Rethinking Community: Canada and a Folklorist’s Realization

Downtown St. John. Image from Nic Hartman.

Today’s post comes from our newest contributor to the blog, Nic Hartmann. A folklorist and PhD candidate, Hartmann discusses moving to Newfoundland, the economic and cultural diaspora facing residents of the community where he lives, and the importance of attachment to place as both concept and geographical location. One of the things he is learning in his new home, he explains, is “how people maintain bonds in spite of factors such as having to work away from home.”

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Rethinking Community: Canada and a Folklorist’s Realization by Nic Hartman

Three years ago, I left my home state of Indiana in order to move to Canada. Specifically, I was taking a five-day trip, by car and ferry boat, to the island of Newfoundland, a large, rocky island in the North Atlantic that would become my home while I began pursuing a doctoral degree in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland in the city of St. John’s.

It was a big move for me, as I had been living, for the last two years, down South, studying for my master’s at Western Kentucky University. While at Western, I trained to become a public folklorist, learning how to help people to better understand the meaning of folklore, the value of community, and the importance of having a connection to a place. I had a hard time leaving Kentucky, but the new surroundings were also enticing.

Newfoundland, along with the mainland part of the province known as Labrador, is a place like no other. Built on a heritage rooted in geographic isolation, tight community bonds, and a fishing-based economy, the people of the province are proud of who they are and where they came from.  In the face of a changing economy (In 1992, a federal moratorium on cod fishing led to widespread outmigration, only to be slightly countered by the rise of the oil & gas industries), people have tried their best to be resilient, doing what they can to make a living, which often involves working away from home for a time or having a fairly lengthy commute to a larger community. Many people prefer to live close to family members, if possible.

Flatrock, Newfoundland, a small community north of St. John’s.

As I transitioned from growing up on the Ohio to living on an island slightly bigger than Kentucky, I noticed many differences about Canada .For example, many people tend to interpret Canadian culture as being very similar to the US, but Canada, like the US, has many distinct cultures, and Newfoundland culture is certainly one of them, having a unique set of traditions ranging from local language (You hear people say “Where are you to?” to mean “Where are you at?”) to culinary traditions such as salted dried codfish and scruncheons (think fatback in small cubes). Folklore, as a matter of fact, is something that many people know and embrace in the province, which means that studying it is seen as quite common, as opposed to a novelty. I seldom get the question “And what is it that you do for a living?” after telling them my field of study.

As many Newfoundlanders have had to move, for economic reasons, to other parts of North America (you often hear of people going to “the Boston States”), they have brought a bit of Newfoundland with them, whether via food, music, or community building. The fact that Newfoundland did not become part of Canada until the year 1949, and was a fairly independent area during its time as a part of Britain, has meant that a sense of independence runs through peoples’ veins, even to a point where many consider Newfoundlanders to be an ethnic nation. You often hear of a “Newfoundland diaspora,” which stands out due to diasporas being typically associated with immigrant populations across the ocean, but is nonetheless a powerful movement in itself that has presence in both the United States and Canada. When you are away from home, with many other people who are away from home but in similar situations, you learn to build community, and I’m often left wondering what it would be like if all of the Americans in St. John’s got together to celebrate holidays such as the Fourth of July. As there are many Americans working or attending the university here, it could certainly be a large gathering, but the idea of an “American diaspora” is far from as common as the one involving Newfoundlanders.

Trans-Canada Highway in Newfoundland.

Part of the community-building comes from living in a unique yet often harsh landscape. Newfoundland is a beautiful island full of coves, forests and coasts, but for many early settlers, its windy and wet climate, difficult farming conditions, and geographic isolation from other parts of the world meant that life was not always easy. Though fishing is not as prominent of a lifestyle as it was, the climate, and the nature of the sea, still play an important role in daily life here; if the sea is rough, it prevents food from arriving via cargo truck, and if the winds are bad, it prevents people returning home from a month’s stint working on the Alberta oil sands projects. The unpredictability of things is on people’s minds, because-as many of my informants for my thesis have pointed out-everyone “is on the same boat.” But people continue to carry on with life as they can, regardless of the environment, because it is home, and there are many things that trump the weather conditions. The idea of home can also come from simply being born on the island; although I am American, and my wife is from the province of Nova Scotia, our daughter, being born in St. John’s, is considered to be a “townie”- a native of St. John’s- and a Newfoundlander by birth.

An attachment to heritage, community, and persistence is what builds culture here. Living on an island without any family but my wife and infant daughter has meant that I have been able to look at the importance of small community-building and pay close attention to how people maintain bonds in spite of factors such as having to work away from home. When the three of us find our next destination- wherever that may be- we have this understanding to take with us. It will go with the folk music CDs, the many pairs of knitted fisherman’s mittens, and- hopefully soon- the degrees we came to pursue.

Nic Hartmann spent most of his life in Southern Indiana, but for the last three years, has been based in Canada, where is he currently working on a Ph.D. in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He has worked as a university instructor and as a students’ union official, and currently serves as web editor for the folklore journal Culture & Tradition. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland with his wife, Jen, and daughter, Mari, and is an avid dancer, baker and novice gardener. 

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