A Reluctant Defence of Screech-ins


So for those of you who aren’t familiar with Newfoundland and Labrador, here is a brief definition of terms to get us started:

Screech is a brand of Jamacian dark rum that’s bottled by the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation, and marketed as a uniquely Newfoundland product. Screech is possibly named after a story in which an American officer stationed on the island during the war, was asked for a glass of rum which Newfoundlanders were drinking with ease. Not realizing how strong it was, when the American took a sip it caused him to fall out of his chair and howl at its strength. Please note that from the start “Screech” is a branding exercise on the part of the NLC.

A Screech-in is a ceremony apparently based on a ceremony held for American Navy-men after being stationed in NL for one year. The ‘modern’ Screech-in was originally promoted by some bars on George St. and by the NLC (which now produces ‘official’ Screech-in certificates) to induct visitors to Newfoundland as “honorary Newfoundlanders.” The content of ceremony varies slightly depending on who does it, but it usually includes repeating some exaggerated Newfoundland English phrases, kissing a codfish, eating a bit of bologna (‘Newfie Steak’) and drinking a mouthful of Screech. (I grew up around teetotallers, where unmixed Purity Syrup was used–another Newfoundland brand).

Come From Away is an award-winning musical about the commercial flights that were stranded in the small town of Gander, NL after the US closed its airspace in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The hospitality shown to these stranded passengers is a point of pride for Newfoundlanders, and by extension, Canadians. Come From Away is currently playing in Toronto, produced by Mirvish Productions.

Now that that’s out of the way, here’s what happened: Mirvish Productions announced that they were going to attempt a world record Screech-in at a showing of Come From Away in Toronto. To simplify what came next: some Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were upset and complained that a Screech-in should only happen in Newfoundland and/or Labrador. Other Newfoundlanders and Labradorians made fun of the first crowd because it doesn’t matter and it’s all made up anyways. In the end the Screech-in was cancelled, which annoyed this guy for some reason.

I hate this entire debate, if for no other reason that I reluctantly have a toe in both camps. I think the anti-Toronto-Screech-in crowd is dumb because Screech-ins are just a commercial for the NLC to begin with. But I think the anti-anti-Toronto-Screech-in crowd is dumb because obviously Screech-ins have become more meaningful than just a commercial for the NLC, even if we tell ourselves it’s just a silly trick we play on visitors.

I also hate myself for getting annoyed enough at everyone involved to blog about it.

For myself, personally, I recognize that  Screech-ins are a fun way to welcome people to Newfoundland and/or Labrador, but I don’t have any particularly strong feelings of attachment to the ritual. It’s all made up anyways, not some timeless tradition (note that this article gives different origin for Screech-ins than what I wrote above, but I literally don’t care enough to do any more reading or re-type what I wrote). I also feel like it connects to broader debates about who is (or can be) a Newfoundlander and/or Labradorian, which is another thing I feel people don’t think deeply enough about. But that’s a chat for another time.

Now, having expressed my ambivalence to the ritual itself, I just need to re-state this clearly, because I want this to be the background hum to every conversation about Screech and Screech-ins from now until the island sinks back into the sea: we are essentially arguing about an ad campaign. Literally every step of the way in this story is another layer of marketing, from what happened and why, to the meaning and content of the ritual.

Because it is a ritual. Just because it isn’t a century old doesn’t mean it isn’t a meaningful one for many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

I’m an anthropologist. There was a day, long ago, when anthropology was obsessed with indexing the content of a culture. You’d do your research and write that this group of people do this thing, and that group of people do another thing. Here’s why. This group likes this, the others that. Isn’t that curious?

To oversimplify: this is outdated, but it’s still how a lot of laypeople think about culture. We don’t even have to look that far to find examples: I’m sure we can all remember a time when someone (maybe even you yourself) expressed the opinion that because this or that First Nation individual uses a snowmobile to hunt, they’re somehow less indigenous. (In case I need to wade in here: no, using a snowmobile does not make someone less indigenous)

So on that outdated basis we might look at the Screech-in, identify its origin in American Naval traditions, and its close relationship to marketing and tourism, and dismiss it as inauthentic.

But that would be missing the point. Cultures, like basically all social groupings, are imagined communities and they gain reality by identifying an in-group and an out-group. This doesn’t have to be a hostile process, but the boundary must be continually identified, negotiated, patrolled, and defended. Broadly speaking, it doesn’t really matter a whole lot what happens inside of the group, or how ‘authentic’ it is. The point is that everyone in the group has the understanding that the group exists, and those inside have some common identity that makes them different from those outside. Within the group will be smaller groups, and outside of the group they may be nested inside another larger group as well, but that’s complicating things a bit too much for my purpose here.

Now, some people might argue about whether Newfoundlanders and/or Labradorians constitute a legitimate identity. “Should the group exist?” is a conversation I might entertain at another time. But as for “Does it exist?” … I’m going to take for granted that it does because I’m already like 900 words in, and it’s my blog, so there.

The point is that the Screech-in, ‘authentic’ or not, historical or not, whether you like it or not, is essentially a border crossing into and out of the group that calls itself “Newfoundlander” and/or “Labradorian.”

In the ritual of the Screech-in, people are brought into the group–but not all the way. They are, after all, only honorary Newfoundlanders/Labradorians at the end. Screech-ins are an opportunity for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to look around the room and wink at one another, assert their Newfoundland-ness or Labrador-ness by instructing others on how to perform it, judge them based on that performance, and at the end continue to hold the ‘inductee’ at arm’s length.

Whether or not you think it’s kind of dumb, like I do, if you see the Screech-in in this light, it’s not hard to see why this episode elicited so much criticism. And given that two of the most important axes along which Newfoundlanders recognize other Newfoundlanders are place (“Where you ‘longs to?”) and blood (“Who’s yer fadder?”), is there any wonder that people would reject a theatre company in Toronto’s authority to hold a Screech-in? Where does Mirvish Productions come from? Toronto. Not Newfoundland. Who’s Mirvish Productions’ father? If the answer isn’t the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corp, there’s a problem.

To complicate things a bit, consider some of the responses to the controversy. I recall someone on Facebook commenting that they had held a Screech-in at a wedding in Ontario once, so what’s the problem with Toronto? But think about what a wedding is; a social ritual to join two families together. Some might dispute the wedding Screech-in because it didn’t happen in Newfoundland and/or Labrador, but if in the end we give it a pass, it’s only on the basis of blood: a Newfoundlander will have officiated, as a way of inducting new family members into his or her community.

If the news had been “Alan Doyle to Host Record-Breaking Screech-In in Toronto,” people may have had a slightly different reaction. There still would have been a debate, I’m sure, but a different one.

To sum up: this whole thing is stupid.

To be more generous: yes Screech-ins are dumb. Yes it’s marketing, not just by Mirvish Productions, but also by the NLC and the tourism board, etc. But it’s not just those things. It’s become an occasion for Newfoundlanders and/or Labradorians to assert their particular identities, then make a show of bringing new people into the community, while quietly acknowledging that they’re not really ‘in’ after all, which reasserts that identity again.

As a final thought: the fact that this all came up as the result of an attempt to market a musical about Newfoundland and Labradorians’ hospitality is positively delicious.

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Lemme just put an extra few lines here because the footer on my website is still borked up.

Maybe another line? Yeah, that should do it.

One more for good luck.

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