Political relationships and cultural nationalism

Marriage of convenience

(October 21, 1999, Gazette)

By Karen Shewbridge

Danish doctoral student Robert Thomsen is in Newfoundland to study "marriages of convenience, rather than marriages of love," except he is not interested in relationships between two people, but in political relationships, the expression of cultural nationalism, and the belief in a unique identity.

Mr. Thomsen began his research on Scotland and as he continued his studies he found obvious parallels between Scottish nationalists and those in Quebec. However, he decided against adding to the already substantial research on Quebec nationalism.

"I realized that the Atlantic Provinces might be an even more obvious choice," he explained. "The more I read on Atlantic Canada and Newfoundland the more I realized that that was where a comparison could be made because these are the only two countries I know of who have voluntarily given up independence to become part of a larger whole.

"In Scotland and Newfoundland you find very strong expressions of belief in a unique identity and a distinct culture. Also there's the strange case of cultural nationalism. In Scotland and in Newfoundland you find in both places expressions of cultural nationalism which has to do with the fact that there is such a strong cultural identity."

Mr. Thomsen makes a distinction between cultural and political nationalism.

Mr. Thomsen finds it unusual that the expressions of cultural nationalism in Newfoundland so seldom channel into political demands for constitutional change, as happens in other places such as Catalunya and Quebec.

"It's the idea that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. For quite a lot of time in Scotland and in Newfoundland history since Confederation, that has not been the case. Quite the contrary, you have (people saying) let's support whatever party is in government because they're the ones who will be able to provide for us."

Mr. Thomsen said that has changed in Scotland since the late 1960s. There is quite a strong political nationalism today which is reflected in the establishment of Scotland's new parliament.

According to Mr. Thomsen, the two main reasons political nationalism took off in Scotland is first due to the economic decline or recession in Britain. The second reason was the discovery of oil in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland, although that didn't turn out to have the economic impact that had been anticipated.

Mr. Thomsen said when oil was struck in Newfoundland there was the economic incentive or pragmatic idea for autonomy "that now that we (Newfoundlanders) have our own oil we'll be able to provide for ourselves, so federal government of Canada, get out." But when the oil discovery did not turn out to be the financial solution for either Scotland or Newfoundland, particularly in light of the cod moratorium, Mr. Thomsen said people turned their attention more towards cultural nationalism.

When Mr. Thomsen speaks about the cultural renaissance which has occurred in this province he says it is different from the attempts in Scotland to renew and redefine theirs. He believes both began as top-down processes or from the efforts of the cultural elite, but in Newfoundland they evolved as a result of people going to the outports and writing about the culture there.

The result, said Mr. Thomsen, was a general recognition and acceptance of a Newfoundland culture, "a romanticization of real outport life which became the most important part of Newfoundland culture and provided the basis for the autonomist agenda. All of a sudden you had something to legitimate the demand ‘let's give us what's ours.'"

In Scotland an attempt was made to offer the world a "non-tartan" view of the Scots. However, it wasn't acceptable to the Scottish people. Mr. Thomsen said it too came from the top-down but did not have enough popular culture in it to make it acceptable or recognizable to the majority of the Scottish people.

"Really, when Scotland got their parliament, constitutionally, they reached a stage which resembles Newfoundland. Unlike Scotland, Newfoundland (as a province) was able to make some of its own laws in certain areas. Now it is easier to make direct comparisons between Newfoundland and Scotland," said Mr. Thomsen. He says that is partly because Scotland can also now levy taxes, which was not possible prior to the existence of the new parliament.

Robert Thomsen is conducting his research through ISER, the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Memorial. He returns to Denmark Nov. 9, where he is completing a three-year doctorate with the Department of English at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. Besides a three-year doctoral scholarship from the University of Aarhus, Mr. Thomsen was also awarded the ICCS Scolarship for a Graduate Student Thesis/Dissertation.

He is affiliated with the Nordic Association for Canadian studies (NACS) where he is editor of the association's newsletter and Web site. Mr. Thomsen also hopes to establish contacts which will ultimately lead to an exchange of staff and students between Memorial and the University of Aarhus.