Several reporters have asked me this week why I think Islanders have taken to the OpenCorporations project so enthusiastically — more than 250,000 searches by nearly 3,000 people in just 7 days. I gave a variety of answers, perhaps none really that accurate. Tonight my mind turned to history, and I recalled this passage from Canada’s Smallest Province, F.W.P. Bolger’s history of the Island. It’s from the chapter The Beginnings of Independence and concerns the divvying up of the Island to largely-absentee proprietors:
It is obvious, so far as the Board [of the Commissioners of Trade and Plantations] was concerned, the disposal of the land on St. John’s Island was regarded as nothing more than a cold and indifferent business venture. This approach was more than matched by a substantial portion of the original proprietors. Many of them disposed of their grants as rapidly as they could locate buyers; their interest in their property was as impersonal as the average modern stockholder’s in a major corporation. Within the next ten years, the ownership of fully one-fourth of the townships had changed hands. This rapidly changing proprietorship makes tracing the ownership of lots a veritable enigma.
And later in the same book:
Discontent and revulsion came from the urge for self-respect as well as the feeling of being exploited by alien landlords. All through North America the ownership of land was a mark of competence while tenantry was a badge of inferiority.
While it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to attempt to draw a direct parallel, I think it’s true to say that Islanders are, by nature, wary of proprietors, and that the roots of this can be traced, in part, to the turmoil of the land question.
Yes Islanders are curious — nosy, even — and perhaps that’s what drives much of the interest in knowing more about our corporations and who controls them. But I’m sure that some of that curiousity is driven by a healthy suspicion about those who engage “cold and indifferent business ventures.” That’s a good kind of curiousity to have, and one that I was trying to foster.