Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Stay The Blazes Home: StFX sociologists’ research on Nova Scotia’s pandemic motto featured in national media  

June 14th, 2021
StFX sociology professor Dr. Patricia Cormack and Dr. Lynda Harling Stalker are collecting data, with the help of graduate students Emma MacDonald and Evan Curley, on all aspects of the ‘Stay the Blazes Home’ phenomenon

When former Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil uttered the now infamous phrase ‘stay the blazes home,’ it resonated across the province, and beyond—including with two StFX sociology professors looking into why it struck such a chord. 

Dr. Patricia Cormack and Dr. Lynda Harling Stalker’s research into the phenomenon recently gained national attention when their work was featured in a National Post article, 'Stay the blazes home': Why this mild swear from a N.S. premier is the perfect pandemic motto. The article was part of a series of news stories about research presented at the Congress of Humanities and Social Science, held virtually this year from May 27 to June 4. 

Dr. Harling Stalker and Dr. Cormack are collecting data, with the help of graduate students Emma MacDonald and Evan Curley, on all aspects of the ‘Stay the Blazes Home’ phenomenon, including its popular manifestations to its move, full circle, back into official government messaging. 

“When Premier McNeil uttered his now famous line, ‘stay the blazes home,’ social media exploded with memes and playful posts. T-shirts were produced and bought up by the next day, followed by mugs, shot glasses, a beer, hand-painted signs, an eponymous book with a foreword by Dr. Strang and an afterward by McNeil, and a song by the Stanfields. What had the government hit upon in its messaging that had such resonance and why did Nova Scotians take up the motto with such enthusiasm?” says Dr. Cormack. 

“After all, staying home is hard. Nobody wants to do it.” 

She says they were hoping to learn about the role of collective identity, in this case provincial identity as Nova Scotians, that worked to support public health initiatives. 

“As jurisdictions closed along provincial lines, this level of government became critically important to people, as rules, guidelines and information came in the form of updates and press conferences from the premiers and their chief medical officers. Over time McNeil and Strang became somewhat local celebrities themselves as government messaging seems to have built on the success of ‘stay the blazes home.’ Premier Iain Rankin’s (who succeeded Premier McNeil) scripted utterance ‘what is wrong with you’ also engendered t-shirts and the like. But after Rankin became premier, Strang was often handed the strongly rhetorical lines, like ‘this is not the time to go to Costco to buy sandals,’ that again exploded into social media.”

Drs. Harling Stalker and Cormack say theoretically, the research is grounded in Norbert Elias’ work on the dynamics of “established” groups and “outsiders.” “He discusses how practices of ‘praise gossip’ and ‘blame gossip’ work to make members of a group conform to collective values,” Dr. Cormack says. “Praise gossips basically brags about how great ‘we’ are, while blame gossip talks about how ‘outsiders’ cannot be expected to live up to these same standards. Blame gossip is also used to discipline insiders who might deviate. That is exactly what McNeil did in his ‘stay the blazes home’ speech when he singled out the few while he also implicitly praised the many – ‘to the reckless and selfish, I’m talking to you.’” 

Their preliminary findings point to the importance of group identity toward public health. 

“While we often think of health as a matter of individual behaviors, and it is in part this, public health clearly also depends on a ‘buy-in’ from the public and a group identity that is pro-social and trusting of legitimate government officials and science more generally. We know that governments have struggled with this very problem as populism and conspiracy theories proliferate in a climate of fear. Early on, Statistic Canada data indicated that Nova Scotians were very positive about the idea of getting their vaccinations.”

So what appealed so much about the phrase?

“The Liberal Party writers for McNeil hit on the right tone that played up old-fashioned paternalistic anger and that reminds people of a time when elders would use words like ‘blazes,’ walking the fine line between polite speech and obscenity or swearing,” Dr. Cormack says. 

“‘Blazes’ is a stand-in for ‘hell,’ not much a profanity itself. This type of ‘restraint’ strikes us perhaps as quaint, but also embodies a call to restraint itself. If McNeil can play out controlled anger and frustration, but remain ‘civil,’ that is a strong call on Nova Scotians to do the same. You will notice how often press conferences address the audience as ‘Nova Scotians,’ as if we have something to prove to the ‘outside.’ Government posters that claimed that we are ‘known around the world for staying close to home,’ play up this notion that we have a collective reputation to uphold. As the Stanfields sang as they jumped around their living rooms, ‘think of the common good.’”

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