Do you ever get that sinking feeling, as you’re playing a board game with someone, and you realize that not only is your opponent going to lose, but they’re playing so badly that they’re going to utterly humiliate themselves beyond redemption?
And so, feeling sort of bad for them, you start trying to help your opponent out a bit – not taking advantage of every mistake they make, opening up opportunities for them on the board, hinting at answers if it’s a trivia game – all in the hopes that their eventual loss won’t be quite so embarrassingly soul-crushing?
But then you realize, to your horror, that no matter what you do, no matter how much you try, your opponent doesn’t seem to clue in and understand that you’re trying to help? Instead, they continue flubbing up with extravagant abandon, digging themselves into a hole so deep you start to worry for the tectonic viability of the planet…
Provincial government does it again
Last month, the Combined Councils of Labrador made a request to the provincial government in St. John’s for the Labrador flag to be flown at border crossings into Labrador. It wasn’t the first time they asked: a similar request was made in 2008. This being the 40th anniversary of the Labrador flag, it seemed like an appropriate time to do it. But now, as then, the answer from the provincial government was a resounding no.
This was delivered in a letter from Labrador Affairs minister Nick McGrath to the Combined Councils. “Our NL provincial flag represents the entire province, including Labrador,” stated the letter. “Therefore we do not plan on flying the Labrador flag at our provincial borders.”
In a province where the island-based government has an uncanny ability to come up with new ways of antagonizing Labrador on a regular basis, this was – to return to the board game analogy – a nice, easy opportunity to win a bit of credibility back. And, with unnerving consistency, the provincial government opted for the loser way out.
As Combined Councils Executive Director Margaret Rumbolt stated in a recent CBC interview, the request was to fly the Labrador flag alongside the provincial flag, not as a replacement. The flag being 40 years old, there is now an entire generation that has grown up with it. The Labrador flag even pre-dates the provincial flag (which was designed by artist Christopher Pratt and adopted in 1980). You can read all about its history here and here.
The provincial government’s knee-jerk response to a request from the people of Labrador for an acknowledgement of their distinct identity is not a constructive one. When it comes to respecting and acknowledging regional or cultural identity, the appropriate response is not: “Why should we?”
The appropriate response ought to be: “Sure! Why not?”
After all, so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody – why not? Regional identity and difference ought to be praised, not suppressed. Newfoundland, of all places, ought to know that better than anyone. Once again, there’s a painfully hypocritical double standard involved in a province which has for so long struggled for the legitimate acknowledgement of – and sense of pride in – its own distinct identity, to turn around and arbitrarily deny that right of proud self-expression to others.
Flags? Sure, we got flags!
For a good example of why there’s nothing wrong with flying multiple flags, all one needs to do is take a stroll down to New Gower Street in downtown St. John’s. There, in front of the grey concrete bunker otherwise known as City Hall, one will come face to face with a whole array of brightly coloured flags. There’s one for each province. There’s one for the country. Earlier this month there was a Pride flag; sheesh, on occasion it’s even flown the Tibet flag!
And each time some flag other than the Pratt flag was raised, guess what happened?
That’s right. It was that uneventful! (Well, except for the Tibet flag, which drew remonstrance from China. But if China-on-Tibet is your role model for Newfoundland-on-Labrador, Minister McGrath – wrong role model!)
Anyway, the point is this. A flag is a relatively inexpensive brightly coloured piece of cloth that has some association with some place for some people. There’s a great variety of them flown across this country and across this province. If we can fly the flag of New Brunswick (and Manitoba, and PEI and all those other provinces and territories) at Mile One of the Trans Canada Highway, and not just the Maple Leaf, then surely we can be big enough to fly the flag of Labrador – as chosen by its communities – at the doorway to, well, Labrador!
We really should not need to be having this discussion. A politically mature province or country, with a secure sense of pride in itself and its people, would not be refusing to allow a region to fly the flag that means something important to that region.
The fact that they do refuse it, and with such dismissive ardour, suggests a much more deeply rooted sense of malaise and insecurity than the provincial government is letting on.
Ditch the colonial attitude, b’ys
In fact, it suggests that the provincial government is afraid of the growing sense of self – the growing sense of pride and unity – being expressed by our mainland partners in Labrador. By refusing the right of Labrador’s communities to fly their own flag, the provincial government cannot erase the emerging sense of self in Labrador. But it can try to hide it from the outside, which is precisely what it is trying to do. And in so doing, the mandarins of 100 Prince Philip Drive show that they have failed to grasp one of the oldest history lessons in the book (and one which has defined most Newfoundlanders’ experience as well for most of our history) – by trying to smother a region’s sense of self-identity, all you do is fan its flames.
What’s awkward for the provincial elites who are trying to suppress Labrador’s flag, is that the region’s sense of defiance is growing stronger at the same time as the island’s sense of impunity in draining it of resources and wealth is growing more furious and demanding. There’s now money to be made off (and in, and under) Labrador – how awkward that suddenly it wants to assert its own control over its destiny (and maybe spend some of that wealth right where it comes from, in building modern housing and roads)!
Colonialism and exploitation is easier to mask when there’s no malice intended: when the intentions are good (if misguided), when there’s a pretense at equality and an honest effort to do the right thing.
But when colonialism and exploitation are joined by arrogance and pride, their dark nature becomes more truly apparent. And in the attitude of the island-based provincial government toward Labrador, we are increasingly seeing the dark and arrogant pride that will be the undoing of our partnership if it is not turned around. We see it in the way the ‘costs’ of Muskrat Falls are reduced to the price of cement and steel on the market. We see it in the way ‘getting the job done’ quickly and cheaply is prioritized over meeting the project commitments to hiring locally. We see it in the lack of paved roads, modern hospitals, and cell phone coverage across our mainland partner; while island elites gorge themselves at the pop-up master chef dining tables of Water Street.
As others have written more eloquently than I, it is Labrador that holds NL’s future in its hands, not the other way around. The island’s political elites ought to be delighted, ecstatic, grateful that Labrador is willing to share its bounty. They ought to be proud to fly the Labrador flag alongside that pointedly symbolic banner we call a provincial flag. It’s not an onerous obligation.
It’s an honour.
But instead of choosing the honourable route to a constructive friendship, they choose the arrogant dismissal of pride, greed and power. That is not the attitude that will build a strong Newfoundland and Labrador for the 21st century. It is an attitude that will tear it apart in a self-recriminating and divisive fury of resentment, greed and alienation.
So: big up, b’ys. Hoist that blue, white and green and be proud of it. Let it fly with the pride and dignity it deserves, and let the world know we are better than the events of earlier this month would make us out to be.
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