Delving into the mind of Grenfell

Juris Graney
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The parallels between Prairie grain elevators and fishing stages and processing facilities in outport Newfoundland communities might not immediately seem apparent, but McGill University doctoral researcher Rafico Ruiz believes there are many.

McGill University student Rafico Ruiz was recently in St. Anthony as part of his doctoral research project investigating the Sir Wilfred Grenfell and his impact on northern Newfoundland.

The parallels between Prairie grain elevators and fishing stages and processing facilities in outport Newfoundland communities might not immediately seem apparent, but McGill University doctoral researcher Rafico Ruiz believes there are many.

For instance, Mr. Ruiz argues, the skinny iconic buildings of Saskatchewan played an important role in the development of rural communities in that province.

The grain elevators, which were owned locally by a cooperative or a small- to medium-sized company, became a focus point of activity. Around them towns grew and prospered, much like fishing structures in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.

"But in the last 20 to 30 years, as agribusiness has grown, they have been replaced by high through-put terminals," Mr. Ruiz told the Pen on a recent trip to St. Anthony.

"These are like these huge concrete collection of silos built close to train lines that consolidated all the grain elevators and, as a result, the smaller sites are closing.

"On the Prairies, once these grain elevators close, the small towns which have been built up around them are no longer sustainable. It's changing the entire social landscape."

While wheat farmers plowed their fields some 5000km away, fishermen in Newfoundland harvested the sea and outport communities blossomed. But, just as in the case of the Prairies, there has been a shift from smaller operations to larger ones.

"It's difficult to negotiate terms when you are a small scale grain operator and, in many ways, it's the same when you think about outport communities in Newfoundland and Prairie towns," he said.

The comparison between the two disparate structures and provinces may not be more than a footnote in his finished research project, but the fishery is at the core of a project he'll commit almost two years of his life to.

And it all comes back to one man - Sir Wilfred Grenfell.

Titled 'Sites of Communication: The Grenfell Mission of Newfoundland and Labrador', the research project seeks to investigate the "historical relationship between human need and resource-first ideologies, modes and models of social development."

In short, Mr. Ruiz is looking at the Grenfell Mission's philanthropic endeavour and intervention "that went beyond the scope of medical care towards a broader project of regional social reform."

The mission was incorporated into the International Grenfell Association (IGA) in 1914 and became an organization that would eventually oversee the construction and functioning of hospitals, nursing stations, schools, orphanages, cooperative stores, and light industries, among other institutional types, becoming a vast northern health network that the IGA ran until 1981.

But it's the fishery that lies at the very heart of everything Mr. Ruiz seeks to uncover and understand.

"The fishery is what brought Grenfell here in the first place, because he came to help the fishermen," he said.

"I want to look at the flow from natural resource to finished commodity and the effect it has [on communities]."

Just as wheat created a need for grain elevators, transportation systems and other infrastructure, the fishery created similar needs in Newfoundland, including Grenfell's iconic and much-revered and studied health care system.

Mr. Ruiz's multi-tiered thesis intends to cover everything from Grenfell's life to the secular culture of Newfoundland, the fishery, media and communications.

He said he hopes to reveal how "seemingly marginalized geographic regions in Canada and elsewhere can be at the vanguard of such global issues as resource development, the human costs associated with waning isolation, and the limits of governmental responsibility in the areas of health care, transportation infrastructures, and communication technologies."

His project has already taken the Montreal-based researcher across the globe to The National Archives and British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) in London, England, Yale University in Connecticut, The Rooms in St. Johns, Columbia University in New York and, most recently, to St. Anthony, Happy Valley-Goose Bay and North West River.

Each destination has given him unique insights into the work of Grenfell and life in northern Newfoundland.

At the BPMA he viewed the timetables of a mail steamer that serviced the pre-confederation province, and at Columbia University he studied the 1927 designs of St. Anthony hospital which were donated by a New York architectural firm.

He has pored over countless winter correspondence between book publishers in Boston, New York and London, to Sir Wilfred and his wife Anne Elizabeth, and has viewed magic lantern slides - the early 20th century equivalent of a Power Point presentation - containing images of early rural life.

He also read over the scripts that Sir Wilfred penned to accompany his slide show to create an emotive narrative designed to garner support.

Another aspect of his research is what he refers to as the "social construction of need."

"It was through this social construction of Anglo Saxon fishermen that he tried to mobilize people," he said.

"He was a really important celebrity of his time. He had a pretty good presence in the American press and, in a 1927 article in the New York Times called 'The Mission' about Grenfell's intervention, it described him as one of the greatest adventurers of the 20th century.

"It's ambiguous as to how conscious it was to use this as a strategy, or whether it was just promotion or a writer's impulse to document what was going on, but all the books he wrote had a huge cultural impact in the United States."

By extension, that helped garner support and funding for a man described by Mr. Ruiz as "doctor, pseudo-saint, author, fundraiser, and missionary" and social reformer.

"I don't think it was a conscious strategy, but Grenfell's whole outlook on life, and outlook on this particular form of labour from the 'fisher folk,' he recreated and re-mythologized fishermen as noble, altruistic who somehow acquired these attributes through their labour on the ocean," he said.

"Going through correspondence [at the Archives] there's a constant reminder to English aristocracy that 'we're making them work.'

"It was more about a motive not to inculcate bad habits of dependence; he was really trying to foster their own independence through work so it was never a hand out.

"Grenfell's strategies were for reform and to improve the standard of living."

That included attempts to bring new economies to the region, including the failed reindeer experiment.

Mr. Ruiz said correspondence shows Sir Wilfred was adamant the introduction of reindeer to Newfoundland was a positive step towards reform.

"You read his writing about how it could be used - the hide, the meat, the source of food - and it all ties in and it all should work," he said.

"In the Yale archive there is tons of correspondence between him and experimental agriculturists in Scotland and Michigan around new grains they were engineering to be able to grow in harsh climates.

"The American government had established an experimental agriculture outpost in Alaska and he was corresponding with them to see what was working there."

Mr. Ruiz's fact-finding mission to our region allowed him to speak to local historians and community members to view the legacy of Sir Wilfred for himself and gain a more personal feel for the region he is writing about.

"I've been fascinated by the honesty of people," he said.

"It comes out in being to talk very clearly about where they live and how they live. People up here know who they are and that's really amazing to witness that."

Organizations: McGill University, IGA, Columbia University National Archives British Postal Museum Yale University New York Times

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, St. Anthony, Saskatchewan New York London Canada England Connecticut Happy Valley Goose Bay North West River Northern Newfoundland Boston United States Scotland Michigan Alaska

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