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How Labrador got its colours

By: | January 20, 2014

What the Big Land’s flag means after 40 years

View From the Mainland provides a Labradorian's perspective on issues facing Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Welcome back to the new and improved Indy!

When I was asked by my old social-activist-comrade and university-friend to write for The Independent, I had to take a pause. I was a fervent Labradorian, I flew our very own flag on my wall, mast, and shoulder and did much of my thinking through a Labrador lens. I was concerned that writing under a pink, white and green (PWG) banner might result in my being painted with the same colours. Silly me. I always had great respect for my Newfoundland separatist friends (whom I support for my own reasons), confidence in my own views, and what’s more, the concept of free and independent media that I feel lucky to participate in.

The PWG flag was designed, so they say, to represent peace and unity between two distinct peoples. It has since been adopted to represent the independent spirit of Newfoundlanders. Through oversight, or indifference, it has come to represent just the Island, however. Not all those who sport the PWG are separatists, but certainly all who feel the nationalistic sentiment wear it over their hearts.

Though, you might not feel entirely safe to fly the PWG in Labrador, perhaps because it represents taking Labrador out of a country it was more than happy to join (and receive infrastructure and services from, many for the first time). Or, perhaps it’s because, unlike its PWG counterpart, the Labrador flag is entirely ubiquitous here, leaving little room to adopt another identity. No big surprise though considering the social and cultural environment from which it was born.

The year was 1969

Disaffected MHA Tom Burgess (of Labrador West) quit the Liberal party (he didn’t get his promised cabinet seat) and formed the New Labrador Party (NLP). In a growing recognition of the disparity between Labrador infrastructure and services versus those available on the island, support for the party grew quickly. By 1971 the entire province was politically divided, leaving Joey Smallwood and Frank Moores with a hung parliament and a quasi-separatist NLP holding the balance of power come election time. Yikes. Long story short, Burgess was courted by both parties, Smallwood stepped down, and promises were made for Burgess to rejoin the Liberals and become their leader and the Premier. He was drummed out.

That didn’t stop Mike Martin, Labrador’s first home-born MHA, from winning in a 1972 by-election under the New Labrador Party banner. Needless to say, these were politically tumultuous times. Newfoundland’s communities were rallying around the first new government since confederation. Labrador’s communities were still grappling with huge infrastructure gaps during a time when Churchill Falls, the Labrador West mines, and changes to the military base in Goose Bay were all seeming to benefit outsiders more than locals.

What’s more…

Labradorians (new and old settlers, Kublunangajuit (Inuit-Metis), Innu and Inuit) received many of their services from the companies themselves, the military, or the federal government. To many Labradorians, the Newfoundland government seemed little more than an abstract concept, but one which benefited in no small way from Labrador’s resources with little return to locals, except to enforce laws that existed only on paper.

By the mid-1900s, Labradorians were in the midst of a great sociopolitical change and may not have been aware of the root causes. Until then government presence in Labrador was truly minimal, leaving each community with a sense of blissful, yet stark, independence from each other. Yet there was a clear need for communities to organize and fight for services; in 1972 the communities of Northern Labrador started what is now the Combined Councils of Labrador.

Time for a symbolic change

In 1973 the Moores government, perhaps sensing its own shaky hold on power, asked the citizens of the province to adopt special projects to commemorate the 25th anniversary of confederation (perhaps to distract the public?). That’s when Mike Martin, along with members of the “Labrador Brotherhood”, his wife, and a few others decided over the Christmas holidays to design Labrador’s very own flag. Up until this point, the official flag of the province was the colonial Union Jack (the current Newfoundland flag wasn’t introduced until 1980).

There’s an account of the flag’s creation in Mr. Martin’s own words here, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted how quickly and fervently it would be adopted. It was officially introduced on March 31, 1974. The 64 original flags were given to each of the Labrador communities to hoist on this day, and one each to the three MHAs in the Newfoundland House of Assembly. Within months the colours were flying everywhere. This was partly in response to political unrest, but in large part I think people believed in the idea of unity amongst the communities (read about the meaning of the flag). It’s not an anti-newfoundland flag. It’s not a separatist flag. It’s a flag to celebrate the diverse identities of Labrador in a single image.

So what?

March 31, 2014 will mark the Labrador flag’s 40th anniversary. It has been co-opted and rallied behind for political purposes over the decades; near the end of every government that got too big for its own britches (every three terms or so, it seems, in this province) Labrador nationalistic sentiments also seem to rise. The flag’s existence grew out of a sense of neglect and a lack of recognition of the distinct nature of Labrador and Labradorians. Its colours have since been reflected in all three Aboriginal groups’ own flags, as well as the majority of the municipal flags in Labrador.

We simply have different identities, and different ethno-histories – our two parts of the province. If we recognize this we will work better together.

I don’t expect the provincial government to rush to ‘officialize’ the Labrador flag anytime soon, but I would like to see a little more recognition that we are indeed a partnership province. In the same way Trinidad and Tobago or St. Pierre and Miquelon are recognized dualities, so too should Labrador; not one side co-opting the identity of the other, in a whitewash, like when people say ‘NLers’ instead of ‘NLians’ (tacking on ‘er’ in the phrase Newfoundland and Labrador’er’ when one simply means ‘Newfoundlander’), or throw the word Labrador on like when one says “Central Newfoundland and Labrador” (which is near North West River by the way, not Gander).

These things serve to drive Labradorians out from under the inclusivity umbrella. We simply have different identities, and different ethno-histories – our two parts of the province. If we recognize this we will work better together. However, the longer it’s ignored, the longer the wound will fester, erupting in yet another Labrador nationalistic era.

So, cool on the Indy for redesigning the masthead to feature both our unofficial, independent-spirited flags. We should all strive to recognize the duality of the province.

For those of us in Labrador, we should strive to work together more as distinct but connected communities, and as four distinct peoples.

If you’re interested in working on the planning committee for the 40th Anniversary of the Labrador flag, feel free to contact me!

In unity.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @LabradorLibre.

 

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