Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

St. John's, Newfoundland as seen from Signal Hill. (Credit: Sébastien Blanchard/Wikimedia; CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Re-finding Newfoundland

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 10:45 PM

Coincidence, surely, is the reason that the two places on earth I’d most like to visit (but probably never will) are islands.

One of them is Japan. Due to curiosity piqued by the anime to which I’m more or less addicted I’ve done a little research into the place. While the cuisine there includes some items that would cause me to throw away a pair of shoes if I stepped on them (uni, anyone? raw horsemeat? sea cucumber?) I’ve learned that the culture is enchanting and enticing. Their national television service, NHK, is often soothing and very pleasing. It is a far more dignified place than we’re likely to experience here. And my two favorite people, Manami and Masami neither of whom I’ve met, both live there.

The other is closer, an island off the coast of Canada called Newfoundland. (Yes, I know it’s legally part of Canada, but having looked into the details I’m disinclined to think of it as such.) By the way, it is pronounced with the same accents as the word “understand.” Virtually no one here pronounces it correctly.

The two deserve comparison. Japan is halfway around the world, 13 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern time, while Newfoundland is a long day’s drive and ferryboat ride away, its time just 1.5 hours ahead of mine. Wait a minute! you ought to be thinking. One and a half hours ahead? Yes, indeed. Well, some of the time — it’s complicated, at least until we get this daylight saving time business sorted out. Which ought to tell you something useful about that great rock in the North Atlantic: it has traditionally made its own decisions and gone its own way. Though, and we’ll get to this, it has been abused by countries and empires with which it has been associated.

It has a television station, too, NTV. It’s where I can watch the Mummer’s Parade at the end of each year. They eat some unusual things there, too, but they wash it down with rum at least some of the time. They have oodles of rocky coastline, much of it festooned with puffins — chubby shorebirds that hop around as if someone wound them up. They also have bakeapples, more commonly called “cloudberries,” which I am told are delicious but which have seeds that will break your teeth, so there’s a tradeoff.

Like most of us, I knew nothing about Newfoundland (except that the best news director I ever had, Reg Laite of WOR Radio in New York, was from there). But then, what, five years or so ago I happened upon reruns of a quirky television program called Republic of Doyle. You can think about it as a kind of Rockford Files set near the Maritime provinces of Canada, but that’s just the framework. What it really is is a six-season love note to Newfoundland.

It would not surprise me to learn that every single resident of the island — certainly of St. John’s, the show’s location and the biggest city there (population, 111,000) — had appeared at least briefly on the show. It is a beautiful place, and Republic of Doyle makes good use of that. It is disproportionately populated with very good actors and singers.

The show made no effort — why would it? — to come up with fancy exterior sets. One of the joys of watching it is to catch the name of some store or pub and look it up online only to learn that it’s real and still open and you’d really like to go there. It’s headquartered in an office above what appears to be the family bar, and even that is real: it’s the Duke of Duckworth. Which goes by its own name on the show.

At least one show is set in The Rooms, the lovely museum and cultural center in St. John’s. Wisely, I think, the show doesn’t spend a single line of exposition explaining any of these places. “The Rooms” is mentioned as if — gee — the characters are supposed to know about it already. Good for them.

The show has an attitude, which is pride in Newfoundland. An insult there is to call someone “mainland.” The non-insult is that they’re “CFA,” or “come from away.” (And in St. John’s, it’s an insult to tell someone they’re “not town,” even if they’re from nearby Mount Pearl, population 22,000. You’re either “town” — from St. John’s — or “bay” from anywhere else in Newfoundland. It’s like here, when people were either New Englanders or they weren’t, back when New England was a desirable place to call home.)

The show stars a fellow named Allan Hawco. He also produced it, wrote most of it, and did just about everything else. But for the wealth of talent in Newfoundland and the physical constraints, he might have played all the characters himself, too.

Watching it the first time around, I started noticing that there are people famous in Canada that we haven’t heard of here. For instance, you’ll find much of the cast of the exquisitely crazy CODCO, a comedy set and made in Newfoundland a generation earlier. And there is the unsurpassed Mark Critch. All you need to know about him is his CBC commentary after the record “snowmageddon” there in 2020. (He now has a CBC series, “Son of a Critch,” about growing up in Newfoundland, where his father ran VOCM, the local radio station. There is no better way to begin a weekend than to get up early on Saturday and listen to The Irish Newfoundland Show, my all-time favorite radio program, on VOCM. Newfoundland has its own very good music. Its Christmas songs are especially wonderful. I wrote a piece about the show a few years ago and lo and behold, not long afterward I received a box of cool VOCM swag and some great Newfoundland Cds. On Saturday mornings I take my coffee in a VOCM mug and in the winter it’s a VOCM watch cap that keeps my head warm. Totally unnecessary and nothing for Greg Smith to have gained by it, but, well, that’s Newfoundland.)

Indeed, I’ve encountered more kindness I didn’t deserve from Newfoundlanders than just about anyone else. Which is a surprise when you consider its and their history, which has involved getting kicked at just about every turn. It has never been a wealthy place, though there have been wealthy people there who were not eager to spread their good fortune around. But the 20th century saw it out-and-out abused. In 1907 it became an independent dominion, though still part of the British empire. That was 38 years after it had voted not to be part of Canada. (The more I read about England’s treatment of lands it had acquired, the gladder I am that we got while the getting was good.) As part of its contribution to the World War I effort, Newfoundland organized a regiment of young men to go fight. Those were boys the island could ill afford to lose.

On July 1, 1916, in the space of half an hour, they were wiped out. Incompetent British generals — but I repeat myself — ordered them out of the trenches and into German machine-gun fire. It was at a place called Beaumont-Hamel, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. More than 800 Newfoundlanders climbed out of the trenches and ran forward. At the next morning’s roll, 68 showed up. At this point the population of Newfoundland, all of it, was about 250,000. On July 1, Canada celebrates “Canada Day,” but in Newfoundland it’s a day of mourning for the lads lost at Beaumont-Hamel. (The link is to a video of a memorial song performed by the Ennis Sisters and the Shalloway Youth Choir, and once you know the story it’s impossible to watch it dry-eyed.) There is an excellent documentary about it that includes people from Republic of Doyle.

Following the war, Newfoundland was in bad shape and its economy was heading downward. That was made even worse by the Great Depression. England and others “helped” with loans and the like, which put the island deeply in debt. It became effectively bankrupt and a “commission government” was established. It gave London control — it was effectively a colony. For some reason, come World War II Newfoundland’s young men were not overly eager to go to Europe and fight, so they mostly didn’t.

Following that war, ties grew between Newfoundland and the U.S. and there was talk of something more formal coming to pass. This annoyed both Canada and Great Britain. The idea of making the rock part of Canada was renewed. In 1948 there was a referendum, offering Newfoundlanders a choice: join Canada, keep the commission government, or return to “responsible government,” which was to say increase its independence. The third choice got the most votes but not a majority, so there was a runoff. The radio personality Joey Smallwood lent his voice to the idea of the island becoming part of Canada. In the runoff, that is what passed, barely. The Avalon Peninsula, home to most of Newfoundland’s population, opposed joining Canada, but the sparsely populated rest of the country joined with the Avalon minority in pushing it through. So on March 31, 1949, Newfoundland was swallowed by Canada.

The betrayals continued. It was difficult to provide roads and services to many of the now-province’s communities, so the government instituted a program of “voluntary resettlement” of people from outlying communities to “growth centers.” Those who moved would be paid from $150 to $600. Today, Newfoundland’s coasts are dotted by abandoned towns. The people who voted to become part of Canada were effectively dispossessed of their homes, livelihoods, and traditions. And it’s still going on. In 2019, the government “resettled” the residents of Little Bay Islands. One couple refused to leave. It is impossible to read anything about relocation without becoming at least sad and probably enraged. Though it’s good that it happened when it did. Canada’s current policy is to dispose of the inconvenient.

A further insult came when, in 2001, Canada decided to change the province’s name to “Newfoundland and Labrador.” In an era when one’s “identity” is paramount, Newfoundland was robbed even of its identity.

And yet Newfoundlanders remain friendly.

Besides the cost, one of the reasons I’m unlikely ever to visit Japan is that I do not speak the language. Though the same is true of Newfoundland — where it’s a trick to think that speaking English is all you need. But even that is delightful. The slang and usage of Newfoundland “English” is a joy.

There is an actual Dictionary of Newfoundland English. One of the things that makes Republic of Doyle so enjoyable is that it incorporates that usage, neither accenting it nor explaining it.

Here, we might say, “Hi. What’s up?” and reply, “Nothing much.” In Newfoundland, it’s “What are you at?” (sometimes in as few as two syllables) and the reply is “This is it.”

Another exchange: “How are you?” “Best kind.”

You might be referred to — I hope not — as a “skeet,” a “sleeveen,” or a “sook,” which would mean, respectively, an unkempt lout, a dishonest person or trickster, and a grownup whining like a baby. (“Sook” comes from “suck,” as in a nursing infant.)

We’d say we’re irritable or cranky; in Newfoundland it’s “crooked.”

There are thousands of examples, each more colorful than the one before. You do not ask where someone is, you say, “Where’s he to?” Sometimes, but not always, “th” is pronounced as a plain “t,” as in “He has a sore troat.” I’ll make no attempt at explaining the Newfoundland word “b’y,” more or less pronounced “bah.” Many have tried and they were never seen again.

Newfoundland English has been discussed by linguists, and it has been discussed hilariously. It will make you smile.

It’s an entirely lovable place, best I can tell. But I’ll probably never go there. I’m not sure I’d survive “screech-in,” a procedure where CFAs are welcomed to the island. This involves kissing a codfish and drinking “a shot” of Newfoundland rum. It’s usually, unfortunately, in that order. There are other parts to it, too. It has been known to last all night, with recovery taking up to a week.

But I’d recommend watching Republic of Doyle and, for a little while at least, becoming a vicarious Newfoundlander. You’ll want to go there but probably won’t.

Or you could go, I guess, to Japan.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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