Based on “On the Edge of Canada: Creating Labrador Identity Within and Against the Settler State”

By Vicki S. Hallett, Ph.D., Department of Gender Studies, Memorial University

As part of a larger project on Them Days that focuses on the story of, and stories in, the magazine as tools of decolonization and reconciliation, I engage with the personal essays, speeches and letters of Doris Saunders who lived from 1941-2006 in Cartwright, and then Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador.  Saunders was the founding editor of Them Days magazine.  First conceived in 1974 by the Labrador Heritage Society and the Old Timers League of Labrador as a book about local culture and history, it quickly developed into a quarterly publication (that is still being published today) due to the tremendous amount of materials collected by researcher, and former trapper, Isaac Rich.  While Saunders was hired as editor for that first issue, she stayed on and her role quickly expanded “to include conducting interviews, research, writing and production of the magazine” (Beaudoin 3-4).  For her tireless and underpaid work of recording, telling, and crafting the story of Labrador’s past for almost three decades, she received the Order of Canada in 1986, and an honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from Memorial University in 1994.

Them days

Dr. Doris J. Saunders wearing a traditional Labrador silipak, c. 1998. Courtesy Gillian Saunders. From Them Days, 30, 3 (2006). Image source: themdays.com

Saunders was a woman of mixed Indigenous and European heritage.  Throughout her rich archive of personal documents, Saunders named herself variously as an Inuit woman, an Aboriginal, a Settler[1] (which in Labrador, until recently, referred to a person of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry), but first and foremost as a Labradorian. Reading Saunders’s archival documents through an interdisciplinary lens is an analysis of the personal and political relationships of resistance and resilience that inscribe this place, and the people who make and are made by this place[2].

Through Doris Saunders’ archived personal documents, we get a sense of who she was, what kind of place she imagined Labrador to be, and, in turn, how she constructed a complex, relational identity as a Labradorian, and an Indigenous woman.   This multifaceted identity was defined in part through its opposition to both Newfoundland and Canadian cultural hegemony and colonization, but it also emerged out of what Kristina Fagan has termed the “Labrador literary tradition”, an Indigenous literary tradition that grew in relation to the unique historical, social and cultural milieu of the place and its people.

Doris Saunders understood that she was part of the making, and “re-mapping” (Goeman), of Labrador – that Labrador was a space that had complexly constructed colonial boundaries, but that it was also more – it was a place that was defined by the stories of the people who lived there, by their everyday practices, and that this was an ongoing, continually occurring set of processes – Labrador was not finished.  In a speech she gave in 1989, Saunders concluded by saying, “I hope that through Them Days we can move into the ever-changing world and not forget our past” (Doris Saunders Collection, File #16).

Saunders labeled herself different things at various times in her life.  But, throughout all of her writings, one label was consistent – Labradorian.  As she put it in a speech entitled “Women in Labrador” (for the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women), “I am a native Labradorian of Inuit, Indian and white descent, a Labrador Settler.” (Doris Saunders Collection, File #1).  This complex identity was based on an indigenous tradition in Labrador, one that took its inspiration from the diverse cultures that populated its shores, a tradition that Saunders received through her literary foremothers, her aunts Margaret Baikie (1844-1940), and Elizabeth Goudie (1902-1982), who published their autobiographical reflections in the 1970s, and her great- great-grandmother Lydia Campbell (1818-1907), whose diary-like Sketches of Labrador Life first appeared in the St. John’s newspaper The Evening Herald in 1895.

Them days 2

Doris Saunders at Birch Island creek, 1979. Judy McGrath photo. From Them Days, 28, 2 (2003). Image source: themdays.com

Despite her clear connections to Inuit ancestry, Saunders’ connections to official recognition as Inuit were decidedly difficult. Having been first accepted and then rejected for membership in the Labrador Inuit Association (the LIA would eventually form the Nunatsiavut Government) in the 1980s and 90s, Saunders became disillusioned by the politics which would oust her from the LIA based on the determination that her grandmother’s birthplace was not a recognized permanent Inuit or Settler community.  She appealed to both the federal government and the LIA for reconsideration, but to no avail.  Finally in 1991 she wrote to the Board of Directors of the LIA: “I am secure in the knowledge of who I am and what I represent” (Doris Saunders collection, File #32).

Saunders represented an Indigenous Labrador identity that was resilient in its connections to pre-colonial traditions, and resistant to the colonial logics that are part of the very fabric of Canada, and are interwoven with particular regional and cultural histories. As Saunders and the team at Them Days collected more and more stories of Labrador, their work became a tool for others engaged in a similar struggle.  In their (still unresolved) 1991 land claim, the Labrador Métis Association (which is now formally known as the Nunatukavut Community Council) would include multiple oral history documents from Them Days magazine as proof of their Indigenous ancestry and continuous occupation of lands in Southern Labrador. As a member of that Association, Doris Saunders knew herself as Indigenous, as Labradorian, and as working to survive on the literal and figurative edge of Canada – against those who would deny her heritage, uproot her culture, and repudiate her right to self-determination, and with those who would embrace her knowledge, her history, and her cultural work.  Her most effective resource in this effort was the same one utilized by her female ancestors – life stories.


Vicki S. Hallett teaches in the Department of Gender Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland.


Notes:

[1] This contrasts, of course, with larger Canadian/North American discourse in which European colonists and their descendants are known as “settlers”.

[2] Linda McDowell refers to this phenomenon as the ways that places are continually  “constituted and maintained by social relations of power and exculsion” in her 1999 text Gender, Identity and Place. Minneapolis, MA: University of Minnesota Press. 4.  This text sparked my interdisciplinary link with Feminist Human Geography, and continues to inform my thinking about place and identity.


Works Cited:

Baikie, Margaret. Labrador Memories- Reflections at Mulligan. Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL: Them Days, 1973.

Beaudoin, Matthew. “Them Days.” Care, Cooperation, and Activism in Canada’s Northern Social Economy. Edited by Frances Abele and Chris Southcott. University of Alberta Press, 2016, pp. 1-10.

Campbell, Lydia. Sketches of Labrador Life. St. John’s, NL: Killick/Them Days. 2000.

Doris Saunders Collection, APL 103.  Them Days Archives, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL.

Fagan, Kristina. “’Well Done Old Half-Breed Woman’: Lydia Campbell and the Labrador Literary Tradition.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada 48.1 (Spring 2010): 49-76.

Fitzhugh, Lynne, D. The Labradorians: Voices from the Land of Cain. St. John’s, NL:            Breakwater Books, 1999.

Goeman, Mishuana, R. Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping our Nations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2013. Print.

Goudie, Elizabeth. Woman of Labrador. Toronto: Peter Martin Associates, 1973. Print.

Them Days Magazine. n.d. Web. July 21, 2014.

“Who We Are.” Nunatukavut. 2013. Web. 21 September. 2014.

 

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The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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