Nfld. & Labrador

With Mary March Museum renaming in the works, Grand Falls-Windsor steps up reconciliation efforts

Coun. Rod Bennett says a monument and tree-planting are among the plans to honour Indigenous people in the area.

Coun. Rod Bennett says monument, tree-planting among plans to honour Indigenous people in the area

Grand Falls-Windsor Coun. Rod Bennett says the renaming of the Mary March Provincial Museum should be completed some time in 2022. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The Town of Grand Falls-Windsor is making plans to honour Indigenous people in the area, including renaming the Mary March Provincial Museum.

Rod Bennett, a town councillor and member of the Qalipu First Nation, said the plans are part of the town's efforts to promote reconciliation with Indigenous people, and acknowledge the original occupants of the land where the town sits.

"It's very important to me because I'm a member of the Qalipu Band and I feel that when I was young, it was never, ever allowed to be brought up," Bennett said. "Today, we're quite proud. I teach my children and when my children have children I hope they'll teach them too." 

Mary March is the English name that was given to Demasduit, a Beothuk woman captured by Englishman John Peyton Jr. in 1819.

Demasduit tried to escape, and her partner, Nonosabasut, was killed while attempting to free her.

Peyton was acquitted of the murder of Nonosabasut. A year later, Demasduit died in captivity.

Bennett said renaming the museum is a step toward acknowledging the town's colonial past and recognizing Demasduit's rightful name.

A time of reckoning

Anne Chafe, the head of Newfoundland and Labrador's provincial museum network, announced the name change last year as part of an effort to decolonialize the institution.

The decision to rename the Mary March Provincial Museum comes as people and governments across the province and the country reckon with names derived from historical people, events and practices entrenched in colonialism.

Demasduit is one of the few Beothuk whose likeness is known. This watercolour was painted by Lady Henrietta Hamilton. (Library and Archives Canada)

In 2020, the Newfoundland and Labrador government dropped "Discovery Day" as the name of the June provincial holiday. This year, the #CancelCanadaDay movement called for people to acknowledge and reflect on Canada's history of colonialism on July 1.

In April, a plan to rename Red Indian Lake was suspended after concerns were raised about a lack of consultation with Indigenous people, as well as some pushback from local residents.

Bennett doesn't anticipate similar problems with the renaming of the museum.

"I don't think there'll be much flak because of that from the community, because it is her rightful name," Bennett said.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts and Recreation said the provincial government is considering two names for the museum put forward by a committee based in Grand Falls-Windsor.

Town councillors including Bennett, a representative from the town's heritage group, representatives from the Innu Nation, NunatuKavut, and Qalipu First Nation, and a representative from The Rooms comprise the committe.

The spokesperson said The Rooms is working with the Office of Pubic Engagement to move forward with a public consultations process. 

"The provincial government's goal is to find a new name for the museum that is reflective of the content of the museum, that represents the community and area, and is respectful of efforts towards healing and commemoration of Indigenous peoples histories in this province," said the spokesperson.

The provincial government said it expects to announce a new name by the winter, in time for the museum's reopening next spring.

Honour and respect

Bennett said Grand Falls-Windsor town council has been supportive of his ideas for honouring Indigenous people.

He said the town plans to erect a teepee in Gorge Park, where people will be able to learn about the Indigenous peoples in the area.

A Qalipu elder, Marie Eastman, approached him about planting 215 spruce trees to honour the 215 children whose remains were found in the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. He said the town is in the process of finding the right location for the trees. 

The town also plans to build a monument in Corduroy Brook park to honour the children who died in residential schools across the country.

Bennett said his own father changed his name to hide his Indigenous identity while living in Windsor in 1945 but the culture in the town has shifted to one where Indigenous roots are celebrated.

"Every person I've talked to is 100 per cent behind me," he said.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School crisis line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour line: 1-866-925-4419.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Newfoundland Morning and Garrett Barry