As I edited and revised this wrap-up to the Profiles I’ve published about my Sharpe cousins, this final reflection on Newfoundland, Joan Sharpe alerted me to a National Film Board documentary I’d never before seen: Rain, Drizzle, Fog. A 1998 film, it touches on the theme I’ve been writing about in these Profiles, of my cousins, of those who choose to stay in Newfoundland, despite the hardships of weather and economics. (You can watch the film on-line, just follow this link.) Filmmaker Rosemary House wanders through St. John’s talking to a number of writers and performers who share many perspectives, including the historical context that Great Britain never wanted a real colony to be established, they simply wanted to exploit the abundance of cod. It was the English and Irish poor, so destitute that scratching out a fresh start in a harsh climate on a great rock in the North Atlantic offered hope. Hope to the hopeless, a theme explored by Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams and Bernice Morgan’s Random Passage. In my reflection, I remembered the words by Bob Sharpe that I quoted in his Profile: “It takes a lot of will to live here. The climate fights you every day.”

Not only the climate fights you, but the basic economics of survival, starting with the earliest fish merchants who wanted nothing to do with the poor other than to use them as a means to catch the cod. Creating that colony in Newfoundland that eventually became part of Canada has meant creating an economy that can seem to fight the individual as hard as the climate. I saw another documentary, forty years ago while I was a student at the University of Western Ontario, made in 1974 entitled Waiting for Fidel. Filmed by Austrian Michael Rubbo who, at the time, worked for the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), it was meant to chronicle Joey Smallwood’s trip to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro. The meeting, however, continued to be delayed, eventually never coming to pass, leading to the Samuel Becket styled title. During the delays, while they waited for Fidel, the film morphed into something very different, a debate between the filmmaker and Geoff Stirling, a wealthy Newfoundlander who helped finance the documentary. Joey Smallwood going to understand the success of socialism in Cuba was not without its controversies, not unlike American Presidential Primary Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders waxing philosophical about certain Cuban successes. Understand this: Joey Smallwood styled himself a socialist while Bernie Sanders was still in short pants.

Left versus right. Business leader versus socialist. These debates have raged in Newfoundland as much as they have raged anywhere, with probably the same reality — most citizens decidedly somewhere in the centre. Newfoundland citizens trying to understand the constant collapse of dreams, and ponder how much is due to outside forces and how much to do with political mismanagement. The grand promise in the late ’60s of developing a huge hydro-electric generating site at Churchill Falls, Labrador, turned into grand resentment at a contract that continues to provide Hydro Quebec with electricity at rates obscenely below market. A new mega-electricity site disaster lurks with Muskrat Falls, or as it’s officially known, the Lower Churchill Falls Project, which is on the same river in Labrador. This project is being developed to provide electricity to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, but is greatly over budget and threatens, alone, to crash the Newfoundland economy with either unserviceable debt or unimaginably high Newfoundland consumer and business electricity rates. Already, according to a recent CBC story, “the province is now paying more in interest on its debt than it is spending on education.” On top of all that, while Alberta gets most of the press with the collapse in oil prices, Newfoundland was also devastated. Oil has been economically significant since the development of Hibernia oil off-shore in the late ’70s. Oh — one more thing, have you heard of Covid-19? The economic impacts are felt all over Canada but in March the Newfoundland Premier sent a letter to the federal government with a desperate cry for help: without intervention Newfoundland would not be able to borrow funds to operate the government, including health care. (Read the letter.)

A bunch of little Sharpes, in B&W, a long time ago.

For Newfoundland economic calamities, of course, you can go back to the collapse of the fisheries a generation ago or to the Great Depression or…or…or. Yet Newfoundlanders continue to flourish, raise children and many who leave return home. My five Sharpe cousins have, between them, nine children, and to date only two have left Newfoundland. Doug’s daughter, Erin, lives and teaches music in Japan and Marie’s daughter, Rebecca, lives in Toronto, a healthcare professional. Two out of nine is not bad, after all many children born and raised in Ontario move elsewhere. My son taught in South Korea for a year and then spent two years in Australia. I knew there was a good chance he’d stay in Australia just like one of his best friends, who lived across the street in Georgetown, has done. The other seven Sharpe children have found good employment in Newfoundland and continue to stay.

My father was a Newfoundlander who left and wanted to return home though it did not work out for him. He departed for London, Ontario in February, 1949, several weeks before Newfoundland officially joined Confederation (midnight, March 31) and he officially ceased being a teenager (he turned 20 years old on April 12). Until I came to know my Sharpe cousins and other relatives still in St. John’s, in the late ’90s, I saw Newfoundland only through my father’s eyes. In February, 1966, seventeen years after he left his home, he suffered his first heart attack (his second, in September 1977, would kill him). While recovering he decided to return home for the first time, along with his older brother Mike. Timing was fortuitous: 1966 was the first Come Home Year launched by Newfoundland to bolster tourism by enticing ex-pats to return. My sister Linda would not be born for another year, so it was just me who joined my father and mother, my Uncle Mike and his wife Vivian, and two of dad’s cousins, Leo and Frank, along with Leo’s son Greg and another Mike, the son of Leo and Frank’s brother Bill who’d died a couple of years prior. The romance of returning home, combined with his sudden sense of mortality, overwhelmed my father and two years later, when the manufacturing company Kelvinator closed their London factory, we moved to St. John’s, living in a fifteen foot tin trailer while my father followed his own unrequited dream — to become a shopkeeper as his oldest brother had once done; as his cousin Gerald then did. That dream remained unrequited; or, perhaps, to pull from a four hundred year old Spanish novel, his quixotic journey collided with reality; in any case, by September, I started school back in London while we continued to live in that tin trailer and my parents sought new factory work, essentially starting over. 

Contemporary Sharpes, still in B&W, with a few spouses.

After my father died in 1977 — on the Saturday before I was to start my first year at university — I spent considerable time trying to understand his impulse to leave the relative economic security of Ontario to move back to Newfoundland and start a business for which he had zero experience. In 1997, when I went back to St. John’s for the first time since his death, I reconnected with family that I really remembered little of from that time. My wife, son and I drove out and took almost two weeks to get to St. John’s, spending a bit of time in Quebec City and then considerably more time on Newfoundland’s west coast, hiking in Gros Morne, visiting the reconstructed Viking village in L’anse aux Meadows, stopping to see the “salmon ladder” in Grand Falls-Windsor. We met a number of other Seaward family members from Ontario in St. John’s and spent a week with the Sharpes and others, especially Uncle Gerald who still owned and operated his little variety store at the bottom of Carter’s Hill, Seaview Grocery. Together, over thirty of us did a family pilgrimage to Gooseberry Cove, the tiny fishing village on Trinity Bay where our grandfathers (or, in Gerald’s case, father) were born and raised. When the week concluded I told anyone who cared to listen that it was, perhaps, the greatest week of my life. And I had an epiphany, which I needed to capture in writing.

On the last day, I drove, alone, to Goodview Street and parked in front of the house my father had been born in, number 35, two doors down from where my Sharpe cousins had been born and raised. I wrote a letter to Marie, which I asked her to share with her siblings. The letter contained my epiphany: after twenty years of trying to comprehend my father’s motivations with moving back in 1968, I suddenly understood. I’d been seeking an intellectual grasp but the realization was of the heart. If I, as an adult, who had only my father’s connection to Newfoundland, thought spending a week in St. John’s was one of my greatest experiences, then what must it have been like for him when he returned in 1966, feeling so mortal after his first heart attack. My father did not make a choice to return to live there in 1968 — he had no choice. Emotionally, how could he perceive his life in any other way? Yes, his efforts to secure a store fell through and everything collapsed financially and he was forced to go back to Ontario to seek factory work: but we live our lives in our failures as much as we live them in our successes. My emotional understanding of my father, twenty years after his death, was a gift received in St. John’s that will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Speaking of the variety store, though this seven-part series has focused on the Sharpes, I must note the impact Gerald Seaward had on me that week. (If you watch the NFB film I provided a link to, Rain, Drizzle, Fog, you’ll see at the very opening Gerald outside his variety store spinning a wood wind ornament of a lumberman chopping wood.)  I’m an early riser and our hotel was only a few blocks from his store (where he and Clara also lived), so while my wife and son slept, I walked over every morning of that week for a bit of tea and toast with Gerald and Clara. He told me about how they made their mark on the neighbourhood when they first opened in the early ’60s by getting out of bed at four in the morning, he heading to catch some fish and she baking bread. When they opened the store later in the morning, you could walk in and buy fresh bread and fresh fish. He told me of the time he and his two brothers, Bill and Leo, as little boys were forced into Mount Cashel orphanage run by the Christian Brothers when their father, Mike, died at a young age. Though Gerald neither suffered nor witnessed sexual abuse, the awful, unforgivable violence visited on them by the Christian Brothers stayed with him and I witnessed the impact, and anger, one morning at a cemetery. I’d asked Gerald to show me my grandparents gravesite and we drove over to the Belvedere Cemetery. After spending time at my grandparents grave we wandered around the rest of the cemetery, ending up in a section where the Christian Brothers were buried. All of sudden we were peering at the headstone of a particular, evil Christian Brother he’d earlier told me about. Gerald Seaward must have been around 70 by then, a man with a bad hip, but there he was jumping up and down like he was a child, pointing at the headstone and yelling to that dead Brother: “You’re not in heaven you bastard! You’re not in heaven!”

I never asked Gerald about it afterward, but I’ve always hoped that pure release of emotion was as cathartic to him as it appeared it was to me. A couple of days later he sat beside me in my van as we led the parade of seven or eight vehicles from of St. John’s, along the Trans Canada, across the isthmus out of the Avalon Peninsula, to the west side of Trinity Bay to visit Gooseberry Cove. All the way there and and all the way back he told me stories of Newfoundland and family which, along with the connection of the Sharpes, provided me that epiphany. 

Contemporary Sharpes: In Living Colour! L-R: Doug, Joan, Marie, Bill, Bob.

While I can’t share the pure emotions of my personal epiphany that day, I have through this seven-part series tried to share with you some of Newfoundland as I’ve come to know it. A place of true community and maybe that’s what provides Newfoundland with its essence, its uniqueness being that sense of belonging, that community, that “we’re all in this together” — sorrows shared as much as successes celebrated. The sharing does not happen only within the community, neighbour to neighbour, it is shared within the wider culture, the arts and entertainment industry of a place with 500,000 people so incredibly vibrant, all that television, theatre and film Marie Sharpe has brought to life with her costumes; Trail of the Caribou, the documentary of Newfoundland’s experience in WWI that Bob Sharpe went to Europe to help create as sound technician. I know over the years there have been many films made about our entire nation’s involvement in that war, the role of Canada. But has Ontario or British Columbia created a film unique to their experience? I don’t know but I don’t think so. In Doug Sharpe’s Profile I talked about the Ocean Ranger disaster and the personal connection so many in Newfoundland had to the tragedy. For almost twenty years CBC has been running Canada Reads, a sort of “battle of the books” contest to support Canadian literature — in 2013, Lisa Moore’s novel about the profound effect of the Ocean Ranger disaster, February, won Canada Reads. The depth and breadth of Newfoundland’s understanding of itself, their agonies and their joys, find voice year after year after year. They tell their stories because they want to hear the stories told, each to each. Of course, beyond Newfoundland, others want to hear those stories as well.

Beyond all those stories, it’s the places I’ve visited starting in 1997, and the times I’ve travelled back to see those Sharpes and others, that I’ve come to understand the place and people far more than I could have ever realized through the eyes of my father. I have walked around that reconstructed Viking village in L’Anse aux Meadows, a World Heritage Site, the first European settlement in North America hundreds of years before Columbus and Cabot; I’ve hiked up a mountain in another World Heritage site, Gros Morne Park, with my son; I have sat and watched an amazing natural avian show at the Cape St. Mary’s bird sanctuary at the bottom of the Avalon Peninsula; I’ve stood on the wharf in that tiny village on Trinity Bay, Gooseberry Cove, with over thirty family members as my cousin Doug enlivened a tourist tradition in ways both comical and personal; I’ve gotten drunk more than once on George Street, a couple of times watching cousins Bill and Doug — Billy and The Bruisers — kick off the annual George Street Festival; with Joan and Marie, I’ve toured the Basilica of St. John the Baptist by way of a one-man play about Bishop Michael Fleming called A Construction of Faith, and I’ve learned of the stories of women active in the suffrage movement in 1922 St. John’s, through a historical/theatrical walking tour in Bannerman Park; I’ve sat in the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario and watched the unique story of Lanier Phillips in a play, Oil and Water, costumed by Marie; I’ve sat in the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto with a dozen relatives to watch Come From Away, a production that headed to Broadway and Tony awards, a musical celebrating how Newfoundlanders responded to 9/11 the only way they could respond, by taking those stranded at the Gander airport into their homes to assure them that while they were people stranded they were certainly not strangers, merely people come from away who needed love and support; and, always, I scroll through Joan’s photos of the old and the new, the ties that bind. 

Because of these cousins, these Sharpes, and my travels to see them, nearly a quarter century now, the stories are more than stories. I’m reminded of once talking to a couple who loved to go to the Caribbean to either snorkel or scuba dive but, they said, mostly to scuba. When I asked them what the difference was they said that as beautiful as the Caribbean blue water was, and as beautiful as the fish were, to snorkel was to see it all as two-dimensional. Scuba diving, they said, was to experience it as three-dimensional. My cousins have made Newfoundland, for me, three-dimensional. I hope, in some small way, I have helped to do that for you. And if you’ve never visited I encourage you after this crazy pandemic is behind us to do so. You may have travelled many places but you have never visited anywhere quite like Newfoundland.

With my father in Newfoundland, 1966. I was 9 years old and he was 37.
Gooseberry Cove, 1997, when we trekked back to where it all started in Newfoundland, where Andrew and Michael Seaward were born in the 1880s. Pictured from r – l: Marie’s husband Paul Noseworthy, my cousin Greg and his wife Barb (two Barb Seawards in the family – my wife is also Barb) and with a camera shoved up in her eye, per usual, Joan Sharpe.
Before we left we gathered for a group photo. Whenever I travel to St. John’s I always take a day to drive out to the bay and see Gooseberry Cove and have a picture taken here – the “no loitering” sign amuses me and in my head I drop into a Newfoundland accent and imagine what I’d say to an official who dared tell me I shouldn’t be loitering: “Now me son,” I’d say, “dats a fine t’ing your tryin’ ta tell me, a Seaward, dat I can’t stand wheres I’s likes in my ancestral village. No b’y, I don’t t’ink that’s a proper t’ing at all, b’y, not proper t’all.”
I’m the monkey in the middle, wearing a Billy & The Bruisers hat. My cousin Greg is to the left and cousin Mike is to the right. This photo was taken in 1997, that summer many of us gathered with the Sharpes. It is a bitter-sweet photo for me. The sweet is that it reminds me not only of that great time in ’97 but also of 1966. Although I flew down with my parents, my father’s cousins, Frank and Leo, talked him and my mother into cashing in our plane tickets and driving back to Ontario with them in the station wagon. So, four adults occupied the front and back seats. The luggage went in the very back of the station wagon. Where did the three of us boys go? Yup, we stretched out on top of the luggage in the back! The three of us boys road from St. John’s to Toronto on luggage in the back of a station wagon! We were never so happy in our lives then when we boarded the ferry at Port aux Basques and got half a day relief from the car ride. The bitter side is that our cousin Mike died in 2017. An amazing person, he was a tremendous social justice champion and labour activist. Click on this link to read a “Lives Lived” remembrance published in the Globe and Mail about Mike Seaward.
Seaview Grocery at the bottom of Carter’s Hill. Sadly the building has been torn down and replaced by a new house.
Gerald Seaward at the side of the Seaview Grocery where he and Clara lived and raised five children. If you watch that documentary, Rain, Drizzle, Fog , you will see this identical shot in the opening minute of the film, with Gerald spinning that ornament above and to his left to get the lumberman chopping the wood.
A decade ago I had a business trip to St. John’s to attend a conference. The conference organizer accepted my suggestion to hire Billy and the Bruisers as the entertainment for the closing night gala. My son Mike accompanied me on the trip. Here we are with Bill and Doug after the Bruisers finished playing. When the conference ended I took a few vacation days from work. Mike and I rented a car and travelled out to Gooseberry Cove. We sat in the kitchen of a distant relative and listened to stories of the people who, unlike my grandfather and great uncle, stayed in that fishing village.
Of course, on the drive from St. John’s to Gooseberry Cove my son requested we take a quick detour along the south side of Trinity Bay so he could get his picture taken in Dildo. Yes, folks, there is a village called Dildo, and yes, the American comedian and TV talk show host Jimmy Kimmel has been proclaimed the honorary mayor. After all, tourism is tourism. Worth the visit? Absolutely, because a couple of years ago they opened the Dildo Brewery. Trust me, good beer and its worth the drive to buy Dildo stencilled beer glasses to take home as gifts for friends and family.
In 2018, cousin Mike’s sisters and brother organized a Celebration of Life for him in St. John’s. We all gathered on “The Brow” to scatter his ashes. A meaningful symbolic gesture for our family: for eternity Mike will be able to look across the harbour to the place he was born and loved, St. John’s Newfoundland.
After we scattered his ashes, we all gathered together to celebrate Mike’s wonderful life, hosted by Marie Sharpe and husband Paul Noseworthy at their home out in Portugal Cove. A strange tradition our culture embraces, to give someone the greatest celebration of their life when they’re gone and can no longer attend. This idea is what inspired me to start writing “Profiles From The Bright Side Of The Road” – to celebrate the lives of people I’ve met over the years while they are still very much with us. The lives of the Sharpes are very easy to celebrate, so much life, so much beauty.

I’m changing things up with my next Profile series by going from the North Atlantic to the Pacific, and a little bit south, California. In January, 2018, I was accepted with open arms by a group of writers that meet weekly at the Santa Monica Fairview Library. A group called Write Away.

I hope you come back.

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

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