For decades, Newfoundlanders have had to endure being the butt of jokes across Canada. An example: “How do you know a Newfie’s been using your computer? The screen is covered in Wite-Out.”
No one knows why the denizens of Canada’s tenth province are the butt of these jokes. It might be that Newfoundland is far enough away that physical retribution against smug Ontarians is too difficult. Or it could be poor-bashing a province with persistently high unemployment, which loses thousands of young people every year to Canada’s more prosperous locales. (Another joke: What do you call someone from Halifax? A Newfie who ran out of money on the way to Toronto.)
I think it’s because Newfoundland has a booming culture of music, dialects, literature, cuisine, and deep history, as opposed to the rest of English-speaking Canada, which struggles to explain how The Kids in the Hall and Rush form part of a greater Canadian whole.
And Newfoundlanders have their own drink—Newfoundland Screech. A dark rum, it has hints of caramel, dark chocolate, and molasses, but most people don’t know that, since it is usually slammed back.
Though it’s bottled in Newfoundland’s capital, St. John’s, it’s made in Jamaica and sent over in barrels. The reason Newfoundlanders became rum drunks has to do with one of the more upsetting parts of British colonial history.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, European slave ships plundered the west coast of Africa for slaves. Though there are no exact numbers, it’s estimated that 9 million to 11 million souls landed alive in the Americas. This doesn’t include the millions who died at sea, so it’s probably closer to 20 million—the greatest theft of human beings in recorded history.
After dropping the slaves off in the Caribbean, the ships would purchase vast quantities of sugar from plantations, mostly in the form of molasses and rum. Much of that went back to Europe, but plenty was left on the North American east coast, including Newfoundland, where it was traded for salt cod.
This puts paid to a smug Canadian myth that Canada never had slavery, unlike our barbaric American cousins. This is a wholesale lie. Canada not only had slaves; it profited enormously from the proceeds of slavery in the Caribbean.
But back to the people of Newfoundland. Screech, whatever its origins, is part of the Newfoundland fabric. Newfies even have a tradition for newcomers and tourists: being Screeched in. You go to a pub, they announce your name, you say a mystifying phrase, shoot the Screech, kiss a codfish, and then become sworn in as an honorary Newfoundlander. (There are a few different incomprehensible phrases, but the most common involves the bartender asking, “Is you a Screecher?” The answer is, “Deed I is, me ol’ cock, and long may your big jib draw,” which means, “Yes I am, my friend, and good luck.”) Where possible, you kiss a fresh cod on the lips. If no fresh fish is available, a frozen one will have to do.
My friend Lauren shrugged when asked if Newfoundlanders consider this a part of their culture. “It’s a joke,” she said. “We’ve been the butt of your jokes for so long, it’s fun to play one on you.”
Originally published on Roads & Kingdoms on July 27, 2017.