Went to a Garden Party

Copyright © 2007 Greg Locke


GRANDE PRAIRIE, ALBERTA (2007) – They came across the field like some lost tribe in exile wearing their tribal colours proudly. The Newfoundland & Labrador provincial flag and the Pink-White and Green side-by-side with no political distinctions. Like many immigrant communities in a foreign land the Newfoundlanders in Grande Prairie wear, quite literally, their cultural identity on their sleeves …and their chests, heads, backs, pickup trucks and even inked into their skin. It’s a grey day with a cool breeze and the threat of rain. Not normal Alberta August weather but a typical Newfoundland day. It’s fitting 

Travelling to find a Newfoundland good time does not always have to mean trekking to the far east of Canada. These have come from Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. The people in this tribe all look familiar too me. I know their faces. Not because I know them personally, in fact I have only met a couple of them before. No, they are familiar because we are all from the same gene pool. A gene pool “the size of a Dixie Cup” as once described by Newfoundland writer Ray Guy. They are my genetic family and it’s easy to feel “at home” for the displaced Newfoundlanders. Which, of course, is what makes events like this so popular with a people with such a strong cultural identity. It was like going to the Regatta or the Folk Festival in St. John’s and a connection to something that is uniquely your own in a foreign land. 

The gathering was The East Coast Garden Party organized by Justin Elliot, resident of this northern Alberta boom town with generations of Newfoundlanders and formerly of Gander Bay. He billed it as a “family event” and it certainly was. It was just like I remember as a child when my parents and their friends went camping or going to large parties …the kids went too. Watching the young families and their friends brought back long forgotten memories of my own parents, their friends and my youth in the big extended Newfoundland ex-pat communities of North York, Brampton, Weston and Rexdale Ontario and weekend camping trips to Pinery Provincial Park in the late 1960s. 

There are not many “Townies” here. Fogo, Witless Bay, St. Mary’s, Buchans, Gander, Grand Falls, Griquet, Codroy Valley, Marystown, Red Bay…. This Diaspora is decidedly rural Newfoundland. The accents drifting through the air in the line ups at the concession stands are noticeably, Southern Shore, Fogo and Northern Peninsula. 

Dwight Penney (originally from Smith’s Harbour near Burlington) saw an opportunity to start a business selling Newfoundland iconography and seafood to East Coasters in Alberta. With his pick-up and trailer he travels from Fort MacMurray to Red Deer from his home base in Fort Saskatchewan, near Edmonton, selling Newfoundlandia to Newfoundlanders. Penney says, “This is successful because Newfoundlanders are so patriotic they never leave their culture and heritage no matter where they are. It is their identity.” 

Surprisingly, with its huge population of Newfoundlanders, Grande Prairie does not have a Newfoundland bar, club or restaurant, like Fort MacMurray, so this  one day “festival” has attracted over 5000 people. 

Like all opinion in Newfoundland circles, the pros and cons of Alberta, Grande Prairie or Fort MacMurray are split down the middle. Some love it here some hate it. Those who came here more than five years ago, before the cost of living skyrocketed, are doing fine with good salaries and cheap mortgages. This is the “promised land” for them. The “newcomers” are less than thrilled with it all and would be more than happy to leave it all behind. Successive waves of immigrants have different experiences and different feelings about the place. 

The girls dance in front of the stage, the kids play in the inflatables while the dads wait and chat. A roar goes up from the beer tent in response to some chiding from the stage. The line up for food is 20 deep and Dwight Penney is selling Newfoundland caps, decals and jackets as fast as he can take their money. The din of fun, family, friends and the relaxed comfort of being with “your own kind” underscore the bands from St. John’s blasting out the folk-trad-celt-rock music. 

As D’Arcy Broderick breaks into Sonny’s Dream on the stage, the noisy crowd goes quiet.

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