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Part 2: Why change the name?

Colonial Building in St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. – © Henryk Sadura / Shutterstock

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a 3 part opinion series regarding the proposed name change to Colonial House by former Channel-Port aux Basques Mayor John Spencer.

So why change the name? Not so sure if one can agree with the reasoning that the name, Colonial Building, represents a dark time in our history as it relates to treatment of Indigenous peoples. Where do we start if this is the reasoning behind such a change?

The Colonial Building, Government House, Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, the RC Basilica, the Anglican Cathedral, the mansions along Forest Road and many others are representatives of a colonial era. All represent tremendous political, social, cultural, economic and architectural aspects of a another era, one where people can be certain there existed a dark underpinning of not so proud moments in the evolution of Newfoundland and Labrador as we know it today.

It is far from perfect, but not to the point of renaming this historic landmark because of a perception that the name is a grim reminder of a dark time in history. It is a truly unique building with a truly unique name representing a truly unique period in history, representing truly unique people in a global society.

Historic Newfoundland and Labrador witnessed generations of fisher families toiling on the brink of bankruptcy, neglect, abuse, disease, sickness, starvation and early death. Generations of families lived in servitude to mercantile ledger books, a mercantile dominated ‘truck’ or credit system.

The handouts of salt, flour, hooks, line, and yes, tobacco and a drop of rum, were all accounted for in fish and fur at the end of a season. A cashless economy of servitude while the St. John’s establishment, the fishocracy, backed by appointed British governors and the established churches, basked in their colonial glory. Stories loom in the lore of the dust from the inequality of the division of assets from Newfoundland’s 1894 bank crash. Fishermen received 20 cents on the dollar while the Water Street fishocracy took a lion’s share at 80 cents.

I often wonder why Great-Granddad toted the little suitcase on those few and far between cruises around the bay, or wonder about the circumstances behind the great fire of 1896, bringing a boom of insurance money into the island’s desperate economy, creating work for thousands during the dismal end to the 19th century.

Stories loom of the difficult economic and social times, stories of death and tragedy resulting from ships lost at sea or the many that suffered and died in the infamous quest for seals along the northeast coast and southern Labrador. Widows were left to raise children in the direst of circumstances. These difficult times are well documented, and later in the 1850s when many politicians put forth a dream of building a railway to open the interior, a dream that came with it a new reality as the railway was beyond what the struggling nation could afford. These debates now echo in the halls of this magnificent historic icon. The Colonial Building has so much history.

Stories also tell of the elevation of Newfoundland and Labrador to nationhood when then Governor Walter Edward Davidson called upon what was described as the best small boats men in the world to join the British Navy in the struggle to contain the German Huns. Not to be out done, Newfoundland stepped up not only with young men for the navy, they sent a regiment of soldiers with their own distinct identity known as the Blue Puttees, a reference to the blue cloth wrapped between the upper boots and the traditional coloured British supplied uniform. During this war a generation of its finest youth were sacrificed on European battlefields for a free world. It was not only the sad and heroic loss of Newfoundland and Labrador youth but along with the cost of supporting a railway system, the financial debt of the war pushed the economy to the brink of bankruptcy.

Those were also the days in the Colonial Building when Sir William Ford Coaker, founder and leader of the Fishermen’s Protective Union, led many debates on the future of the fishery, with new voices standing for the first time in debate representing the interest of fisher folk along the northeast coast.

Stories exist of the struggles in the early 1930s when nearly two thirds of all households teetered on government ‘dole’ coming and a former aging prime minister digging into his personal finances to pay the interest on loans that came due to stave off bankruptcy. These tumultuous days came to a head in the riots of 1932 as windows and the doors of the Colonial Building were crashed by protesters seeking justice.

Stories loom of the subsequent public hearings in the late 1940s in the same Colonial Building that resulted in public referendums to determine the fate of a nation.

As I write it is May 2022. It is a late, Thursday afternoon with a government news release on the eve of another colonial era legacy in what used to be known as the Victoria Day Weekend, synonymous with the Queen Victoria’s reign on the throne for nearly the entire 19th century. A provincial press release from the provincial minister responsible for tourism, culture, arts, and recreation indicating that there will be public consultations on the future of the name, Colonial Building, as a step forward recognizing that the name itself may be symbolic of a dark era of injustice towards Indigenous peoples across this great nation.

John Spencer is a former educator and has previously served as mayor of Channel-Port aux Basques.

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