The Simpsons, Jesse Brown and “Newfie”

Ok, so here goes.

Maybe you saw that the Simpsons made a joke about “newfies” on a recent episode. Maybe you saw some people (me included) tweeting mad about this week’s episode of Canadaland Short Cuts, where Jesse Brown laughed off the outrage and said some deeply offensive stuff.

A couple friends who saw the tweets asked me about it, because they know I lived in Newfoundland and Labrador for nearly 10 years. A lot of people in Canada do not understand that “newfie” is a deeply offensive term, or they don’t understand why.

So I started writing something to explain, and … well … here it is.

I’m not from Newfoundland and Labrador, but I lived there, and I spent a lot of time writing about Newfoundland and Labrador culture, identity, and history. Before publishing this, I ran it by a couple friends who were born and raised there.

Anyway, here goes.

For a lot of Newfoundlander millennials, one of their earliest public memories was the 1992 cod moratorium and the economic wreckage in the aftermath. I wasn’t there for it, but people talk about it like it was the Greek debt crisis, in the sense that Newfoundland and Labrador was an economic pariah.

Many of my friends in N.L. remember being told to practice speaking without an accent because being a Newfoundlander was something to disguise.

For older Newfoundlanders and Labradorians it goes back even further. It’s a persistent sense that the rest of Canada looks down on N.L., condescends to them, and sees the province as some kind of outcast, an inferior partner of Confederation.

This feeling also predates N.L. joining Canada in 1949. I’ve never heard a definitive account of the origin of that word, but some people will tell you that the term “newfie” dates back to the American troops stationed in St. John’s during the Second World War, and the Americans looking down on the locals. (Fun fact! It was a very strategically important place for the Battle of the Atlantic. Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the few places in North America that was actually fired upon by a Nazi u-boat.)

And before the war, in 1932 Newfoundland went bankrupt. At the time island was a dominion within the British Empire, so it had the same legal status as Canada, but because it was small and … well … lots of reasons, the debt led to insolvency. In the wake of the insolvency crisis, the Brits stepped in, assumed the debt, but forced the dominion to give up its independence and submit to “commission of government”. From 1933 to 1949 the place was run by a commission of six men appointed from London. Those were hard, undemocratic years. There are still people alive who were living when this happened. It’s not ancient history.

So there’s a level of big-picture economic resentment, where there’s a long history of the province feeling like it was kicked around and looked down upon by bigger players.

This is further intensified because Newfoundlanders have a very, very long history of travelling for work. Most recently it was going to Fort Mac for the oil sands, but before that it was Toronto, and even before that there was a rich history of Newfoundlanders going to New York to work on the high steel. (There’s a great Fifth Estate doc on this, it’s on YouTube.) When the economy was bad at home, Newfoundlanders would reluctantly have to go away for work. (Check out a song by Ron Hynes called “No Change In Me” which captures this feeling perfectly, and honestly it’s the realest shit I’ve ever heard. If you take one thing away from this essay, it should be that you need to listen to that song.)

My uncle was among 22 people killed in a horrific accident in Saskatchewan before I was born. He was part of a work gang that was replacing the rails and maintaining the railway line. His name is on a memorial in Rushoon, N.L., because about half the work gang was from Newfoundland and Labrador, specifically towns around the Burin Peninsula.

Anyway, in all these cases, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were taking blue collar jobs — welding, pipefitting, carpentry, and unskilled labour. Every Newfoundlander knows somebody who’s done this kind of thing, and most people have at least one family member who’s migrated for work. In this context there are a lot of people who’ve had experiences as being the one who stands out — funny accent, outsider, etc. Those Newfoundlanders and Labradorians travelling for work were where the macro inferiority and condescension became personal and visceral.

I’ve had a friend tell me about hearing people call bologna “newfie steak” on Canadian naval vessels.

Another friend told me he remembers living away, and being asked “Are you sure you’re really a newfie?” if he didn’t want to have another drink.

All of this is where the “Goofy Newfie” or “Stupid Newfie” stereotype comes from. He’s charming, but rough around the edges. He drinks too much. He’s got a funny accent. He’s dumb, but he works hard. He’s great fun at a party, but you wouldn’t want him to date your sister. He’s poor. He’s illiterate.

Like all stereotypes, it comes from a kernel of truth, but this is a very, very ugly stereotype. Ask yourself: what is the fundamental structure of a newfie joke? It’s a joke where the punchline is that the person is dumb. It’s like blonde jokes, or many flavours of racist jokes, but in the case of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, for a lot of people all this emotional baggage gets poured into that one word.

I’ve known plenty of Newfoundlanders who quite sincerely compare it to “the other n-word.” They literally say that. Of course that’s not a reasonable comparison for lots of reasons, but they legitimately feel like it’s an epithet on that level.

All of this is even further intensified because of the present present context. Oil prices spiked in the 2000s when N.L. offshore production was peaking, and suddenly there was a huge influx of cash in the economy. Danny Williams was elected premier, and his style of belligerent nationalism in an economic boom time did an enormous amount to give Newfoundlanders and Labradorians a sense of pride, especially after the cod moratorium years in the 1990s.

But for a lot of reasons, (oil price crash, declining oil production, bad government decisions, etc.) the economy is quite bad in N.L. right now. People are openly talking about a return to commission of government. People are talking very seriously about the very real possibility of insolvency. (I’ve written about this, and so has the Globe and Mail.)

(There’s a whole separate sensitivity around the seal hunt which is kind of tied in to the economic feelings, but let’s not touch that right now.)

This is what the Simpsons waded into, and then this is what Jesse Brown blithely waved away on this week’s Short Cuts. If you check his Twitter feed, Jesse is now trying to cling to the nuance in his comments, but all any Newfoundlander and Labradorian is hearing is a guy who is clearly ignorant of all this history and cultural context saying: Don’t be so sensitive. It’s a joke. It was almost affectionate.

And then he goes on to say that people who are defending the “sanctity of the term newfie” are racists who want an ethnostate? Well, if you’ve read this far, I hope you can understand why this was profoundly hurtful.

I’m not really sure how to end this. I guess I’ll throw in another link to that Ron Hynes song. If you made it this far, seriously, go listen to Ron. He’ll give you a visceral sense of the painful feelings tied up in this stuff better than I ever could.