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'Rocks Of The Rock': Why Newfoundlanders Feel So Different

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Stan Dragland fell for Newfoundland like a lover.

The Alberta-born writer was an Ontario-based English literature professor on sabbatical when he got to know the island, and found a place unlike anywhere else in the country.

He recalls an imaginative book launch in 1997 for "The Night Season'' by novelist Paul Bowdring, about a spiritually lost academic who quotes memorized passages ranging from Shakespeare to Nabokov.

The reading was accompanied by a harpist, with the text read not by Bowdring but by someone who ``could sing the parts of the book that were important,'' Dragland said.

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Hikers are silhouetted walk the stairs on the Signal Hill hiking trail in St. John's on Sept. 20, 2014. (Photo: Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

"It wasn't too long before I realized there's something very, very different going on here than there is in the rest of Canada. It just captured me in a way that living in Ontario never had.''

Dragland took early retirement and relocated to St. John's, a move that surprised him as much as anyone.

Like many Canadians, he knew very little when he first landed on this storied island in the North Atlantic.

Newfoundland was a stand-alone British dominion before joining Confederation in 1949. It still exudes a friendly and often fierce spirit of separateness as a former nation with its unmistakable music, fiction and no-holds-barred comedy.

It has its own time zone, its own beloved anthem — the Ode to Newfoundland — and the pink, white and green flag which, for some, symbolizes a persistent and sometimes bitter desire to reclaim independence.

"There are many people that feel a pride in their communities, a closeness and understanding of each other."

Jeff Webb, a history professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, describes a kind of "cultural nationalism'' but little or no real support for secession.

"There are many people that feel a pride in their communities, a closeness and understanding of each other,'' said the author of the recent book, "Observing the Outports.''

"But that's very different from a political movement that wants its own state and wants to break away from the larger country of which we are a part.''

Both Dragland and Webb said Newfoundland's unique traits should not be overblown, that "people are people'' with regional variations much like anywhere. Still, it retains elements that come at least in part from its relative isolation.

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Homes on the coast in Twillingate, N.L.. (Photo: Getty Images)

Like in neighbouring Quebec — where that province's otherness has more seriously challenged its relationship with the rest of Canada — language is perhaps one of the most powerful ways in which the island is distinct to this day.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English helps the newcomer translate such words as mauzy (foggy and warm) or cracky (a small dog).

Larry Dohey, manager of collections at The Rooms museum, art gallery and archives in St. John's, was educated at the University of Toronto, where he once had to apologize for saying to a fellow student early one morning: "My God, you're some crooked.''

The young man thought Dohey had accused him of stealing.

"We are proud people.''

"And I said: 'Well, crooked is a different word at home than it is up here.'''

In Newfoundland, it means cranky or moody.

"Newfoundland was certainly its own nation, its own country with its own coins and its own stamps and its own sense of nationhood,'' Dohey said. "We are proud people.''

Voted out of existence in 1930s

A fiscal and political crisis that stemmed from the devastation of the First World War led the Newfoundland legislature to vote itself temporarily out of existence in 1933. The dispiriting move, ending 79 years of responsible government, came amid the Great Depression as war debts mounted and fish prices dropped.

A seven-member Commission of Government appointed by Britain was sworn in early the following year. It would remain for 15 years before Newfoundland narrowly voted to join Canada. The result is still viewed in some quarters as suspicious or even rigged.

"Newfoundland felt obliged to pay back its war debt and took out loans,'' Dohey said of a fiscal burden that was especially crippling for a small population of about 240,000 at the time.

Canada was "a distant land, another place."

His father, a fisherman who has lived his entire life in and around St. Bride's on Placentia Bay, described his son's departure for university in the 1980s as "going up to Canada.''

"That was a distant land, another place.''

Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Ottawa consulting firm Summa Strategies, descends from the legendary Crosbie family of Newfoundland. His relatives include his cousin John Crosbie, a senior Progressive Conservative minister in the cabinets of former prime ministers Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney.

"His father Ches Crosbie was a proponent of economic union with the United States, which was one of the original three options during the Confederation debate. He then also became a part of the team that negotiated Newfoundland's joining of Canada — or, as we like to say, Canada's joining of Newfoundland.''

Powers said many of his relatives think of themselves even now as Newfoundlanders first, Canadians second.

"We are rocks of the Rock.''

Dragland's recent collection of essays, "Strangers & Others'' explores the come-from-away experience, which he sums up as: "Unassimilated but at home.''

Like all complex affairs of the heart, his relationship with Newfoundland has flared and cooled over the years. But he didn't miss a beat when asked how he feels after almost two decades in his chosen home.

"I'm still in love.''

Follow @suebailey on Twitter.

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