them: a 100-car lineup at the Tim Hortons in Truro on Christmas day; “double double trouble” in Parrsboro, where a man broke into a Timmy’s and made himself a coffee; the bizarreness of the 2015 fall sitting of the Nova Scotia legislature, which by their own standards had been a weird one; the Cape Breton redneck snow plow video that went viral; and perhaps most pressing of all, the fact that Sobey’s, earlier this year, was running out of promotional Jamie Oliver knives.
Augie Fleras writes that “mainstream media exist primarily as channels of persuasion whose primary objective is implicitly consistent yet expertly concealed – namely, to convert and co-opt audiences into “seeing like the media,” as if this media gaze was untouched by bias or perspective.” I argue that this media gaze frames certain stories about Nova Scotia in such a way as to reflect and reinforce the state’s ideology: that is, that some Nova Scotians are still backward, Innocent, quaint, and incapable of participating in the contemporary marketplace – they are still stuck in the Folk paradigm. As such, news media frame stories about certain events as particularly bizarre, as oddities at which the rest of the province and country are supposed to laugh and dismiss as unworthy of resources.
I use the word bizarre because it’s used in several of these stories, notably one about a New Minas man who, on his wedding night, was jailed for biting the face of a woman at a bar.
The Crown attorney and judge both described the incident as a bizarre assault. This suggests that in addition to the media framing stories to make them appear more bizarre, there’s also an element of incomprehension about it, whether feigned or not. Another biting incident, this time at the expense of MLA Andrew Younger, who last year was allegedly bitten at the Dingle, extends the bizarre to the realm of Nova Scotia politics. A CBC article from late last year starts by saying that “even by Nova Scotia standards, this sitting of the Nova Scotia Legislature has been a weird one”. Herb Wyile writes that the irony of the Folk image is that the region has a now fully developed image of itself as Innocent, “as part of a thoroughly modern campaign to diversify economically and generate revenue”. He argues that while many resist the image of the Folk, many have also reinforced it by emphasizing certain aspects of it, such as independence, cultural vitality, and communal cohesion. I find this emphasis apparent in certain online reactions to these bizarre news stories.
Cultural producers in Nova Scotia today are found in abundance online. They provide commentary on any matter social or political, through their Twitter feeds and in the comments sections on the online versions of these stories. These cultural producers demonstrate an ambivalence about these stories, perhaps what David Creelman refers to as hesitation and nostalgia. There is irony in everything they do. These stories are a source of the feeling that Nova Scotia is still indeed backward. Yet, despite this, many of these cultural producers also try to claim these stories for themselves, to protect those people featuring in them. This becomes most evident when a Come From Away criticizes the people featured.
While local cultural producers see how ridiculous these stories are, and how they negatively affect the image of Nova Scotia, I’ve found that if someone from outside the province attempts to say anything against them, these same cultural producers will defend the Folk, drawing on the rhetoric of authenticity.
Only locals have the right to make fun of these people. Only locals have the right to laugh at their own, to laugh at them in a nostalgic way, the way one would about a funny uncle who gets amusingly drunk at parties. And if anyone from outside tries to do the same, then all of a sudden the person they were laughing at becomes their family again, in solidarity against the CFAs that have regularly come to the province to pillage, taking what they want and leaving nothing of value to the locals left behind.
In another context, the historian of science Steven Shapin has referred to this as the intellectual or moral right to make statements about or to laugh at one’s own community, which outsiders do not have. Laughter is a big part of this. Many of these articles use humour as a framing device. An article on thieves stealing a snack truck mentions people having a chip on their shoulder. An RCMP media release speaks of a break-in at a Tim Horton’s as “double double trouble”. In 2011, a man was charged with breaking into a Halifax house, stealing a rack of ribs and cooking it on the victim’s BBQ – in the plastic. It naturally caught fire, and that’s when the homeowner realized what was happening and called the police.
Constable Brian Palmeter, the police spokesman at the time, said of the incident that “The victim was able to extinguish the fire, however, the meal was a total loss.” One article described the event as an “ill-advised culinary plot”. Another started by saying that police had “dished out” multiple charges to the man. One wrote that the man was facing charges for “allegedly being a bad thief and an even worse cook”, and finally, one article described him a “carnivorous culprit”, and quoted Constable Palmeter saying that he thought the police should “throw the cookbook at him because he ruined a perfectly good rack of ribs.” It’s banal to say that many newspapers like to throw in a good pun, but I suggest that these attempts at humour mask deeper and darker inequalities in the province, which rise to the surface in odd ways.
An example is the attempt by the Nova Scotia Liberals to eliminate the use of the term “Come From Away”, which they saw as a hindrance. They debated replacing it with “Come From Anywhere”, but locals saw this as futile.
The term is so deeply ingrained in Nova Scotia because it’s a genuine sentiment developed from decades of exploitation by the centre, which has engendered a bitter cynicism about people coming from away. It speaks to Creelman’s idea that there is a common ethos in the Maritimes, not in the sense of a shared community, but in the memory of a shared community.
These new online cultural producers are now embracing an idea that was never constructed to serve them. They, in ironic ways, take up the idea of a shared experience in which people from outside the province cannot participate, showing a commitment to an idea that marginalized them in the first place. The Folk was constructed to serve outside interests, to bring in tourism and outside talent. Local producers are attempting to take control of the Folk as a means of attacking the very state that assisted with its construction. Often when commenting on a bizarre story, cultural producers will use it as proof that the state is not doing enough to help the province, that the state’s priorities are focused too much on bringing in help from outside, rather than promoting local talent, which is just as good as any found elsewhere.
An example of this was the outpouring of Twitter grief over the new Halifax logo and slogan, which many believed was laughably awful. Twitter users wrote that local students could easily have come up with a similarly terrible slogan, for a fraction of the price, drawing ironically on the rhetoric of the backwardness of locals.
The municipality was charged with naivety, but as McKay and Bates write, elites in Nova Scotia have never been part of a conscious conspiracy with concrete goals: “They may not have clearly understood why large-scale social change was occurring, even if they certainly knew it required a response”. Locals want the same thing as the state: jobs. But they are making use of the tools available to them – in this case, bizarre stories – as a way of pointing out the inadequacies and failings of the state, trying to reclaim the idea of the Folk in a way that benefits them rather than the state.
These efforts are laced with irony and ambivalence. Creelman articulates this in terms of a balance or fragile equilibrium between a hesitation about the future, and a memory of the past. Swirling at the heart of these stories, and the reactions to them, are socioeconomic inequalities that the media, I argue, regularly gloss as regional quirks or individual eccentricities. It’s easier to ignore them this way, to disperse and shift the blame. Cultural producers online, however, see through this, and work to turn these stories back around on those who created them.
In 2014, a Nova Scotia woman, while on a whale-watching tour in Mexico, was slapped in the face by a Gray’s tail. Perhaps this bizarre event says something about the state of Nova Scotia in the world today.
The Rib Thief by Matthew Hayes
 Augie Fleras, 2011, The Media Gaze: Representations of Diversities in Canada, UBC Press, ix.
 Herb Wyile, 2011, Anne of Tim Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature, Wilfred Laurier University Press, 22.
 David Creelman, 2003, Setting in the East: Maritime Realist Fiction, McGill-Queen’s University Press.
 Steven Shapin, 2010, Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was produced by People with Bodiese, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority, Johns Hopkins University Press, 34.
 David Creelman, 2003, Setting in the East: Maritime Realist Fiction, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 11.
 Ian McKay and Robin Bates, In the Province of History: The Making of the Public Past in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 377.
 David Creelman, 2003, Setting in the East: Maritime Realist Fiction, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 14.