The familiar jingle of the NTV Evening Newshour filled the living room. As I sat with my parents at the kitchen table just a few feet away, essentially inhaling a chock-full plate of fish and brewis, Liberal leader and current Premier Andrew Furey quickly strode across the TV, perhaps trying to conceal his receding hairline made clearly visible by the camera angle. Progressive Conservative leader Ches Crosbie followed closely behind with a jovial, excited bounce to his step, although somehow, he still managed to look as stiff as a board. Allison Coffin, the upstart NDP leader, appeared sporting a silent but stern gaze, one that without a doubt only served to contain a burgeoning Shakespearean soliloquy that the audience would be forced to endure. The candidates took their assigned seats in the House of Assembly, the lighting was adjusted, and the moderators unsealed their notes, it is election season in Newfoundland and Labrador.
That description of the 2021 Newfoundland and Labrador leaders’ debate is likely the most entertainment you will get out of this election. Politics here is not known for its enthralling speeches or ideologically zealous parties, but, despite its frequent boredom, it has a charming old-fashioned quaintness to it. Given our sparse population, only a little over 500,000 spread out over an area twice the size of Great Britain, aspiring politicians must drive, sail, and trudge their way through bays, capes, coves, harbours, tickles, inlets, points, and islands to knock on the doors of welcoming townsfolk.
Upon arriving, those candidates are bound to be ushered inside with wisecracking jokes and maybe, if they are lucky, the kettle will be on. However, as any Newfoundlander will tell you, strongly held opinions are seldom kept under wraps. The issues defining our politics, those that each party must address, include the state of the fishery, the prospects of the offshore oil industry, the cost of living for families, the progress of energy projects, the availability of healthcare, and the public debt. Concerns in the “Big Land,” Labrador, are similar, with the added considerations of the mining industry and poverty in northern communities. Tackling tough questions pertaining to these issues generally goes smoothly for political hopefuls as Newfoundlanders are decidedly polite and forgiving, but not always.
Another element of the old-fashioned quaintness of politics in Newfoundland and Labrador, aside from the small towns, traditional industries, and down-to-earth residents, is that occasionally the routine is upended by a colourful, not-so-forgiving character. To this end, there are none so famous as the father of current PC leader Ches Crosbie, the scintillating John Crosbie, whose name was etched into Newfoundland history during the 1992 cod fishery moratorium.
Overfishing caused the biomass of Northern Cod to fall precipitously, a crisis for communities reliant on the fishery. Despite the looming catastrophe, imposing a moratorium on cod fishing was considered politically suicidal for the provincial parties. Thus, it took the indominable John Crosbie, then federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, to make the unprecedented call to suspend all fishing of Northern Cod. 35,000 fishermen were instantly unemployed. A day earlier, when the moratorium was known to be imminent, John strutted down a wharf in Bay Bulls to confront furious fishermen. While responding to accusations of federal overreach, he shouted a now iconic phrase in Newfoundland political history, “I didn’t take the fish from the goddamn water!” In retrospect, most Newfoundlanders believe his decision was correct.
The prone-to-forgiving but headstrong attitude of Newfoundlanders and the sporadic boldness embodied by John Crosbie come from the longstanding challenges associated with the aforementioned issues defining our politics. Having only joined Canada’s confederation in 1949, after centuries of fending for ourselves as a politically autonomous member of the British Commonwealth, Newfoundlanders developed to be outspoken, with thick skin, but kind and forgiving, recognizing their shared intergenerational hardship. Fishing, sealing and oil extraction kept communities afloat, rickety dories, steam ships, and dog sleds acted as the foundation upon which grizzled men and hearty women built families on this meteorologically punishing rock, families carved by the sea and swept by the wind.
Unlike the past, when these traditional issues contemplated by every Premier since Joey Smallwood dominated elections, the election on February 13, 2021 is essentially an adjudication by the public of the sitting Liberal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In short, the Liberal government is likely to pass with flying colours in the court of public opinion. As every poll amalgamation shows, Newfoundlanders are overwhelmingly positive regarding the efficacy of the government’s response to the pandemic and are about to reward the Liberals with a supermajority in the House of Assembly, approximately 31 seats in a 40 seat Chamber.
This is because of Newfoundland and Labrador’s consistently low number of COVID-19 cases, with only one spike in the Spring of 2020. Since then, the total case count has hovered between 0-20, staying closer to the former digit. It certainly does not hurt the Liberals that the Minister of Health, Dr. John Haggie, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Janice Fitzgerald have become affectionately known as “John and Janice” for their witty and complimentary demeanors during the daily COVID-19 update pressers.
Newfoundland and Labrador is a unique province to put it mildly, with hundreds of tiny towns, each containing its own dialect, located on perches and steep hill formations many on the mainland (the term for mainland Canada), would consider uninhabitable. During election season, the humble families and tight-knit friend groups involved with the fishery, offshore oil industry, or infrastructure sector voice their grievances to campaigning would-be-politicians, practicing their internationally renowned hospitality at the same time. Colourful and rambunctious characters notwithstanding, this election has been quiet, with the governing Liberals set to win a powerful majority based on a successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic, although with Newfoundlanders, anything can happen.