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Spotlight on alumni

Dale Jarvis

Dale Jarvis is Newfoundland and Labrador’s first provincial folklorist. Tasked with preserving the province’s intangible cultural heritage, most of his time is spent on helping communities around the province figure out how and what to preserve for future generations. He recently talked with our contributor Bojan Fürst.

BF: So you are the first ever provincial folklorist.
DJ: My official title is intangible cultural heritage development officer, but yes – it‘s the first one for the province and there are only two in Canada. Quebec has one and Newfoundland and Labrador has one.

BF: That’s quite amazing. You would think that Nova Scotia and Cape Breton at least would have one.
DJ: Yes. It’s interesting because I have colleagues working in Cape Breton and they say: ‘We need this. We need this for Nova Scotia.’ So I do hope that other provinces do the same thing because there is a growing interest in this sort of thing.

BF: People often connect folklore with the East Coast, but that is not necessarily the only place to find it.
DJ: Everywhere has local culture, local folklore. I think there is a very good understanding of it here. People have been collecting folklore in Newfoundland for over 100 years and the Folklore Department has been around for 40 years or something like that, so people in the general population have a pretty good understanding that folklore is important here. Folklore is not just old stuff, it’s sometimes contemporary stuff and every place in the world has contemporary culture. For example in Alberta they have a centre for Ukrainian folklore because there are so many Ukrainians who moved out west. There’s a lot of agricultural folklore and farming knowledge and a lot of aboriginal populations have their own cultures and traditions. I think there is something about folklore that’s applicable wherever you are – a lot of places have really started to push for this kind of intangible cultural heritage development.

BF: As an intangible cultural heritage development officer, what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
DJ: One of my big jobs is working with community groups and finding out what it is they want to preserve at the local level and then help them find ways to do that. A lot of communities want to undertake something like an oral history project. They want to document some particular aspect of their local culture – maybe a boat building tradition or a craft tradition. They know it’s important and they know that it needs to be safeguarded in some way, but they don’t necessarily know where to start or how to start. So we are developing training programs to help people start doing the work at the local level. That’s a big part of what I do – community facilitation.

BF: Where did your interest in folklore come from?
DJ: I did an undergraduate degree in Ontario at Trent University in anthropology and archeology. I had had a longtime interest in archeology and history and I came to Memorial in 1994 to study in the Folklore Department. My thesis was in vernacular architecture and I ended up doing my thesis research in northern Labrador. That was a really great exposure to community life and how things work in rural parts of the province. I’ve been working here at the Heritage Foundation since 1995 on and off, mostly running architectural history type of programs: designation and granting of the status of historic buildings; fisheries heritage program which give money to traditional fishing buildings and help maintain some of those traditional skills in the community; and the traditional knowledge of how those buildings were put together. I’ve been interested in this for a very, very long time and I have a great interest in story telling and oral traditions. So this new position at the heritage foundation is a perfect fit, I think.

BF: You are also involved with Story Circle. That was an extension of your interest in storytelling. How did that get started?
DJ: Storytelling circle has been running for four or five years now. It started because I wanted to tell stories and I knew there were lots of great storytellers here, but storytelling, while part of the culture, is not something people identify. They don’t say, “I am a storyteller.” Storytelling is just something people do and they don’t talk about it much. It also does not happen in the way it used to. People don’t sit around and tell stories in a kind of a performance way. I wanted to create a space and an opportunity for people to get together and share stories, especially for people who were a bit more interested in becoming performers and maybe semi-professional or professional storytellers. I wanted to give them a venue where they could get together and meet each other and talk and practice. So I started it up and a group of regulars started coming and it grew and grew. Out of the Story Circle, a group of people interested in singing ballads started a Ballad Circle which meets the last Thursday of every month at the Crow’s Nest, same as the Story Circle. I think there is a real interest in spoken word and oral tradition in the province. People want to tell stories, they want to sing ballads and that’s one of the only places where they can do that outside of a folk festival or a bar.

BF: Outside of Newfoundland, is there a place for professional or semi-professional storytellers?
DJ: There are lots of storytelling festivals in Canada and the United States – it’s quite a business in the States and other areas where there is a growing field of storytelling as an art and profession and people are doing it professionally. There aren’t a lot of professional storytellers in Canada because it does not have the same audience appeal as the theatre does. So in Canada it’s a little bit more difficult to make your way as a professional storyteller. People still think of storytelling as something that happens for children. I do tell stories to kids, but I love telling stories to adults – in fact I much prefer to tell stories to adults. When adults go to a storytelling performance they are always surprised that they liked it. But, of course they liked it. Everyone likes stories.

BF: Your experience at Memorial, what was that like?
DJ: I think coming to Memorial was a good thing for me personally. I don’t know that I would have had the same experience anywhere else. Part of that was Memorial and part was just being in Newfoundland. The Folklore Department is a wonderful place to be, it was a perfect fit for me. I don’t imagine that doing a folklore degree in downtown Toronto would be quite the same thing as doing a folklore degree in Newfoundland. The Folklore Archive at Memorial is a wonderful, wonderful resource for anybody who’s doing research in the province; it’s a great collection of material. Even though I’m an alumnus, I still work very closely with Memorial University. Lately we’ve been doing a lot of work with the Digital Archives Initiative, which is a fantastic project. We really want the DAI to be an integral part of the programming for the province. As we convince the communities to do work, we are also convincing them to do it digitally so that down the road all their material, all the oral history that they are collecting, all the folklore information they are collecting, can hopefully go on the DAI. That’s a remarkable opportunity for the partnership between the university and the community groups. I am really excited to be sort of a facilitator for that. We are very lucky to have something like DAI in Newfoundland and Labrador. I really see it as being a key component of future work that we do.

BF: Your MA research was on vernacular architecture in Labrador. What were you looking at in particular?
DJ: I was doing my work on the Moravian church buildings, looking specifically into the building in Hopedale and Hebron, which are these amazing, dramatic style buildings that were built in Labrador in the 1700s and 1800s. Parts of these massive, massive buildings were prefabricated in Europe and shipped over. That’s a remarkable part of Canadian history that a lot of Canadians don’t know. There’s been a lot of work done at Memorial on Moravian history. Dr. Hans Rollman in Religious Studies is quite a world expert on Moravians in Labrador. Coming from southern Ontario and finding myself in parts of Labrador that Labradorians haven’t had a chance to go to was very exciting. Now I’m doing more and more work with the intangible cultural heritage program in Labrador. Doing my thesis research really gave me an experience that most grad students just would never get – seeing these very remote parts of the province and these beautiful, miraculous, great, great fantastic buildings. Looking back on it now, I can’t even believe that I did that. [Laugh]. As a grad student, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had no idea how difficult it would be to do some of this stuff and I just kind of went and did it. I think it really set me on a path for doing community work and certainly doing work here at the Heritage Foundation.

BF: What are the plans for the immediate future?
DJ: I have a whole bunch of plans. One of the big things that we are working on right now is with the Wooden Boat Museum of Newfoundland and Labrador in Winterton. We’ve just finished a boat documentation workshop. We did a little training program with people who want to record wooden boats. The next step is to go into the communities that have historic wooden boats and then work with the communities and teach the communities how to start recording some of those vessels. We have work coming up in Arnold’s Cove, and Change islands, Fogo Island, maybe even Labrador as well.