As unwise and irritating as the Danny Williams flag caper was, there’s something in the backwash of it that’s even more grating: Once again, a certain ugly attitude of putdown and snobbery towards Atlantic Canada has erupted, and in one of its usual places: The Globe and Mail.
I thought that stuff was dying out, or at least drifting down from the peak it reached following the 1997 federal election when we had the spitting nerve to “bite the hand that feeds us” by sending the Liberal party packing and knocking off heavyweight cabinet ministers David Dingwall in Nova Scotia and Doug Young in New Brunswick, and then refusing to be sorry.
Maybe the fact that they’ve got it mostly narrowed down to Newfoundland this time is a sign that it’s declining, but you wouldn’t know it from the tone of voice. In the now-famous column by The Globe‘s most upfront columnist, Margaret Wente, Newfoundland, a “scenic welfare ghetto,” had an “unmatched sense of victimhood,” its premier like a “deadbeat brother-in-law” always after Toronto’s hard-earned money. And so on.
If this was just one column out of the blue, it would be no big deal. After all, newspaper columnists are expected to stir the pot, and being outrageous is within bounds.
The problem is that it fits too neatly into a pattern. I’m not talking here about the ins and outs of what Atlantic Canada gets or doesn’t get, which is a legitimate debate. I’m talking about a patronizingly insulting form of political speech that rose with the advent of neo-conservative thinking, and for a while spewed from the right-wing think tanks, the Canadian Alliance party (Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, formerly of the CA, was still trying to live down comments of that nature during the last federal election), and from The Globe and Mail editorials and certain of its columnists and journalists.
After that 1997 election, the B.C.-based Fraser Institute put out a report characterizing Atlantic Canadians as “wards of the state,” “dependent,” “will always be seen as second-class citizens,” and more. Then in 2000, Canadian Alliance strategist John Mykytyshyn pretty well declared that the problem with Atlantic Canadians is that they’re lazy vote pedlars, and started a firestorm.
With regard to The Globe, which otherwise does a creditable job as a national newspaper, a number of its offerings over time still stick in my craw, notably a statement by a business reporter who described the Atlantic Vision conference in Moncton in the fall of 1997 as an attempt by the region to “lift itself out of the muck.” And when then-Newfoundland premier Brian Tobin insisted that nickel giant Inco process more nickel in the province from the huge Voisey’s Bay deposit, Tobin was admonished in an editorial to “take a Valium and call Inco in the morning, preferably in a more reasonable state of mind.”
Yet what really got me chewing nails was whenever the subject of Frank McKenna came up. Ever since he left office a half-dozen years ago, the former New Brunswick premier, being a corporate board kind of guy, has been a hero of The Globe and Mail editorial board, although not of anyone I know in Atlantic Canada. Whenever his name came up, there was always this drumbeat in favour of him joining federal Liberals and, among other things, becoming the “czar” of Atlantic Canada to set things right.
The very point of that 1997 election is that we dumped the “czars” — and not, by the way, because they cut EI (which was an issue only in a few ridings), but because we were fed up with their lies and manipulations. It’s more than galling to have the same voices that call us backward and dependent wanting us, in fact, to be backward and dependent.
There was an interesting second thought, however, that appeared in The Globe. Columnist Jeffrey Simpson, more national in scope than his Toronto- and Ottawa-bound colleagues, took Williams to task, but also said this: The flag gesture “opened the doors to gross attacks against the province of the kind usually found in British Fleet Street rags such as the Daily Express and the Sun when they rail against continental Europeans.” I presume that includes the Wente column.
Dare we hope that political discourse will rise out of the gutter whenever Atlantic Canada is at issue in some controversial way?
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