By Meghan Greeley
There’s a heavy wind blowing from the west. The fires that engulfed Fort McMurray have blossomed into a pyrocumulus cloud now visible from space; that smog has already made its way to Saskatoon, where it hovers and waits for the right wind to carry it further east.
Apparently it will soon make its way to Toronto, where I write this – sobering, to be sure, but it’ll do little more than dull the sun. It’ll likely dissipate before travelling much further east, its damage primarily felt by the residents of Alberta. Its impact, however, will be felt in Newfoundland long after the ashes cool.
In the midst of the news of the #ymmfire, a proverbial fire is breaking in the east in the form of the Newfoundland budget. The levy. The axing of fifty-four public libraries and a ten percent tax on books, an uncalculated blow in a province with some of the lowest literacy rates in the country. The increase of class sizes. The cancellation of the baby bonus. The re-introduction of secondary education student loans.
Running out of creative ways to tax the young, the provincial government stopped beating around the bush and went straight to the heart of the matter. Enough, they said, with all these babies coming into the world thinking they were getting a free ride. Shag it, they said – hike the price of birth certificates.
It’s the first day of the rest of your life, kid. Now hold still while the government pats you down for spare change.
Ever since the announcement of this budget, the bleary-eyed despair of friends back home has been almost palpable. Friends who have fought so hard to stay in the province, who have worked hard to put down roots and commit their lives and their crafts to a home they love, are contemplating leaving.
My name was recently published on a list of two hundred and thirty six names in an Overcast article. The article sought to identify those artists who have already left Newfoundland in order to pursue their practice elsewhere. I don’t, like some do and more will, feel stripped of my cultural identity by this list.
I don’t feel called out or accused or disowned. I told a fellow Newfoundlander, as we both stared at our names, that I just felt as though I was reading my own obituary. It’s a daunting list, filled with names I respect, names I grew up hearing.
It’s the name of my partner, my neighbours, my colleagues in Toronto. It’s a list filled with many, many friends. I’m probably going to bookmark it for future reference in case I ever need a guest list to the world’s greatest kitchen party.
Seeing all those names strung together like an impersonal roll call struck an odd chord with me as I sat in my Ontario bed, with the Ontario trains rattling by on their way to other parts of Ontario, in the condo my partner and I bought in December – our very own six-hundred-and-thirty-square-foot-slice of Ontario.
I left Newfoundland in 2010. I’m an OHIP carrying, Norm Kellyfollowing, tax-paying resident of our country’s biggest province. On the day that I surrendered my Newfoundland license for an Ontario version, I cried.
It would be unfair to assume that everyone on this list left Newfoundland simply because they couldn’t make a go of it back home, and I don’t think it’s what the writer is implying. It isn’t as though we all jumped ship strictly due to insufficient arts funding.
She has a point that people generally leave a place because better opportunities exist elsewhere, but that also applies to opportunities not directly related to the arts. Education, love, family commitments, jobs outside the arts sector – life takes us places, and sometimes we have to follow.
I left Newfoundland to pursue new opportunities. With a film straight out of TIFF and a shiny new Toronto agent, I thought I’d give this whole film acting thing a go. It didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t cut out for life in the commercial circuit, and being notoriously bad at auditions, period, I was probably never going to book enough work to feed myself.
But instead of returning home, I decided to focus on the thing that really made me happy, writing, and enrolled as an MFA in Screenwriting candidate at York University. But when that was over, I still didn’t return home; my partner landed his dream job as a professor in a program that isn’t offered in Newfoundland, and I landed a job writing for a magazine, and other projects just started aligning themselves here.
We can only speak for ourselves, but our story isn’t one of leaving when times got tough; we like it here. We miss home and can’t wait to move back someday, but in the meantime life unfolded as it did, and we’ve found a way to do what we love, regardless of the postal code.
I’ve been extremely fortunate to remain rooted in the arts community in Newfoundland, despite technically not having been a resident there in six years. Two of my plays have been produced in St. John’s, made possible in part by Newfoundland-based funding agencies.
I’ve performed in many plays in Newfoundland since becoming a resident of Ontario, often leaving Toronto for such long stretches of time that my friends here wonder if I’m ever coming back. I am perhaps exactly the kind of artist this Overcast article was meant to highlight, one aiding and abetting in a problematic economic cycle.
My art is funded by a wonderful company with the help of Newfoundland funding, and so I return, joyfully, albeit briefly. The project happens. And then I leave. I don’t pay rent in Newfoundland. I don’t pay bills or buy groceries there. I don’t even pay taxes there. So the immediate economic impact is that, while I may be a present artist, I’m not a present citizen.
Whatever money I do make returns with me to good old Upper Canada, where it quietly bleeds into that province’s economy. But that’s a simplified version of things. It doesn’t take into account that the work, aside from employing me, employs Newfoundland-based artists who do keep the money within the province.
Artists who are the backbone of that cultural landscape, able to make a living there via projects that are both grown at home and come-from-away. And that list, as a whole, becomes a problematic bit of representation. There are so many factors at play that, like any economic issue, a surface-level perspective doesn’t offer much insight.
There are others on the list – artists who might not live there full time but who, unlike me, are technically residents there. They pay taxes that aid in the Newfoundland funding agencies. They come home to create work that employs Newfoundlanders.
In some cases, those projects would not exist if the person lived in Newfoundland and had not ventured outward and made the necessary connections, gained the necessary education and experience, and raised the necessary investors to fund the work that employs those Newfoundlanders.
And then there are still others on this list who do live in Newfoundland, with homes in Newfoundland that they normally inhabit, who pay taxes in Newfoundland, but spend stints away from the province because they’ve been offered work elsewhere.
Work that benefits them artistically, financially, and equips them with new skills and experiences that, at the end of the contract, will return with them to Newfoundland and inherently enrich the community there.
The arts are, by nature, a mobile profession. It’s not something we lay particular claim to as Newfoundlanders. Many of the artists I have met in Toronto are from every corner of Canada. And many of the Toronto-based artists I know leave regularly, working in Halifax and northern Ontario, Quebec, Calgary, New York, L.A., Newfoundland.
Diversity in practice is never a bad thing. As artists, we go where the work is. And that work is where the audience is. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Art is made by people, for people. And the people, not just the artists, are leaving Newfoundland.
It’s like someone raised the house lights in the middle of a show and the audience began to trickle out, – discreetly at first, but then loudly and en masse. I will never understand how the first priority of any Newfoundland budget can fail to be, “How can we entice our young people to stay?”
As a province, we have a dark and painful history of losing our young. This marks the one hundred year anniversary of an entire generation of Newfoundland men losing their lives on a battlefield far away. Our land and our ocean are violent and unforgiving; these spindrift swirls and tempest roars haven’t exactly made it easy, in the purest sense of survival, to hack out a living in our beloved windswept land.
Fort McMurray is burning. For every new image I see of a towering inferno, of homes reduced to smoldering ash, I receive a new Facebook notification on my phone: “[So-and-so] was marked as safe in The Wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta.”
For every notification, I have a similar reaction: relief for the person, and then, “Him/her? I had no idea he/she had moved out west.” All day and all night during the evacuation the notifications came. It started to feel like a running who’s-who commentary of my high school yearbook.
Had they all moved out west without me noticing? When did that happen? Have we all left? Is there anyone left? The way The Wildfire was capitalized in that notification made it feel like a macabre story, and maybe it is – one more chapter in the book of the lost and displaced Newfoundlander.
How many Newfoundlanders live in Fort Mac? How many in Toronto? How many beyond our Canadian borders? The people have left, and with them, the audience. And the ones who remain in Newfoundland are being levied out of their ability to afford cultural experiences.
The younger generation will grow up with the understanding that literature is a luxury. A tax on books might seem negligible for some, but it’s the sheer principle at play that is devastating; not only are we taxing something that should be accessible to every citizen, but we’re also taking away the last refuge of literature that came with no barrier to entry, no limitations based on class – the local library.
I can’t think of a province or nation that ever benefited from devaluing the longterm sustainability of improved education. And for what? A 10% tax, when you crunch the numbers with some very simple mental math, means that 10,000,000 books must be sold in order earn the province a cool million. Chump change in the grand scale of things. Crippling on a micro level.
And so, yes – let’s make a list. Let’s make a list of our lost audience members. Let’s make a list of the teachers, the heavy machinery operators, the nurses, the doctors, the stonemasons, the plumbers, the engineers, the public relations specialists, the businessmen and businesswomen, the lawyers, the electricians, the journalists, the underwater welders, the administrative assistants, the linemen and linewomen, the athletes, the students, the millworkers, the firemen and firewomen, the police officers, the law clerks, the cashiers, the bartenders and servers, the anesthesiologists, the massage therapists, the social workers, the carpenters, the roofers, the garbage collectors, the advertising executives, the custodians. The children. Art exists as a response.
It’s a response to our individual and collective experiences. Without waxing poetic, let’s not forget that it’s a way of documenting, of examining, of archiving, of celebrating, of challenging current events and coming to terms with our social and political climates.
It’s a way of rallying and unifying in the direst circumstances. And now that Fort Mac – the promised land of so many Newfoundlanders whose home province ceased to be a place where they could earn an honest living – lies in ruins, it’s time to shift our focus.
Forget emptying the pockets of babies or ripping books from the hands of children. Let’s concentrate instead on becoming a province focused on long-term, sustainable investment in the young. The kind of place that these displaced Newfoundlanders would be proud to return to with their own children.
The kind of province that will welcome them with open arms, that will help to rebuild the lives of its prodigal sons and daughters who are now in need of home and hope. There’s our audience. Let’s earn them. The art will follow.