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Letter: Give the Beothucks their day


One of our Province’s statutory holidays is Discovery Day (June 24). It is a commemoration of John’s Cabot’s “discovery” of Newfoundland in 1497. The claim that Cabot discovered this island is problematic. There is no clear documented evidence that he actually came here and even if he did, he was far from the first. The Beothucks were already here and before them others had made it their home, going back 5,000 years ago. As far as Europe is concerned, the Vikings were here in 1,000.

 

The demise of the Beothucks is a tragic event in the history of this place. They were here for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans to fish. What happened? Events are cloudy. Their numbers are not clear. It was estimated that by 1768 only about 400 existed. It seems their extinction resulted from contact with the Europeans caused by disease, armed conflict, and starvation. In a talk in 1996, Ingeborg Marshall quoted from the Royal Gazette (1832) stating that the Beothuks have been dispossessed of their land and resources unlawfully and without regard to their ability to survive — that the fate of the Beothuks was distressing and a perplexing page in Newfoundland’s history and that the circumstances of their demise was “repulsive.”

Keeping official public holidays is a recent development in our history. Until recently June 24 was called St John’s Day and its celebration was largely confined to the capital Then it became a provincial statutory holiday as Discovery Day. It raises the question of why we observe certain days as holidays — St. Patrick’s, St. George’s and Orangemen’s days in particular.

While it is unlikely that these days will be removed or others added, we could have a historical calendar which highlights key events and persons in the history of this place. This would include recognition of the Beothucks and in their case even have a statutory holiday, as it is important to keep their memory alive. 

In the British Museum there is gallery dedicated to “Native North Americans.” Among the items on display is a Beothuck artifact and alongside it a painting of Demasduct (Mary March) with a few words about the Beothucks. Hardly anyone looking at it would know about the Beothucks.

We who do know can in some way enshrine their place in our history, including the acknowledgement the role of our ancestors in their demise

Everett Hobbs

C.B.S.

 

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