Labrador flag helped unite the Big Land
For the past 40 years, three strips of coloured fabric sewn together with the image of a tree branch on them has served as a unifying symbol for the people of Labrador.
But when Mike Martin first designed the Labrador flag he had no idea the meaning it would have for the people of the Big Land.
After the province joined Confederation, then premier Joey Smallwood adopted the Union Jack as the flag of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Mike Martin, who designed the Labrador flag and his former wife Patricia Martin who sewed them on her sewing machine.
— Photo by Geraldine Brophy/The Western Star
“Well this pissed off a whole bunch of people, because I mean you can’t take another country’s flag and declare it to be yours,” said Martin, who is originally from Cartwright and now lives in Corner Brook.
Around 1972, in advance of the 25th anniversary of Confederation, Smallwood encouraged everyone in the province to adopt a small project in celebration.
By then, Martin was representing Labrador South in the House of Assembly as a member of the New Labrador Party.
“‘Fine,’ says I, ‘you want a project, I’ll give you a bloody project. We’re going to have our own flag in Labrador. You can have your Union Jack if you want it. We’re going to have our own flag.’”
Martin said is was only “a nub” of an idea and he wasn’t really serious, but soon people started talking and supported his idea.
“The thing that got me when I went into politics was the whole disunity of the territory,” he said. “There were people in Nain who didn’t know there was a place called Forteau. There were people in L’Anse au Clair who didn’t know where the hell Hopedale was.
“In Cartwright we knew that there was a place called L’Anse au Loup somewhere up in the Straits,” he said.
“There was no interconnection. The only common ground was Goose Bay and every community was up against another community. The three races of people were at each other’s throats. So I thought the flag could be a symbol of unity.”
Martin went home to Cartwright for Christmas in 1973 and designed the current Labrador flag.
He said the design and the colours used relate directly to the land. The wide white stripe at the top represents the snow and the habitat of the land, providing a means of travel and source of wildlife for trappers. The blue at the bottom represents the ocean, lakes and rivers, or the roads of Labrador.
And the green in the middle is the connecting element, and represents the green and bountiful land that is Labrador. The black spruce branch at the top represents the past and the future and the three founding people of Labrador — the Inuit, the Innu and the European settlers.
“They all stem from the same branch, so all three people have a common root,” said Martin.
The first flags produced were sewn by Martin’s former wife, Patricia Martin. She made 68 flags prior to the anniversary of Confederation.
By then Smallwood was no longer in power and the Tories were running the province. Martin said the plan was for the group who had been helping him with the flag to present one to each of the three serving members for Labrador at Confederation Building on March 31, 1974.
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Martin and Liberal Melvin Woodward, representing Labrador North, were there, but PC Joe Rousseau, as a minister in the government, didn’t attend.
Prior to the presentation, 64 flags were also sent to the communities in Labrador with the message to “raise the flag, it’s ours,” on the same day.
“And it wasn’t three or four weeks and I started getting phone calls,” said Martin.
To his surprise people wanted a flag of their own.
So Martin found himself seeking out a flag-maker in Montreal, and using his own money, he had some flags made. A friend who owned a mini-mall in Goose Bay came on board as distributor.
“Well it took off from there. For two years he couldn’t keep them in stock,” he said.
People also started to make their own versions, but often the results were not true to form and Martin had the design copyrighted.
“The copyright was only to protect the design, not to restrict it that only I could make the flag,” he added.
He later passed the copyright over to the Labrador Heritage Museum, which continues to hold the rights to the design of the flag.
Martin laughed when he said there was even a group known as protectors of the flag which would go around to stores and threaten legal action if it found flags not true to the design.
Over the years the colour and design of the flag have found their way onto many other craft items from Labrador.
But the big question remains: did it unite the region as Martin had hoped?
For him the answer is yes.
The New Labrador Party elected more members to the House and the communities in Labrador started to form their own councils.
“None of this had happened before all this started,” said Martin, “and the symbol of it all was the flag.
“The flag itself didn’t do all this, but it was the symbol that tied them together.”
As for his thoughts on the 40th anniversary of the Labrador flag, Martin said, “I’m quite overwhelmed to realize that there were people actually born, lived and died underneath that flag.
“People do really care about this thing and that makes me kind of proud.”
The Western Star