by Martha MacDonald
In May 2016, I had the opportunity to attend the Atlantic Canadian Studies conference for the first time. It was a great pleasure to be there as a graduate of Mount Allison with a very long family history at that institution. Despite my own Maritime history, I was there to present some reflections from my 28 years in Labrador, where Atlantic Canada meets the North.
Labrador is physically larger than the rest of the Atlantic Canadian provinces combined, but with a population of only 27,000 people, its political and cultural voice is often drowned by that of the island portion of the province, though the name of this province has been officially “Newfoundland and Labrador” since 2001.
The theme of “otherness” discussed throughout the conference sessions in terms of dimensions of difference is clearly evident in Labrador. This is displayed in many ways in this territory, and I chose to examine its representation in language. Aspects of spoken English are used to emphasize the separate identity of Labradorians, who in many cases have a markedly different history and identity, including the indigenous heritage that has so strongly shaped the territory and its people.
The distinctive speech of the Newfoundlander is well known in Canada, but it is not common to hear of someone having a “Labrador accent.” Yet there are speech patterns and vocabulary here that are not found on the island, largely words dealing with the distinctive hunting traditions learned through contact with the Innu and Inuit. Several of these terms have not found their way into the renowned Dictionary of Newfoundland English, including the words used to describe a traditional harpoon and the terms used to call dogs.
As well as distinctive vocabulary, macaronic speech elements, and aspects of pronunciation, there are political aspects to the way language is used that are meant to very directly underline the feelings of isolation and frustration Labradorians experience regarding what they see as their subordinate position in their relationship with Newfoundland. A student paper from 1975 offered this quote, “For as long as we’ve been here, they’ve taken millions of tons of fish from our coast and left us the head and the guts and the bones. Now they’re taking iron ore and leaving us nothing for it. They’re taking all the power from the Churchill and they’re not leaving us enough for a light bulb.”(Fowler 1975)
Many Newfoundlanders would be astonished to find themselves cast in this role of colonial overlords, but such is the image of their neighbours that many Labrador people hold, reinforced by the witnessing of unconscious remarks of the kind made by former Premier Kathy Dunderdale, who in response to a boundary dispute with Quebec said in reference to members of that province’s government “absolutely do not believe that we own Labrador.” (Montague 2013)
Labradorians routinely speak of “going out to Newfoundland” and see it as a distinctly separate place. They also see their own language patterns as quite different from the well-known Newfoundland dialect. In a play written by the children of Mud Lake for the annual Labrador Creative Arts Festival, the cast of four (the entire student body that year) expressed their sense of otherness by creating a script that pointed out the differences between the speech of visiting Newfoundlanders and themselves. At the end of the play a friendship is established and the Labrador character agrees to make a return visit but warns sternly, “I’m going, but you aren’t making me eat cod tongues and you’re definitely not making me a Newfoundlander!” The Labrador audience reacted with recognition and satisfaction to this assertion of a separate identity.
As elsewhere, our differences are smaller than our similarities, but the need to continually assert identity is a strongly felt one in Atlantic Canada, and is efficiently achieved through the use of language. As Gerald Pocius says, all identity deals with the issue of contrast, and may be constructed by confrontation with ‘the other.’ (Pocius 2001) Perhaps the freedom to express this essential difference points to an underlying recognition of the bonds of kinship and friendship that persist between the two segments of a province that as a whole is well accustomed to being seen as “the other.”
Martha MacDonald is the Acting Director at the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, based in Goose Bay, Labrador. She received her PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies from Memorial in 2015, researching narratives of Inuttitut language loss in Nunatsiavut.
Fowler, William A. 1975. The Growth of Political Conscience in Labrador. Unpublished ms.
Montague, Derek. 2013. Labrador MHAs defend Premier. Available at: www.thelabradorian.ca/News/Local/2013-08-01/article-3336072.
Pocius, Gerald. 2001. Folklore and the creation of national identities: a North American perspective. Available at www.folklore.ee/rl/pubte/ee/bifl/pocius.html.