A Newfoundlander’s manifesto on Labrador independence

lab flag
Photo: John Martin

I am from Newfoundland. However, let me state unequivocally that the people of Labrador should be allowed (and ultimately will) determine their own destiny. If the people of Labrador desire to be a political entity separate from Newfoundland, whether a territory or any other sort of polity, I am in support. Let that be clearly stated.

I should also say up front that I have been fortunate over the last few years to be in contact with activists in Labrador, relationships that formed over shared concerns about the development of Muskrat Falls. What I offer here is a candid appraisal of the current situation and the potential unfolding of the Labrador independence movement. What I am going to say will not necessarily be agreeable to Newfoundlanders, nor will it necessarily be agreeable to those I consider allies in Labrador.

To Newfoundlanders…

The people of Labrador should be the ones to decide how the resources in Labrador are developed and used. These resources should be developed (if at all) for the benefit of Labradorians first. VOCM talk show host Paddy Daly, in a conversation about resource wealth with Labrador independence activist James Learning, asked “why should you have more say in the distribution of wealth coming from Labrador than I do?” Implicit in this question is the belief that because the province, as a political entity, includes both the island and Labrador that all citizens of the province should have equal say in how resources are developed and in the politics of various regions of the province.

Mr. Learning is very patient in this conversation, but I will be more to the point. People who live in Newfoundland should not have an equal say in the way Labrador is governed because they do not live there, just as all Canadians do not get a say in a potential Quebec sovereignty referendum. If the people of Labrador are not allowed to decide for themselves and if political decisions must take into account the totality of the province’s people, then that is simply one region of the province (the island) dominating another region (Labrador). This is the status quo situation today, and it is this untenable situation that is spurring the Labrador independence movement.

In a broader sense, this sort of domination by one region over another is at the core of a number of issues in the province today. Take for example fracking on the west coast of the island. Significant numbers of people in communities on the west coast are opposed to fracking. People in St. John’s and people in Nain should not have an equal say in what happens on the west coast. If the people on the west coast do not want fracking, then it should not happen. This is a logic developed out of the adjacency principle: those who occupy and use a particular land should be the ones to decide what happens there. When one region is dominated by another it breeds resentment, something Newfoundlanders will understand if they recall the many instances of the island being dominated by Ottawa. Since the relationship between Newfoundland and Labrador has been one of domination, resentment has been growing for a number of years in Labrador and this has created the conditions for the Labrador independence movement to thrive. This is no mystery.

But it is not specifically domination that the people of Labrador latch on to. More than anything, they refer to aspects of everyday life that are representative of the unequal relationship between the island and Labrador: the abysmal state of the Trans-Labrador Highway; the many northern communities that do not have electricity or running water; the outrageous cost of living in Happy Valley-Goose Bay that makes it so working people are living in tents in the woods outside town; a lack of health care and educational services; and so on. All the while (whether it is true of not), they see the decadence of St. John’s and the high quality of life enjoyed by people on the island thanks to resources taken from Labrador. This is something like how domination is experienced and perceived by people in Labrador. Muskrat Falls is just the most recent and obvious example of that.

None of this should be understood to be the fault of the average people of Newfoundland. They feel the scorn of the people of Labrador as a personal affront, as though they are being wrongly blamed for some injustice they did not create. And indeed the everyday people of Newfoundland did not create this injustice. It was created by our political class and by a cynical and corrupt political game being played in the halls of power and the tall glass buildings in St. John’s. The root of the injustice can be clearly seen in the House of Assembly when an MHA who is a forthright representative of the people of Labrador is heckled and derided whenever he rises to speak. The root of the injustice is found in statements by Newfoundland politicians saying they “own” Labrador. But most especially, the root of the injustice is found in the cavalier attitude with which a government, which has for generations sought to represent a dominated people, dominates another people. The hypocrisy of it is unforgivable.

It is quite a statement that so many people in Labrador would rather be a territory in the Canadian federation than to continue to be governed by St. John’s. Newfoundlanders should pause and think about that for a moment – that is the state of our relationship and our provincial union. This is where we are as a province, though it need not be this way. I believe that a serious effort at reconciliation in the form of social, economic, and political accommodations would be enough to quench the thirst for independence in Labrador. This is not to say that Labrador independence sentiment is fickle, but that a fair deal and an authentic partnership with Labrador would go some way to healing the scars of domination.

But, honestly, I do not think that is likely in today’s political climate, where the unrelenting push for economic growth trumps any concerns with social stability and where cultural concerns are dismissed as so much “mumbo jumbo.” And so feelings of resentment along with aspirations for Labrador independence will continue to grow, and here is how the independence movement in Labrador may play out…

To Labradorians…

For the movement for Labrador independence to succeed it must overcome some fundamental issues, and the provincial government knows it. The Labrador independence movement needs to re-evaluate its strategy and tactics if it hopes to achieve its goal. A particularly insidious “divide and conquer” strategy has been used against the people of Labrador by the provincial government and has been quite effective in ensuring Labrador’s continued domination.

Domination by the provincial government can only be broken by a united front, but paradoxically a united front in Labrador must begin from the recognition that there is no such thing as “the people” of Labrador. Innu, Inuit, Metis, and settlers form distinct cultures and societies within the population that calls Labrador home, and each of these groups has its own subcultures and further divisions. The drive for unity as an oppositional front against domination cannot be effective if it attempts to erase differences and subsume everyone under the term Labradorian.

27902_10152264884995389_1395945539_nThis is not to discount the importance of having a unifying identity politics at the heart of the independence movement. Labrador, as a name and as a place, along with the significant symbols and cultural markers like the Labrador flag, need to be used in place of the names and symbols of domination. However, the diverse peoples that call Labrador home must themselves do some soul-searching and come to some fundamental agreements before a true popular movement is possible. Mobilizing an identity politics behind a word like Labrador or behind a concept like Labrador independence will only be effective if the movement sets out to create a transformative space in which each constituent group can determine its own destiny. The movement must set as its end goal a politics in which no one should rule. If arguments of adjacency are to be compelling against the provincial government, then this same principle should apply to relationships in Labrador. In essence, Labrador must form a federation in which each group and region ultimately controls its own territory and affairs. Freedom from domination should never mean dominating others.

The movement must reject absolutely the current structures of the provincial government. While it is not entirely useless to set out to elect MHAs to the provincial government under a banner of Labrador independence, these four MHAs could do little more than make noise and keep the issue in the limelight. However, the unequal relationship between the island and Labrador is maintained precisely through the mechanism of the provincial government. The Labrador independence movement should create its own governing body (a shadow government) and begin acting as though independence has already been achieved. This new governing body should make decisions on a few simple issues and act on them – specifically issues that can be agreed upon by the various groups in Labrador and that will symbolically demonstrate independence or highlight the unequal relationship in the province.

The provincial government will either accommodate the decisions or (hopefully) it will be stubborn and intransigent. Examples of simple yet symbolic decisions might include: remove provincial flags from government buildings, schools, town councils, etc.; create and issue Labrador license plates; rename parks, public buildings, or significant sites with names appropriate to local culture; establish and observe a Labrador-specific holiday; create a constitution or terms of union; and so on. Basically, the movement should seek to implement any number of symbolic gestures that might stick in the craw of the provincial government and undermine its power and legitimacy. These sorts of symbolic interventions should be used in combination with rallies, demonstrations, blockades, public meetings, and all the other forms of civil disobedience currently being used to good effect in Labrador.

Of course, one further useful tactic that would certainly enrage the provincial government would be for the movement to foster a relationship with the government of Quebec and with aboriginal groups in Quebec. Quebec would likely be quite happy to provide material, logistic, and political support to the movement if it felt Labrador independence could be achieved. Quebec is a kind of terrifying boogey man as far as the NL provincial government is concerned, and this fear should be used to full advantage.

The movement must recognize that if it is successful Newfoundland will attempt to extract its pound of flesh. This will come in the form of debt and in the ownership of (or at least exclusive rights to) existing resources and developments. It is also possible that the territorial integrity of Labrador, as it exists today, will be compromised, with the territory broken up into smaller units and perhaps even with Newfoundland retaining control of some part. This potential unfolding will depend on whether Labrador is able to settle or at least come to some agreements on its internal differences. Again, this is why it is so important for the movement to set out with a clear idea of shared governance and decentralized power among various groups. These pitfalls, among others, should in no way dissuade the movement, but are simply possible outcomes and contingencies it must attempt to anticipate.

To Labradorians and Newfoundlanders…

photo (3)I have not written this because I wish to see Labrador leave Newfoundland. I think there is still a reasonable chance for reconciliation, but this will require that people of both parts of the province want to reconcile. The first part of such a process will be for Newfoundlanders to recognize that injustice is being done to the people of Labrador, even though everyday Newfoundlanders themselves may not be directly responsible for that injustice. Newfoundlanders must foster a climate of understanding and repentance and must take some time to learn about the experiences and the perceptions of people in Labrador. I know this, at least, is possible because the people of Newfoundland have warm hearts and know all too well the bitterness of injustice.

This emotional and spiritual reconciliation must also be accompanied by real change on the ground. Newfoundlanders must demand that their government recognize the legitimate grievances of the people of Labrador and act on them. Pave and maintain the roads. Hook up the electricity to communities. Help the locals deal with the housing crisis in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. But most importantly, if there is to be a chance of reconciliation, the provincial government must recognize the legitimate right of the people of Labrador to govern themselves and help create structures so that is possible. These structures of Labrador-based governance must be authentic and must have teeth. Again, I am somewhat pessimistic about the ability of the government to enact such changes, for a number of reasons, but I mention it nonetheless as a plea to keep our peoples together and to keep the regions from separating, the likelihood of which increases the longer the status quo is maintained.

Finally, to the people of Labrador, I hope you will forgive your wayward brothers and sisters in Newfoundland, not because I want your material resources and your wealth but because together we are culturally richer. Should the path lead to your independence from Newfoundland, I will support you, and I hope that you will never consider the good people of Newfoundland your enemies, even if the government representing us clearly is. I humbly offer this writing in the hope that some useful idea may be present that might aid in your fight for justice.

4 Comments

  1. April 1, 2014
    Reply

    Taken to extremes no one should have any say in anything beyond their backyards. Maybe all the oil money off the Avalon should stay on the Avalon (it practically does now, but that’s another matter), maybe we should all just split into little independent fiefdoms like the 1300s? You’ve got to draw a line somewhere. I think for a place with a population almost equal to that of Corner Brook to be an independent province is ridiculous. If anything we need less government, not more.

    • James G Learning
      April 2, 2014
      Reply

      Thank you Mr. Burns, you have responded to exactly what the author has been driving home from beginning to end of his article, “DOMINATION”. if your attitude is in stone, then you have little or no sensitivity to other people or cultures. Labradoreans are other peoples and cultures. As a Labradorean I wish to guard those cultures. If you want the Avalon to be separate then so be it, let me know where I sign to accommodate you. Labrador will grow, this is evident. It has the resources, the people will come if we build it with the help of those resources, not hand outs by an off shore Government who seek to divide us to assert its influence and domination. The Government we have been given to as our keepers, has acted as third world colonial scammers of the most blatant sort. Labrador will as the author says seek to identify and respect its differences and what they each need to be a part of the Labrador Federation. We will share this space and resources for the benefit of those groups, the concepts of leadership has yet to be designed or agreed to by those groups. This is the process we are in. I like to think we are playing to each other and not self. We live in a remote area, we must manage ourselves accordingly. To me a Territory is a great start, though my mind has been there since I have been aware that I was a Labradorean.

      • Gerald G E Pye
        August 18, 2014
        Reply

        On a provincial scale,the Nl government are to blame for the way Labrador has been treated since and before joining with Canada ( Confredation) –In my view the Island people, who are a good people are not to blame for the way Labrador has been neglected, since invasion—

  2. […] And of course this possible territory, rich in mineral and natural resources, would have little difficulty finding revenues to provide services to communities; whereas in the current arrangement (or at least as it must look to the people of Labrador) the NL government uses Labrador resource wealth for the benefit of Newfoundland communities first. If you are in favor of Newfoundland and Labrador unity, this is not a good scenario, and the longer the status quo continues the more real becomes the possibility of a split. […]

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