Thursday, October 16, 2008

The saga of Newfoundland

I love Iceland for precisely the same reason that I love Newfoundland. I have travelled the width and breadth of Newfoundland. I remember Port aux Basques being my first sight of Newfoundland, and Lance aux Meadows, and St Johns, and of the times I've climbed Gross Morne. And I also remember that appalling walk the Newfoundlanders praised so highly, in Terra Nova. You take a boat out to the point, get dropped off, and then walk a couple of hours back round the bay. No one mentioned the mud up to ones knees or worse at every step, and the ravenous insects that hadn't seen fresh meat for weeks. One thing one has to say for Newfoundlanders, they sure do have a sense of humour, when it comes to entertaining both themselves and their visitors.

Iceland and Newfoundland are similar in terms of geography, outlook, profession, character and attitude. They are both home to proud peoples. Key differences between Newfoundland and Iceland are that Newfoundlanders predominately speak English as their first tongue, they are a lot closer to Canada, and they have a larger population. Newfoundland also boasts spectacular scenery, though (sorry Newfoundland) your scenery is at best a pale imitation of what Iceland offers the intrepid visitor to her shores.

It is said that "Ships on the beach are lighthouses to the sea".

Newfoundland is from an Icelandic perspective very much such a ship. It clearly had more opportunity to make of its own union with Canada a success story. It is reasonable for Iceland to look at Newfoundland and ask, do we want to go where Newfoundland went. Newfoundland is the mirror which when viewed shows Iceland where union with Canada will lead.

Newfoundland relinquished its sovereignty for a place at the Canadian table, as we are suggesting Iceland might consider one option among the many available to it. So what were the pro's and what were the con's for Newfoundland and Canada uniting.

Newfoundlanders became the butt of Canadian jokes, just as in England it was the Irishman who was the butt of most English jokes. This seems to be the lot of those who live on Islands perceived as less significant than where the majority of a population live. One makes jokes about those that are different from the self, not those that are the same as the self. And Newfoundlanders were different.

It is enormously hard for a proud people to feel that their strengths are not appreciated, and that others laugh at their perceived foolishness, when they know themselves to be a damned sight smarter than those who laugh.

Newfoundland which had a fish stock equal to that of Icelands saw its fish stocks destroyed by overfishing. The Canadian government in its shortsighted greed, traded permission for many nations to fish in Canadian waters for what might reasonably be called short term blood money. Very much a dollar in the hand is worth two fish in the sea approach to fishery management. The permitting of such foreign fishing in Canadian waters meant that the problem of the "commons" was created. No one could afford to step back and give the fish stocks time to recover, because they knew that not all would.

Newfoundland was bankrupted by the loss of its fish. Iceland, please learn from this ship on the beach if from no other. Do whatever is needed, even if it is painful, to protect your own fish stocks now. You risk as Newfoundland did loosing that which you don't know how to appreciate and care for, until it was too late to either appreciate or care for.

Newfoundland saw a painful migration of its people to other parts of Canada in search of alternative work, and alternative futures. This threatened Newfoundland with the collapse of its unique culture, and was enormously painful for many communities within Newfoundland.

I am sure that Newfoundlanders could potentially name other grievances that arose as consequence of joining Canada, but I hope I've at least touched on the biggest.

So what advantages did Newfoundlanders enjoy as consequence of Newfoundland joining Canada.

For years, I and other Canadians partially funded Newfoundland through transfer payments, the better to help equalise the standards of living of those in Newfoundland, with the standard of living enjoyed by the rest of the country.

This is Canadian generosity at work. This is the generosity I display when I say that I am prepared to give Iceland with 330,000 people an equal voice at the table, with Ontario which has 12,500,000 people. This is the generosity that most Canadians will be displaying if they collectively invite Iceland to join Canada.

When the fish stocks on the Grand Banks collapsed, Canada did not hang Newfoundland out to dry. We gave additional money to help our fellow Canadians in Newfoundland, and to ensure that to the extent possible they were protected from the harm caused by our (and Newfoundlands) mismanagement of our fishery.

The cods stocks could just as easily have collapsed if Newfoundland had been independent. It may be that Icelands fish stocks will also collapse. Iceland's banks collapses despite Iceland being a sovereign nation. Being sovereign does not necessarily make one wiser, or more secure. How many people are helping bail Iceland out in its time of need? Being part of a larger nation provide an insurance policy that can be relied upon when help is needed.

While migration was painful to Newfoundlanders, Newfoundlanders had the complete freedom to migrate. They could and have exploited the opportunities to travel that Canada provided them. As a separate nation, Newfoundlanders having lost everything would have been forced to live with the fact that they now had nothing. Not so in Canada. Fort MacMurry in Alberta (renamed Fort MacMoney because of its ability to put money in peoples pockets), has a population that is now 17% Newfoundlander. Newfoundlanders have made of Fort MacMurry, a second home for themselves. They have not in the process become Albertans, even though they have as much right to call themselves Albertans as any Albertan. They remain proud Newfoundlanders.

For Canadians the pendulum has now changed. Newfoundland is more wealthy than Ontario, and it is my own premier who is saying that with these changing times, it is now Ontario which needs financial help from Newfoundland. Newfoundland is now a have nation, Ontario a have not nation. We gave Newfoundland help for years. It is now time to see if Newfoundland (which is on a per capita basis the most generous province in Canada) reciprocates in Ontario's own hour of need.

I think on balance Newfoundlanders would say that joining Canada was the worst thing they ever did for many reasons, but the best thing they ever did for as many others. If Icelanders were to join Canada I think they would say the same. If Newfoundland is so unhappy with being a province of Canada, where is the Newfoundland separatist movement.

Fundamentally, I am not saying that Iceland should unite with Canada. I am not saying that Canada should necessarily offer Iceland that option. What I am saying is that both Iceland and Canada risk missing an opportunity of potential benefit to both, if they dismiss the idea of union without even considering the merits of such a union.

It is doubtful whether Iceland would be willing to give up its sovereignty, though give it up it effectively will, irrespective of what nation it joins, if it finds itself obliged to adopt another countries currency. Only if Iceland finds itself obliged to give up its sovereignty might a union with Canada be appropriate. If Iceland must find partner, Canada is as worthy a suitor for Iceland's hand as any other. I would not trade being Canadian for being European. I don't think many Newfoundlanders would.

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