For Indigenous History Month, I thought it would be good to talk about our own Indigenous history on the Southwest coast and in Newfoundland and Labrador as a whole.
When NL joined confederation, Indigenous peoples were excluded from the Terms of Union and the province was exempted from the Indian Act. Effectively, two colonial governments (the Federal Canadian government and the soon to be Provincial government) decided that there were no Indigenous peoples here. Obviously, they were both either wrong or lying, as there are several Native Peoples of the province who still live here, including Innu, Inuit, and Mi’kmaq.
This had a weird effect. Because we “didn’t exist”, we were treated like any other citizens – we were able to vote, had a right to education, and we did not have reservations like the rest of Canada. There were similar systems in place, especially in Labrador, like the 5 residential schools that were here – 4 in Labrador and 1 on the Northern Peninsula – but we lived very different lives compared to other Indigenous peoples of Canada.
The Southwest coast was largely ignored by government for a long time, including regarding the presence of mi’kmaw people. All the blind eyes turned made it much easier to hide. In my family’s case and that of many others I know, we retained skills but lost large parts of our culture, especially our language. Many kept a sense of identity and practical knowledge, but we kept it behind closed doors and out of polite conversation. Acknowledging indigeneity led to serious repercussions, such as discrimination at school and work – to the point of endangering one’s job – and social ostracization and stigma. So, people kept quiet, kept their jobs, and kept their children safe.
Today, more and more people are reconnecting with our lost heritage and culture. It has become relatively safe in the last 10 or 15 years to freely acknowledge our roots, and I think it will be important for us to do so, so we can heal and move forward.
In the end, I like to think that our culture was never lost, our parents and grandparents just tucked it away. I’m working to unpack what my family tucked away, and I hope we all have the courage to do it.
To learn more about Indigenous history in NL, I’d like to recommend A Long Journey: Residential Schools in Labrador and Newfoundland by Andrea Procter; Moccasin Tracks: A Memoir of Mi’kmaw Life in Newfoundland by John Nick Jeddore; and I Never Knowed it Was Hard by Louie Montague. Memorial University’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) has Indigenous Studies books to browse (including the suggestions) here: https://memorialuniversitypress.ca/Categories/Indigenous-Studies