Media @ McGill

Rafico Ruiz | Sites of Communication: The Grenfell Mission of Newfoundland and Labrador

Submitted by Media@McGill on


There continues to be scholarly work to be done around the role of the Grenfell Mission in the non-teleological evolution of northern Newfoundland and Labrador. In contexts wherein the ‘fish come first,’ how various agencies, missionary, aboriginal, commercial, and colonial, amongst others, combine to create a site of perceived human need is an issue that resonates to this day. People still do continue to live in remote regions by choice rather than necessity, and so rurality has an established public life that goes beyond the mine, the mill, or the refinery. While their labour is mobile, as both the fisherfolk of the early twentieth century and the migrant Newfoundlanders and Labradorians at work in the oil sands of northern Alberta show, their monetary and cultural capital stay increasingly close to home.       

My dissertation examines the Grenfell Mission as an instance of a nuanced process of social reform and literal, very material re-formation of social infrastructures in northern Newfoundland and Labrador, partly through its longevity and partly through its having provided such an ‘essential’ (and so, to a degree, less exclusionary of Native residents) service as medical care. Yet it was still an imperial sort of philanthropy in a deeply problematic context of colonialism that operated at multiple scales and across a number of distinct if overlapping populations. One of my project's broader aims is to track the relationship between the mediations that the Mission brought about and brought in to this particular region of the world, and the human, usually perceived as laboring subjects that were implicated in particular networks of control. I argue that the Mission’s impetus to ‘reform’ moved both across discourses as well as across bodies via labour practices and the processural changing of everyday practices of living.

Thus far, I have completed extensive archival research at the Sterling Library (Yale University), the Avery Library (Columbia University), the National Archives and the Postal Museum and Archives in London, the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador located in St. John’s, and the Labrador Institute, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. Moreover, I have had the privilege of conducting thorough fieldwork in northern Newfoundland and Labrador this past summer and in the late fall of 2011 to assess and document the material and immaterial legacies of the Grenfell Mission in conversation with resident doctors, public officials, teachers, and other members of the community. My dissertation is divided into nine short chapters that seek to trace the development of the Mission from the 1890s to the 1940s.

The guiding question for this project asks how the near absence of mediation can create a site of need. It is to an exploration of the conditions, limits, and responses of that socially constructed site of need, scaled up, networked and difficult to grasp as it is, that the work it hopes to do is dedicated. The convenience of being overwhelmed by the dire necessity of resource exploitation, production, distribution and consumption, is precisely what I see as being at stake in addressing the Grenfell Mission. My aim is to reveal the Mission as a comprehensive and problematic example of reform of a standard of living that took root in reaction to that increasingly modern ideology of economic prosperity as the first, privileged goal of systems of social and political welfare. How to think otherwise about resource engagements in rural regions is also a challenge to think otherwise about how the lived present can be mediated, in extent and duration, by a future in the process of passing.