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The ‘Newfoundland and Labrador’ naming fiasco

in Featured/Hang On a Sec by

First of two parts.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the province’s official name change from “Newfoundland” to “Newfoundland and Labrador.” Good a time as any to say, “OK, I’ve had it.” Enough is enough.

I can get used to almost anything.

One and two-dollar bills? Don’t miss them. Provincial flag? Actually starting to like it.  Pitcher plant provincial logo? Still think it looks Grade 4, but they’re cute when they dance. I even got used to Danny’s pre-surgery hair and seeing so many luxury cars on St. John’s streets. And it’ll take me no time flat to get used to being penniless, when we finally ditch them.

But, God forgive me, I still can’t gag down “Newfoundland & Labrador.”

Canada’s provincial names are interesting to examine, length-wise. British Columbia has six syllables. Prince Edward Island has five.  Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Ontario all have four syllables. New Brunswick and Alberta – three. Quebec – just two. They always come out on top.

Four syllables seem to be the maximum Canadians can deal with before abbreviating. Being above that, BC and PEI are almost always so-called.

A mouthful and a half. Continued on next breath.

“Newfoundland and Labrador” has SEVEN syllables. A mouthful and a half. Continued on next breath.

If you’re one of those who still think of Newfoundland (& Labrador) as a country, there are interesting country comparisons too.

Of the 257 countries in the world, 14 have “this and that” names. Antigua & Barbuda; Saint Kitts & Nevis; Turks & Caicos Islands; Trinidad & Tobago, etc.

Of the 14, only Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia & Montenegro are located on a mainland. Considering their recent political history, I think I’ll leave those two (or four?) undiscussed.

The other 12 “and” countries are islands, numbering from (at least) a pair of islands to a fair-sized group. In virtually all cases, locals refer to themselves simply as islanders, as do residents of PEI.

Islanders. What a nice, simple solution. If only we had something like that to fall back on.

Part mainland, part island

But we’re not all islanders. Being part mainland and part island is unusual, and problematic. And there being an island named Newfoundland, and (formerly) also a province named Newfoundland, comprised of more than just the island, was also a problem. And the patriotism associated with two proud but separate histories, each long isolated from the other, both going back hundreds of years, made the problem of what to call what impossibly complicated. The naming solution we adopted poses problems that even the crackling minds of Danny Williams and his speechwriters couldn’t solve.

I thought Danny’s resignation speech was a classic – the speech of a lifetime. I bought it; paid cash. Having said that, when he came to, “And it made me so very, very proud to be a Newfoundlander and a Labradorian,” I had to physically restrain myself from heading for the nearest doorjamb and pounding my forehead upon it.

“I’m proud to be an Englishman and a Scotsman.”

It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t sound any more sensible than hearing a person say, “I’m proud to be an Englishman and a Scotsman.” It imposes awkwardness on everyday expressions. You can’t say, “I’m a proud Newfoundlander,” without sounding dismissive of Labrador.

Meanwhile, people in Labrador are free to say, and I’m sure do say daily, “I’m a proud Labradorian,” because it’s in the nature of the disaffected to thumb their noses at the central power.

Whose bright idea was this name-change thing, anyways?

I used to think we had Brian Tobin to thank for all this. But it goes way, way back to one Joseph Roberts Smallwood and the Labrador Act of 1964.

The Labrador Act provides for the inclusion of symbols representing Labrador in our coat of arms, and then comes the biggie: “In all publications of and in all stationery used by any Department of the Government of Newfoundland, wherever a reference is made to the province, a reference shall be made also to Labrador as part of the province.”

Labrador 101

It wasn’t about keeping Labradorians happy, if that’s what you’re thinking. It was about keeping Labrador.

In 1927, the Privy Council of the British Government, settling a border dispute between the Dominion of Canada and the Colony of Newfoundland, ruled that the border between Labrador and Quebec would be set at the “height of land,” to include all territory whose waters flowed east to the Atlantic. Canada had claimed it should follow the coast, extending just a mile or two inland. It was a huge victory for Newfoundland; bitter disappointment for Quebec. They must have kicked themselves for not having bought Labrador when it was offered to them in 1925.

Quebec has never fully recognized that border, to this day.

Quebec has never fully recognized that border, to this day. And there was talk in Quebec in the 50s that one way to get Western Labrador, at least, was simply to populate it, and then hold a referendum on joining Quebec. Meanwhile, the iron ore mine at Wabush began production in 1961; Labrador City started up in 1962, the same year Brinco proved the feasibility of the Churchill Falls hydro project.

Smallwood knew that royalties from Labrador resources would be key to the province’s future solvency (if it could ever be achieved). And Quebec’s lust for Labrador must have had him drove. So, like you would, he did whatever he could to continually remind everyone, Quebec in particular, that Labrador was very much part of Newfoundland. That’s why he enacted the Labrador Act. And that’s also why, at the opening of the Churchill Falls project, he was yelling so loudly, “This is OUR LAND. This is OUR RIVER.”

The “whereas” section of the Labrador Act spends over 250 words on the border between Labrador and Quebec, even quoting the Privy Council’s exact delineation of the border. Following that, it spends just 27 more words: “And whereas it is deemed desirable to give full official recognition in all matters to that large, important, and rapidly growing part of this Province called Labrador,” be it resolved …

I don’t think anyone who’s studied the matter would argue that dealing with Labrador disaffection was the prime motivation for the Labrador Act. Joey’s aim was to push a sharp stick into Quebec’s eye.

In two weeks, part two of ‘The ‘Newfoundland and Labrador’ naming fiasco’ traces the route from the 1964 Labrador Act to a 2001 change in the Canadian Constitution.

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