Labrador: Our People, Our Land, Our Flag

Last week the provincial government agreed to “officially” fly the Labrador flag at the Quebec-Labrador borders. Last fall, Labradorians took matters into their own hands and hoisted the flags themselves. This is one person’s story, a proud reflection of what it meant to be a Labradorian that day in September 2014 when the Labrador flag was flown against the government’s wishes, the day Labradorians said “Yes”.

Labrador unity is a powerful force. Colonization stripped a lot of that unity away over the years. Divide-and-conquer tactics, keeping people in crisis and reactive, and the impacts of being a minority in a Big Land continue to be a tall mountain to overcome for those of us who call Labrador home. Still, on Sept. 6, 2014, I was given the privilege to see Labrador unity firsthand. And not just see it — I got to feel it and truly be a part of it. It was and continues to be a life-changing moment in time for me that gives me hope and motivation to see that unity become more than a moment — to see it become the way of life that was intended for our people.

It was August 2014 when I first became aware that the Newfoundland government had denied the request from two groups—the Combined Councils of Labrador and the Labrador Heritage Society—to fly the Labrador flag at the two Labrador-Quebec border crossings. This request was in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Labrador Flag, an honourable symbol of the Labrador way of life, and of Labrador’s people, created by Michael Martin.

Being told “No” in such a public way, in such a determined fashion, and without consideration of what it implied to the respect of Labradorians, felt like such a stark reminder of being a minority, being a secondary thought, and being the underling of the Island master. It elicited a sense of indignation, and even stronger emotions, in me — a sense of pride in being a person of Labrador. I knew that this “No” could not be accepted. The rumblings and strong statements began to form a wave across Labrador that reassured me I was not alone in this feeling. I knew that something powerful was stirring in the hearts of Labradorians everywhere — unity was showing its strength. I was eager to put that feeling to action.

“There was never any doubt: the Labrador flag would fly at the borders”

It didn’t take long for the plans to come together, for people to form teams, and for social media and other public forums to get Labradorians connected and to turn thoughts into action. People at both borders, Labrador West and the Straits, began to see how the dream of flying our Labrador flag did not need the approval of anyone besides ourselves. Poles were cut, flags were purchased, volunteers enlisted, and dates were set. Sept. 5 for Labrador West and Sept. 6 for the Straits were selected as the historic dates when the people of Labrador would raise their flag. The sense of pride and unity grew as the people took to social media and open line radio shows and gathered around tables for conversation. There was never any doubt: the Labrador flag would fly at the borders.

It was early morning when James G. Learning picked me up in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Atop his old pickup truck was a beautifully crafted 30-foot Labrador Spruce flagpole, cut and prepared with pride and care, fastened tightly on a brace made especially for the occasion. Another vehicle joined with more passengers (Edward Mesher, Jim Purdy, and Jacinda Beals) and the excitement was palatable as we knew this was a historic journey. There was a power felt that day as we drove down the Trans-Labrador Highway, and that feeling grew the closer we got to the southern border. Everything synchronized perfectly upon our arrival at the border. We had exactly enough concrete, water, and materials to set the massive flagpole into its place in history. A few days prior two sons of Labrador hung the Labrador flag off the side of one of the steel flagpoles already bearing other flags being recognized at the site behind the “Welcome to the Big Land” sign. This flag was removed and called an act of vandalism, an insult that stuck with us as we worked with great purpose.

It’s amazing how destiny works, those moments when you know you are absolutely on the right path. The Labradorian who owned the flag that was confiscated, Shane Dumaresque, and his family, drove into the parking lot just as we were about to raise the flag pole into its concrete form. Funny how you can meet strangers and within moments become kindred souls, linked by a common sense of pride and intent, bonded for life in that moment. The flag pole went up and we all knew that what was happening would change us. This may sound a bit exaggerated, but still I say it in all sincerity: When it comes to pride and loyalty to our homeland, all Labradorians become brothers and sisters without question.

 Funny how you can meet strangers and within moments become kindred souls, linked by a common sense of pride and intent, bonded for life in that moment.

That was Sept. 5. We stopped then and watched social media closely as the people of Labrador West hoisted the Labrador flag on their border, then celebrated with them and gave a great cheer. Labradorians turned a “No” into a “Yes” by their own actions, and no one came forward to remove the flag or stop us. This further inspired us.

The morning of Sept. 6, we all awoke knowing that too would be a memorable day, one that would go down in the history books. The weather was overcast, but that did not dampen our spirits. In fact, the strong wind was encouragement that the flag would fly with force. It gave us courage. The invitations were out, posters circulated, social media events full of excited and encouraging posts. Today the Labrador flag would be at both borders, raised by the people of Labrador. There was a social media event to commemorate the date asking people everywhere to fly their Labrador flags and to post pictures, change profile photos, and hashtag messages of support: #FlyOurFlag, #OurLandOurFlag, and others. The unity was spreading far and wide. We were a people standing together as one under our beautiful white, green, and blue flag. The unity of the spruce twig was a reality we were all living that day.

More than 70 people of all ages came together in the large parking rest area that brisk afternoon, the sun peaking its way out, almost as if it sensed our energy and wanted to join us. Children were running around with Labrador flags, laughing excitedly and asking questions about the purpose of the event. Adults were just as excited, taking pictures and videos, and everyone was decorated in proud Labrador symbolism, flags, and colours. People flew flags from their vehicles and honked their horns. Elders gathered people around them, fuelling Labrador unity and pride with every conversation. The flagpole stood strong, awaiting its purpose as the ceremony began. Different people in attendance gave speeches, shared words, and read poems, with resounding cheers after each turn. I recall feeling inspired, so I shared my thoughts loudly: “This is not being put up by one person, this is not being put up by any political party, this is not being put up by any leadership. This is being put up by the people of Labrador!”

It was decided that the youngest and oldest of those in attendance would raise the flag together. Kiara Earle, three years old, came forward with her mom and Elder James G. Learning. The moment we had all been waiting for was here. Jacinda Beals began playing her guitar and sang “Labrador to the Core” as together we hoisted the first Labrador flag onto its pole at the southern Labrador border. History was made and we cheered, hugged, cried, and joined together to share in the energy of unity. We had stood up and done what we knew was right, and it was done with joyous celebration!

Government finally agrees to fly the flag “officially”

For seven months the flags have flown proudly at both borders, a symbol of Labrador unity that has remained untouched and well-protected. Pictures have been taken, stories shared, and the pride of having our beautiful flag, which perfectly represents our home and people, flying freely is still strongly felt by many. Last week, one day prior to the flag’s 41st anniversary, Minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Keith Russell stood in the House of Assembly to announce the government recognizes the pride and unity Labradorians feel and that the flag will be officially flown at both Labrador-Quebec borders — acknowledging Labrador’s uniqueness in the province on behalf of the Newfoundland government. My first reaction was that the flags are already officially flying — they were officially raised by the people of Labrador on Sept. 5 and 6, 2014.

I accept that government coming on side is a victory, as our Labrador flag will now be able to fly on a pole of the same length and stature as those currently at the border. The unity will be felt just as strongly when Labradorians see it flying alongside at equal height. The next day Labrador MHA Lisa Dempster stood in the legislature to acknowledge the anniversary of the Labrador flag and the historic days in September 2014 when the flags took their places at both borders, raised up by the people of Labrador. My heart swelled with pride that Labradorians were acknowledged for the unity they displayed last year. My next thoughts are of the flagpoles and the history that took place that weekend in September 2014. What will become of them? How will the history be preserved? And what action do we, as Labradorians, now need to take to ensure the truth is always told of the day Labradorians said “Yes” to the government’s “No” and took action?

A small crew of Labradorians erect a flag pole made of black spruce in preparation of Saturday's Labrador Flag raising ceremony at the Straits border between L'Anse au Loup and Blanc-Sablon. Photo by Jacinda Beals.
“When it comes to pride and loyalty to our homeland, all Labradorians become brothers and sisters without question.” — Denise Cole. Photo by Jacinda Beals.

There are many questions I feel deserve to be answered. I think of the children, our next generation of Labradorian leaders. Who will explain to those of them who were at the September 2014 ceremonies that they were the first ones to put up the flag, and that nothing will ever change that? How do we explain that by changing the flagpole it will help protect the flag, and how important it was that they were there in September? Who will tell them why it has all happened and what it all means?

When it comes to pride and loyalty to our homeland, all Labradorians become brothers and sisters without question. I wonder, will those who said “No” back in 2014 take ownership of their wrong decision? Will they acknowledge the people of Labrador who, all over the globe, stood up together, defied the government’s wishes, and raised the flag? I wonder, will the speeches at the next flag raising, officiated by government, acknowledge the people for the action they took last year, and will leadership admit a mistake was made on their part? Will the bridge to unity between government and people be mended and strengthened? Will plaques be put up on those sites to honour the flags that will be coming down? Will the people of Labrador come together in another show of unity to put those plaques in place?

I think of ways to preserve our history, as it is our responsibility as much as the government’s to honour the story of how the Labrador flags came to fly at both borders. As I write this, plans are already being made to archive the pictures, videos, articles, and other items that will give voice to this history in years to come. Conversations on fundraising to have plaques made and installed have also begun. Offers and suggestions on getting the flagpoles into museums and preserved have started. The unity may have been quiet over the months but I am reminded it has never gone away. It is always within us as Labradorians, waiting to step forward when the opportunity arises — same as we do for those in need, when emergencies happen, to celebrate victories, and to grieve losses. We are one people of one land under one flag — we are the people of Labrador!

I now know the power of the Labrador people to come together and create positive change, to stand strong and take action together, and to say “Yes” in the face of a “No”. Whether they were born here or have come from away to make it their home, Labradorians are a powerfully strong breed of people. When you love the Big Land, a kinship is formed, and a resiliency to thrive instilled. Our power to create our future is endless. It simply takes unity and people willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Raising the Labrador flags in September 2014 is proof of that which can never be taken away. I look forward to many more historic dates with the people of Labrador coming together. I know it is possible, and I am inspired to action. I am grateful to be a Labradorian!

Denise was raised in southern Labrador and is of Inuit descent. She sees herself as a Labrador Land Protector and Riverkeeper. She is active in environmentalism, social justice, and community engagement. Born with a love for the land, water, and culture, Denise continues to find ways to put passion into practice in the land she proudly calls home, Labrador.

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