Newfoundland and Labrador
This is Miss F. at the Signal Hill National Historic Site in St. John’s.
I look at this photograph as I read, in complete disbelief, this story on the privately proposed monument to… well… I don’t know what in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. How is this even remotely possible is beyond me. I cannot imagine anything more un-Canadian than this monstrosity.
And so it is official now: Bojan Fürst, MA.
This is a photograph from a story on Wood Island, New Brunswick, reunion I did for CBC’s Maritime Noon many years ago and it kind of started this whole islands adventure. It’s been a great ride. If you are interested in seeing what my thesis ended up looking like scoot over to Islands of Sun and Ice page.
When I looked at the driver and even before we said a word to each other, there was a jolt of recognition, a sense of familiarity every immigrant sometimes feels – a genetic alarm telling you that the person in front of you hails from the more or less same ancestral pool. It is not necessarily a joyous feeling, rather a mix of caution and a hope that you might be able to exchange a greeting in a tongue that feels familiar and mysterious this far from its homeland. This cab driver, a Bosnian, and I got along alright. At some point, he pulled the card hanging on an elastic band from his rearview mirror and turned it towards me. And there was Marshal Tito, in all his uniformed glory, in a St. John’s cab. We laughed and he looked out at the snow buried streets and said: “And here we are.”
That was a few months ago. To tell you the truth, I forgot about that photograph. I just developed some film this past weekend and this photograph suddenly became more significant than if I looked at it a couple of months ago. In two weeks, we will be leaving for a much needed family vacation to Croatia. It’s a cause of great excitement. My older daughter has fond memories of a couple of visits she can remember. How could she not? When she is there, she is surrounded by people who genuinely love her and care about her and what is more, they get to see her so rarely that they are willing to fulfill her every wish. That is certainly not how her parents treat her. For the younger one, this is the adventure of her life so far – she is looking forward to almost two months of firsts: a first plane ride, a first train ride, a first trip abroad, and the first visit to grandparents who last saw her when she was a gurgling bundle of diapers and blankets. Above all else, for my daughters, Croatia is a place of madcap stories, odd relatives, happy childhoods and magical beauty. It is that because of me. I am the one who over the years created that narrative and now, as I read yet another surreal article about the rise of nationalism, poisonous catholicism, and glorification of the country’s fascist past I feel guilty about it. I feel I lied to them. I never told them about this other Croatia rapidly unfolding over the last few months on the screen of my laptop.
This Croatia is a country whose nationalists seemingly read Orwell’s essays on nationalism and totalitarianism not as a warning, but a how-to manual for achieving a supreme state of paranoia, xenophobia and the hatred of everybody and everything that is not Croatian. “Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered,” wrote Orwell and Croatian nationalists took it to heart. From nazi salutes at football games to wilful blindness when it comes to the horrendous record of the Croatian nazi collaborators, to fascist movements, to Marshall Tito and five decades of socialism, Croatian nationalists are re-imagining history busily following Orwell’s advice that for nationalists: “…history is something to be created rather than learned.”
And it’s not just history. As the economic recession drags on and the number of the unemployed stays stubbornly high, as those who can leave the country in search of a better life somewhere else, leave, the range of issues that sends nationalists frothing at the mouth is growing: homosexual and reproductive rights are out, misogyny is in, asylum seekers are not welcome, anything to do with science and technology – from vaccines to large hadron collider – is suspicious, Catholic Church is trustworthy, and every crackpot conspiracy theory makes perfect sense to them. After all, Orwell said that “totalitarianism […] in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”
And so what am I to say to my daughters about this place we are going to? That their worth will be measured by how they look because the opportunities for women in a society overrun by rabid nationalism glorifying violence and subscribing to a bizarre version of fundamental catholicism are non-existent? That nobody will say a word of encouragement to a 12-year-old who is writing her first novel? That the 8-year-old’s ambition to become a chef will be laughed at? That just by virtue of having this cocktail of Austro-Hungarian, Scottish, French and Cree genes running through their veins they are less then perfect? And, maybe worst of all, that their parents are antifascists and humanists who find the crassness and futility of cheap nationalism as scary as it is repugnant?
“And here we are,” as the cab driver would say.
We will go first to an island. Small islanders everywhere still know how to live. After that, we’ll thread carefully. We are going to see a Rodin exhibit and we’ll spend a lot of time with grandma and grandpa discovering some old recipes that have been in the family for generations. We’ll build some memories and strengthen family ties. We’ll hike in the countryside and visit some rural places. We’ll sunbathe and swim in crystal clear waters. We’ll read lots of books. Hopefully, all of it will serve as a bit of an inspiration to a budding novelist and a beginner chef. And I am sure we will have conversations about poverty and unemployment, and what it does to people. And we’ll talk about nationalism and fascism.
And most of all I hope that we will also make some new stories – the family kind we can all share with friends and hopefully they will be just as crazy as those I told to my kids already.
I am not sure where the last year went. Lots of changes. We moved to a place that allows me to have a darkroom, a tiny darkroom, but still a darkroom. I can already develop film, but making prints will take a bit more engineering to figure out how turn the whole operation vertical rather than horizontal. This should also mean that I now have no excuse not to submit something to a few competitions I have been consistently missing deadlines of for the past six years.
I turned 40. I finished my thesis – although I am still waiting to hear whether or not I actually met the requirements for my MA. So not a bad year all in all. Let’s see what this one brings along.
The photo was made on Change Islands this past summer.
What would Christmas time in Newfoundland be without Mummers’ Parade? The last year’s parade was brutally cold. The batteries in my Zeiss Ikon froze twice. This year, it was unseasonably warm with light rain. Still, loads of fun…
Miss F. is 12 today. Time flies. The sisters are here on Change Islands last summer.
I think it was a taxi driver in St. John’s who told me that summer in Newfoundland takes place on July 23 – in the afternoon. Well this summer has sure made that old joke irrelevant. We have been enjoying a marvellous summer – hot and sunny and so unlike a Newfoundland summer that everybody you meet is looking at you puzzled wondering, now that they have been to the beach and had an ice cream, what else are they supposed to do with this endless string of summer days.
The summer started right, too – with a trip to Change Islands. I almost never use colour film, but for some reason I decided to do so on this trip and I am glad I did. The ponies in the photographs are part of the Change Islands Newfoundland Pony Refuge, an amazing community initiative spearheaded by passionate Netta LeDrew. She has so many stories about each and every horse in her care and about the community who is always there to support her and her efforts to save a truly unique aspect of Newfoundland heritage.
And for the photography geeks among you: the film is Kodak Ektar and the camera is a YashicaMAT 124G.
The waves hitting Middle Cove beach were alive with writhing of small silvery fish spawning and washing ashore – capelin’s last act of defiance before the inevitable death. As people, whales, and birds flocked to the cove there was a frenzied sense of joy in the air – a feast from the sea freely given to all with a belly to fill.
Newfoundland has been our home for six years, but somehow we always missed the rolling of capelin. Not this year. We were not prepared exactly – we had no nets or buckets or even plastic bags to catch the sea’s bounty in. We came for a stroll along the beach and I only hoped that the capelin might be there as well.
The weather was right – capelin weather – a rainy, cloudy and foggy late June day. And there they were. All over the beach, there were trampled bodies of fish and excited men and women and children – many of them Newfoundlanders born and bred, but also newcomers from every corner of the world who came to watch this small annual miracle and partake in a tradition of their new home.
It did not matter that we were woefully unprepared because this is Newfoundland, after all, so an older couple quickly filled a plastic bag for us and there was really no way to refuse the generosity of the people and the sea. And why would you – there was plenty for all of us.
Every face had a smile and the fires were lit on the beach. People gathered to watch the little silvery fish and the minke whales gorging themselves in the cove. It was truly a perfect moment.
I made a few photographs. It wasn’t really difficult. People were happy to be photographed, to engage in conversation, and some even asked to look at the TLR’s ground glass.
Unfortunately, even Newfoundland has its tactless ingrates. Standing on the beach, sporting a fluorescent vest you usually see on road workers, was a man with a drone. Until that moment, I felt pretty agnostic about camera drones and gave them little thought. Well, not any more. Whatever this is, it is not photography and it is certainly not documentary photography. It says volumes about that day that, despite the thing buzzing around our heads and swooping down on the crowds of people who were never asked, engaged or otherwise made aware of the man and his toy, nobody took a rock and knocked the bloody thing out of the air. It was invasive, rude, and if the reactions of those on that beach who came from less fortunate places in the world are anything to go by, it was also frightening. Everybody I photographed and engaged in conversation with that day frowned at the white drone and its annoying buzz. There was no escape from it and no way to say no. Once the man in the vest packed up and left, people visibly relaxed.
There is no sense in arguing against this technology. That ship has sailed and we are all going to have to learn to live with it. It is, however, disheartening that many of my former photojournalism colleagues are embracing the drones as if they are some sort of a technological breakthrough. This is not going to result in better journalism. Good photojournalism was always about storytelling. This has nothing to do with storytelling, compassion or genuine curiosity about people and places. This is pure gimmickry for talentless hacks – sort of like HDR photography, just worse.
So a fair warning: next time that thing buzzes around my head, I may or may not be as restrained as I was on that June day with the capelin miraculously rolling on Middle Cove beach.
Little Miss F. is seven today. Seven! When her big sister turned seven some years back, as a practical joke, I told her that it is an ancient Croatian tradition that a child for her seventh birthday gets a list of chores she is expected to do. Today, almost five years later, she reminded me of that and told me she will always consider that list as one of her birthday presents…
A family photo in honour of Day 2 of single parenthood. We miss our fabulously smart researcher currently exploring rural Newfoundland.
Some time ago, during a very short conversation with Dr. Robert Finley, he made a remark I have been thinking about ever since. He said that every family photo album is, in fact, an oral history. I like that – a lot.
The photo above is from last fall. I think that’s the only time I’ve ever seen somebody actually using those phones. And the fact that they are wearing shades is just icing on the cake.
Thanks to Brandon Manitoba based photographer Colin Corneau, I had the pleasure of watching this documentary on William Klein and you should watch it too. It’s fabulous.
And to go with the photos here is New Brunswick bluesman Matt Andersen and his version of “Last Letter Home”
For once, there is no need for a comment…
Mummers were here again. And was it ever cold. In fact, it found the limit of my Zeiss Ikon – the batteries lasted about 20 minutes in sub -20˚C. After that, I was back to my mechanical Yashica Mat 124G, which is not bothered by such trifles as batteries. This was also a chance to try some stand development in Rodinal. This is Arista Premium 400 in 135 format and Tri-X in 120 format, both developed for an hour in 1:100 Rodinal with agitation in the first minute. Not yet sure what I think about the results.
It’s so cold outside. Here is a photo from this summer’s buskers’ festival downtown St. John’s. It was a lovely hot day…
We just watched Everybody Street, a documentary about street photography in New York featuring some of the most prominent photographers working in that particular broad genre. The trailer is bellow. Best $5 I’ve spent lately.
I am transcribing some research interviews from Change Islands and Fogo Island. Here is a quote about whether or not a government should have a role in local development:
“They must. They must have roles to play in it all. They should be able to come up with something, but you never hears them talking about it. Just a project or something for a few weeks of work for the hours. That’s not a real job. That’s something to keep us quiet, eh. Just like a bandaid. A bandaid on the situation. Patch it up. Keep the people quiet so they don’t say too much. It shouldn’t be like that. There should be some permanent thing they could put there. They wastes money everywhere else, how come they can’t waste a bit on Change Islands, eh?”
On October 15, I had a chance to speak to provincial library technicians during their annual conference. There was a bit of dithering on my part about what was that I was going to say, but at the end, with the help of one of the organizers, I settled on Library as a Place, which worked reasonably well, I think. Here is the presentation with a script (or something close enough to one).
Good afternoon. My name is Bojan Fürst and I am a photographer and a geographer an I love libraries. Some of you may also know me as the manager of knowledge mobilization with the Harris Centre, which is what I do for a living, but that has nothing to do with what I want to talk about today.
Originally I was going to photograph library technicians and librarians as they work and then speak about that experience and how it relates to another project I am working on. For mostly unpleasant reasons, that did not quite happen. However, I was a bit dubious about that project from the beginning. I’ll tell you why. In 1999, I was flying back home to Croatia from Calgary. I was on a direct flight from Calgary to Frankfurt. Sitting next to me was a very pleasant old lady in her 80s. She was traveling to Venice where her grand-niece, I believe, was getting married. She asked me if I’d like to see a photograph of her niece. I was a polite young man and she was a very nice old lady so I said yes. She, and I am not exaggerating, pulled out some 300 family photos of people I never met and never will and she went through all of them with me. Twice. By the time we landed in Frankfurt, and it is a VERY long flight, I knew two things: 1. I knew a lot about her family; and 2. I knew I am never going to be the old man that makes a complete stranger look at 300 of my photos. Making you sit here and look at photos of some of your colleagues as they go about their work felt a little bit like I was about to break that rule.
One thing most people don’t know about photojournalism, is that there is a lot of waiting that happens between actually making photographs. And that, more than anything else, is the reason why photojournalists often seem to notice things that everybody else misses. It is also why we often muck around with weird ways of taking photographs. We are also like lemmings, always ready to follow the latest trend – even if it kills us at the end. So in 2001 or so, David Brunette, one of the living legends of photojournalism, got himself a cheap, plastic, Chinese made, holga camera. It is as rudimentary a photo tool as you can get. In the hands of David Brunett, however, it became a superb photographic tool. He used it to photograph Al Gore during his presidential campaign. Next thing you know, every photojournalist is rocking one of these plastic and pretty much useless things. As a good little lemming, I got one, too. Now, to my eternal credit, I did realized that as good as David Brunett is, photographing Al Gore with a plastic camera probably had more to do with the fact that the photo ended up on the front pages of some of the world’s largest newspapers than the camera itself. Since Al Gore was not available, I carried that camera around with me without actually making any photographs – until the day I had some time to kill between assignments in Fredericton. Those of you who know Fredericton, know that it is not the most exciting place on the planet. It was a summer day, it was hot, and I was pointlessly driving around.
And than I saw this sign in front of a little corner store. Before I got an ice-cream, I pulled out my plastic holga and I made this photograph. For me, this was a beginning of a fascination with place making. Let’s look at a few more corner stores, but only a few. And let’s play “spot it” while we at it.
What is fascinating to me about these photographs is the perfect blend of the familiar and the unique. Each of these stores advertises the familiar. Smart move because it lets us immediately feel safe. We know exactly what is that we are going to find inside. What is wonderful about them is that they are also very much unique places reflecting the personalities of their owners, but also the larger community they are situated in.
It was photographing corner stores that started to turn me into a geographer. Geographers think about space and place a lot. In fact, some would argue that the “most enduring legacy of humanistic geography is [its] theoretical engagements with notions of space and place.” And if you look at some of the definitions of place and space we came up with, you could be excused if you thought we think about it way too much. We talk about mobility, about time-space compression, about commodifcation of space and place. We talk about the destruction of the vernacular and the leisuring of rural landscapes. We talk about place as “a qualitative, total phenomenon, which we cannot reduce to any of its parts or properties without losing its concrete character.” We, as geographers, try so hard to be impartial, objective, scientific, clever and complex, that the best advice I can give you is to stop talking to geographers about place and instead ask architects. I am kidding, but only just so… I envy architects. They are the only people I know of who comfortably straddle the world of art, science and spirituality and, the really good ones anyway, can talk about it in a rational and engaging way without sounding flaky. So for our purposes today, I think Christian Norberg-Schulz’s definition of place will do nicely. He says that “the spaces where life occurs are places… A place is a space which has a distinct character.” Just like those corner stores have distinct characters.
And if you are interested in things like place and space and distinct characters, than islands are among the best places to explore all those things. Being a Croatian, my encounter with islands started in childhood. We have over a thousand of them and sooner or later you will end up visiting one of them. But my true involvement with the islands started in a resettled community of Wood Island just off the coast of Grand Manan in New Brunswick. I was working on a story for CBC radio about the reunion that takes place on the island every year. It was August of 2008. It was windy and overcast with light rain. But there was not enough wind or enough rain to prevent the islanders from making their customary annual visit to their ancestral home.
It takes about 10 minutes on a small boat to cross from Seal Cove on Grand Manan Island to Wood Island. There is not much left there: a church gleaming white among the island greenery, an old schoolhouse, a cemetery, and three houses scattered around the island that serve as summer residences. What there is left is a strong sense of attachment and identity among those who moved away from their homes in 1950s as the provincial government refused to provide any services to the island community. Hence, every year, the former islanders and their descendants board a small boat and get together for a church service and a reunion. It is a story only too familiar to most Newfoundlanders. It was towards the end of my stay on Wood Island that I managed to talk to one of the last teachers who had taught at the island school. She tried to explain to me just what the island meant to her. This is what she said. “In the winter, I might feel down and my husband knows – he’ll drive me to Seal Cove just to look over and get a fix. It’s awesome.”
Islands are funny places. Geographers can’t really figure out how to define them and so we don’t really know how many islands are there in the world. You think it would be easy. Tim Robinson, writing about his time on Aran islands off the coast of Ireland recounts the anecdote from his first day on the island: “On the day of our arrival we met an old man who explained the basic geography: “The ocean,” he told us, “goes all around the island.”” What Edmond and Smith call “obstinate separateness” of islands has been drawing people to those specks of land in the sea for centuries. Islands are mysterious, romantic, sites of paradises and prisons. They are difficult to get to and appear stubbornly unique in a world that has “institutionalize placelessness.” The islanders manage to hang on to the authenticity of their island communities and we all want to figure out how they do it. How do they hold on to a life as Ann Buttimer writes “which is attuned to the rhythms of nature, … anchored in human history and directed toward a future?” How do they “build a home which is the everyday symbol of a dialogue with one’s ecological and social milieu.”
It’s not easy and it requires generations. There is an art to living on an island and it is a complicated one to master. Talk to islanders and they will tell you that the best thing about an island is that you know everybody. They will also tell you that, after a lousy ferry service, the worst thing about living on an island is that you know everybody. But knowing everybody is exactly one of those things that makes islands such unique places. It takes human interaction – unplanned, unavoidable and sustained random human interaction – for a space to become a place. Another architect, Canadian Avi Friedman, said that sense of place is an outcome of the physical features that surround us, the space between them and the interactions that happen among those for whom the places are built for. It so happens that small islands seem to naturally encourage those meaningful interactions in ways that it is becoming difficult for most of us living in urban and especially suburban environments to experience.
And when I say difficult, I mean difficult. In urban environments we all live in, and I swear I will be talking about the libraries soon, we have worked really hard to remove even a chance of a random meeting in a public space. Among my photographic interests is street photography. It is a branch of photographic expression with a long history that has created some of the best loved photographs we all know. Cynics would say that street photography appeals to me because I am an introvert who needs a reason to leave his house and an opportunity to hide behind the camera, but that is not true. I love street photography because it is unpretentious, honest, and it requires engagement and involvement with the world outside of our doorstep in precisely the ways that are conducive to place making. Except, it is really, really difficult to do street photography in St. John’s.
There are no natural public spaces here. Our streets, even in the heart of downtown are mostly empty. I call this photograph “The Optimist.” What else could he be playing to the empty streets? And while we can build our urban environments to encourage place making and development of a shared identity, the fact remains that we don’t. However, I do believe that a quest for a sense of place and a sense of identity is so strong in us that we will find ways to engage in its creation no matter what.
Let me tell you one more kind of a funny photojournalism story. In 2006, I went to cover a story in Bosnia for a Canadian magazine about Canadian efforts to rebuild Bosnian health care system. It was a very successful program carried out by Queen’s University department of family medicine and funded by CIDA. In the old socialist system in former Yugoslavia, we did not have family doctors in a Canadian sense. You had a GP that was attached to your place of work or to your school. So my mom had her doctor, my dad had his doctor, my brother had a paediatrician as did all other elementary school kids and I had a doctor that took care of my high school classmates. It was a bit of a mess. If you need to see your doctor you would take your health card and you would go in early in the morning to your doctor’s office and you would wait as long as it took to be called in. The Canadians came in, introduce the concept of a family doctor, and, crucially, the idea that you can make an appointment to see your doctor at a prearranged time therefore eliminating hours of waiting time. It worked like a charm and everybody loved it, except the retired people who just would not accept the new system. Canadians and Bosnians got frustrated and decided to conduct a thorough survey and figure out why did these old-timers insist on showing up before the office even opened and then waited until the doctor could see them. It turned out that for the elderly patients, a doctor’s waiting room was a social place. They talked with their peers there, they played chess and backgammon, knitted sweaters and hats for their grandkids. In most cases, they did not even really need to see a doctor at all. So now, some community health centres simply have a community room, where anybody can come and have a cup of tea or coffee and do all those things they did while waiting for a doctor and sometimes there is even a nurse or a student measuring their blood pressure and providing advice about their medication or nutrition. Family doctors’ waiting rooms were places and yet nobody understood that.There are other such places that we create for very specific purposes, but that perform a dual role. For example, architect Avi Friedman lists farmers’ markets as one of those places. He says that markets “not only provide basic amenities and contribute to economic vitality, but they act as social magnets. They are scenes of trade, as well as places for communal interaction and gathering spots where one can watch the theatre of life.” I would argue that libraries are also such places. And we are enormously attached to them. We have all heard about the cellist of Sarajevo and Sarajevo market where people died in mortar and sniper fire, but one story that we don’t hear very often is the story of National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a repository of knowledge and identity and in 1992 it was mercilessly shelled by Serbian forces in a campaign designed to erase any evidence of just how complex the identity of Sarajevans and Bosnians really was. I wish I had a better photograph of it. During the shelling, majority of the books and manuscripts did not survive the fire, but nonetheless, citizens and librarians worked under fire to save as many of the books as possible. At least one person died. True places, like libraries and markets, and public squares, matter immensely to us – enough that we are willing to protest against their destruction, fight to save them, and, as in Bosnian example, even die for them.
I believe that libraries are vital when it comes to place and place making. American feminist and social activist bell hooks once said that “One of the most subversive institutions in the United States is the public library.” Some 18 years ago, in my first year of college I discovered that I am a photographer in Calgary Public Library. Also there, I attended a lecture, and I can’t even remember who it was that was speaking, but that person was introduced by the director of the Calgary Public Library who said that every single one of us in the audience should be able to find at least one book in his library that would offend us. And if we couldn’t find such a book, than he failed as a librarian. I never forgot that.
Good libraries are much more than repositories for books and periodicals. They are not about buildings, or comfortable chairs. The good ones are true places. That means that they bring together people who would otherwise have no need to meet or interact with each other. They are truly subversive in a sense that, while making us perfectly comfortable, they also make us expand our worlds, confront our ignorance and make us better people whether we want it or not. Every good library is at the heart of its community. That is certainly the case of the Memorial University Library System and places like the Resource Library at the Faculty of Education.
You as library technicians, archivists, and librarians have enormous responsibility. Avi Friedman, at the end of his book “A Place in Mind” writes that today “The number of meeting places and their quality has diminished. Neighbourhoods, built for seclusion, have fewer people, fewer or no sidewalks, walking or bike paths, benches or civic squares. We have fewer public markets or corner stores.” But we still have libraries and you are the custodians of those places. Neil Gaiman said that the “Rule number one is: Don’t fuck with librarians.” And he couldn’t be more right. We need libraries that are at the heart of their community, the way our library is here at the university. We need libraries that are easy to access and libraries that challenge us to be better when we leave them than we were when we came in; libraries that are true places where communal life is lived to its fullest. I did not photograph library technicians at work, because I am not sure I know how to photograph people whose work is not to catalogue books, answer questions and mend broken spines, but to create places that make the heart of who we are. So instead of giving you photographs, I just want to say thank you.
We really wanted to go for a walk this weekend and we asked Little Miss F. to pick a destination. She picked, to our surprise and delight, MUN Botanical Garden. The colours were spectacular. I suspect we missed the full glory of the autumn in the garden, but it was still pretty special.
Feeding the ducks was, of course, the highlight of the walk, although the pumpkin patch was close with its appropriately freaky Halloween display.
If you haven’t been there in a while it’s really worth a visit. Seriously folks. I think we may have run into maybe six other people. This is one of those St. John’s hidden gems. We try to go at least once in every season and every time we have such great time walking the trails that we always promise ourselves to do it again soon and then it’s spring, or winter or whatever and we are back to once-a-season schedule.
There is still time left to enjoy the autumn colours in the garden even if all the time you have is a half hour lunchtime walk.
Thank you. Thank you for all the comments and tweets and Facebook updates and emails on the previous immigration post. I am trying to catch up with all of it and I am pretty sure there are on-line conversations that were going on that I am not aware of at all. I will try to respond and follow all of you who decided to say something about it. Maybe that is what is needed the most – one big conversation to figure out how do we all deal with each other’s differences, expectations and needs. It won’t be easy, but let’s keep talking.
And a special thank you to a couple of you who commented on the photographs on this blog. When all is said and done, I am first and foremost a photographer so keep coming back. There may not be great discussions about hot button issues here every time you click, but there are always going to be photographs.
I am about to write something I promised myself I will never write.
A friend in Saint John, New Brunswick, who runs an interesting little media company called WickedIdeas, posted on her Facebook account a story about the provincial government urging everybody who has something to say about what New Brunswick can do to attract and retain immigrants to do so. I had this post in me for a long time, but I always thought that maybe I am holding too much of a grudge and that the time is not right to air all of it. But, since they asked, I’ll oblige.
We lived in New Brunswick for eight years. We moved there as starry-eyed newlyweds after driving across the country in a 1973 volkswagen SuperBeetle. It was older than either of us, rusty and packed to the roof with everything we owned including a bicycle. We drove for over 4,000 kilometres from Calgary all the way to Bathurst and we did not even have a shoe string budget. Probably the craziest thing we ever did.
Bathurst was an eyeopener in many ways and not good ones. I worked for an insane editor who did not dare to bully me, but he did bully everybody else. That is not what made us move. What made us move was the fact that my wife had rocks thrown at her as she walked down a path because she was an “English bitch” as one of the charming young men called after her. We moved because after we went to Youghall Beach on a Sunday with a pressman and his fiancé, I was summoned into my darkroom by his foreman who warned me not to socialize with those people because their class status is below mine. We moved because people called daily to ask my editor why he hired a foreigner and not a local person.
We lasted six months and than we moved to Saint John. It was better. We both had jobs and we made some friends – come-from-aways like us mostly, but not all. Those of our New Brusnwick friends, and you know who you are, you have no idea what your friendship meant to us because it was such an exception.
Our first daughter was born two years after we moved to Saint John. I came to work a couple of days later and the person working in the office next to mine walked in. She did not offer her congratulations. She did not ask about my wife and the baby. What she said was: “You know it takes three generations to become a Maritimer?”
Every once in a while I would get a call at work from somebody ranting against immigrants. My favourite was a lady from St. Martins who called me at the charity I worked for because she thought we helped a little boy from Afghanistan get a heart surgery in Canada that saved his life. Unfortunately, that good deed had nothing to do with us, but it did not stop her from telling me that all those dirty immigrants are just coming to take local jobs, if not outright steal from honest New Brunswickers.
My wife was an investigative reporter at a daily who had her work belittled and stolen by those who hired her. When she broke a major story implicating local businessmen and politicians in an immigration scam, she was told that she does not understand local business culture, being from away and all that. She was told not to write anything longer than 500 words without a special permission.
Our second daughter was born. Then the government canceled Early French Immersion program effectively denying educational opportunities to our children. That was in many ways the last straw.
On top of that, my wife’s workplace became downright abusive. At that point, I freelanced full time. I could get work for Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian in the UK as well as on national and regional CBC programs, but not locally.
Our friends were experiencing the same brick walls of nepotism and cliquishness we faced. They started moving away. And so did we.
Let me tell you about our very first day in Newfoundland. We’ve never been to St. John’s or to Newfoundland and we did not know a soul here. That first day we went for a walk downtown to find the French immersion school our daughter was going to attend. We found it and liked it. We walked down King’s Road towards Duckworth Street when this grizzled old man ran out of his house and yelled: “Wait, wait, wait…” We were rooted to the spot not quite sure what the heck is going on – our five-year old standing beside us and the one-year old in a stroller. The old man came back carrying a giant polar teddy bear and he said: “I won this in a raffle once. I’ve been waiting for a little girl to pass by so I could give it to her. So, here you go.” My older daughter, hugging this teddy bear almost as big as she was, was speechless and so were we. I would stop and chat with this man sometimes after we moved into that neighbourhood – he did not remember I was the dad of the girl he gave that polar bear to a year ago. I am not sure he even remembered the incident. It was just something he did. I know his name. I know he would have preferred if Newfoundland became a US state rather than a Canadian province. I even made a photograph of him once.
There were many such incidents.
My wife wrote a story for Toronto Star on storytelling tradition in Newfoundland and for that story she interviewed actor Andy Jones – the same way she interviewed hundreds of people in New Brunswick. A month or two later, it was a Sunday and we were walking to Sobeys to pick something up around 2 p.m. when Andy came out of his house and said: “Come in, come in. I have a new puppy. The girls would love to see him.” We left close to midnight that evening after a dinner and an afternoon and evening filled with stories and laughter.
Of course, there have been terrible moments here. We had professional disappointments. We had a nasty landlord. We had a leaky roof and a wasp nest under the clapboards. We had a drug dealer on our street, but we worked with our neighbours and we made the neighbourhood safe again. Childcare has been hard to organize, and housing and food are expensive and there are days in March when you wish to be anywhere else but on this rock in the middle of the North Atlantic. And then a friend comes over and you have a cup of tea or mulled wine and you forget that the wind is blowing at 130km/h and the uncanny mix of rain, snow and ice is falling sideways as usual.
We’ve been here five years. People ask me every day where I am from. They don’t ask because they are angry I have a job, but because they want to fit me into the master narrative of this place or, if I am on Change Islands or Fogo Island, they simply want to know what is that my people fish. That’s what they are like, these Newfoundlanders. They somehow learned how to take what they like and share what they have with those who come from just about anywhere. They will teach you how to make fishcakes in exchange for a Mediterranean fish soup recipe or simply for a good story. They are comfortable with who they are, so they let you be who you are.
If New Brunswick wants to attract immigrants, New Brunswickers will have to make peace with who they are. They have to stop being paranoid about everybody and everything. The world is not out to get you, although there are some very rich folks among you you should keep a better eye on.
Immigrants are not some exotic species of a bird that you can attract by planting the right kind of a tree. You have to accept that we are no different than you. We are not less human than you or more entrepreneurial or smarter or dumber or better or worse educated. We want the same things you do: good neighbours, safe streets, jobs, decent housing, good schools that give our children an opportunity to be the best they can be. We may not speak perfect English or prefect French, but we might speak Croatian, or Urdu, or Farsi, or German, or Dutch, or Mandarin or any other of the hundreds of languages out there in the world. Make us feel like there is a place for us and we will share everything we have with you and be just as passionate about your province and your communities as you are even if we are not third generation Maritimers and even if our family did not come to New Brunswick shores on the first Loyalist ship or during the terrible tragedy that was the expulsion of Acadians. We will volunteer and contribute to our new communities if you give us a chance to build some stability in our lives without feeling like permanent outsiders because we have accents, darker skin, or sometimes wear funny clothes. Don’t expect all of us to be entrepreneurs – most of you are not. Some of us will be entrepreneurs, others will be teachers, and potters, and photographers, and chefs, and some of us will sell delicious samosas at the City Market.
What you do need to understand, though, is that treating us like outsiders even when we spend years trying to make New Brunswick home will make us leave and we will never come back.
My family, we miss our New Brunswick friends. We miss the City Market and the skywalk and the library and the museum and the Buskers’ Festival and every June our older daughter talks about the fair and the rides at the Harbour Station. We miss Canada Day and New Year’s fireworks over the harbour – they don’t do fireworks quite as well here. We miss our landlady terribly. She was like a grandmother to our kids. She was an immigrant, too and her kids are only first generation Maritimers so not yet a real deal, I guess. What we don’t miss are petty snubs, blatant nepotism and constant reminder that we are not part of the place we chose to call home.
If you want immigrants from abroad and from other parts of Canada, you will first and foremost need to be kind. It will make an enormous difference.