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The Flyer Vault

The Flyer Vault

150 Years of Toronto Concert History
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Song of a Nation

Song of a Nation

The Untold Story of Canada's National Anthem
also available: Hardcover
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This Too is Music

This Too is Music

also available: Hardcover
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A Newfoundlander in Canada

A Newfoundlander in Canada

Always Going Somewhere, Always Coming Home
also available: Hardcover
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A Map of Canada

There once was a boy who lived in a tiny fishing village on an island in the middle of the ocean. That boy was me. And there on the old new bridge separating the Catholic and Protestant sides of Petty Harbour, I daydreamed about what else might be waiting for me over the tall hills surrounding my tiny home.
     I would lie awake at night in the modest bedroom I shared with my brother, Bernie, and wonder aloud, as he muttered sleepy responses.
     “How dark does it get in the desert?”
     “Real dark, probably. Go to sleep.”
     “Is a skyscraper taller than Boone’s Head?”
     “Don’t know. Never saw one. Go to sleep, please.”
     “Can you drive from New York to Los Angeles?”
     “Yes, saw it on TV. Go to friggin’ sleep.”
     “How far is that?”
     “Don’t know. Shut up and go to sleep.”
     “Denny said there are mountains so high in India that you can look down on a plane. Is that true?”
     “So how far away is Vancouver?”
     “Don’t know. I’m asleep.”
     I confess that as a very young fella I spent an equal amount of time thinking about Dublin and Hollywood as I did about Toronto or Vancouver. To me, they were all the same, faraway places that I had little, if any, chance of ever seeing in person. I was probably supposed to be more familiar with Calgary than Lisbon, but I wasn’t. I had met lots of people from Portugal, as the White Fleet often summered off the rocks in Petty Harbour buying excess fish from the locals, but I don’t think I’d ever met anyone from Alberta.
     For a while what country I was part of was not entirely clear to me. Most of the older people in Petty Harbour said we were still part of the country of Newfoundland and therefore I was a Newfoundlander. My mom and teachers said we were a part of Canada and therefore I was a Canadian. I was certainly happy with either one. Standing on the bridge in Petty Harbour, I could have been part of Canada, China, Poland, or South Africa and it would not have made one pinch of difference to my day-to-day. They all seemed equally distant and fantastical to me.
     But the truth, of course, is that my mom and teachers were right. I was a Canadian. The Dominion of Newfoundland joined the country of Canada in 1949, when both my parents were well into their childhoods, and though I rarely think of myself as such, I am a first-generation Canadian. Though unlike other first-generation Canadians, my parents never left anywhere and arrived anywhere else. So here we all were supposedly in a new country. A new country we knew very little about and one that probably knew very little about us.
     Sometime in my earliest years of school, I was given a photo­copied map of Canada pasted onto a piece of construction paper. There were no words or lines to separate provinces, just an out­line of the mainland of the country and its outlying islands. My job was to take my crayons and cover it with as many details as I could name—cities, lakes, mountains, landmarks, even buildings of note. I had very little to go on except for what I’d heard the adults around me describe. With the voices of my parents and of other grown-ups around Petty Harbour in my head, I began to fill in the map. As far as I knew the map of Canada consisted of the following regions from east to west.
     First, I wrote NEWFOUNDLAND in the ocean by the funny-shaped island reaching backwards to the mother country of Ireland or England, depending on which side of the bridge you were from. I knew I lived only a few kilometres from the most easterly point in all of Canada and in fact North America, and if I wanted to go anywhere in the province of Newfoundland or the country of Canada, I had only one way to go.
     And that was west across the overpass and the mythical yet very real gateway between rural Newfoundland and its baymen, like my young self, and the city of St. John’s and its townies, like the adult self I hoped to be. So on the map of Newfoundland, I figured there could be only two regions. In crayon I spelled out in capital letters the one around the greater St. John’s area known as TOWN, and the rest would be a giant area known as AROUND THE BAY.
     I knew Labrador was a place up above me, but the fishermen on the wharf referred to going there as “down on the Labrador,” which I found, and still find, confusing. In the same vein, folks from my hometown would say “let’s go up the Southern Shore.” I have never heard a single person outside of Newfoundland, before or since, say “down to the north” as in Labrador or “up to the south” as in the Southern Shore. No wonder my mapping skills were stunted so early. But I knew Labrador was actually a part of my province, and not part of Quebec, the province to which it is attached, which again was very confusing. All I really knew about Labrador was that it was a vast, beautiful, sparsely populated place with a huge coastline and massive rivers and an iron ore mine in Labrador City. I had heard a cousin say you could drive from Labrador City to a town in Quebec in twenty minutes or so, but I honestly thought that was just a story. “Imagine!” I once said to the other ten-year-olds working on the wharf in Petty Harbour. “Driving from one province to another and back while on your dinner break. Must be impossible.”
     So with my crayon I mapped out Labrador as a mass of land along the mainland coast above Newfoundland that for some reason bent inland just long and far enough to reach Labrador City and the mine. I asked my teacher why the Labrador–Quebec border bent in so sharply. Walking briskly up the aisle, she told me, “Because that is where the mine is.” I asked, “Why didn’t Quebec get the mine?” She broke her stride and turned her head to the side and appeared to be thinking about it, and after a little while she turned back to me and said, “Finish your work now.” I wrote LABRADOR down the coastline.
     For the first years of my life I was sure we were part of the Maritimes, but it turns out we are not. We are part of Atlantic Canada, which comprises the Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador. Not sure who was in charge of that distinction, but even as a kid it seemed unnecessary to me. So I drew a big circle around Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick and wrote MARITIMES in the ocean between them, then set to try to name what I knew about them individually.  
     I’d heard an uncle say he drove a cement truck onto the ferry on the west coast of Newfoundland and when it landed on the other side he was in North Sydney. So I wrote NORTH SYDNEY in what I would come to learn was Cape Breton Island and drew an arrow to its northernmost tip, as I figured that’s where the ferry would land. Turns out I was off by quite a bit, as the NL–NS ferry bypasses about 180 kilometres of Nova Scotia land before finally docking about halfway down Cape Breton Island.
     I knew there was a city where many of the airplanes headed our way stopped, so I just wrote HALIFAX across the lower part of Nova Scotia.
I knew Prince Edward Island was the little bit in the bay next to HALIFAX. To make the label fit, I used the province ’s initials, but in my haste, I put PIE there instead. My teacher thought that was hilarious. (I was delighted many years later when my own son asked if we could go see one of the sandy beaches on P.I.E.)
     I knew there was something between PIE and Quebec, but was not sure what it was. All I could recall was how people from St. John’s area complained their Sears catalogue packages were always being sent to a city with almost exactly the same name in another Atlantic province. I figured this must be the place, so in the New Brunswick area, I wrote OTHER ST. JOHNS.
     As a Montreal Canadiens fan, I knew the next bit quite well. I wrote MONTREAL, QUEBEC, which I’m sure must have spilled over into Ontario. I drew the Habs logo, the H inside the C, somewhere in the middle of the province as an homage to the team I loved so much.
     I knew the Maple Leafs came from the next place to Montreal as they played each other on Hockey Night in Canada quite often. I knew about the CN Tower because the just-built tallest building in the world that looked like a fancy robot was on TV a lot too. But I knew this city for many reasons besides.
     You see, Toronto—pronounced “Chronto” in Petty Harbour— was the place where everybody went to for seemingly everything. They went there to work in factories, to catch planes, to go on holidays, and to watch hockey games at the Gardens. Every few weeks there would be a card game or a darts tournament to raise money to send someone from Petty Harbour to Toronto for a kidney transplant, or to see a specialist about a bone disorder, or for heart surgery, or any myriad of ailments not easily or quickly treated in Newfoundland. There were so many people going there for so many different reasons, I assumed it must be a huge place. I knew around where it started, but had no idea where it ended. So on the crayon map, as I could not recall how the city was spelled on the Maple Leafs jersey, I wrote in the name the way it sounded. I wrote CHRONTO through all of Ontario and what must have been most of Manitoba.
     I skipped over to the other coast and wrote BRITISH COLUMBIA up and down next to the Pacific Ocean. I knew there was a city called VANCOUVER in there somewhere, so I wrote that right beneath the BRITISH COLUMBIA, and as I saw people skiing there on TV, I drew mountains, quite coincidentally exactly where the Rockies separate B.C. and Alberta.
     There were still two massive pieces of unnamed land. I strained to recall conversations the adults would have about where people went to find work and all I could think was Chronto. Then I remembered a series of chats on the wharf between two fishermen cursing the low price for fish and the high price of gas.
      “Sure you’d starve to death at this racket. Jaysus, we’re spend­ing more than we’re making. Me and the brother are going out West to see if we can make a go of it. If it don’t work there, shag it, we’ll go up north and give it a go.”
     “Out West” and “up north.” I figured that must be what was left.
     I wrote OUT WEST over Saskatchewan and Alberta, and across the top of the map, from Alaska to Hudson Bay, I wrote UP NORTH.
     That was it. That was all I knew about the country my mom and teachers told me was mine and most of the older fishermen on the wharf told me was not. Outside of my own province, I wrote about ten names and drew one tower and a mountain range and a Habs logo. At that tender age, that was my Canada.
     How did Newfoundland fit into Canada? Did we fit at all? I wasn’t sure, and I supposed it did not really matter all that much to me because there was almost no chance I’d ever get to see it anyway.
     Then, in the final days of 1992, my life changed forever, when Séan McCann shook my hand on Water Street and asked me to join a band that he and Bob Hallett and Darrell Power were des­tined to start. A few weeks later Great Big Sea was born, and two of the biggest, most impossible dreams of my life became a whole lot more possible. I was going to play in a band for a living. And these guys were not just aiming to play around St. John’s and down the Southern Shore where I’d apprenticed for so many years. These guys were talking about going across the vast island of Newfoundland en route to the country of Canada. And these boys were serious. We were going “up to Canada,” as my grand­father would say. I could not have been more excited.

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