Politics and Work

For God and Country: The Political Manipulation of Faith in Outport Newfoundland


Since the very beginning, Newfoundland's political and economic history has been one built upon the extreme exploitation of its people. From the development of the merchant truck system during the time of responsible government to post confederation relations with Canada, life had been a constant struggle to hold onto one's beliefs in a political sea as treacherous as the waters that sustained them.

This conflict, while eventually political, has its roots in the economic and religious relationships that developed between merchants and fishermen under what should have been a mutual effort towards the betterment of Newfoundland society and not the exclusive economic and political dominance over a people. To understand how Newfoundlanders came to find themselves in such a submissive and abused position in society, we must look at two key factors: the role of debt in dominance and the religious polarity between merchant and working classes.

The result of the merchant truck system in Newfoundland society is a classic example of hegemony in which the working people have no other option but to exist and compete with each other in a system that brings them no gain, only further dependence and domination. By limiting all means of access to and production of necessary supplies, the merchants had complete control over all necessary avenues by which economic independence could be achieved. Thus the people of Newfoundland found themselves in a state of opposition to the formal government, the ruling Conservative party, which was merely a manifestation of the merchant's best interests — while the fisher's actual interests were represented by the Liberal party.

The people needed something to tie them together. In this case, the unifying element came in the form of organized religion. This, however, did not turn out to provide common ground amongst the working class, nor was it to the disadvantage of the merchants. Rather, it allowed for the creation and realization of a common enemy on the basis of denomination for the working people, while giving the merchants a way to overcome the daunting political polarity of Newfoundland and ensure the dominance of the Conservative party. This was due to the fact that while the working class was a mélange of Protestants and Catholics, the merchant class was almost exclusively Protestant, a fact which gave the chance to the Conservative party to draw focus away from their alliances with the merchant ideals and place the focus on religion. The Conservative party then took a key step in achieving political dominance by running candidates from both denominations and thus coming off as working for the interests of all Newfoundlanders, while in reality serving only to further the hegemonic political and economic domination of the island.

It is from this viewpoint that we can see completely the lengths to which their own people used their faith — not just in the sense of religion, but in the sense of our unending determination to work for our rights and beliefs despite overwhelming adversity — to keep them under their thumb; and we see the role that this dominance played in the establishment and maintenance of Newfoundland's responsible government.

Note: This piece draws upon ideas in Gerald Sider's Between History and Tomorrow: Making and Breaking Life in Rural Newfoundland (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2003).