Group of Labradorians discuss self-determination and provincial separation
© Derek Montague
John Martin and Marjorie Flowers sit in front of a Labrador Flag. The meeting, which took place on March 31, coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Labrador flag.
The idea of Labrador independence and self-governance is nothing new in the Big Land.
For years, groups such as the New Labrador Party and the United Labrador Movement have put the strained political relationship between Labrador and Newfoundland to the forefront.
Eventually those organizations lost public interest and fizzled out. But now, a group of residents is trying to unite Labradorians once again, to determine what the future of Labrador governance should look like.
On March 31, the same day Labradorians were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Labrador flag, people gathered at the Labrador Friendship Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay to share their ideas.
“This is a long-term thing,” said James (Jim) Learning, who helped organize the meeting. “This is like pouring Labrador into its reality that we need to be looking after it and ourselves.”
Although opinions differed from person to person, many common themes kept popping up. Most in the room believe that, for years, the provincial government has reaped Labrador’s vast resources, without investing enough money back into the Big Land.
“It seems like it’s divide and conquer now,” said NunatuKavut elder Ken Mesher. “That’s the attitude they got. Our resources are going out. We’re not getting much back.”
“Fighting for crumbs is not what I’m about,” added Kirk Lethbridge, who was involved in the United Labrador Movement during the 1990s.
“We deserve better than crumbs from our land.”
Residents want to be cut in
Several people at the meeting pointed to Muskrat Falls as a prime example of Labradorians being neglected for the Island’s benefit.
“I have to confess that it just started with the Muskrat Falls project,” said Marjorie Flowers. “I have not felt so much discrimination and subordination in my whole life as I have in the last few weeks, trying to get a job at Muskrat Falls.
“And knowing that there are planeloads of people coming from outside, from the island, every day (makes me angry).”
It is impossible to talk about Labrador governance without the issue of independence, or separation, being discussed. Many at the meeting voiced the belief that Labradorians will always be oppressed as long as they are a part of Newfoundland, and that Labrador should become its own territory.
If Nunavut could break off from the Northwest Territories, Labrador could separate from Newfoundland.
“As long as there’s 520,000 people on the island of Newfoundland voting against our 27,000, we are never, ever going to see a change, unless we become a territory or in some way have self-determination,” said Roberta Benefiel.
Some people in the group even went so far as to claim Newfoundland has colonized Labrador over the years.
“We are a de facto colony of Newfoundland. That’s their claim and they outnumber us,” said Eldred Davis.
“They have no qualms coming to Labrador and telling us ‘we’re going to dam your river. We’re going to take away your forests. We’re going to take away your fish.’
“Do they ask us? They consider themselves to be the owner of the land, the water and the people of Labrador.”
Overcome the divide
But not everyone spoke in favour of Labrador separating from the island. Scosha Diamond told those at the meeting that people should focus more on unity instead of division.
“I have to say that separation is like divorce and I don’t agree with it,” said Diamond.
“I think Labrador is already separated enough. Our communities are divided. We talk about divide and conquer. Well, we’re already divided, so why would we want separation?”
Part of the group’s discussion focused on the battle against apathy. Several people in the group expressed frustration against the perceived indifference of many Labradorians when it comes to issues of independence and governance.
“Ever since I can remember as a little boy, all I heard was how Labrador was being robbed and stolen from. … I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to figure out why we tolerate that. And I have concluded that it is fear,” said Kirk Lethbridge.
“First of all, we need to recognize fear and overcome fear. And we need to start getting strong … and we need to start making some hard stands.”
Some of those at the meetings know the challenges of apathy well.
Lloyd Pardy has seen different movements rise and fall with public interest, from the New Labrador Party, to the United Labrador Movement, and to the Labrador Party, which ran candidate Brandon Pardy (Lloyd’s son) in the 2003 provincial election.
“Forty-odd years ago, the New Labrador Party came along to right some of the wrongs, the same things we’re talking about today,” said Pardy.
“It had a heyday and, gradually, the people went away.”
Pardy was encouraged to see 40 people turn out to the meeting, but knows from personal experience how difficult it can be to keep the momentum going.
“It’s not about excitement of the minute. We’ve got to be serious for the long haul,” said Pardy.
“We can’t just revive something once every 10 years, because we got to pick up the pieces and start again.”
At the end of the meeting, most of the attendees stuck around to discuss forming a working group and discuss what to do next.
Everyone seemed to agree this would need to be a team effort, with no one leader making the decisions.
The group agreed to meet again in the near future.
Many hope to stir interest in communities across Labrador to join the dialogue.