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As of today, Newfoundland and Labrador’s formal law concerning the provincial coat of arms still refers to the two Indigenous people depicted on either side of the crest as “savages.”

Municipal and Provincial Affairs Minister Krista Lynn Howell clearly knows that this slur to describe the Beothuk people is a problem, which is why she initiated debate in the House of Assembly on October 20 to change the Coat of Arms Act, to remove the word “savages” and also add “and Labrador” to more accurately reflect the name of the province.

A standard coat of arms contains a central shield, a motto at the bottom, some adornments above the shield, and two supporters who stand on either side of the shield, and appear to be holding it up. 

The Canadian coat of arms has a lion and a unicorn acting as supporters. PEI’s coat of arms has two silver foxes—one wearing a garland of potato blossoms. (lol ok PEI, you do you.)

Only two provinces—Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nova Scotia—have humans as supporters, and in both cases, it’s Indigenous people who are depicted. 

For someone without much knowledge of the history involved, the Newfoundland and Labrador coat of arms might seem to be honouring the Indigenous people of the province. But it’s important to understand the actual history of the coat of arms.

In both Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, the coats of arms date back to the 17th century, in the early years of colonialism that would ultimately lead to Indigenous genocide.

The fact of the matter is that the current Newfoundland and Labrador coat of arms is fundamentally rooted in colonialism. By making small changes to edit a racial slur from the law, Howell calls attention to the fact the coat of arms is a relic of a colonial period which ultimately resulted in the Beothuk people being wiped out entirely.

The Newfoundland and Labrador coat of arms dates back to 1637, when King Charles I granted it to Sir David Kirke, who was mounting a colonialist expedition to the island of Newfoundland. 

Shortly thereafter, a civil war broke out between factions loyal to the king, and factions loyal to parliament. Charles I and Kirke were on the losing side, and the coat of arms was forgotten for more than 200 years.

The coat of arms was unearthed in the 1920s as part of the Imperial War Graves commission, and it was ultimately readopted by the Dominion of Newfoundland in 1928. By this point, Shanawdithit, the last living member of the Beothuk people, had been dead for nearly a century.

The word “savages” appears in Newfoundland and Labrador law directly quoting from the 1637 grant creating the coat of arms. 

“Needless to say, it is time that this legal description was changed and that is the purpose of the amendments that we are discussing today,” Howell said in the legislature.

“Actions that respect the culture and heritage of Indigenous peoples are an important step on the path to reconciliation. These proposed changes are part of the process of building an inclusive environment in the province. It’s a step forward in ensuring that the coat of arms more accurately reflects the people and cultures of the province.”

Both the PCs and the NDP voiced support for the change, but noted that Indigenous reconciliation has to be rooted in broader, more substantive action, rather than symbolic gestures.

In the lead-up to this legislative change, the provincial government ran a public engagement process that asked only three questions. The first question was just to ask respondents whether they self-identify as Indigenous. 

The second question was: “Do you agree that legislation should be amended to replace ‘two Savages of the Clyme pper armed and appareled according to their Guise when they goe to Warre’ with ‘two Beothuk’?”

The third question was a catchall, “ Do you have any additional comments you would like to add with regards to proposed changes to the Coat of Arms Act?” A number of people did suggest more substantive changes, although opinion was apparently all over the map, according to the What We Heard document.

Changing the actual coat of arms would be more difficult and contentious than simply changing a handful of words with the stroke of a pen. The coat of arms currently appears on the Mace of the House of Assembly, and it hangs above the Speaker’s chair in the Chamber. It is emblazoned on countless government buildings, documents and items. (As well as, for some reason, the lobby of the Holiday Inn in St. John’s.)

A new coat of arms would invite a contentious conversation about the province’s history, colonialism, and reconciliation with the Indigenous people who still call Newfoundland and Labrador home today.

In the legislature, when Howell referenced the public engagement process, she left the door open to that kind of process. But it doesn’t sound like it will be happening imminently.

“Some respondents also expressed a desire for us to go further. Some have suggested that the emblem itself be changed,” she said. “These steps that we’re proposing today are very important and there is nothing to prevent us from looking at further changes in the future. We continue to consult with Indigenous leaders as we move forward.”

James McLeod wrote about politics and current affairs at The Telegram for 10 years, and he authored Turmoil, As Usual, the best (and only) book about the 2015 N.L. provincial election campaign. He now works as a communications professional in Toronto and continues to write about current affairs from time to time.

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