I stayed in the have not province

April 2020

I am a person who works in the arts and I decided to stay in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador rather than move to the mainland for better opportunities.

Nowadays, NL is somewhat more glamourous (maybe?) so that may not seem so odd. We are known for our arts and culture, musicals are written about us, our literature and artistic output is hailed as among the best in the country. But, growing up here in the 1990s, it was different.

In July 1992, the cod moratorium hit NL and changed everything forever. It affected everyone – obviously, those directly impacted by the loss of the fishery most – but psychologically it coloured what it meant to be a Newfoundlander.

I graduated high school in 2001. I regularly heard that “this place has no future” and was urged to leave because “it’s just a rock in the ocean going nowhere.” I did want to go, and I just assumed I would. In fact, in my group of friends none of us wanted to stay. The inference was, if you stayed, you were a loser, and if you left, you could be successful. Especially in the arts.

I realize I was looking at this through insecure teenaged eyes, but I feel that the cultural narrative at the time wasn’t only in my imagination, and I know it affected me. I also wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, which added to my insecurity. I think that pressure combined with the overwhelming atmosphere of “your home is not the place to be” gave many of us anxiety at that time.

At 21 I moved to Toronto with a one-way ticket. I shared a room with my brother and started working at Pizza Hut at Yonge and Carlton. I used to walk to work, down Yonge Street from Bloor. Now, it’s mostly condos and higher rents have driven out a lot of the smaller, independent stores, but then I loved Yonge’s affordable clothes, perfume outlets, tacky gift shops, and cheap food – basically just a busy, active, multi-use city street. I’m glad I got to see it back then when it still had character, and boy was it different from Newfoundland. I remember once being so homesick and lonely, and getting on a Toronto city bus. The bus driver had a thick Newfoundland accent and it turned out he was from Hampden. He reassured me I would get used to the big city life, and he was right.

However, I kind of thought that by simply hopping on a plane to Toronto and finding work, all my problems would go away and I would suddenly be rich and successful. Again, that was a bit of a myth sold to us. Instead, I worked long hard hours as a waitress, learned about the world, and had a great time. But I was still aimless, and it wasn’t a permanent solution.

Others were going to school – I applied to York University’s theatre department and didn’t get accepted. Memorial University back in St John’s had just introduced its Diploma in Performance and Communications Media. It was a mix of various disciplines and it suited my life at the time. I knew I was creative, and I knew that I needed to go to some sort of place of study. So MUN it was.

I graduated, and over the years I founded a theatre company, acted in over 40 plays and films, and now am a published writer. I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to have studied theatre around the world. I have gone back and forth to my second home, Toronto, many times. What usually happens is, I go to Toronto, get a job serving tables somewhere, do some auditions – then something would always come up in Newfoundland, some sort of creative gig, and I would make my way home. I find Newfoundland easier to navigate – I know it, it’s smaller, and so it was easier to become a big fish in a small pond. So I stayed. I could never justify staying away working at something I didn’t love, when I could go home and piece together a life doing something I did.

I spend a lot of my 20s envying my friends born close to the big centres in Canada. I wanted so badly to be able to spend time in Toronto, and then just hop on a bus for an hour to get back to my family. But NL is unique for many reasons – not the least of which is its isolation.

A lot of people in the arts in Newfoundland wear many hats and do a variety of jobs themselves. There are fewer of us, we have a smaller potential audience for our products, so we learn to do things differently. I used to feel somewhat ashamed of my patchwork history and of the trajectory of my career. Now I see that wearing all those hats, all the trials and errors I went through, all the mixed experiences I lived through, was for the best for me. I am now an artist, for better or for worse. I realize now that all I ever wanted was to be an artist, to have an artistic practice that I was proud of.

Yes of course I would have liked to have gotten famous. Yes I enjoy the lifestyle and diversity of Toronto and miss it. But I think I finally have freed myself from the ever-present what ifs? of my early 30s. Maybe it’s just age, maybe it’s that I’ve come to terms with my own circumstances, maybe I appreciate what living in Newfoundland has done for me.  Here I am, writing an article for a publication I love. 2019 was a fabulous year for me in my career and I won a theatre award. Maybe if I had stayed in Toronto I would have given up on the arts for a range of reasons. Someone once told me if you are happy, why waste time trying to figure out why? Everything must have worked out.

That could just be the wisdom that comes with getting older. And of course I want to be able to say I made all the right choices. I’m so happy I was able to travel to Toronto, and I’m lucky that I’ve been able to perform there fairly often. But I’m being sincere when I say that for me, staying has helped my career more so than leaving. I can appreciate that now and live in the moment. Maybe the big city life was too tough for me, but the hard life of being an artist isn’t – and that’s what I focus on now.

Monica Walsh is an actor, writer, producer and acting teacher. She is artistic director and founder of Kanutu Theatre and founder of Scene, and Blurred, an open mic series for writers and theatre artists. In 2018 she wrote, produced, and acted in her first sketch comedy show, The Mon Show, was the winner of the Rhonda Payne Theatre Award, and was chosen for the Emerging Writer Mentorship Program offered by WANL.