Rethinking the Ode to Newfoundland


HomeHome / News / Rethinking the Ode to Newfoundland

Nov 22, 2023

Rethinking the Ode to Newfoundland

Like most kids who grew up in the Catholic Church, I went to mass on Sundays. It

Like most kids who grew up in the Catholic Church, I went to mass on Sundays. It was a slog. Sitting and standing. Standing and sitting. And my God, the kneeling; how very much the opposite of what a kid would rather be at on a weekend. Looking around though, it was clear to me at a young age that mass meant something much more profound to other members of the congregation.

I sometimes wonder if many of those folks still attend mass today. For many Catholics, learning of the Church's rampant sexual abuse of children and its role in the genocide of Indigenous Peoples through the residential school system—not to mention its efforts to cover up or downplay its violence—forced us to question everything we believed: about the Church, about society, about our communities, and about ourselves.

Arduous as it may be, confronting ideas that challenge our unquestioned assumptions is a necessary process if we are keen to grow, heal, and live our lives the way we believe is best for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

The Ode was written by Sir Cavendish Boyle, a British administrator sent to Newfoundland in 1901 upon his appointment as Governor of the dominion. The Island appeared as a promising object under his colonial gaze. He was so inspired by its beauty he wrote poems about it. He might have liked the look of Newfoundland, but not enough to stay; he left after three years. "Newfoundland" was one of these poems, penned in 1902, just a year after Boyle landed here. It was later set to music, thanks to Sir Hubert Parry, renamed the "Ode to Newfoundland," and in 1904 it was adopted by the government as Newfoundland's anthem.

The Ode means many things to many people. It conjures images of our cherished landscape: "God guard thee smiling land […] God guard thee frozen land […] God Guard thee windswept land." And though it predates the Great War and other conflicts in which Newfoundlanders lost their lives, the Ode became anthemic for veterans who use it to honour the war dead.

It's not a traditional song, but it has become tradition, folk musician Jean Hewson noted last year. "There aren't 100 different variants and we know the names of the author and composer (Sir Cavendish Boyle and Sir Hubert Parry respectively)," she said. "But there are traditions surrounding the performance of the Ode – it is sung at concerts, games, gatherings, government events, and until recently, at the convocation ceremonies of Memorial University."

An "ode" is, however, a traditional form, a kind of lyrical poetry that dates back to ancient Greece. It's supposed to cultivate reverence, to glorify and celebrate a person, place, or thing. The Ode to Newfoundland represents something we cherish most Island we cherish most—our home—and singing it makes us feel like we are in fact protecting its value. The Ode has become so intimately tied to—and representative of—our identity as Newfoundlanders that many of us don't know who or what we are without it.

Memorial University President Neil Bose recently reminded us that MUNL has removed the Ode from its convocation ceremonies "to create safer and more welcoming spaces for all students." That decision was an opportunity for discussion about our evolving conceptions of home, community, belonging, pride, and oppression. Unfortunately, the overwhelming response to this has been one of anger and aggression—in place of what could have been a compassionate one.

Responding to Bose's remarks, Telegram columnist Janice Wells writes she would "challenge anyone to find a university anywhere in the world that is safe and welcoming for all students." The logic seems to be that since no space is completely safe, there is no point in trying to make spaces safer.

"I also challenge anyone to find [a university] anywhere in the world that is safer and more welcoming for more students than Memorial University Newfoundland and Labrador," Wells continues. Her comments come barely a month after a CBC investigation into the university's questionable policies around sexual assault complaints, and amid an ongoing court case resulting from MUNL's punishment of student activist Matthew Barter after he held a silent protest on campus. Then there's the longstanding issue of asbestos contamination. And what about that 2018 hydrothermal reactor incident that led to an evacuation over what the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary's bomb squad called "an explosive potential"? Or the time in 2014 when a police officer shot at a young man fleeing campus in a stolen vehicle?

We’re not here to criticize MUNL,though. In fact, we should be defending it for addressing the issue in the first place. The point is, Wells’ opinions are a reactionary attempt to trivialize and invalidate the university's decision. They resemble irrational arguments made by others to defend something they consider sacred. We know better than this, and we can do better.

The columnist admits the Ode's lyrics don't even matter, in one sense, because the song itself contains a visceral quality. She likens the anthem to "a feeling greater than the meaning of its words."

That feeling may be real, and it may be important, but feelings aren't worth much if they don't have actions to back them up. The pleasure of a rousing song cannot take precedence over the Island itself, or over our ability to have frank, compassionate discussions about history and oppression. And yet, somehow it does.

And that's where the contradictions, ironies and hypocrisies are on full display. It may have been unintentional, but Memorial has given us a free lesson in critical thinking—and many of us are failing.

Former MUNL President Vianne Timmons and her advisory team certainly didn't read the room before removing the Ode from Memorial's 2022 convocation ceremonies without consultations. But they did offer reasons worth discussing, which seem to have taken a back seat to the Ode's most recent omission from convocation.

We are quick to forget that the colonial violence inflicted on Indigenous Peoples has not ended. Innu, Inuit, or Mi’kmaw students who sit in Memorial University classrooms and attend convocation ceremonies might not feel the same way others do about an anthem that, to them, doesn't conjure that same fuzzy feeling of "home". Instead, it may serve as a reminder of how Newfoundland society—past and present—oppresses, excludes, and ignores them.

Memorial Vice-President (Indigenous) Catharyn Andersen told the Canadian Press last year she was rarely exposed to the Ode growing up in Nunatsiavut. "The Ode was not written with a diversity of people in mind," she said. "It was written by a governor, and it was by and for settlers."

Yet, the conversation around the status of the Ode never really turned to one of compassion, respect, or reconciliation. Instead, Timmons was inundated with aggressive messages and angry alumni threatening to withdraw their financial support from the university.

Just a few weeks ago, that same paternalism manifested in a bizarre display of colonialist nationalism in the provincial legislature, when MHAs protested MUNL's decision to continue its policy through this year's convocations. When it comes to the debate around tuition fees, the government is quick to point out Memorial's decision-making autonomy. But when it comes to the Ode? They take the far-reaching step of forcing Memorial's hand to reinstate the tradition.

For those who missed it, this was not April 1, nor was it a joke. On May 10, Conception Bay South MHA Barry Petten urged Tourism, Culture, Arts and Recreation Minister Steve Crocker to "intervene" in the university's decision.

Perhaps aware that refuting the absurd suggestion would give the appearance that he is unpatriotic, Crocker agreed something ought to be done. But he stopped short of proposing any sort of legal maneuvering. He did, however, stand with other MHAs in the House of Assembly to sing the Ode in protest of Memorial University. What might have appeared a moment of pride for our elected officials will not likely be remembered so fondly.

On May 24—the second-last day of the legislative sitting, a time when pressing matters are often resolved ahead of summer break—Petten introduced a private member's resolution urging government "to bring forward legislation to require the ‘Ode to Newfoundland’ and the ‘Ode to Labrador’ to be sung at graduation ceremonies at Memorial University's convocation."

Despite the province's health crisis and all other pressing issues, the majority of the day was spent debating the merits of Petten's resolution. Most politicians supported the idea of including the Ode to Labrador in Memorial's convocation ceremonies alongside the Ode to Newfoundland. However, at the end of the day the Liberal and NDP members voted the bill down because of the extreme measure the government would be taking to infringe on the university's autonomy. As NDP Leader Jim Dinn later said, his party is "fundamentally opposed to the alarming precedent this sets" because supporting the resolution may compel future governments to "bend [MUNL's] knee to the government of the day."

Writing in The Shoreline, columnist Ivan Morgan says that while he was "never so proud" as when MHAs "all burst into the ‘Ode,’" ultimately "[y]ou cannot order people to be respectful," and "[i]f the leadership at MUN decides to be arrogant and disrespectful, that's the right we have given them."

Beyond the colonialism and paternalism in the government's and the public's response is another troubling facet of the Ode kerfuffle—one that has been largely ignored.

It's perhaps another indication of where we are at with reconciliation when a First Nations leader speaks out about the Ode, and no one listens.

In 2015, Miawpukek Chief Mi'sel Joe made a rousing speech at Grenfell Campus about the Ode to Newfoundland. He was in Corner Brook for an anti-fracking event coordinated by a coalition of organizations opposed to the province's consideration of permitting the dangerous method of fossil fuel extraction on the Port au Port Peninsula. He spoke out against fracking, but also about the impacts of hydroelectric development on Indigenous communities in the province. He also mentioned the widespread deforestation of those pine-clad hills, and the decimation of the fisheries.

"You have to change your Ode to Newfoundland because you’re not living up to what the words say," he proclaimed. "How can you claim to love something and ask God to guard it, if you’re not prepared to stand there and do that, and [instead] allow money and greed and people to destroy what we have?"

Though Memorial has extended its no-Ode policy through this spring's convocation ceremonies, the university announced it is assembling a committee to review the decision and its options going forward. Many have proposed amending the Ode's lyrics to bring it into the 21st century.

Protesters singing the Ode to Newfoundland. @VOCMNEWS

But in the absence of fundamental change to how we actually treat the Island and its resources, Joe has already put forth appropriate amendments that we may want to consider—that is, if we want to ensure our actions are truly lining up with our words: "We no longer love you, Newfoundland, we hate you. And we want you to do whatever you want to destroy what we have here and what we hold dear."

The issue is as much about us as it is about the Ode, Joe stressed. "We all have an obligation to our communities, to our people, to make sure that we have something to pass on to our children. And if we don't stop and take a look at what we’re doing, and commit to each other that we’re going to change all of that, we will have nothing at all.

"I’m proposing that we change the Ode to Newfoundland if we’re not going to uphold it and stand by it and live and die for it," he continued. "Because you can't say you love something and then destroy it. It don't work that way—not in our world."

Get our weekly newsletter for in-depth reporting and analysis delivered straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe from the newsletter at any time. Have a question? Contact us or review our privacy policy for more information.

Sign up for our weekly Indygestion newsletter

The Island through Boyle-Coloured Glasses Contradictions, ironies, hypocrisies Respectful to What, and for Whom?