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An Open Letter to Dwight Ball on “Discovery Day”

By: Lindsay Batt | June 25, 2017

Let’s call it “Reconciliation Day” instead.

Dear Dwight Ball, Premier and Minister of Intergovernmental and Indigenous Affairs,

I am writing this letter to you in regards to Discovery Day, the provincial statutory holiday celebrating John Cabot’s “discovery” of this province — held on June 26 this year.

I have several issues with this particular holiday, beginning with the fact that this Italian sailor’s name was actually Giovanni Caboto. Whether it was because his voyage was under the King of England or the fact that his name is not English enough for our ears I am not certain, but somehow everything in this province has been named Cabot instead of Caboto. It seems a bit crass to refer to someone by their anglicized name rather than their actual name, especially given that he left behind such a vast legacy that this province keeps capitalizing on.

The fact remains that the place had been bustling with Indigenous Peoples—and for a short time the Norse Vikings—thousands of years before he happened upon this rock.

My second issue with this day is the name itself—because good ol’ Giovanni did not discover anything. He showed up on his boat in 1497, and while we can speculate about what he saw that day the fact remains that the place had been bustling with Indigenous Peoples—and for a short time the Norse Vikings—thousands of years before he happened upon this rock.

Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism has also referenced this fact in their latest Canada 150 advertisement, Age is Just A Number, which follows a timeline from 3.9 billion years ago to present. They even placed “discovered” in quotation marks on their website. Do you see the irony here? If I popped over to England today and claimed to discover it, even though people have lived there for millennia, do you think the local governments would accept my claim and give me a holiday? It is ludicrous.

This year we find ourselves in a strange trifecta of holidays all happening in rapid succession: National Aboriginal Day, Discovery Day and Canada’s 150th birthday. We begin by “celebrating” the First Peoples in this province (although that needs work too; the province should do more to celebrate it than just issue a press release); the next week we celebrate an explorer who “discovered” the Island even though we know he didn’t actually discover it because Indigenous people were already here; and lastly we jump right into celebrating Canada’s official consolidation.

What all this ought to remind us is that the past 150 years — in fact, the past 7,000 years — have marked a lengthy period of Indigenous Peoples’ resistance to colonialism.

Some easy solutions

There are straightforward, concrete solutions we can take action on to tackle this problem of continuing to celebrate a myth while downplaying Newfoundland and Labrador’s true history of colonialism.

First of all, let’s rename the day already — it is long overdue. I suggest calling it ‘Reconciliation Day’. We could establish annual goals to move the province closer to reconciliation with the First Peoples here. Then, provide annual check-ins to ensure that the set objectives are being met. If they are not, we should determine the reasons why and address them.

We could also align the statutory holiday with National Aboriginal Day on June 21, so that people in this province can participate in events on that day. We could follow the example set this year by Yukon and pave the way for other provinces to follow suit.

Another small gesture on the province’s path to Truth and Reconciliation could be to create a memorial to all of the children who perished at the hands of residential schools and to honour the more than 800 survivors in this province. The rest of Canada seems eager to forget the five schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, and while this province is riddled with memorials to other disasters and wars, we have yet to own, acknowledge and remember this is one legacy.

Also, commit your government to ongoing, active decolonization practices which could include:

  • Cultural diversity training for government officials and employees with the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre;
  • Sit down in a community like Nain and discuss the abhorrent cost of food and how your removal of the Air Foodlift Subsidy Program has further weakened food security in the north;
  • Meet with the Innu Nation and ask them what they need to address the suicide and addictions crisis so many of our people are facing;
  • Speak with the many Mi’kmaq from this province who are disenfranchised by the status registration process and join forces with them to challenge the federal government’s colonial and racist Indian Act;
  • Work with Miawpukek to speed up the repatriation of the Beothuk remains from Scotland so these bones can finally come home to rest;
  • Create a land acknowledgement and use it regularly at the beginning of every public meeting.

Finally, reevaluate your ongoing practices of colonialism against land protectors and other resisting the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador. These people have been pleading for years that the project would damage their land, poison their food and destroy their way of life, and yet they continually have to demonstrate and shout for you to listen.

Nalcor and your government are both implicated in this mess and both of you continue to persecute people for speaking out about their deepest fears and acting in self-defence. I cannot imagine what it must be like to inhabit your ancestral lands and now live in terror of drowning in your bed or living to see your children suffer the consequences of methylmercury poisoning.

A crown corporation under your leadership is pursuing charges against journalist Justin Brake (editor of this publication) for reporting on events that no other media source would touch, risking his freedom and career to make sure people knew exactly what was happening in Labrador. You also oversaw the incarceration of an Inuk grandmother, Beatrice Hunter, who is only trying to protect her family. You keep saying that you are always open to discussions with Indigenous leaders, but these examples prove that you are not.

Colonialism was once the image of Caboto landing upon foreign shores, but a little more than 500 years later that image has morphed into the insidious images of people in Labrador being handcuffed and arrested by police, of Indigenous Peoples sitting in court to face charges for defending their land, of heavy equipment destroying and poisoning Indigenous land and waters, of Indigenous people blockading the offices of a government that does not listen to them.

The image of colonialism today is that of Indigenous Peoples fighting for their rights against a government that is doing absolutely everything to stop them.

Until ‘Discovery Day’ is finally changed and reconciliation is achieved, we can at least use the day to discover more about ourselves and reflect on our interactions with, and ongoing colonialism against, Indigenous Peoples in this province.

Lindsay Batt
CFS-NL Indigenous Students Representative
Qalipu Mi’kmaq Woman

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