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Excerpt from the Introduction of The Newfoundland Diaspora: Mapping the Literature of Out-Migration by Jennifer Delisle


While many Canadian provinces, particularly other Atlantic provinces, have experienced out-migration for similar reasons,1 Newfoundland’s population loss stands out for its sheer numbers, at times reaching a net rate of more than 6 percent of Newfoundlanders aged five and older (Statistics Canada). Moreover, this statistic does not include the significant amount of seasonal migration that brings Newfoundland labourers back and forth several times a year. As of 2003, Newfoundland’s expatriate community was estimated at a total of 220,000 (Royal Commission i)—a staggering number considering that the province’s population in that year was just 512,500. This long period of population loss may finally be slowing; in 2008 and 2009 the province experienced a brief population increase for the first time in fifteen years (Statistics Canada). Yet census data since then again show an annual population loss to out-migration. The province’s unemployment rate remains the highest in the country, at 13 percent as of June 2012 (Statistics Canada).

Out-migration has not been limited to former fishers or young blue-collar labourers. Professionals and artists have also left. Others have left in search of better education. Aging parents have followed their children to their new hometowns in Toronto or Fort McMurray in a “second wave” of out-migration (Royal Commission 39). While not every Newfoundlander’s reasons for leaving are the same, together they have formed a culture of out-migration, in which leaving is often expected or considered inevitable, and in which returning is a powerful but often unfulfilled dream. Together, these migrants constitute a Newfoundland diaspora.

This book examines how this diaspora has impacted Newfoundland literature, both as the subject of much of the work and as a condition from which many writers write. In Newfoundland, critics have explicitly connected the development of a distinct literature to the massive change resulting from Confederation, the government resettlement program of the 1940s and ’50s, and the collapse of the fishery (Gwyn; Rompkey, “Colonial”). This book argues that much of Newfoundland’s current literary production is also a result of, or a response to, diaspora. The idea of a “Newfoundland diaspora” does not just refer to the post-cod-moratorium outflux, then, but to a larger social phenomenon that has shaped Newfoundland literature and culture. Malcolm Macleod’s review of Helen M. Buss / Margaret Clarke’s Memoirs from Away suggests the way in which the Newfoundland diaspora can be considered in terms of a broad literary history: “‘Memoirs from away’ is the title of this one book, but it is a fitting label for a whole category of writing about Newfoundland. While Newfoundlanders have been massively re-locating themselves in North America for 120 years, literary elements in the diaspora have often penned accounts of displacement, adjustment and nostalgia for a distant, past homeland” (98). This migrant literary tradition can be traced back to the early twentieth century and the poetry of E.J. Pratt and the stories and essays of the Montreal-based magazine The Atlantic Guardian. Contemporary narratives of out-migration also frequently locate themselves within a long historical diasporic trajectory, so that Wayne Johnston’s memoir of family and displacement, Baltimore’s Mansion, for example, looks back at the retreat of one of the colony’s first settlers, Lord Baltimore, as the beginning of a social pattern. In this book, then, rather than moving chronologically through the texts, I take a comparative approach, examining how diaspora influences writers of diverse eras and genres, and how diasporic subjectivity intersects with the theoretical flashpoints of affect, authenticity, nationalism, and ethnicity.