Friday, May 23, 2008

JM Sullivan -- The Recording Angel of A Fading Nation

I often joke that I am a first generation Canadian. Parts of my family have been in Newfoundland since the early 1700's but both of my parents were born before 1949. My father was born before 1933, the year that Newfoundland surrendered its status as a dominion and reverted to the status of colony. In any event, both of them were born outside of Canada and became Canadians as a result of Newfoundland joining Confederation.

Both of my parents though are at the younger end of the cohort of Newfoundlanders who lived in the pre-Confederation era. My father is just old enough to remember the debates that led up to Confederation; my mother was a young girl and those events would have meant little to her. The older part of that cohort -- who include many famous Newfoundlanders -- is slowly passing. The political, business, religious and cultural leadership of a nation that no longer exists as a separate soverign nation is slowly fading away as age and death take their inevitable toll and with them passes a unique generation. Which part of Canada today has a community that could rationally and openly debate giving up their political independence for the good of future generations and then, once that decision was made, take hold the task of managing that change?

Joe Smallwood and Major Peter Cashin have been dead for years. John Crosbie is an old man who has lived several lives since mourning the death of Newfoundland. The list goes on.

There is a writer in Newfoundland who has taken on the peculiar task of ensuring that that generation is not forgotten. JM Sullivan, who also writes plays and edits the Newfoundland Quarterly, has cast herself as the Recording Angel of a fading nation. She has for over a decade written a remarkable series of obituaries for the Globe and Mail recounting the lives and passings of a long list of Newfoundlanders from that contingent of Newfoundlanders. There has been no hard and fast rule about whom she has written these notes -- some have been famous while others have been obscure. For example, her most recent obituary was that of Laurie Cashin, the son of the famous Major Peter Cashin (the anti-Joseph Smallwood -- conservative leader of the anti-Confederates) and brother of the famous Richard Cashin (left wing union hell raiser), a man actually little known to most Newfoundlanders but whose life is worthy of note.

This series of obituaries is remarkable for two reasons. First, I think collected over time it will serve as one of the better histories of Newfoundland and its transition from independence to Canadian province. That story is still too raw in Newfoundland for clear headed writing as people still quarrell over whether the vote was rigged, whether Newfoundland was sold out, if the province would be better off as a state or whether Iceland shows what Newfoundland could have been. People still come to blows in bars in St. John's over these issues and family dinners end in acrimony. By telling the stories of the characters who lived through these events as a marker of their passing Ms. Sullivan avoids the debate -- she plays on the fact that while the issues are divisive there is a strong love in Newfoundland for all these characters regardless of which cause they championed.

The second remarkable aspect of these obituaries is the degree to which over the years Ms. Sullivan has captured the personal interests of many of these people and found stories which make them seem real. The story of Laurie Cashin could be a recitation of polictical and civic achievement but what makes his story come to life is the vignette of his diagnosing is one year child's deafness -- something which defined Laurie's later interests -- by means of pistol shot. Capturing and recounting these details distinguishes these obituaries from falling into being either death notices or political screeds.

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Anthony said...

It was my father Laurie Cashin. His son who is deaf. It is me as Anthony Cashin who lives in Kitchener, Ontario.

I am pleased to read the article about my father's life.

Anonymous said...

He was the fix-it man of Newfoundland and Labrador

This article was my father Laurie Cashin and his family was part of political.

Anthony Cashin