Article | Newfoundland and Labrador

Rich Ground: Arts and Culture in Newfoundland and Labrador

What is it that makes the province of Newfoundland and Labrador such a cultural hotspot? Whether it’s music, storytelling, comedy, handicrafts, filmmaking, or visual arts, find out more about how these rocky shores inspire such profound and far-reaching creativity.
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© Dennis Minty

Perched on a steep hillside as though growing out of the rock itself, The Battery is a subcommunity of St. John’s.

In a small Irish pub on a Friday evening, it would not be unusual for an elderly patron sitting in the corner to start singing:

"Sonny don’t go away, I am here all alone."

Carried by his momentum, the rest of the boozy throng would join in as they belt out what has become an alternate Irish anthem. But it isn’t even Irish! It was written by Ron Hynes of Newfoundland, where the population hovers around a half million people, a high proportion of whom have creative bones.

The island of Newfoundland may be affectionately known as the Rock, but the whole province is fertile ground for creativity. Why is it that such a small island and a rugged northern coastline punch way above their weight in cultural endeavours? First, let’s consider what creativity looks like in Newfoundland and Labrador, then look at why.

While doing a bit of research for this piece, I came across a 2019 Newsweek article with a map showing the musical meccas of the world. In North America there were two red dots, New Orleans and St. John's, Newfoundland. Really!? Ponder that for a minute.

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© Dennis Minty

Daniel Payne and a friend make music on the dock as Adventure Canada travellers arrive.

Music is the beating heart of creativity in Newfoundland. Much of it is traditional with strong influences from Ireland, Scotland, and England, and certainly inspiration from the sea. After all, most communities are on the shoreline or within a few kilometres of it. It is music with a strong Celtic flavour that is of the place and of its people. With a strong rhythm, much of it is meant for dancing, so the iconic instruments are the fiddle and accordion (largely because, unamplified, they can be easily heard throughout a town hall).

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© Dennis Minty

Traditional music is usually part of a social gathering.

This music was, and is, a social occasion—unlike listening from a padded seat in a concert hall. The fiddle and accordion are still important, but many other instruments are now part, too, including guitar, banjo, harp, hammer dulcimer, bodhrán, flute, whistle, and more.

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© Dennis Minty

Gerry Strong, finest flute and whistle player in Newfoundland, is a regular expedition team member with Adventure Canada.

Gerry Strong, Newfoundland’s finest flute and whistle player, personifies the traditional music style. It is usually acoustic, but bands like Figgy Duff and Great Big Sea electrified it and added their own upbeat nuances.

Besides traditional music, other styles abound from the jazz of Patrick Boyle, to the Caribbean rhythms of Jim Fiddler, to the haunting songs of the award-winning Shalloway choir. The Once perform some songs of the traditional style, but fit better into a broader folk genre, their tight vocal harmonies rising to sweet, melancholy perfection. Harry Martin’s folk tunes focusing on traditional life in the Labrador bush have also garnered much attention. All styles are alive and well in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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© Dennis Minty

Kevin Major, Lisa Moore, and Michael Crummey are just a tiny sample of the outstanding writers from Newfoundland and Labrador.

Music is not the only art form for which the province is well known. Michael Crummey, Lisa Moore, and Kevin Major are just a few of the accomplished, award-winning writers from these parts that have shared their talents aboard Adventure Canada expeditions. Comedy? Think Mary Walsh, Rick Mercer, Mark Critch, Shaun Majumder, Andy Jones.

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© Dennis Minty

Dave Paddon: humourist and storyteller

Recitations, personified by Adventure Canada’s own Dave Paddon, originally of Northwest River, Labrador, have a special place in the hearts of locals. These long-form, usually rhyming stories—in league with “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service—are performed at almost every kitchen party or concert in the church hall.

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© Dennis Minty

Billy Gauthier proudly shows a char that he caught from the beach in St. John’s Harbour, Saglek, Labrador.

In the visual arts, we have icons like Christopher Pratt, Mary Pratt, David Blackwood, Grant Boland, and Gerry Squires. Sculptors and carvers such as Billy Gauthier and Mike Massie, both Adventure Canada team members, create masterworks from natural materials like bone, ivory, and stone. We can see this artistic talent in the younger generation, too. Jessica Winters, who comes from a long family line of celebrated craftspeople, is an emergent artist gaining great recognition for her paintings, prints, and textile work featuring seal skin.

In the world of film-making, 2019 was the 30th anniversary of the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival, making it the longest running film festival in the world and ranked by USA Today as one of the top ten. Although Latonia Hartery is Adventure Canada’s principal archaeologist, she is also an award-winning writer, director, and producer of films, plus a superb singer! Barbara Doran has thirty films to her credit either as writer, director, or producer, including The Grand Seduction—a must-see either before or after your trip to Newfoundland.

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© Dennis Minty

Latonia Hartery: archaeologist, filmmaker, singer

Live drama has been on the go here since the 1700s. These days, much of it is community-based, telling the stories of local people and events. For example, as part of the Gros Morne Theatre Festival in Cowhead, you can experience the story of nurse Myra Bennet, who for fifty years served as the only medical aid for over five hundred miles of rugged coast, in the production Tempting Providence. The Trinity Pageant takes you outdoors where both actors and audience wander, laugh, and learn. Dozens of small communities now have their own live theatre programs. Not all are proper plays, but rather, collections of skits, music, and recitations.

So, music, painting, sculpting, film-making, drama—you name it, and we have a prodigious community of aces. What is at the root of this phenomenon?

We’ll start with the jovial kitchen party, perhaps the most popular form of socializing, where you hang out, make music, and tell stories along with the scattered lie. (According to the local expression, “Only half the lies he tells are true!") This happens in the home, not on the stage. While half the people perform with story and song, the other half dance.

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© Dennis Minty

Alan Doyle: singer, songwriter, author

There’s little room for high-brow attitudes here, where celebrities like Alan Doyle sit beside Betty who works at the fish plant, and each joins the other in perfect harmony. There is a passion here for lifting each other up through entertainment. A stranger in town? Come on in, but you better be prepared to participate. No matter your skill level, you will be welcomed and supported. When you leave, your cheeks will hurt from laughing so much.

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© Dennis Minty

Francois, an isolated little town on Newfoundland’s south coast, is a regular stop for Adventure Canada’s Newfoundland Circumnavigation.

Take Francois, a small outport tucked deep inside a sheltering fjord on the isolated south coast of Newfoundland. With no road access for its eighty-nine souls, it’s in and out by boat in summer or snowmobile in winter.

On a visit here, when evening falls, it’s the same every time. We all gather—visitors and locals together—at the community hall for an upscale kitchen party.

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© Dennis Minty

Darren Durnford and Alan Doyle entertain Adventure Canada guests in Francois’ community hall.

Darren Durnford, hydro-electric plant operator, appears on stage with his guitar and keyboard. In my opinion, he is the world’s best one-man band. (It doesn’t matter that I haven’t heard them all.)

By his third song, the dance floor is full—guaranteed! Music fills the hall and resonates around the cove, everything from classic rock to a touching waltz written by his wife about life in this delightful place. Folks that have never danced before, or not danced in years, are up shaking their booties. It’s infectious.

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© Dennis Minty

By the third song, everyone is on the dance floor.

Creativity here has a strong geographical context—a sense of place. With Newfoundland as an island and Labrador on the northeastern fringe of the continent, both have been historically isolated. As such, self-reliance becomes as ingrained as the sound of your laugh.

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© Dennis Minty

Tilting, Fogo Island

Time was that if you walked around a small Newfoundland community, much of what you saw—the homes, the boats, the wharves and sheds, the drying nets, even the wheelbarrows—were handmade by their owners. Creating things out of necessity and adapting to harsh conditions was commonplace. After all, a life gleaned from the sea is not easy in any culture, but at the edge of the North Atlantic, it is especially challenging. Simply coping created sparky independence, deep roots, and a strong sense of place.

You may not think that the objects of mundane living are creative works, but I think they are, because invention and innovation were everywhere. If you didn’t have something you needed, you made it. If it was broken, you fixed it. It’s just the way it was.

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© Dennis Minty

Homemade wheelbarrow

Creativity is as strong now as ever. You see it in the knitters and crocheters of Newfoundland and in the seamstresses of Nunatsiavut. You see it in the writing, music, storytelling, drama, comedy, and visual arts borne out of the need for folks to entertain themselves in a place that, even if no longer isolated, is still set apart. But it is not just about entertainment. It is even more about the need for self-expression and the joy of sharing it.

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© Dennis Minty

Leading Tickles

Creativity, humour and romance are even reflected in the names of our communities: Come-By-Chance, Blow-Me-Down, Joe Batt’s Arm, St. Jones Within, Leading Tickles, Cupids, Heart’s Desire, Heart’s Content, and my personal favourite, Little Heart’s Ease. (Dare I mention Dildo? I might as well, since it has its own brewery now.) In hundreds of traditional songs, place figures prominently, such as “The Cliffs of Baccalieu,” “Out from St. Leonards,” “Harbour Le Cou,” “Joe Batt's Arm Longliners,” “Tickle Cove Pond,” and so many more. Every community or region has spawned its own songs.

Both Newfoundland and Labrador have their own anthems, usually sung at every public gathering: "Ode to Newfoundland" by Sir Cavendish Boyle and "Ode to Labrador" by Dave Paddon’s own grandfather, Harry Paddon. Both predate the joining of Newfoundland and Labrador to Canada in 1949.

To write songs and sing them, or tell stories about what you love, is the most natural thing in the world in this place where roots run deep and lifestyle is welded to the place.

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© Dennis Minty

Language and culture are bound together.

Language and culture are always bound to one another. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians speak English, yes—but unlike other Canadians. Besides the many accents, there is a unique vocabulary well-documented in the 770-page scholarly volume Dictionary of Newfoundland English by Story, Kirwin, and Widdowson. Every listing is either a commonly-known English word that has a different meaning in Newfoundland, or a word that is unique to the Newfoundland culture. There is even an online version of the dictionary where you can, for example, look up the meanings of tickle, kingcorn, angishore, and landwash.

With creative expression being so accessible at the community level, young people have a ready supply of role-models and mentors that inspire and share. My own grandson, Peter, who is in the music business now, grew up with Alan Doyle as one of his heroes and now they are friends and fellow professionals that tour together. As gardens need good organic fertilizer, so too do our young minds and spirits grow from having persuasive, home-grown role-models. Learner and teacher together are part of the rich ground.

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© Dennis Minty

Alan Doyle and my grandson Peter Green jam together.

Although many of our artists earn a living from their creativity, most live a pauper’s life or hold onto that day job, as they sometimes struggle against an upstream flow. Few, if any, have just drifted with the current. For example, budding musicians cannot be too picky about the venues in which they play. From kitchens to concert halls, it can be a bumpy ride. Their determination comes from a strong work ethic usually born deep in a family’s history. That same ethic that makes Newfoundlanders and Labradorians prized workers wherever they go, be it Fort MacMurray or the high steel of New York. Fuelled by passion and carried by resolve, they forge on.

One of Adventure Canada’s founders, Matthew Swan, used to playfully draw a graph showing the cultural prominence of each province in Canada. From west to east, the line would be wavy and then a small spike would represent Quebec. It would stay relatively high through the Maritimes and then leap off the chart when it reached Newfoundland and Labrador. Although his game received a few jeers from residents of provinces that he ranked low, it was hard to argue with the rating given to Canada’s latecomer to Confederation.

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© Dennis Minty

Seaside life in Cox’s Cove, Bay of Islands

If you join us on the Newfoundland Circumnavigation or the Greenland and Wild Labrador: A Torngat Mountains Adventure expedition (or both!), you will quickly grow to understand this cultural phenomenon better and share some quality time with a few of its emissaries. See you there!

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.