Ever since it was made part of Newfoundland, Labrador seems to have served solely as a resource provider for the island portion of the province. However, as of this summer, the unofficial Labrador flag has been flying at its borders, hoisted by residents tired of being milch cows for the rest of the province. A small “quiet revolution.”
At the border on the road between Fermont, Quebec and Labrador City, the fleur-de-lys flag on one side flies opposite no fewer than four flags on the other side: those of Canada, Newfoundland, the United Kingdom and — since September — the flag of Labrador. The flag features a broad white band representing snow, blue representing water, green for the land and a small spruce branch at the top right. It’s been popping up in front yards and on balconies. While some on the island see this as hostile separatism, Labradorians see it as sending the message “enough is enough.”
Though the population is barely 30,000, there is a surprisingly complex Labrador identity. Almost a third of the people are Métis, Innu or Inuit, the latter being divided into northern and southern Inuit. Then there are the whites on the coast, descendents of the first fishermen. Finally there are the whites of the Labrador Trough, the most recent arrivals, who came to work in the mines starting in the 1960s.
The territory now known as Labrador, with an area slightly greater than that of Great Britain, came under British control after the conquest of 1760. It served mainly as a source of lumber and fish. A 1927 decision of the Privy Council in London finally attached it officially to Newfoundland, without any attempt to consult the inhabitants, either white or Aboriginal. “No one asked my grandfather if he wanted to be part of Newfoundland or Quebec!” says Yvonne Jones, the Liberal MP for Labrador, who hails from the coast.
Newfoundland, at the time a British colony next door to Canada, was never that eager to hang on to Labrador, as evidenced by four attempts to sell it, including one attempt to sell it to Quebec. In the eyes of the Crown, this land of snow and fish was just a number in the account books, and Labradorians have never forgotten this. “They feel more resentment toward Newfoundland than toward Quebec,” says Jeff Webb, professor of history at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
It is this resentment more than any separatist inclinations that explains the spread of the Labrador flags. “Our flag is older than Newfoundland’s,” says Karen Oldford, the mayor of Labrador City. It dates from 1973, whereas Newfoundland used the Union Jack until 1980. Some people see the flag as a symbol of cultural identity, others as the symbol of a political movement to obtain autonomous status. “We feel we have little say over a big part of our lives,” explains Todd Russell, president of NunatuKavut, the southern Inuit nation. “Everything is dictated from St. John’s.” Labrador has only four of the 48 seats in the House of Assembly, and only one seat in Ottawa. There is no talk of independence, but many people would not be against a bit more autonomy. “Some people are looking at territorial status [similar to Nunavut]. That would be a physical and legal possibility, if the political will existed,” says Mr. Russell.
The first ever vote in Labrador took place in 1949, when Newfoundlanders had to decide whether to join Canada. There was a massive yes vote in Labrador, says Ms. Jones. “First they are Labradorians, then they are Canadians; they rarely describe themselves as Newfoundlanders.”
Labradorians are not terribly enthusiastic about the two huge hydro-electric projects on the Lower Churchill River now being undertaken by Nalcor, the provincial energy corporation. They’re not really sure how these projects will benefit them. “People feel like they’re being plundered and robbed,” says Mr. Russell. He quotes an elder: “They came for the fish, they came for the trees, they came for the water, and now they’re coming for the damn rocks.”
This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet. It has been translated by Brian Mossop.