Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 25, 2021

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East of Eden

Newfoundland and Labrador are home to places of power and beauty unlike any others in the country

Newfoundland makes me happy. Oh, I like Labrador too. But it’s different. Have you ever seen labradorite? It’s a mineral from, yes, Labrador. They make it into gemstones and tiles. The tiles are a marble-like flinty grey, flecked with iridescent blues and greens. It looks like petrified Northern Lights. Those tiles are like Labrador; tough, rocky, but with unexpected glints of depth and beauty.

The whole Labrador coast is speckled with pockets of deep, and almost forgotten, Canadian history. First Nations communities tell stories so old they feel like they are squeezed out of the earth itself. When recited they shimmer with power and splendour.

Basques tracks

And the European archeological sites are some of the oldest in North America (the oldest is in Newfoundland, just across the Strait). Take, for example, the Basque whaling station at Labrador’s Red Bay, now a National Historic Site.

Between around 1530 and 1600, each season, hundreds of Basques would come to the Labrador Coast to hunt and render whales. They did it in tough galleons and even tougher little boats. It was the off-shore oil rig job of the 16th century. You can still see remnants of the site, some of the boats, and the cemetery.

The Basques have been almost written out of Canadian history, but they were a pioneering link to European settlement. My husband is from the ridiculously remote Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. Before the compass, most North Atlantic navigation was done by line of sight. Ships would follow coastlines as much as possible, coming from the continent, up past Scotland, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland then down the coast of Labrador.

The route had long been known. Just across the Strait from Red Bay, near the northern tip of Newfoundland, is the oldest proven European settlement in North America, L’Anse Aux Meadows, a Viking site dating back about 1000 years.

This watery trucking route created its own culture. When my husband saw the nearly 500-year-old Basque fishing boats in the museum in Red Bay, he was stunned. “They look just like Faroese boats!” Until recently, the Faroese still used those boats for whaling. The Basques abandoned the site after the industry suffered a peak (whale) oil crash. It had taken them about 50 years to kill 50,000 whales. By that time, the whales figured maybe they should head somewhere else, and many of those that survived changed their migration route.

Gros and grand

Yes, Labrador is surprising, beautiful and complex. It demands thought and attention. And rewards you for it. It is the strong silent brother to gregarious Newfoundland. As a tourist, it’s hard to go wrong in Newfoundland. You already know about the icebergs and whales. For most regions that would be enough. But Newfoundland has more. Lots more.

You want UNESCO World Heritage sites? They have two: the Viking site for those who like history; and Gros Morne National Park for those who like nature. How amazing is Gros Morne? The darn thing has fjords, for Pete’s sake. Like wildlife? The park has so many moose, they are considered a driving hazard.

Still unsatisfied? Cape St. Mary’s ecological reserve, about 200 kilometres from St. John’s is filled to overflow with birds. To get there, you drive a coastal highway that hugs the hills and valleys like a languid rollercoaster. It makes California’s Pacific Coast Highway look flat and boring.

Gift of gab

No question there are things to see in Newfoundland but, actually, that’s not what makes me happy. What makes me happy is the Newfoundlanders. I don’t know what they put in the water (maybe Screech?), but I have yet to meet an unpleasant Newfoundlander (politicians aside, of course).

Stand still long enough just about anywhere on the island and it won’t be long before someone sidles over for a chat. Just make sure you have time.

It could be scientists wanting to talk about how fun it is to ram model boats into fake icebergs at Memorial University’s ice tank. Or ex-fisherman talking about how they never should have joined Confederation. Or a local mayor defending the name of a town called Dildo (not that far from Come By Chance).

The topic doesn’t matter. The friendship does. And that’s what makes me happy. I think of Newfoundland as a place full of friends I have yet to meet. I don’t know anywhere else like it. We didn’t deserve Newfoundland to join us here in the rest of Canada. But I am glad they did. And I’ll tell them that the next time I am there.

If I can get a word in edgewise.

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