Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Come From Away. Then … Go Back Home?


For a few gloriously warm and mostly-sunny days — the summer days we’ve all been waiting for — near the end of July 2019, a gentleman from Texas who shares my last name (but is no relation, as far as we know) briefly became Newfoundland’s most celebrated tourist.

Preston Morgan became a fan of Newfoundland and Labrador — and a long-distance friend to many Newfoundlanders — by following and engaging with lots of Newfoundlanders on Twitter. When he, his wife, and their daughter finally made their dream visit to Newfoundland last week, they were greeted by reasonably good weather, stunning scenery, and friendly people — all the things a summer tourist should expect. Preston met in real-life some folks (like me) that he’d chatted with online. And the Morgans responded warmly, posting pictures of their travels on Twitter and enthusing about the beauty of everything they saw.

This is me looking WEIRDLY INTENSE (no idea why) with Preston and Louise at the Victoria Park Lantern Fest. (Photo credit: Emma Cole)

In short, Preston and his family seem to have had a true “Come From Away” experience — the same kind of experience celebrated in the award-winning Broadway musical now playing on three continents. That musical is based on the experience of a group of travellers who, far from choosing to visit Newfoundland on a dream vacation, were stranded here for several days after US planes were grounded following the 9/11 attacks. As many of us remember, the citizens of Gander and other Newfoundland communities rose to the occasion with warmth and generosity, opening homes, hearts and wallets to help the stranded passengers.

It’s something we’ve always been known for and always been proud of: the kindness with which we welcome visitors. You see this attitude celebrated not only in Preston Morgan’s Twitter feed and on the stage of Come From Away: it’s present in one of the first local songs I can ever remember hearing as a child (“There’s No Price Tags on the Doors in Newfoundland”) and in some of my favourite This Hour Has 22 Minutes skits (like this one about sending in Canadian Forces to help Newfoundlanders after a storm, or another about a man trying to “survive” in the Newfoundland wilderness).

We’re not the only place famous for this, of course, but welcoming visitors and making them feel at home has always been a proud part of our culture. But does our welcome depend on the knowledge that the visitors will, eventually, go back home?

Sometimes it seems like it. Even white, English-speaking “mainlanders” from the rest of Canada or the U.S. — people externally indistinguishable from the average Newfoundlander except by accent — often report feeling that they never quite “fit in,” even after years of living here. “Come From Away” is a great title for a musical about how welcoming we are, but still being called a “CFA” after you’ve bought a home, lived and worked here for several years, can start to feel a little unwelcoming. I’ve spoken to many people who shared that feeling.

And what if the newcomer isn’t white, or doesn’t speak English as a first language? While many still find Newfoundland and Labrador a warm and welcoming place, others can testify to a darker side of our tight-knit community.

A friend and fellow-writer, Prajwala Dixit, has written frequently in the local press over the last year about diversity and the immigrant experience in Newfoundland. And while she has found a warm welcome in many corners of our community, she rarely has a piece published online without receiving numerous comments that are all variations on, “Why don’t you go back where you came from??”

A brown-skinned immigrant who dares to question any aspect of our warm and insular little community, who has the audacity to suggest that maybe there are things we can do better, will quickly be met with “If you don’t like it here, you can leave!” Ask Prajwala. Ask community activist and recent political candidate Hasan Hai.

The more a newcomer is willing to put themselves “out there” in the public eye, the more Newfoundlanders are willing to show the ugly side of our strong sense of local identity — the side that will never be celebrated in a Broadway musical.

A brief glance (if you’re feeling tough enough to handle it) through the comments section of any local news site or Facebook page will reveal them: the bigots; the isolationists; the outright white supremacists. The cost of having a close-knit community that has grown strong through independence and hardship is that some of us want to preserve that “apart-ness” at all costs.

Sometimes, the cost is bigotry.

I’ve checked out those spaces. I’ve read those comments. They’re ugly, but we can’t turn away and pretend they don’t exist.

Yes, we welcome visitors. We open our un-price-tagged doors; we invite them in for cups of tea; we let them kiss the cod and become honorary Newfoundlanders. Many of us are willing to swing the doors wider: to let newcomers (of any skin colour; of any language; of any religion) move in next door, work at the desk next to us, contribute to our community.

But not everyone is willing to keep those doors open. Lots of us are glad to see the tourists (and their money!) come into town, but only if they leave again when vacation is over. Some are willing to welcome newcomers, but only if they look, speak, and worship like we do.

And in a province where our dwindling and aging population is one of the biggest barriers to our economic growth, those attitudes are not only bigoted, narrow-minded and offensive. They’re also … just plain stupid.


2 thoughts on “Come From Away. Then … Go Back Home?

  1. Well said Trudy! I would also cite Jamie Fitzpatrick’s book “The End of Music” as an alternative view of Gander, and our own brand of xenophobia.

  2. Very well said Judy! Bravo

    Wayne Malcolm Schafer QC

    Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the Bell network.

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