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Address to convocation

Dr. Anita Best

Thursday, May 28, 3 p.m.

First of all, I want to express to the university Senate my sincere appreciation for the honour of receiving this degree from Memorial University of Newfoundland and, also, my thanks to the orator for her comments. She has crafted a lovely silk purse out of the serviceable sow’s ear of my varied career. Being chosen as one of the honorary graduates of this university is a distinction that, although I might poorly deserve, I treasure highly. I was the first in my family to attend University, and am, as far as I know, the first honorary graduate from my Placentia Bay home of Merasheen.

I wish to acknowledge my mother, Elsie, here in the audience, and my late father Fred and his brothers Willy, Cleve, Mack and Victor and the many other singers of Merasheen and Tack’s Beach for sowing and nurturing the seeds of traditional song within me. Special in my thoughts today are the two Pius Powers, my husband and father-in-law, who generously shared their lives with me in Southeast Bight and all around the resettled communities of Placentia Bay aboard their little schooner, the Annie Frances and Mary Power. With them I gladly share this distinction.

In honouring me with this degree, Memorial University is paying tribute to a long line of traditional singers and storytellers who collectively over the centuries crafted a rich culture from the weather, rock and water; shore, sea and sky of the Newfoundland outport, which fellow bayman Rex Murphy has called “the house of our being.”

The outports of Placentia Bay have long and deep connections with Memorial University, from former President Leslie Harris, a Gallows Harbour native, to the inimitable Ray Guy of Arnolds Cove and Rex Murphy of Freshwater, writers Agnes Walsh, Greg Power, P.J. Wakeham and Al Pittman, cultural icons Pat and Joe Byrne from Paradise, Wilfred and Baxter Wareham from Buffett, the Browns from Tack’s Beach and so many more that I could spend a hour making a litany of their family names and the beautiful sounding places they came from that lie between Cape St. Mary’s and Cape Chapeau-Rouge, on the heel of the Burin Peninsula. They have done their alma mater proud and continue to make their contributions to our society. I will conjure them to stand with me today.

Standing beside them are the spirits of storytellers, poets and singers for whom university was never an option; some never even got to school at all. They composed songs in their heads and sang them with their hearts, and they carried the rich language of their ancestors to their own children. Although some of them couldn’t sign their own names they made songs that echo the suent lines and evocative beauty of the saltwater craft built to carry out their daily work. I am talking of men such as Mark Walker from Bonavista Bay and Johnny Burke from St. John’s, Peter Leonard from Isle Valen and Matty Johnson from Petit Forte, Art Scammell and Chris Cobb, Gerald Mitchell and Byron Chaulk from Labrador, unlettered poets who could capture the perfect image, the keenest turn of phrase and the haunting melody line.

A veritable host of others whose names have long been forgotten made songs that poured from the likes of Kate Wilson, Mack Masters, Philip Foley, Kitty O’Shaughnessy and Paddy Rossiter, singers that could lift your soul, as Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn said, to “the blue vault of heaven”. This rich oral legacy is the foundation in which the contemporary literary arts of Newfoundland and Labrador are grounded.

To hearken back to Rex Murphy: “Memorial University is a house of learning in a native seat of poetry. To you who are graduates I say that graduating from here is a doubly-amplified enhancement.” I offer my congratulations to you and your long-suffering parents, guardians, families and friends. I rejoice in your accomplishments and I am delighted to see that so many of you decided to further your education to this point and beyond. I wish you every success as you take your place among the professional elite of Newfoundland and the world. May you travel far and gain much, but return in the end to lend a hand in the place you were born, even if it isn’t Newfoundland.

I hope that you will use your skills to protect the land we all love so well. In the spirit that brought you to include women among your practitioners, I hope you will respect the ways of Mother Nature rather than trying to dominate and control her, keeping in mind that the tools of development can be often the lethal weapons that destroy community land and uproot families from their ancestral homes, leaving them like Ruth, in tears amid the alien corn.

I hope that you will broaden and enrich your lives as engineers and academic professionals by participating in and passing on our intangible cultural heritage. Waste no opportunity to sing a song or play a tune. Learn how to hook a mat, dance the lancers or build a dory. Show your children how to skin a rabbit, make a figgy duff or trench potatoes. By all means read them stories from books, but tell them your stories too. Show them where they came from and the stuff their ancestors were made of.

Serve them their own songs and music, as well as the very appealing but mostly nutrition-free junk they can choose from the AM/FM and television channel menus. You can change the recipes—every generation has the responsibility to use tradition to create their own art! Chris Brookes, Figgy Duff and CODCO did it in our generation, WGB and Great Big Sea did it in theirs; Duane Andrews, Graham Wells, Billy Sutton and many others are doing it now.
I want to close by taking a page out of the great Canadian singer Maureen Forrester’s book. When she was granted an honorary degree, she chose to make her convocation speech in song form.

Since this university was built as a memorial, I’ll leave you with a memorial made by Merasheener Bill Wilson to some of those who were lost in the great August gale of 1925. Although his formal education was scant, his knowledge of the world and how to survive in it was immense. His wife, Kate Murray from Fox Harbour, was the midwife for Merasheen and many of the surrounding communities, and one of the best singers I had the privilege of hearing in my childhood.

And in the words of Peter Leonard at the conclusion of The Hole in the Wall, “And if you’re offended, your temper, I’ll mend it; I might find a three-leg some day I get time.”

The August Gale

Bill Wilson/Merasheen

On the 25th of August the gale began to rise
That left so many orphans and took so many lives
Left there to stay for their last day, their friends to see no more
For the ocean wave it rolled that day like it never rolled before
John Follett in his little boat about ten tons or more
Was anchored on the fishing ground, about twelve mile from the shore
And when the gale began to rise, he ran for the nearest port
But a heavy sea broke down on them and capsized his little boat

John Follett and one of his sons clung to the wreck that day
For eight long hours they drifted, exposed to wind and sea
God spared the lived of those poor b’ys to tell the dreadful tale
But his eldest son got drownded in that cruel August gale

Danny Cheeseman from Rushoon also went down that day
His boat was met with her two spars gone, ‘bout halfways in the Bay
To think on what they suffered, a stone would heave a sigh
There were two men clinging to the wreck when Jim Harris passed her by

Three times he hove into the wind, but his foresail did give way
And with aching hearts they were forced to part, and run befre wind and sea
It was his whole endeavour, ‘twas all that he could do
May the Lord have mercy on the souls of Dan Cheeseman and his crew

Another schooner branded-new built up in Mortier Bay
Commanded by John Laughlin, from Red Harbour sailed away
As he was anchored on Cape ground to the west’ard of the light
He had a dory gone astray that dark and stormy night

The Annie from Fox Harbour also went down that day
With seven hardy fishermen no more to plough the sea
And six of them being married men, which made the loss run high
Excepting one, the skipper’s son, he was a single boy

There’s six young widows left to mourn, I know them all quite well
Wit children small, no help at all to bear their troubles well
If God himself will lend a hand, look down on them I hope
Leaving widows and orphans for to mourn, it was a dreadful stroke