Address to convocation by Dr. Elinor Gill Ratcliffe
This year I have been lucky enough to have traveled to almost 30 countries. I was on a 110 day World Cruise – certainly, as the cruise line called it, a "Grand Voyage." The voyage included passages through both the Panama and the Suez canals. Over the same period we experienced the tragedy of earthquakes – one 10 days after we had visited Christchurch in New Zealand. Later, our itinerary was changed to omit some stops in Egypt due to the civil unrest there. I didn't spend a long time in each country but each stay was long enough to get some sense of the place and I always made it a point to talk to the locals on shore. Having come from an island myself my interest is peaked when we stop in islands. Two that stand out for being remote are Easter Island or as the people who live there call it, Rapa Nui, and the second is Pitcairn Island. Apart from being really, really excited about being able to visit these islands, I was struck both times by the people who live there and how eager they were to tell me about themselves, to tell their history and their stories. They wanted us to know who they are, that their ancestors informed their lives even to this day. The mois, the huge monoliths that pepper Rapa Nui are nothing short of amazing – They dominate the island and you are left wondering about the people who put them there so long ago. The monoliths are held in the hearts and minds of today's islanders as sacred – a testimony to how important marking the contribution of leaders and ancestors is –even the platforms the mois stand on are sacred ground and we were not permitted to come too close. The connection with the past was palpable.
Pitcairn Island of course is where a number of the mutineers of the famous Bounty ended up. Some of the people who helped give a talk about the island were named Christian and were 8 or 10-generation direct descendants of the famous Fletcher Christian. Others selling wares and handicrafts had the surnames of other mutineers. I couldn't help but think again how meaningful social history and family connections are here even though over the years they have suffered some terrible economic and social problems and setbacks.
As I listened to the people from both these islands and I was struck by how much their history and their place in the world mean to them even though they face challenges today of development, aid, bureaucracy and all the other aspects of modern life. They talked at lot about out migration – something we in Newfoundland know all too well. We like to think of the South Pacific as being filled with pretty, remote islands where nothing changes – not so. They like us have to embrace transition and get on with a way of life that is ever changing.
But the sense of history and island identity is electrifying.
As I traveled on I was reminded of my own sense of what this Province, my home, meant to me. I knew back in January that this wonderful day would be occurring in May. I was so pleased and so proud and I carried this joy in my heart. I felt too that somehow my ancestors were a part of this honour. I thought of my own connection to place and to the history of this former nation and now beloved province. I thought of my own family's stories. My mother in particular told my sister and me endless stories about her growing up in Carbonear – she could recite pages and pages from the old Royal readers from memory and we listened to those poems with rapt attention – she was quick to point out that most of them had within them a moral message that was not lost on us. She told us about sailing ships, and salt fish packed in barrels – our grandfather Saunders was a cooper and had his own cooperage - I remember being in what we called the cooper shop and playing with the long curls of wood that were cut from the barrel to make it round. My grandmother used these wooden curls to start a coal fire. There were big families, my mom was the youngest of 11 and there were 10 in my father's family in Brigus where my grandfather Gill was a medical doctor and delivered just about everybody under 30 in the surrounding area or so it seemed when I would visit there as a kid.
Most of the stories ended in laughter and were filled with much humour. Not all of them though.
Some of the stories were about hardship and death and loss, diphtheria took away so many children and TB was the scourge of the country. Beaumont Hamel and the loss of so many in WWI. The remains of my mother's first cousin Malcolm Mahaney lays in Y cemetery there, killed on that dreadful July 1 in 1916 with so many others. We were told of a great disaster during the seal hunt and the loss of so many in various shipwrecks off our rocky shores.
I urge you to find out your stories and write them down and pass them on. You will find as I did that these are stories of survival too. What made us the people we are today? Without standing together and helping each other we may not have survived in this wonderful and awesome but harsh land. My mother told us her Aunt Liz who lived alone would make her way from her house to her sister's house (my grandmother's) whenever the sky looked full of snow and the wind had come up – she didn't want to get caught alone in a storm and she knew she would be welcomed in the warmth of a family over that difficult period. A friend told me about the neighbours watching each other's chimneys to make sure the smoke was up in the morning, meaning that all was well and the breakfast kettle was on.
Now, our province like most of the other places I visited is in transition too, we are well into the information age where news and information is sent around the world in seconds. Hardly any time for what my parents called "sober second thought" before replies are sent to e-mails and statements are made in response to breaking news.
Even though I like my e-mail and I even like my e-reader. I am aware that it is still a good idea to dig a little deeper into the meaning of a story, get the background. I realize too that anything I put up on the internet I can't take back.
Yes, and I know that nothing quite replaces the feel, the weight and the smell of a good book held in one's lap. I enjoy the heft of it in my hand as I look for a comfortable chair but on that long cruise I have to say the e-reader with a huge choice of books was a god send.
There are many e-toys and electronic devices that can take us out of the present and as the Buddhists say "mindfulness". We need to pay attention to the moment, the now and to fully experience the time we are in at this very moment.
Time marches on and old industries die off and with them a way of life. New opportunities and jobs are valued and desired. Different skills are required for the new industries and at the same time people mourn the loss of old skills. Maybe it was ever thus. I do know that it is the ability to change and the resilience of the people to hunker down, do what has to be done and carry on that will continue to make us strong and successful. The old analogy of the future being a jigsaw puzzle with some missing pieces will always hold true.
We acknowledge and welcome the contribution of those who have come to this Province to make it their home too. We are grateful for their skills, their stories, their poetry, their music and their art. How we survive and how we manage has its ebbs and flows but it is our ability to get along and support each other that will get us through
I think everybody in this room will be fine but I would urge you all to check on the ancestors too from time to time.