Critics seek ‘Discovery Day’ name change, saying it ignores Indigenous presence

JOHN’S — A movement is afoot to change the name of a holiday recognizing Europeans’ so-called “discovery” of Newfoundland and Labrador.

A St. John’s city councillor said Discovery Day ignores the existence of the province’s Indigenous people.

Maggie Burton introduced a notice of motion at council on Monday evening, calling on the provincial government to find a more “appropriate” name, and asking that the city refer to the holiday as St. John’s Day in the meantime.

Discovery Day is a designated provincial holiday, falling on the first Monday after June 24th to coincide with explorer John Cabot’s arrival in 1497. The province first celebrated Discovery Day in 1997, 500 years later.

Burton said Tuesday use of the term “discovery” disregards the presence of Indigenous people who lived in the province long before Cabot’s voyage.

She is supportive of recognizing the significance of Cabot’s voyage, but takes issue with the implication that the European explorer “discovered” the province.

“The problem is the word ‘discovery,”’ Burton said. “It’s just inaccurate, so if we were to commemorate in some other way I would be supportive of that, it’s just not a factual description.”

Burton’s notice follows a growing public discussion around the name’s outdated connotations.

Speaking from the Assembly of First Nations conference in Vancouver, Chief Mi’Sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation said he hasn’t spoken to the provincial government about re-naming Discovery Day, but would like to see a new name.

“I would call it Non-Discovery Day, right off the bat,” said Joe. “Who discovered who? We were already here.”

Joe suggested “First Nations Honour Day” as a possible alternative, but said coming up with an inclusive new title will take some time and consideration.

“It’s not an easy thing and it’s not a small thing. It’s a big thing to change, not that I like it, but to change to something that’s more meaningful.”

Premier Dwight Ball’s office said in a statement Tuesday that the province would be open to discussing a name change if approached by Indigenous organizations.

“Reconciliation arises from dialogue with Indigenous people,” the statement said.

“If the provincial government were to receive representation from one or more Indigenous governments or organizations about the Discovery Day holiday, the provincial government would engage in discussions with them in the spirit of the important and informed dialogue we have already established with Indigenous leaders.”

The statement also noted that Discovery Day is not a public holiday under the Labour Standards Act, but many employees in the province still have the day off through their collective agreements.

Memorial University of Newfoundland spokesperson David Sorensen said the university also hopes to negotiate changing the name of Discovery Day in its collective agreements with staff, starting as early as this fall.

The university’s calendar follows the holidays of the province, but has changed the names of provincially recognized holidays like St. Patrick’s Day and Orangemen’s Day _ which are currently listed as Mid-March and Mid-July holidays in the university’s calendar.

Sorensen said if the change to the collective agreements is approved, Discovery Day could be referred to as the Mid-June holiday by next year.

Kelly Anne Butler, Aboriginal affairs officer at the university’s Grenfell campus, said the change is “long overdue,” and that it’s damaging for Indigenous people to see the date of European contact listed on public calendars.

“It really does erase you as a human being,” said Butler.

“When we celebrate a holiday we sort of re-emphasize what it stands for. In this case, every single year, we as a province are re-emphasizing something that’s false, and has the effect of damaging Indigenous people because it’s erasing their history.”

Butler said the term takes a Eurocentric view of history, and the language stems from old concepts like terra nullius and the doctrine of discovery that were used to justify European colonization of the country centuries ago.

While even the name “Newfoundland” draws from the similar notion that the province was “found” by Europeans, Butler said renaming the June holiday will be a less difficult conversation _ given that it was only named Discovery Day 20 years ago.

“It’s not something that’s going to upset some sort of idea of what Newfoundland and Labrador is. It’s going to upset the doctrine of discovery, but that needs to be upset.”

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