Media @ McGill

Rafico Ruiz | Look to Labrador: Social Infrastructure and the Grenfell Mission of Newfoundland and Labrador

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Sir Wilfred Grenfell began traveling to the outports along the coasts of northern Newfoundland and Labrador in 1892 aboard the medical ship Albert sent by the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen (RNMDSF). In the popular North Atlantic imagination, Grenfell is a well-known if ambiguous figure: doctor, pseudo-saint, author, fundraiser, and missionary. Yet, in recent literature, Grenfell is seen to an ever greater extent as a social reformer that, for better and for worse, “intervened to change the patterns of living” in northern Newfoundland and Labrador.[1] The mission he worked to establish, culminating in the incorporation of the International Grenfell Association (IGA) in 1914, was an organization that would eventually oversee the construction and functioning of hospitals, nursing stations, schools, orphanages, cooperative stores, and light industries, amongst other institutional types, becoming a vast northern health network that the IGA ran until, in 1981, it was finally transferred over to provincial control. Known as Grenfell Regional Health Services, it merged with Health Labrador Corporation in 2005 to create the Labrador-Grenfell Regional Health Authority.

The ‘why’ behind Grenfell’s cross-Atlantic journey is what I endeavour to put under examination in this chapter. It no doubt has as much to do with the attendant obligations and expectations of religion and class in a late Victorian context, as it does with developmental ideologies of improvement, transnational philanthropy, and the types of communities that are built up across the various human engagements with natural resources. While on the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador the fish came first, the waves of human activity that followed over the centuries make it all the harder to pinpoint the mediations that picked up that resource and began to create relationships out of it; that, in a very fundamental sense, began to ‘communicate’ it. As media theorists, communications historians, and others with an investment in spatial politics well know, transportation, communication, and information have been bound up for some time in an interplay that can make of ‘media’ a broad and critical concept that can begin to encompass both “the politics of technological change in rural settings” and “the complex ways in which infrastructural technologies mediate the organization of social and political life more generally.”[2]     

This work will attempt to function as a marker in the landscape of critical communication studies, particularly in debates that concern the neo-Innisian investment  in broadening acceptable definitions of immaterial and material ‘media.’ As Jody Berland notes, for Harold Innis, material processes “structure and normalize the ratios of reason and emotion, technique and memory, power and location, space and time,”[3] and within that framework “communication technologies mediate the social relations of a particular society by setting the limits and boundaries within which power and knowledge operate.”[4] This reliance on Innis, as well as other scholars invested in his tradition, as an approach to the Mission, is predicated on the codeterminations between Innis’ staples thesis and his communication thesis that reveal ‘media’ to be technologies both man-made and natural, material and immaterial. Such a category as ‘transportation,’ for Innis, contains multiple media of circulation; whether rivers, oceans and horses, or roads, steamships, and railway carriages. As Robert Babe remarks, in Innis’ staples thesis both the production and extraction of natural resources constitute communication. This process of staple capitalization “creates environments, ecosystems, that mediate human relations and otherwise affect a people’s thoughts and actions.”[5] And it was trade in these staples that brought separate groups into contact, thereby creating the contextual conditions for the possibility of dominance, dependence, and other forms of expanded mediated relations of control. The plight of the settler fishermen that brought Grenfell to the coast of Labrador in the 1890s was preceded by a centuries old fishery. In this case, the fish indeed came first, and the mediations that stemmed from their extraction are part of the story I am hoping to connect to the present day politics of living in northern Newfoundland and Labrador.


[1] Ronald Rompkey, Grenfell of Labrador: A Biography (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 1991), xiv.

[2] Darin Barney, “To Hear the Whistle Blow: Technology and Politics on the Battle River Branch Line,” in TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, no. 25 (Spring 2011): 7.

[3] Jody Berland, North of Empire: Essays on the Cultural Technologies of Space (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009), 81.

[4] Ibid., 69.

[5] Robert Babe, Canadian Communication Thought: Ten Foundational Writers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 59.