Welcome to SICRI’s “island conversations” podcast series.
The aim of these podcasts is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to islands’ research, arts, and culture landscape.
The podcasts are accompanied by a curated transcript that is edited to read as an independent piece.
"Island Notes" composition in Cretan Flat Mandolin by Christophoro Gorantokaki @"Melody Box"
Welcome to SICRIs Island Conversations podcast series. I'm Megan Forsyth speaking to you today from Conception Bay South on the island of Newfoundland; the traditional territory of the Beothuk and Mi'kmaq, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador on Canada's East Coast. The aim of these podcasts is to highlight the work of island studies scholars and practitioners who make a significant contribution to island research, arts and cultural landscapes.
Today I am joined by Valérie Vézina, a faculty member in the Department of Political Science at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, Canada, on the unceded traditional and ancestral lands of the Kwantlen, Musqueam, Katzie, Semiahmoo, Tsawwassen, Qayqayt, and Kwikwetlem peoples. Originally from Quebec, her work is focused on nationalism and identity building in island settings. Her book, Une île, une nation?: Le nationalisme insulaire à la lumière des cas de Terre-Neuve et Puerto Rico, which translates to, "One Island, One Nation?: Island nationalism in the cases of Newfoundland and Puerto Rico", was published in 2018 by Presses de l'Université du Québec. Her current project applies this research on political “islandness” to the political histories and cultures of the landlocked provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in central and western Canada. I first came to know Valérie’s work in 2017, in her article entitled Navigating Citizenship and National Identity and American Territories: Nationalism in American Samoa and Puerto Rico, published in Shima. She is the author of several articles and book chapters that highlight her research in Newfoundland and Labrador and Puerto Rico. And recently, she joined the editorial board for Shima. I'm also thrilled that we share a love of Newfoundland, where I now call home, and where Valérie completed her Master of Arts.
Valerie, thank you for speaking with me today and for joining our Island Conversations podcast!
Thank you so much, Meghan. I will just want to add something about your territorial acknowledgment, and I just want to say that acknowledging the territory is one step towards reconciliation. But it's only that, It's just one step. And so I just want to recognize myself as a visitor, on those lands that, I'm very well aware that settler colonialism is much alive in Canada and every day I might try little things to dismantle it. So that was just a side parenthesis, but thank you so much for having me today on this podcast.
Valérie chasing icebergs in Newfoundland, Canada.
Credit: Valérie Vézina
Thank you. So you clearly have a love of islands. Can you tell me more about these personal connections and maybe how these experiences shape your identity and worldview?
Yes, that's a very interesting question, because it happens in many steps in my life. I was actually born just outside of Quebec City [Canada]. So not on an island, and surrounded by farms. I'm very much like a mainlander, if we can say that. But my mom's family's from Charlevoix region [Quebec], and we spend a lot of our weekends there, and we will go to Isle-aux-Coudres. It was all kinds of adventure as a little child because we had to take the ferry and then we were on an island and we could tour it on our bikes and so on. So I guess it was my first spark of like, islands are so neat, but also [...] it’s a full adventure to get there, right?
That was a first, I guess, ‘seed’ and then for my university undergrad, I went to McGill [University], which is located in the city of Montreal [Quebec] on an island. And that was the big, I guess, discovery. [In] Montreal, when you are in the city, you don't actually feel you're on an island, but you do have to navigate the bridges or the tunnels and so on. So you're reminded constantly as soon as you want to get out of the city that you are indeed on an island. That was the second ‘seed’, I suppose, living on this island for many years, for almost 15 or 16 years. But then the real ‘seed’ is the third [one] when I actually set foot on the island of Newfoundland. And the first time was in the dead of winter in January which, you are well aware, is not the best time to go visit a place in Canada in general, but especially in Newfoundland. But I was there for a conference and I fell in love. I was like, man, the smell of the ocean, the waves, the crashing of the waves, the wind that catches your breath – all of this. I really liked it. That was during my undergrad when I first stepped there. And then I decided, [...] it was just one place I really loved, it was in the back of my mind - It was Newfoundland, and that's why I decided to go to Memorial [University] for my Master's.
And I don't want to sound too cliché because I know that on top of that, for many years, at least when I was at Memorial, the slogan was like “Memorial…where you become” or whatever, you know? But that really is me! I feel that slogan was me, It's really where I became. I remember moving to Newfoundland for my Master’s, and I knew nobody in Newfoundland. Nobody knew me. [...] I could be whoever I wanted. I was in my mid-twenties, searching for myself in some way or another. And I really became the person who I am now, by living on the island of Newfoundland. I guess that's the start of the long-standing story of wanting to get to know more about that place, that I still call home, Newfoundland. But also to understand more about this island life and so on. So that's, I guess, the short story.
That's fantastic. Yes, I had the same feeling when I first came to Newfoundland. I thought, okay, I'm never leaving! You've kind of hinted at this, but can you talk about what inspired you to turn to islands in your academic work and specifically in political science?
Coming from Quebec, you're very well aware of your difference, especially if you're a Francophone. That cultural difference, that French-language difference from the rest of the country. But I remember, after only a few days in Newfoundland when I moved to do my Master’s, I was like, man, this place is different [...] Like, there's something about this island. I thought Quebec was different, but this is different. And I really wanted to know more. That's how I decided to pursue more about this; especially for my PhD.
But it was also a way for me to give back. I don't know how to explain this, but it was another way to give back to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, because they gave me so much. They allowed me to become the person who I was, they trust me [...] Opening their hearts and home and so on. I get super emotional [laughs], I’m sorry. This was really life-changing, and I was like, but nobody knows them. Nobody or like very few people [...] And they’re always laughed at because I was from a generation where “Newfie” jokes back in Quebec were really common and so on. And I was like, why? They are so unique. And that's partly why I wanted to […] it was like a condition when I got into my PhD. When I sat with my supervisor I was like, I don't know what angle this is going to take as a project, but there’s going to be Newfoundland in it because it's super important for me to do that. I guess that's why I became interested in that.
As I was researching more about Newfoundland, at some point I was brainstorming with some of my colleagues [...] and I was like, I need something or someone that said that islands were different, are different. And they were like, well research that. And then I came upon the work of Godfrey Baldacchino, and an Island Studies Journal that had just started really, more or less at the same time. I was [...] wow, there's a bunch of people that actually think like me, so that's amazing. So then things just went from there.
Jellybean houses in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.
Credit: Valérie Vézina
Your recent book, and congratulations on it, from 2018 brings together Newfoundland and Puerto Rico. Two islands that seem, at first glance, like an unexpected pairing. I'm wondering if you can tell us about them and what you were hoping to achieve in this book. What is the connection between these two places?
I wanted to study islands, especially nationalism in islands settings. That was the main idea and I wanted to have islands, so I'm following somewhat of a similar systems design and methodology if you're familiar with this. And I wanted two islands that were not states. Although New Zealand is a fascinating case, for example, or Australia, I was really looking at subnational island jurisdiction. I wanted them to be attached to a state that was a federal state because in studies of federalism, usually, the argument goes that federalism is the best way to accommodate diversity et cetera. Looking at various case studies and everything, I was like, oh Puerto Rico seemed so interesting. And there were a few people, from Canada actually, that look at Quebec and Puerto Rico, and things like that, so I had already some knowledge of Puerto Rico before adding it to my study. So I really wanted to see how those two islands, how their states actually answer to their national identity and so on.
Valérie chasing icebergs in Newfoundland, Canada.
Credit: Valérie Vézina
It was interesting also to discover all those other similarities. Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation in 1949, after WWII and Puerto Rico became an Estado Libre Asociado, its current status in 1952, also after a series of things trumped by World War Two. There were different things that were really similar. In Puerto Rico, they speak Spanish, a majority of them speak Spanish, and Newfoundland, they really do speak Newfoundland English, which is a little different than English or Canadian English. I don't know how to say that. It was really interesting to see all those similarities between those two islands. Obviously, the size is really different and so population. Puerto Rico is much more, it's millions of people, three million and it's a much smaller island. I really wanted it to look at how their states deal with their national identity, how they reply to it and how prevalent nationalism is, how it manifests itself on both islands. And there are lots of similarities, but big differences, too that could be attributed to size, population, and also the history of colonialism.
Absolutely, and what kind of methodology were you using for your study? Were you doing ethnography or archival work?
Yes, I spent four months in Puerto Rico, so I did participation-observatrice (participant-observation) and interviews with some politicians, former leaders of different movements, and intellectual journalists. I did the same in Newfoundland, I only spent a month for my research in Newfoundland because I had already lived in Newfoundland before, whereas I had never lived in Puerto Rico before. So that was my mostly qualitative methods; ethnographic interviews and participant-observation.
View from the Paseo de la princesa in Old San Juan.
Credit: Valérie Vézina
[...] Can you tell us a bit more about your current project? I'm curious, how does someone study “islandness” in landlocked areas and what can we maybe learn by recontextualizing what we consider as islands?
Yes. So I think it's one of the key debates in island studies: what is the definition of an island? We have not yet agreed on this. And what is the definition of islandness? And that is even more conflicting. I found it really fascinating how authors such as Philip Conkling or Philip Hayward and Stephen Royle. They actually conceptualize islandness both physically but also metaphorically, right? This also resonated with me, being part of the Francophone minority in Canada, because we've often heard that Francophones are like an archipelago, right, with Quebec, their main island and tiny islands spread out in the rest of the country. So that metaphorical sense was like, yes I get it, that is definitely how I feel.
I was like, you don't have to be an island, but you can be a linguistic island … you don't have to be a physical island surrounded by water to feel islandness. And then I was curious, [...] what about places that don't have access to water at all? Like they don't have access to the sea. Could they not be islands? There was a bunch of examples that came to my mind. I was thinking of places like Switzerland, for example, surrounded by mountains, or even exclaves, like Point Roberts [Washington] here, which is, like belonging to the United States, but only has land access to Canada and then still on the peninsula, right?
There were so many other ways for me to see that islandness could exist. The key thing is when we try to define islandness or the feeling of being an island, it's really easy when you are [on] an island or when you are an islander – when you are part of a linguistic island, like me – to understand it, but it's really hard to explain or to conceptualize it. So part of what I did in my book was to try to conceptualize islandness and island nationalism around different variables, right? So that we could measure them. And I was like, let's see if this applies to landlocked places like Alberta and Saskatchewan [Canada]. Especially coming from outside of Alberta and Saskatchewan, we often feel like if you read the news, or as a Canadian from outside, you feel like those places are different, there's something going on there that is different.
So that's what I'm doing and It's really interesting. I've also done interviews for this same kind of methodology and ways of doing stuff. It's really interesting to see how, actually, there are many “islands”, if I may use that term, in those two landlocked places. Whether it's politically or like city versus the rural area; where the Francophones live, where they do not; where Indigenous people live, where they do not; etc. There are many different islands in those landlocked provinces, [...] Very interesting to see actually a lot of similarities with what we will traditionally think of islands.
[Left] Oil and Prairie, Alberta, Canada. [Right] Sunset on the Prairies, Estevan, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Credit: Valérie Vézina
Absolutely! [...] having lived in both of those landlocked places, I completely agree. Can you share with us a memorable highlight from any of your fieldwork on islands?
Oh, yes. One of the most memorable ones came from my research in Puerto Rico. Before going to Puerto Rico, I had emailed a bunch of people I wanted to interview and got no answer [...]. I was like, well, this is going to be an interesting four months. I don't know whom to talk to. And then I was hosted by the Institute of Caribbean Studies at the University of Puerto Rico to do my research and one day, one of the researchers there was like, Valérie, there's this festival, it's called Claridad festival.
The Claridad is an independent newspaper, there's music and food, we should go, you should come, you’ll love it. [...] So we go and I'm talking to this person that I wanted to meet. I was like, “hey, you!”, [...] because they have booths from different parties, “I emailed you.” “Oh, you're that person from Canada? Oh, welcome, welcome.” [...] they knew. They had read the email. Never answered. They're like yeah, let's meet tomorrow. Let's go for coffee. So we go for coffee at 10am. Sat down with the tape recorder taking notes and so on. And then 10am became 1pm, so we had lunch, and then 1pm became 6pm, so then we have drinks, and then 6pm became 8pm, and then it was time for him to go home. And then he's like, “Let's continue the conversation tomorrow.” So tomorrow, the same thing happens. So I have about 12 hours of conversation with this person that I actually emailed that never answer back! Then after this conversation, he was like, “oh, you should meet my friend from this other party.” I was like, yeah, I emailed them too… and it was just like one of those…
So that's when I realized that in places like this, you have to be there to be able to meet people and you have to have one person that introduces you to another person and so on. [...] I have lots of material from those conversations, but it was fascinating because they will tell me all about their perspective on their island. That was really nice. I guess I always felt so blessed that they trusted me in this way, that they were openly telling me all about it. So, yes, that's probably the most memorable event.
It's very funny. I guess my last question relates to islands more generally and islands studies. I'm wondering why you think islands are important to study. I think you've pointed out certain aspects of this, and what you'd like to see as a future for island studies.
[...] Oh my God, it’s such a tricky question. I don't want to offend any big people that I admire, but I think at the beginning we needed Island Studies, right? Like when island studies, 20 years ago started to be on the map, we needed to put islands on the map. Say, hey, small islands have to teach bigger places something, right? I think we've done this very well. I think it's important to continue to do it, but I think, and this is why I'm trying to conceptualize and bring the discussion towards islandness somewhere else, and I think Shima is doing this too – It's like to say there are places that are almost islands, or could be islands, or think of themselves as islands, without necessarily being islands physical islands.
I think this is where we have to see the future of island studies, as something that, we extend our little things. There are many, many islands and some of them we never study or we barely hear of. I put it in about when cities that are islands, like Montreal and so on, there are fascinating stories to be told about those. But even islands on, I don’t know, on rivers, lakes and things like that, or like islands that are not inhabited yet, like in the Arctic, for example, in Canada and so on. But there are also all those islands of people. Like I live in the lower mainland [British Colombia] and we can definitely see in the Greater Vancouver [Area] islands of communities, right? Where a certain group will settle and they clearly become an island, right? Where everything is around that one culture and why is that?
So I think this is where island studies is going and this is where I want it to go, without obviously turning our back on the importance of the physical islands that made this all started. So I think there's a nice balance here that we can reach. And I still think there's a lot we can learn from islands, or quasi-island, or people that think they are islands. So, yes, I think that's what I would like for the future.
Thank you so much and thank you for joining us today. It's really fun to connect to another island lover on the opposite side of Canada. And hopefully, our paths will cross in person sometime soon.
Yes, hopefully. Thank you so much.