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Labrador Flag

Some Personal Observations And Some Historical Facts About The Labrador Flag

by Carl S. Gurtman

At the fall, 1995, meeting of the New England Vexillological Association, I suggested that the future format of our meetings include one or more presentations on flag-related topics. The membership agreed, and I volunteered to give the first presentation. I had believed that the topic would be a fresh one, on a flag unfamiliar to most. Without formal sanction, the flag is little-known; I have yet, at least in my own readings to see information published in popular books or journals. I had hoped to break at least some new ground, and perhaps even end with an article that might be published in the Flag Bulletin. Alas, the half-year to the spring meeting has flashed by, and my research clearly indicates that this flag is already, at least in some circles, well-known and well-documented. But, if I cannot be the one to first gather these fruits, I may at least share them with you.

I wish to thank my correspondents, Mrs. Alice Lethbridge, an owner and operator of the Cartwright Hotel in Cartwright, Labrador, who provided me with a detailed history, and Ms. Rhyna McLean, of the Labrador Heritage Society in Labrador City, Labrador, who provided me with additional detail. Their responses bring to mind the people we met in Newfoundland and Labrador: warm, friendly, open, and hospitable. The following is appreciatively based upon their information, and my own observations. Only I, however, am responsible for any error in fact or in interpretation.

The very oldest of all British possessions, the island of Newfoundland was discovered by John Cabot, sailing under the English flag in 1497, and claimed by him for England. Newfoundland has had a checkered history. It progressed from colonial to Dominion status, but as hard times befell in the Depression, it reverted to direct British rule; constitutional and representative government was replaced by a Council and Governor directly responsible to the British Parliament.

In 1947, Newfoundland became a Canadian province. Its proper provincial name is "Newfoundland and Labrador." Labrador is that section of the province on the Canadian mainland.

Newfoundland's flag history is also somewhat unusual. In the normal fashion, it flew the Red Ensign, with its colonial badge, at sea. On land, however, the British Union Flag was flown as the colonial or Provincial flag. I have also seen flying, in place of the then-official British Union Flag, an unofficial vertical tri-color of pink, white and green, and at another time, a banner-flag of Newfoundland's coat-of-arms, quartered unicorns and lions.

Shield of Newfoundland Coat-of-Arms of Newfoundland
The Provincial Shield and Arms of Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland adopted its own Provincial flag in 1980. That flag is based upon the British Union Flag, and is widely used, but does not seem to have been taken to heart.

Provincial Flag of Newfoundland and Labrador
The Provincial Flag of Newfoundland and Labrador

Labrador historically consisted only of a small stretch of coastal settlements across the narrow Strait of Belle Isle from the main island. This area was known as "the Straits," "the Labrador," or "the Coast of Labrador." Labrador has never been a politically distinct area either of Canada or of Newfoundland, although a distinct geographical and cultural area. The Straits settlements are reachable only by water, but in an era when overland transport was impossible, the Newfoundland outports were also only reachable by water,(as some of them still are), and water tended to unify, not separate. In 1927 a generous decision by a British commission interpreted "coast" to include the watersheds of the coastal rivers, and awarded to Newfoundland much territory previously disputed between Canada and Newfoundland. Quebec still resents, and has not accepted that decision.

More recently the Happy Valley-Goose Bay area was settled around a military base established during World War II. The Wabash-Labrador City area was settled around iron ore deposits inland. Churchill Falls grew up about a major hydro-electric power station.

Pride and a sense of "national," if you will, identity are very strong in Newfoundland. There is more sense of a true, organic culture than in any other Canadian province, with the exception of Quebec. This sense of selfness, interestingly enough, has never coalesced into the symbolization of these ideals into a flag. Newfoundland's identity was strongly associated with feelings of pride in the Empire, as indicated by its lack of a national flag on land. Its new Provincial flag, while flown and incorporated into bumper stickers and hats, has in my view, a feeling of stiffness and some artificiality. Its main theme, the Union Flag, lacks any local or native associations. There is still some competition in symbolism from the coat-of-arms.

There is a different sense in Labrador. First, a bit of background about Labrador. It is vast, consisting of 113,641 square miles. For comparison, the six New England states combined consist of only 66,507 square miles. Labrador is approximately one-and three-quarters as large again as all of New England. Its total population is 34,000. This in comparison to two other figures; Newfoundland and Labrador, 568,500; and Portsmouth, NH, the nearest city to me, 26,000. With so few people in such a wide expanse of land, it would seem reasonable that their love of their land might be extreme; and so it is. But unlike the main island of the Province, "the Rock," regional identification seems to have found its expression in a flag.

My own interest in the Labrador flag stems from two roots; first my interest in flags in general; a flag hobbyist, or more formally, a vexillologist, since about the age of eight, when a series of flag bubble-gum cards appeared, @1951; and second, travels to the Province, commencing with a honeymoon trip in 1970, a trip in 1986; and encompassing both the island and the mainland, trips in 1989 and 1995. As I'm sure vexillologists everywhere can identify with, I took time to ask, read about, photograph, etc, flags to the annoyance of my family.

The year 1867 was the year of Canadian Confederation. As the centennial year 1967 approached, there was great ferment and preparation in Canada, and a desire to finish some "national" business. The Trans-Canadian Highway was completed and officially opened in 1962. The first "true" Canadian Flag was officially hoisted in 1965, after decades of debate, and all of the Canadian Provinces and Territories, with the exception of Newfoundland, had, by 1969, also adopted flags. Newfoundland was, by 1974, being pressured by its legendary, larger-than-life premier, Joey Smallwood, to adopt the Union Flag as its Provincial flag, which it did. This caused some consternation within the Province, as many thought it inappropriate for another country's flag to be the Provincial flag.

Union Flag
The Union Flag

Labrador is represented in Newfoundland's House of Assembly by several districts. There is no "Labrador Council," all political representation is in the Assembly. In 1974, Mr. Mike Martin, the Member for Labrador South, was the creator of the Labrador Flag. He did so in an act comprised in some measure of political mischief aimed at Joey Smallwood, who was certainly not interested in cultivating any feeling of self-identity in Labrador. Yet Mr. Martinís action gave voice to the feelings of the people of Labrador that they were left out of considerations at St. John's, and were a forgotten and easily ignored people. These feelings were widespread, and particularly strong at that time. There was no formal movement for separation or independence, but there was a sense of cultural identity, and a desire to forge a stronger bond between the peoples of Labrador - Settlers, Innuit (Eskimos), Innu (Indians), and the Metis, those of mixed blood.

Martin created the flag during the Christmas holidays of December, 1973. He was helped by his family, doing some work with his brother. They hail from Cartwright, which now proclaims itself the "Birthplace of the Labrador Flag." Copies of the flags were presented to Labrador community councils, and to the Labrador members of the Newfoundland Assembly, in April of 1974.

The flag itself is a horizontal tricolor; white, green, and blue. It is said to have been originally specified having the center green stripe half the width of the others, but this was not how it was displayed during my visit in 1989. In 1989 I obtained a map of Labrador issued by the Provincial government. The flag was nowhere mentioned, but upon closer examination, the front panel consists of three outdoors scenes upon bars of white, green, and blue. A later version of the same map omits the front cover stealth depiction, but carries a drawing of the flag and the explanation of its symbolism within. In the words used to describe the flag:

"The flag is meant to be a permanent declaration of the unique identity of the people of Labrador and their common heritage. The top white bar represents the snows, the one element which more than any other, colored our culture and dictated our lifestyles. The bottom blue bar represents the waters of our rivers, lakes and oceans. The waters have been our highways, like the snows, and have nurtured our fish and wildlife. The center green bar represents the land. The green and bountiful land is the connecting element that unites our three diverse cultures."

"The symbolic spruce twig was chosen because the spruce tree is the one thing that is common to all geographic areas of Labrador. It has provided our shelter, transport, fuel, and in an indirect way, our food and clothing, since the spruce forests became the environment for the wildlife which gave us meat for our tables, skins for our clothing and trade. It was from the spruce that we sawed our planks and timbers for our boats, komatiks, and houses."

"The three branches of the spruce twig represent the three races, the Inuit, the Indian and the European settlers. The twig growing from one stalk represents the common origin of people regardless of race. The twig is in two sections, or year's growths. The outer growth is longer than the inner growth. This occurs because in good growing years the twig grows longer than in the poor years. Thus the inner, and shorter sprig reminds us of times past, while the outer sprig represents our hope for the future. This is our flag and a symbol of faith in ourselves and the future, our pride of heritage and our respect for the land and the dignity of people."

Currently, the interpretation of the three branches of the spruce twig as to the peoples of Labrador is the focus of some contention; is the third branch for Metis or Settlers? In practice these seem to be arguments about distinctions without differences, although they carry meaning to those directly involved.

The flag of Labrador is displayed everywhere in the province. Interestingly, it has become an important article in crafts and popular culture. I have a headband based upon the flag. Buildings are painted in the flag's horizontal striping. Sweaters are knitted in its format, and stained glass reproductions of the flag abound. The Provincial flag is not accorded that same honor, love, and respect that this imitative reproduction shows, neither in Labrador, nor on the main island.

One notable difference between my 1989 and 1995 visits was the difference in the width of the middle green stripe, it having gone from an equal to a one-half ratio. As there is no governmental authority behind the flag, the ubiquity of the change was surprising. I am informed that as the Labrador Historical Society holds sole rights to the flag, various manufacturers avoid paying royalties by manufacturing a different version. The Historical Society does not have the resources to try and enforce its rights. Although the original design may have had a narrower green stripe, in 1989 the flag I saw flown everywhere had stripes of equal width.

Variant of the Labrador Flag
1989 Variant of the Labrador Flag

The Provincial government certainly does not wish to encourage "separatist" sympathies. It does not encourage the use of emblems which encourage any separatist feeling. There is neither a separatist movement, nor strong separatist demands, which would on one hand, encourage the use of the flag, but on the other, provoke its suppression. There is no local Labrador government. And yet a standardized, proudly flown "national" flag is visible everywhere in Labrador, the emblem of a small, proud, and self-sufficient people in a magnificent land.

I wish to close by citing a quote from Labrador: "The residents of Labrador are proud of their flag and hold in great respect. Perhaps nowhere else in the world was a flag so quickly and readily accepted by the people it was designed to represent. It has become an important symbol of Labrador's rich heritage."

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