By Robert Porter
Born in St. John’s Newfoundland & Labrador three years prior to Confederation in 1949, Bob Porter recalls visiting the St. John’s harbour as a child to buy fish, or simply see what ships were docked. The harbour was always a busy place, with a myriad of fishing, freight, and passenger vessels which made St. John’s their final port of call before heading across the Atlantic, or their first port of call after several weeks at sea.
One common sight at the time was of the Portuguese White Fleet – a group of white-painted tall ships that were a fixture in the cod-fishing industry on the Grand Banks until the 1970’s. The crews would walk the length and breadth of downtown St. John’s, shopping, chatting, an otherwise sharing their culture with the locals – including soccer. “On occasion, ships’ crews would congregate in one of the many open fields in the area to play a ‘friendly’ game of soccer … we onlookers were never really sure just how ‘friendly’ the games were and always suspected that there was significant competition between and among the ships’ crews.”
Being born and raised in such a geographically isolated and culturally distinctive province made his later move with his young family to Ontario in 1984 a very difficult decision. The original plan was a temporary move for several years in order to gain work experience before moving back to their home-province. At the time he felt that it was “very much like leaving one’s homeland, and felt like putting distance between oneself and one’s family and heritage.”
After the move, it became clear that there was no suitable job to return to in his home province, and he recalls that at the time he felt a profound sense of loss at the thought: “once you leave for the mainland, there really is no going back.” Something of a common experience amongst many residents of Canada’s maritime provinces over the years.
They settled permanently in Ottawa, and when asked about the challenges of raising children in Ontario while maintaining their connection to Newfoundland and Newfoundland identity, he noted that he and his wife were always supportive of the development of their children’s identity, and made an effort to link them ideologically and spiritually to their family heritage. “[Our children] can justifiably lay claim to those roots and that family heritage – they are from there.”
Even still, he has felt that he himself has to justify his decision to leave the island to people he has met over the years who still lived there at the time, and has been told more than once that “you really aren’t a Newfoundlander anymore.” In spite of this, however, in his travels across Canada for the Federal government, he never felt the need to justify where he came from to Canadians outside of Newfoundland. In fact, he notes that “where we were from seemed to enhance the quality and endurance of our relationships.”
This strength of identity and pride in Newfoundland heritage goes back to the island mentality, he thinks. Remote, rugged, and often still difficult to travel to and from, its people have really been on their own. And while the province has seen great changes over the last century – going from colonial holding of the British Empire, Dominion, to Canadian Province – the sense of being a Newfoundlander has endured relatively unchanged.
Looking back on his journey, does he feel an affinity to immigrants to Canada from around the world? “Absolutely.” The challenges facing newcomers can be just as real to those who relocate within the borders of Canada.