Nfld. & Labrador

Symbols of the system: Discovery Day is done, but the conversation is just beginning

Indigenous leaders say there’s value in re-examining colonialist history, but such moves should be part of a larger effort at reconciliation.

Indigenous leaders say re-examining colonialist history one piece of a larger story

The former Discovery Day marked the landfall of John Cabot on June 24, 1497. The name has been scrapped, and will instead be called the June Holiday. (Submitted by Eric Abbott)

It's not a problem, Todd Russell says. It's an opportunity.

On the heels of a name change for the June 24 provincial holiday, and a global conversation about racism, the president of NunatuKavut believes now is the time to re-examine other symbols of Newfoundland and Labrador's colonial history, like a statue of Gaspar Corte-Real, and the provincial coat of arms.

"When we have an opportunity to tear down statues of people who were slave traders," he says, "we should take that opportunity."

Discovery Day. The Mary March Museum. Old Sam. Aunt Jemima. The Dixie Chicks.

In Newfoundland and Labrador and across the continent, old-fashioned, inappropriate names and images are up for review.

For Indigenous leaders in this province, the move to rename and reframe history can be meaningful — so long as it's accompanied by larger efforts at reconciliation.

Todd Russell is president of NunatuKavut, which represents Inuit in central and southern Labrador. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

"We can talk about getting rid of symbols, getting rid of relics and celebrating a history that's rich with the work of Indigenous peoples," said Tyler Edmunds, first minister of the Nunatsiavut government.

"That's extremely important, but at the same time, the provincial government needs to work with us in the implementation of our land claims agreement."

Seeds of change

Edmunds said the Inuit government is pleased to have been consulted on Discovery Day, but he says the provincial government could better consult Nunatsiavut on more pressing topics, like transportation and resource development. 

For example, he said, Nunatsiavut is still unsatisfied with an agreement struck between Voisey's Bay operator Vale and the provincial government.

"We have a long ways to go yet to ensure that we have what other communities have, what other members of this country have."

Todd Russell agrees there are other, more urgent issues, but he said moves like eliminating Discovery Day could plant the seeds for bigger change.

"These things are part of the system. They are manifestations of the system that is in place that is inherently racist," he said.

For decades, Indigenous leaders, including Miawpukek First Nation Chief Mi'sel Joe, have been pointing out the bitter irony of celebrating Discovery Day.

"It's probably not the most important thing in our world right now, at this moment, because of COVID-19, but it is important enough to keep discussions ongoing," he said. 

"Government don't move unless people show that they want a change."

Discover Indigenous history: Edmunds 

Systemic change means ceding control of government services like health care and social development, as well as allowing Indigenous groups to decide how their lands will be used, unimpeded by other levels of government. 

It's the stuff that makes up a land claim agreement, like the one Nunatsiavut has with Canada, but even after the principles are agreed upon, putting words into action can take decades.

Tyler Edmunds hopes removing colonialist symbols will spur a deeper conversation among non-Indigenous people, and that they'll learn more about difficult chapters of Newfoundland and Labrador's history.

Residential schools, for starters. The forced relocation of Inuit. Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. 

"All these things are an important part of the conversation, important part of the history of our province," Edmunds said. "Underpinning all of that is the resiliency of the Labrador Inuit and Indigenous peoples."

'Nobody would even notice'

Todd Russell says NunatuKavut's relationship with the province has improved over the years, and that officials are getting better at consulting.

On the topic of the Corte-Real statue, though, Russell said he doesn't need any more consultation — he wants it taken down.

The statue of Gaspar Corte-Real, across from the Confederation Building in St. John's. (Andrew Hawthorn/CBC)

"Nobody would even notice in St. John's. They drive along it so often now they see this big thing standing up there. All it does is block their view," he said.

"But it would be wonderful that if we took it down, then we could tell this story a little bit and make it that much more meaningful."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador