The following is an excerpt from a speech I gave Tuesday night, March 15, at the Ship Pub in downtown St. John's as part of The Jack Cycle, an event exploring Newfoundland’s identity through the Jack tales.
The other Jack I was familiar with growing up was a cousin of Jack and the Beanstalk, and Jack and the Giant.
He was Jack the Sailor Man — from the song Jack was Every Inch a Sailor.
I can’t tell you how many times I sang that on the bleachers during a school concert — more times than I care to remember.
Jack the sailor man, our Jack, Newfoundland Jack, is no longer a sailor.
Certainly not every inch of him.
Young Jack today no longer dreams of a life in a fishing boat.
It’s certainly not a life that old Jack wants for his son or daughter, either.
It’s been that way for as long as I can remember.
When I was a child growing up in Riverhead, Harbour Grace poverty smelled like fish, and I feared it, a scent that might soak into my skin and rot my dreams.
None of my classmates wanted to be fishermen — the last-resort career was one on the water, a notch above welfare, but equal on the dignity scale.
It made no difference anyway, because we ended up running out of fish — codfish anyway.
That’s where we’re at today.
Jack is no longer every inch a sailor, 5 and 20 years a whaler.
Jack hasn’t been a whaler in three times 5 and 20 years.
Whales seem to be the one creature we’re at peace with, whose throats we don’t rush out to slit.
I suspect the same will be the case soon enough with seals.
The world doesn’t seem to want that anymore — we’re fighting against the tide.
It’s change or die for Jack, that’s the point we’re at today.
Change or die.
If Jack is a metaphor for the Newfoundland national character, I’ve come across a few versions of him and her over the years.
Jack is quick, courageous, handy, honest, and crafty.
The Jack of old — at least according to the book, Little Jack and other Newfoundland Folktales that I read to prepare for this evening — is generally dirt poor, with a good-for-nothing brother or two who are usually killed off early.
The Jack of old overcomes gigantic odds of some sort, but not always.
Peter Cashin is my favourite Jack from Newfoundland history, and he ultimately failed.
Peter Cashin was the Jack who tried to save Newfoundland from what he saw as the shackles of Confederation with Canada.
To quote Cashin, and where his passion came from:
“What I said emanates from my sincere political believe which is based on the solid and eternal doctrine: first, a country belongs to its people; second, it is the solemn duty of the people of that country to shoulder the responsibility of governing it.”
Cashin faced off against the more popular Jack — Joe Smallwood.
To quote Smallwood as he saw it:
“Our danger, so it seems to me, is that of nursing delusions of grandeur. We remember the stories of small states that valiantly preserved their national independence and developed their own proud cultures, but we tend to overlook the fact that comparison of Newfoundland with them is ludicrous. We are not a nation. We are merely a medium-size municipality, a mere miniature borough of a large city.”
Joe Smallwood — my least favourite Jack, for numerous reasons — eventually won the day.
That’s the same Smallwood who, in a 1928 letter to the editor of Corner Brook's Western Star, wrote:
“I would fight against Confederation in any shape or form, now or at any time in the future.”
Turns out our Jack — Newfoundland Jack — can also be a bit of a sleeveen.
Which means we’ve got some sleeveen in our national character, too.
The character Jack is alive and well today in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In terms of the fishery, our Jack, the Newfoundland Jack, is an aging fish killer turned fish saviour — Gus Etchegary.
In the media, there’s Geoff Stirling, the last Newfoundland tycoon, the weed smoking, pyramid-powered NTV Jack-of-all-media.
In terms of sports, look no further than Danny Cleary — great nephew of Jack Cleary from Riverhead, Harbour Grace.
Danny Cleary is a Jack-of-all-trades on the ice for the Detroit Red Wings.
He had his ups and downs, but persevered — defeating his personal and professional giants — to become a champion.
Brad Gushue is the famous Jack of the curling world — an Olympic champion whose curse will probably be to try and repeat early glory.
There are loads of Jacks on the stage.
There are three Jacks — well two Jacks, and one female Jackie — in the group The Once.
There’s a video on YouTube of The Once taking the stage here at The Ship in August 2009.
They sang an acapella version of Leonard Cohen’s song Coming back to you.
The Ship is rowdy when the song starts, but by the end, when the two Jacks and Jackie were near done, there wasn’t a sound in the place but their voices.
That’s more than Jack tale — it’s Jack legend.
Same as Tim Baker singing Hallelujah at the Feast of Cohen a few years back.
Our Jack can be funny as hell.
Think Steve Cochrane and Jonny Harris in the Dance Party of Newfoundland skit — Newfoundland Fear Factor.
I wouldn’t blame Jonny Harris — not a bit — for refusing to eat the hot dog that Steve Cochrane laid on the salt-meat bucket.
Cochrane had shoved the hotdog up his arse.
Jake Doyle — the character played by Allan Hawco in Republic of Doyle — is another Jack.
A modern-day version of Gordon Pincent’s, The Rowdyman, all fists and fury, colour and character, but with not much depth or thought to the future.
But then here’s no need to worry about the future — that’s what politicians are for here in Newfoundland and Labrador.
We put all our faith in a single Jack — Jacks like Smallwood and Peckford and Wells and Tobin.
And our greatest political Jack to date, the giant killer himself — Danny Williams.
But Danny’s gone now, and we’re said to be in desperate need of a hero.
A Jack to step forward and save us from the giants that surround us, that want to eat us whole.
The situation we’re in today is as backward as ever.
We’re supposed to run out of oil — not fish.
But that’s where we are today: oil flows as codfish flat lines.
I heard an economist say recently we have 7 years of decent oil revenues left before they start trailing off.
The clock ticks.
If it weren’t for oil this place would be destitute.
How do we keep the economy strong?
How do we prepare for economic reality after oil?
There has been a crisis in the fishery practically since there’s been a fishery.
How do we turn that around?
Can we turn the fishery around?
Is it even possible?
Newfoundland went through a sea change in the late 1940s and ’50s with the transition from salt fish to fresh fish.
And from independence — our own country — to Confederation.
We went through another sea change in the early 1990s when the unthinkable happened —our fisheries failed, and they were shut down for the first time in 500 years.
“The biggest layoff in Canadian history,” the words of Richard Cashin, another Jack, the union Jack, who spoke here earlier tonight.
Almost 20 years later and our groundfish fisheries are as endangered as ever — too many boats chasing too few fish.
The Jack of old is probably rolling over in his watery grave, or, more likely, pounding the surf.
John Crosbie — Jack Crosbie if you like — once said that he didn’t take the God damn fish from the sea.
And he didn’t, but they’re gone anyway, and the question remains: Can we get them back?
Can we regroup?
Can we rebuild?
Can we rewrite?
Our culture, which is based on the sea, may depend on it.
It’s hard to relate to a song like the Squid Jiggin’ Grounds when there’s no squid left to jig.
It’s a fact — Jack is no longer every inch a sailor.
That said, Jack remains every inch a Newfoundlander.
The Jack tales of old need to be shaken up — it’s no longer enough to overcome incredible odds and continue just to survive.
To have bread and butter on the table and a roof over our heads.
Survive to face the next giant, and the next giant, and the next giant.
Why does there have to be such a divide between Jack and the giant?
Why can’t Jack and the giant see more eye to eye?
Why can’t Jack be just as big and scary as the giant when he needs to be?
And why can’t the giant be as down-to-earth and human as Jack — for once.
Of course, then the giant wouldn’t be a giant, and the story wouldn’t be as exciting, as gripping.
But instead of repeating typical Jack tale after typical Jack tale, we might finally begin piecing together the Jack epic.
A story of how Jack evolved from a poor and simple fisherman in a cruel land to master and commander of his own ship.
Within the Canadian fleet, of course.