Dissidence grows over province’s refusal to fly Labrador flag

As Labrador Affairs Minister Nick McGrath backs province’s refusal to fly Labrador flag at entry points to the Big Land, the flag’s creator speaks out against the decision, while at least two flag raising ceremonies are being planned in protest

When Holly Greenleaves left her home in Pinsent’s Arm, Labrador last Thursday to drive to Newfoundland she was excited to see that the two Labrador flags someone had appended to the province’s welcome sign at the Labrador-Quebec border were still there.

A silk flag was strung to the back of the sign, visible to those leaving Labrador, and a small souvenir-sized flag was taped to the front of the sign, “right in the centre between ‘Newfoundland’ and ‘Labrador’,” Greenleaves told The Independent Monday evening, after returning from her road trip to St. John’s.

“I’d seen pictures of the flag on the back of the sign on Facebook, just floating around — various people had pictures of it,” she said. But it was the small flag taped to the front of the sign that gave her an idea.

“I said I’d check in the gift shop on our way back and just add one, take a picture and share it on Facebook and get people to start a trend. Then I bought a flag on the ferry and came back and they were gone, so I thought I better not put it up there because I didn’t know what happened.”

In one Labrador Facebook group Monday people were speculating over who removed the flags, and on Monday afternoon Labrador West MHA and the Minister responsible for Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs, Nick McGrath, confirmed that the government had taken them down, saying the sign had been “defaced”. The provincial flag, the Canada flag, and the British flag all fly above the government’s welcome sign.

“Somebody did take a desktop flag and scotch-taped it to the front of the sign…and then there was a Labrador flag — a regular silk flag — that was put up on the back of the sign,” McGrath told The Independent.

McGrath also said someone had shot at the sign, though it’s unclear whether they used a “pellet gun” or a “regular gun”. It’s also unclear whether the flags and the gunshot holes stem from the same people.

“This is government property…and somebody chose to deface that property. Our job is to maintain that particular piece of property, so we removed the damage that was done and we also removed the flags because they were put there illegally,” McGrath said.

“Labradorians have to stand up and take matters into their own hands”

Earlier this year Labradorians celebrated the 40th anniversary of their flag, which was created by former New Labrador Party MHA Mike Martin in 1974 as a “statement of identity”. But when requests by the Combined Councils of Labrador and the Labrador West Heritage Society for the government to fly the Labrador flag at the entry points to the Big Land were denied, people began growing indignant.

“I’m slightly offended of how they’re telling us no, instead of just sitting down and saying ‘this is the reason’, they’re saying no, bluntly ‘no’,” Jordan Brown, President of the Labrador West branch of the Labrador Heritage Society, told The Independent Monday.

“I think the government’s always been scared of [the flag] — it’s always been a taboo thing. ‘It riles up the separatists’, right?”

Brown said he takes the Labrador flag and Labrador independence as “two separate issues,” though he acknowledges many in Labrador interpret the blue, white and green as a symbol of political autonomy for the mainland portion of the province.

Martin, who now lives in Newfoundland, says even when the flag was conceived four decades ago it wasn’t intended as an emblem for an independent Labrador. “It had nothing to do with whether we wanted to be a part of the province or not,” he said on Monday.

Martin does believe though that it’s time for Labradorians to “take matters into their own hands,” particularly in light of the escalating controversy over the flag.

“Every time the government denies Labradorians their just right, they get angrier and angrier…and one of these days it’s going to come to a breaking point and they’re gonna do something about it,” he said.

“From British colonial times they have let other people decide what’s good for them, and it’s never been good for them. So I’m happy as hell that everybody’s getting angry. And the more the government refuses to do what Labradorians want, that’s great, because Labradorians have to stand up and take matters into their own hands.”

Labrador “a colony of a colony” that now has its own flag

Two of Labrador’s four MHAs, including Tory member for Lake Melville Keith Russell, have publicly supported the call for the government to fly the Labrador flag at the entry points to Labrador. But McGrath has remained steadfast in his position.

“The stance that the provincial government has is that there is one provincial flag, and we have to recognize that,” he said Monday. “I get requests within the Department of Transportation and Works on a regular basis from many different organizations, many different municipalities, associations…to have [various] flags flown at the gateways as well as at the Confederation Building. And what we fly is the official flag of the province, and there is one official flag of the province and that’s not going to change.”

Asked if he could understand why many people in Labrador—particularly indigenous people, survivors of colonization—might relate more to the Labrador flag than one displaying the Union Jack, McGrath said he thinks it’s “very unfair to compare the Labrador flag or any other flag with the Union Jack.”

Newfoundland was a colony of England, and then it was a colony of Great Britain, and now it’s a colony of Canada. And throughout that whole history Labrador has been a colony of a colony. So yeah, we’re different.  — Mike Martin

“The Union Jack has a very strong significance for many people within Newfoundland and Labrador. And every time I see the Union Jack flying I look at it with the greatest of pride that it gave us the style of life that we’re accustomed to today and the freedom that we have today. It was under that flag that many people made the ultimate sacrifice and I don’t think we should ever underestimate that.”

In response partly to McGrath’s comments regarding the flag and in part to the general conception that Labrador is comparable to other parts of the province and therefore not deserving of its own official flag, Martin was quick to offer a perspective shared by many Labradorians.

“There was a quote from an ordinary citizen out in Conception Bay last week — and I’ve heard it for 40-odd years: ‘Labrador is no different from the Avalon Peninsula, the Burin Peninsula or Twillingate. They’re just another part of the province.’ Well step back and take a look at this — and this is what McGrath is not doing: we are not the same as the Avalon and the Burin and Twillingate because we are a different geographic entity. That’s indisputable. We have a different climate, we have a different set of circumstances up there. We’re separated by a whole bunch of water. We are culturally different people because we don’t have the same set of circumstances in our colonization. Colonization in Labrador happened differently. You don’t have the same indigenous mix in Burin as you do in Labrador,” Martin continued.

“Newfoundland was a colony of England, and then it was a colony of Great Britain, and now it’s a colony of Canada. And throughout that whole history Labrador has been a colony of a colony. So yeah, we’re different … And the flag was simply made to demonstrate the difference.”

Brown grew up a few doors down from McGrath and said he has written to the Minister to request further discussion on the government’s refusal to fly the Labrador flag. Asked if he thought McGrath might be under pressure to deny the request, Brown said he doesn’t think there’s influence “coming from too high at the top,” but instead the decision may attributable to a general sentiment from “probably a lot of people who have been around and are afraid of the symbol.”

“I think it comes to a point in our province where instead of trying to roll all our culture and heritage into one ball, why don’t we just celebrate all our differences and let it all out?”

Flag raising ceremonies being planned in protest

NunatuKavut elder and land protector Jim Learning, who was arrested last year for resisting the controversial Muskrat Falls hydroelectric mega-dam—and who subsequently endured a hunger strike in solitary confinement before being released—has been advocating for Labrador self-determination and feels Labradorians should not have to ask permission to fly their own flag.

In response to the flag controversy, Learning and a few others are organizing a flag raising ceremony at the Labrador Straits border. The flag will be raised on a “planted Labrador black spruce pole at Noon on Saturday, September 6th, at the Quebec Southern Labrador Border,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

Denise Cole, a resident of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and well-known land protector who has been vocal in her opposition to the Muskrat Falls project, is helping coordinate the event.

“Anywhere the Labrador people are, or anyone who wants to stand in solidarity with the people of Labrador, what we’re asking them to do is fly the flag any way they can and take a picture of that and post it to the event page,” she told The Independent on Monday, explaining people did not have to be in attendance on Sept. 6 to participate.

“Our intention is to show a voice of solidarity, and have unity and pride in our Labrador flag,” she continued.

“We’re well aware that when we put it up there’s going to be a strong chance that they will take it down, and then we’ll put it up again. If they want to have this fight with us then we’ll try to start having people who will protect our flag.”

Meanwhile, Brown said he is in the process of coordinating a flag raising ceremony in Labrador West.

“I’ve been speaking with people back home about a protest,” he said. “We’ll probably go and protest at the border, get some people together and protest with a bunch of Labrador flags.”

Cole summed up the intended message of the September flag raising ceremony at the Straits border: “We’re basically saying that [the provincial government’s] consent isn’t necessary. Their cooperation would have been appreciated, but their flat-out arrogant ‘No’ sent a loud message to us, and so we’re sending a loud message back. We don’t need your ‘OK’ to put up our flag in our land.”

Greenleaves said she wants to see the flag up at the borders soon. “The Labrador flag is really important to me, so I want my children to know what it is and what it means and where it came from.”

Jordan Brown and his wife LeeAnn Toomashie used the Labrador flag in a recent photo shoot before their wedding. Photo by Jenna Moland.
Jordan Brown and his wife LeeAnn Toomashie used the Labrador flag in a recent photo shoot before their wedding. Photo by Jenna Mouland.

For more information visit the Facebook page for the Sept. 6 event at the Straits border.

Correction: The original version of this story contained an emotionally-charged quote from one source regarding another person interviewed for the story. Independent editors decided to remove the quote because, while it reflected the intense emotion of the issue, it did not contribute any important facts to the article and violated The Independent’s terms of publication.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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