BY JAMIE FOSTER
On the 10 July 1997, for the first time, I engaged my democratic right to peacefully protest by carrying my 2 month old daughter in my arms on the Countryside Rally. At the time I didn’t believe that even a Labour Government would pass such an illiberal and discriminatory piece of legislation as the Hunting Act turned out to be. I didn’t know then that the Political Animal Lobby had given Blair a donation of £1M to ensure the Act would become law. While the papers spewed bile on Bernie Ecclestone for donating £1M to Labour to exempt Formula 1 from the tobacco advertising ban, this second million went unreported.
We now know from Blair and his contemporaries that the Act was a sop to the Left to soften them up for Iraq, and to be seen as revenge for the miners. This must have confused those miners who loved to hunt, but it warmed the hearts of those townies who felt the ban would hurt the toffs, who they imagined had profited from Mrs Thatcher’s desire not to subsidise uneconomic pits. The rally was, unsurprisingly, not like any protest before or since. Gates across London were closed behind ‘protestors’ and there was less litter in Hyde Park after the Yeomanry of England returned to the Shires. Despite the peaceful nature of the event passions were certainly high. They were passions that I had shared all my life.
This is not to say that I was brought up fox-hunting. I wasn’t. I was born in Ottawa, Canada. My father is a British GP who was employed by the Canadian Government. When I was two years old he was posted to Eastport, Newfoundland, where he was the only doctor for a 150 mile radius of a small fishing village. Eastport enjoyed 10’ of snow for nine months of the year. On Friday nights he would pack the family into his Volvo estate and drive 150 miles through a blizzard to the city of St Johns. He would fill the car with drugs for his surgery and turn around and drive 150 miles back to return to being on call 24 hours a day for 7 days a week. The idea of doctors striking because they don’t feel able to provide a 7 day NHS makes me smile.
Newfoundland was first claimed for Britain in 1583 when Sir Humphrey Gilbert arrived with letters patent from Elizabeth I. The colony that was established in the early 1600s was largely populated by émigrés from the West Country. Cut off from mainland Canada the island was largely insulated from outside influences. The Newfie accent still contains echoes of the Cornish and Devonian settlers who first arrived centuries before.
The passion that I learnt as a child growing up in this sub-arctic wilderness was the passion for community. Eastport, when we arrived, was the sort of hardy, warm, generous, fun loving community that anyone who has spent any time in the hunting field would instantly recognise. They braved the sub-zero temperatures to go out onto the ice and club seals. Having perfected clubbing over hundreds of years they were very good at ensuring that it was a quick and humane method of retrieving the sustainable food source that they lived alongside.
The Newfies would use every part of the seal. The meat was essential food in the long winters. The skins made clothing and other necessities. The blubber was burnt in lamps. Seals were free range, organic and entirely sustainable. As a result the Green lobby hated the practice of using them due to their ticking so many green boxes.
At about the same time we arrived the International Fund for Animal Welfare also arrived in Newfoundland. IFAW were the first ‘Antis’ that I encountered. They demanded that the Newfies stopped their traditions and turned to vegetarianism. Clearly ‘climate change’ wasn’t a green obsession back then so the idea of feeding an entire population of an island where vegetables don’t grow on air freighted tofu was considered ‘progressive.’
My father, as an English doctor, had to steer a careful path between the two warring sides in this crazy debate. He loved the Newfies deeply but was a man of the sixties and showed respect to the hippies and their ideals. One story summed up the conflict then and now for me perfectly.
My father used a boat to visit the outlying islands during the short summer months, when the sea wasn’t frozen and he couldn’t drive across it. As a child it was a great treat to be allowed to travel with him on these journeys. On one trip I remember us seeing two Newfie fishermen pulling energetically on a rope trailing off the side of their boat. As we got closer we saw that on the end of the rope was an IFAW protestor with a loop underneath his shoulders. The fishermen pulled him over the gunwales, rescuing him from the icy deeps.
My father was so impressed by this that he pulled up alongside them to congratulate them. “I know the troubles these people have brought to you and the threat they pose to your traditional way of life. Despite your differences you did the right thing and saved this fellow human from drowning. Well done chaps.”
As he piloted his boat back towards his destination, I could just make out what the two Newfies said to each other.
“Lovely man that Doctor.”
“Yes, lovely man. Doesn’t know a damned thing about shark fishing though… “