My perspective - And now, for something completely different


Kate Jackman - Atkinson
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Last week, as most of Manitoba was experiencing a heat wave, I was looking at some icebergs in Canada’s easternmost province. Over seven days, we saw not only icebergs, but also whales, puffins, subarctic tundra, the earth’s mantle, a landlocked fjord, a Norse settlement and the difference one person can make. Of course, we also ate lots of fish and chips.

This trip marked my first time to the island, which was the first place Europeans made contact with North America. In 1,000 AD, Leif Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, and his Norse crew touched land at the northern end of Newfoundland.  The Norse explorers and traders came to what is known as L’Anse Aux Meadows from Greenland. There, they built timber and sod buildings to act as their base camp for trade further inland, in an area they called Vinland. This camp, which was used for about 10 years, was mentioned in Norse stories, known as the Vinland Sagas.  However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the site was discovered. In 1968, a group led by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad, his archaeologist wife Anne Stine and local resident George Decker began excavation of the site and found a small bronze cloak pin.  With this discovery, and others at the site, they were able to prove the Norse presence almost 500 years before Italian-born Giovanni Caboto, commonly known as John Cabot, "discovered" the New World in 1497.

Also located on the Northern Peninsula, we toured the Grenfell Museum. This was the first time I had heard about Dr. Grenfell and I feel as though my education in Canadian history fell short. Educated in London, Dr. Grenfell first came to the Newfoundland and Labrador coast in 1892.  As part of the Royal National Mission To Deep Sea Fishermen, the trip combined his desire to provide medical and spiritual services to North Sea fishermen with his adventurous spirit.

From that first trip, Dr. Grenfell decided to set up permanent services to help the 30,000 people who lived and worked along the Labrador coast, where there were no permanent medical services. 

Grenfell’s work treating the residents’ medical needs led him find solutions to the poverty and malnutrition that were the root causes of many of their ailments. In addition to opening a string of hospitals, nursing stations and operating hospital ships, Grenfell also established schools, orphanages, farms, health education and an internationally recognized craft industry that provided income to families and injured fishermen. Interestingly, he alienated some of his urban donors when he created a co-op that allowed fishermen to buy supplies outside of the credit based “truck” system, which kept them indebted to merchants, and a saw mill that would provide off season employment.

This vast enterprise was funded by donations solicited during speaking tours, book sales and the sale of handicrafts, including the famous Grenfell hooked rugs. As the mission grew, Grenfell took on a leadership and fundraising role, while other doctors and nurses worked on the front lines to provide the needed services.  The busy summer months also attracted a myriad of volunteers, including health professionals, students and ordinary citizens who wanted to make a difference. It was inspiring to see how one person’s vision built what was essentially a province-wide health care system.

Despite all of these attractions focusing on the ingenuity and determination of the human spirit, one of the highlights for me was found in the oceans.  There, off the eastern coast of the island, we sat in a bay watching about 20 humpback whales as they dove and breached, filling themselves with tiny fish, called Capelin, in preparation for their migration back south.