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THE ROCK ON A ROLL. By Susanne Hiller


As Diane the esthetician carefully paints my toes fuchsia, I cant help but wonder what the Christian Brothers would have thought about all this indulgence and vanity in their hallowed halls. The 70-year-old monastery has been transformed into St. John’s first high-end day spa. The chapel is now a lounge area, where women clad in fluffy robes munch on baby spinach and strawberry salad. On this day, the parking lot is full by 11 A.M. Tourists, it appears, are intrigued by body treatments like the iceberg dip and the seaweed wrap. “They come here and they love it,” whispers Diane. “I mean Newfoundland, that is. It ’s like they’re just discovering us.”

It’s true. There’s never been more buzz about Newfoundland. The economy is turning around; glamorous movies are being filmed on our craggy shores; tourists adore us. In February, on Valentine’s Day, a couple from North Carolina traveled to the tiny community of Heart ’s Content to be married because it sounded so wildly romantic. A Toronto acquaintance recently arched her brow and said, “God, I can ’t believe how trendy Newfoundland is these days. I’ll have to go.” Newfoundland is suddenly cool.

I left St. John’s, my hometown, in 1994 and I was more than happy to go. I wasn’t alone. My friends and I would sit around the cafeteria at Memorial University and talk about our plans for escape. Why would we stay? There were no jobs, no prospects, no places to hang out. Our parents and professors encouraged us to leave, though it meant losing the most educated to the mainland. “There is no point even thinking about staying,” one of my favourite English lit profs would say over and over. “This has become a place to visit, not to make a career.”

The early ’90s were dark days for Newfoundland. Dwindling cod stocks and the subsequent moratorium had idled a key industry, leaving boarded-up buildings and thousands out of work. The province seemed doomed. Even Brian Peckford, the former premier, split town. And so we went, one by one. Almost everyone in my gang packed their bags and left.

My friend Jude Hall, a bright gangly business student, moved to Toronto for a big-paying job and swore he was gone for good. Newfoundland, he told me at the time, was becoming “a retirement home or parents and grandparents.” That was then.

The good times in Newfoundland started with Hibernia. They were bolstered by Terra Nova, another offshore oil drilling project. And though 2001 was a rough year elsewhere in Canada, Newfoundland’s prosperity continued. Alister Smith, deputy chief economist at CIBC in Toronto, predicts Newfoundland’s economy will be the fastest growing in the country this year and next, expanding at about five per cent in 2002 compared with the national average of two per cent. The unemployment rate (still high at 16 per cent) is declining, while the population appears to be stabilizing as fewer people leave and more come home.

“The economy has grown by about 25 per cent since 1996. It’s actually a stunning improvement”, says Smith, comparing Newfoundland with the archetypal “have” province.“ Alberta was not always rich. It went through a tough decade in the 1930s, until oil was discovered. Things slowly improved from there. I think you can see something of the same happening here. Newfoundland has reached a turning point.”

That “turning point ”is not yet noticeable in the beleaguered outports, but in St. John’s, signs of abundance are everywhere. There are new condos, trendy bars, funky new furniture stores, specialty coffee shops, art galleries and expensive restaurants in buildings that were deserted less than a decade ago. There is a new hockey arena and a major —albeit ugly —convention centre. A $45-million airport renovation is under way, while a $40-million facility to house the provincial museum, art gallery and archives, called the The Rooms, is in the works.

“You just watch —the good times are just starting,” city councilor Frank Galgay tells me. “We’re going to be seeing unbelievable, unprecedented development. There is not the doom and gloom of even five years ago. Walk through downtown. You’ll feel the vibe, the energy.”

It’s true. Along the steep winding streets, construction crews are busy at work, renovating the quaint wooden row houses. Their bright colours —yellow, blue, red and green —reflect an infectious excitement. On a whim, I check out one that’s for sale: three bedrooms, $150,000. A steal by Toronto or Vancouver standards, but it would have been $60,000 a few years back. Unlike the rest of the country, no one is talking of recession. “Well,” says my friend later when I meet her for brunch, “we have always marched to the beat of our own drum. By the way, I love your toes. Did you go to that new spa?”

Kevin Nolan leads me around the condo everyone in town is talking about. It ’s in a stone building on Queen ’s Road, a St. John ’s landmark built in 1877 that was once the headquarters of the Benevolent Irish Society. Nolan, a real estate broker and developer, is turning it into luxury housing. This four-storey unit is the grandest. He plans to put it on the market for $1.5 million.

Stepping over tools and scafolding, navigating the 8,000 square feet of space, Nolan points out the heated dark oak floors, the cathedral ceilings, the two-storey arched windows, even a remote-control light fixture that descends to make changing light bulbs easy. Then there is the library, the elevator ,the butler’s kitchen, the wine cellar.

It’s something you would expect Céline and René to be lounging around in, not something you would ever expect to see in St. John’s, a place of hand-me-downs and frugal living. I ask Nolan if he really believes he will find a buyer. “I have no doubt,” he says, breaking into a huge grin that threatens to crack his round face. “And I will go as far as to say it will double in value in the next five years.”

We finish the tour in the bell tower room, with its jaw-dropping view of St.John’s harbour. A study, perhaps? “Or maybe the cognac room,” Nolan murmurs. There ’s no mention of screech.

For me, the most positive economic indicator is not the GDP or the million-dollar condo. It’s the friends and acquaintances, now in their late 20s and early 30s, who are returning home or at least contemplating it. Some are starting their own businesses; hipsters like Lorne Loder, who has opened a skater fashion shop for teens called Ballistic, and Steve Curtis, who opened the Grapevine —a trendy bar where pretty girls lounge in teensy designer skirts — sold it and is now planning his next upscale spot in St. John’s.

Newfoundland was once known or its high illiteracy rate. But with the fishery’s decline, young people had no choice but to hit the books. There is a new breed of educated Newfoundlander whose only connection to cod is an occasional feed at Ches’s Famous Fish &Chips.

“Our parents were the first generation to go to Memorial University,” says Seamus O’Regan, host at Canada AM. “We grew up with the understanding that education was the way to a better life. It’s not so long ago that people lived pretty harshly off the land. Getting an education was survival.”

The people returning are bringing degrees and professional experience with them. Paul Jackman, a 30-something doctor, moved home from the States to open a family practice. Chris Power, who lives in Vancouver, is planning to open a herbal medicine and acupuncture health clinic. Even my old university friend Jude, poster boy for out-migration, is back. He is now married and living on Gower Street, which was considered one of the poorest areas while we were growing up; now it’s in the trendiest part of town. Jude ’s place is near the harbour, where cruise ships are not uncommon these days

When I give Jude a call, he tells me he and his wife, Lesley, also from St. John’s, decided to return after they started thinking about where they would like to raise children. “Newfoundland kept coming up as the perfect place, ”Jude tells me. “I never would have considered it before, but suddenly there was this national buzz. So I started making inquiries.”

Although he took a pay cut to work at a technology company, he doesn’t regret the decision. Like all of us, the longer he was away from the Rock, the more he missed it. “There’s something about this place,” he says.

We have all felt that homing instinct. Every time we visit, we stay a little longer. Things we once whined about charm us: the bracing wind that goes right through you, the unrelenting fog, the unforgiving landscapes. Wayne Johnston, picking up a phrase used by writers since Yeats, called it a “terrible beauty” in his 1999 memoir of Newfoundland, Baltimore’s Mansion. It exerts a mysterious, emotional pull. My friend Paul Pitman, who lives near London, England, brought his British girl-friend home for a visit and proposed to her among the jagged cliffs and scrub of Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America. It was freezing; she was enchanted; they’re now married.

O’Regan doesn’t hesitate when I ask him if he plans to return. “I’m going back. It’s just a fact. Everyone misses their home, but with Newfoundlanders it’s much more intense, much more rooted. There is a longing, a constant pining. Even for us disenfranchised townies, the connection to the land, to the history is strong.”

Outsiders feel it too. Connecticut-born E. Annie Proulx, who wrote The Shipping News, the winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize, said something “extraordinary” happened to her when she set foot on the island. “Within 10 minutes, I felt like somebody had shot an arrow into my heart,” she said.“ It just had a huge impact on me. I saw everything differently. It was just a place that knocked me off my feet, and I’ve never gotten over that. It still knocks me off my feet. I still go up there and I still get that same visceral, mad, physical, flushing rush of going to this place. I can’t explain it.”

The film adaptation of The Shipping News wasn’t greeted with unequivocal enthusiasm by Newfoundlanders. “It was an abominable movie,” gripes St. John’s mayor Andy Wells. “Don’t waste your time. The phoniest accents and all that talk about squid burgers.”

Newfoundland, though, did enchant the film folk. Kiefer Sutherland, filming The Red Door, spent many a night at the Grapevine and apparently didn’t want to leave the bar or the island. William Hurt, who stars in the comedy Rare Birds, cycled around St. John’s during its filming and bought a giant model ship in a bottle at an artists’ co-op.

Some of the cast and crew of The Shipping News are said to have bought summer homes in Trinity Bay, a mall –and decaf latte –free town three hours by road from St. John ’s. They weren’t deterred when a few moose on the St. John ’s airport runway caused light cancellations and held up production. Nor were they put off by the weather, which changed from sleet to rain to sun almost every hour. Somehow, it just added to the cachet.
Roger Maunder, my friend Nicole’s brother, worked on the crew of The Shipping News. One night, he ended up going to a bar in St. John ’s with Kevin Spacey, who told him how much he enjoyed the fact nobody seemed to recognize him.

“Just as he said that, a guy excitedly approached the table,” says Nicole. “Kevin Spacey almost choked on his words. Then the guy says to Roger, ‘Are you Roger Maunder from the movie Colic? “Colic” is a local Newfoundland short film. ’Kevin Spacey thought that was so great.”

September 11 brought less predictable but no less positive attention to the province. The rerouting of many American lights carried to St. John ’s and Gander thousands of traumatized and bewildered passengers who had never intended to visit Newfoundland (and in many cases had never even heard of it). They were put up in homes, churches and meeting halls. In St. John’s, residents took the “plane people,” as they were called, on shopping trips, blueberry-picking excursions and hikes up Signal Hill. The passengers on Delta Flight 15, diverted to Gander while en route from Frankfurt to Atlanta, were so grateful for the welcome they received in the small town that they spent the flight home arranging a student scholarship for the locals.

The plane people have since been singing the praises of Newfoundland by creating Web sites and writing in newspapers around the world about their experiences. Springfield, Illinois, resident Gary Philo wrote in The State Journal-Register about his stopover in St. John’s, where he danced to local music and learned he was considered a CFA (Come From Away). “The citizens of St. John’s welcomed us at every encounter, bought us drinks and shared with us the warmth and charm of their beautiful city and island,” he wrote.“[Because of them ] I don’t worry about the future. This experience has convinced me that goodness will prevail.”

Amid all the celebration and hype about a new Newfoundland lurk a few skeptics. Alfred Hynes, for one, feels we could be setting ourselves up for a big fall. Last summer, Hynes opened Aqua, a sleek restaurant on Water Street in St. John’s, and it has quickly become a hot spot. On first glance, it could be a hip New York bistro, complete with edgy art and willowy waitresses. It’s a Tuesday night. The place is packed. Still, Hynes worries. “There ’s a lot of short-sightedness,” he says. “This dependency on oil —it ’s the same sort of dependency we had on the fishery. There is an over-optimism. What if there is an oil glut? Where does that leave us? We need long-term plans.”

The province, after all, does have a history of embarrassing quick-fix solutions and mega projects. The worst humiliation was the Churchill Falls power contract, negotiated in the 1960s, under which Newfoundland was locked into a long-term deal to sell electricity to Quebec for a fraction of its market value. We also weathered the 1976 bankruptcy of the Come By Chance oil refinery, mothballed at a cost of about $500 million to the province. (It has since reopened and now employs 700 people and turns a profit.) Then, in 1988, the province was reduced to a national laughingstock over the Sprung greenhouse project, a bizarre effort to grow and market hydroponic cucumbers on a grand scale.

Others adamantly argue that it is not only in oil-related activities that we are prospering. They point to a fledging high-tech industry, the increasing stream of tourists, the boom in film production and a wave of new entrepreneurs trying to make a go of it. Even the fisheries are being restructured, with a greater focus on crab and shrimp harvesting.

But there are also concerns that go beyond the economic. There is a worry that historic St. John’s — one of the oldest cities in North America —will be destroyed and replaced with malls and high-rise apartment buildings. On a drive around town, my father the historian points out where old buildings have been torn down, parks made into parking lots. Chi-chi condos are being built in Quidi Vidi Village, a tiny fishing community dating from the 17th century. “It’s a real shame,” he says. “St. John’s is fragile these days.”

Kevin Nolan ’s development didn’t come off without controversy. Many residents of the city were outraged that the luxury townhouses he built next to the million-dollar condo partially block the view of St. John’s Harbour from the steps of the historic basilica across the street.

City councilor Galgay says a development plan is being drawn up “to balance the past and present. We’ve got to remember that tourists don’t come to St. John’s to see shopping malls and visit the Gap. They come for the distinctive way of life.”

It’s a point that hits a nerve. In the globalized world, there’s a craving for isolated, different places like Newfoundland. The underlying fear, of course, is that all the development and buzz could ultimately spoil the province, rendering it less distinct, more like everywhere else. Will our heritage become a mass of malls and condos? William Hurt told the National Post that he was concerned the recent boom in tourism and film production might ultimately bring the wrong kind of attention. Hurt said Newfoundland “stands out, but not as a business opportunity —as a human opportunity.”

My friend Nicole, who started the Newfoundlanders Abroad Web site as a means of keeping in touch while living in Toronto, puts it this way: “All people like Andy Wells want is development and more development. But people come here to get away from the rat race.” And from what they know and are familiar with.

When I was in St. John’s with some former colleagues from Toronto last summer, I brought them to the Grapevine for a night on the town. They took one look at the air-kissing, the martinis and the funky couches and turned around. It didn’t matter that This Hour Has 22 Minutes Greg Thomey was holding court at the bar. “It ’s sooooo Toronto,” one friend complained. They wanted to go to Trapper John ’s, drink beer and listen to live Newfoundland music.

My Toronto friends were after the real Newfoundland —the one whose survival everyone wants to nurture and protect. Yet at the same time, we want the province to have the advantages and conveniences of larger cities. It’s a delicate dance between growing up and preserving the past —one that still needs to be worked out somehow.

One thing people wouldn’t mourn, however, is the disappearance of the Newfoundland bad joke.

O’ Regan remembers an incident involving the Celtic folk-rock band Great Big Sea, when they were asked a few years ago by promoters of a Canada Day concert to pose in sou’westers and arrive on stage in a dory. They refused, asking if Susan Aglukark was going to be pulled out of an igloo.

“I got angry reading about it,” says O’ Regan. “There is so much more to Newfoundland, and I think the rest of Canada is finally starting to see that. In a way, it might be a good thing that so many of us moved away — I think the condescension is, for the most part, disappearing.”

Economists like Alister Smith predict the stereotypes will disappear if government and business can keep the good times rolling. He points to island economies such as Ireland’s. “Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Europe, the butt of jokes. Now they are the envy of the rest of Europe. As Newfoundland becomes stronger, there won’t be the same need for federal transfer programs. Then the differences, the stereotypes will diminish.”

Certainly, my generation won’t stand for the lame jibes. Newfoundland is cool, and we’re the cool kids now. My friend Lisa, who works in Toronto, tells me she’s had three fights with her boyfriend from Northern Ontario over “goofy Newfie ”cracks. “I have decided, though he doesn’t know, that I will not marry him until he visits Newfoundland and declares that he loves it there,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s over.”

First printed in Saturday Night Magazine. By Newfoundlander Abroad Susanne Hiller. Look for other articles from Susanne printed regularly in The National Post.