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What we don’t know

Sociologist collaborates with First Light to uncover St. John’s Indigenous history

Part of a special feature that illuminates the synergistic relationship between individuals, communities and community organizations and Memorial, with a focus on Memorial’s supporting role to community-led work.


By Janet Harron

We don’t know what we don’t know.

A simple enough statement, but in the context of Indigenous Peoples in St. John’s, it’s complicated.

A couple of years ago, Dr. Rochelle Côté, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, asked students in her Indigenous Peoples and the City class to find one historical fact about Indigenous Peoples in the St. John’s area.

Admittedly, she was well aware it was a leading question. Dr. Côté knew from personal experience that there weren’t many to find – something she subsequently confirmed with representatives at First Light.

The professor reached out to the executive director there at the time and they agreed it was important to the Indigenous community to change things.

“And, I was sure that I could get some funding for a research assistant and that we could go about trying to compile the Indigenous history of the city and surrounding area,” said said Dr. Côté.

The Twillingate Sun newspaper, dated July 29, 1880. The article “A Test of Indian Courage” appears in the lower second column from the right.
Photo: Submitted

Stacey Howse, acting executive director, First Light, says the collaboration is important in order to raise awareness of urban Indigenous history and ensuring that it is shared and disseminated through culturally important means.

“As an urban Indigenous organization, we have a responsibility to our community members to be the caretakers of their information,” she said. “It’s important to take control over our history and the way that it is told.”

Terms of Union absence

Ms. Howse believes that the mistaken perception that Indigenous Peoples were rarely or never present in the St. John’s region is indelibly linked to Confederation – largely in part because Indigenous Peoples are not even mentioned in the Terms of Union.

“It is astonishing that there has been no compilation of the history of Indigenous people in the city and/or province before this point. We are well aware that Indigenous people were always in the region and this is demonstrated by things such as evidence of Beothuk people in St. John’s and the petroglyphs recently found in Conception Bay North, which resemble Algonquian petroglyphs found in other parts of Eastern Canada.”

Dr. Côté agrees.

Advertisement from a Healy and Bigelow publication, Kickapoo Indian Life and Scenes.
Photo: New York Public LIbrary

“By formally documenting the Indigenous history of this region, we are effectively giving a voice to a segment of the population that predates colonization, and that continues to make massive contributions to the life of the city.”

History graduate student Mick Stevens has been working on the project since the spring of 2018, spending his time digging into different archives at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies in Memorial’s Queen Elizabeth II Library and The Rooms.

“St. John’s biggest role vis-à-vis Indigenous Peoples tends to be as an antagonist.” — Mick Stevens

Mr. Stevens says that St. John’s is, and was, the site of political power for the settler population.

“It’s the important site when you’re trying to push back against something or make a political movement,” he said, adding that the city has been the site of several protests, legal actions and rallies featuring Indigenous Peoples. One example is the Conne River lockouts of the 1970s.

“Based on the evidence I’ve seen to date, St. John’s biggest role vis-à-vis Indigenous Peoples tends to be as an antagonist, acting against them rather than in concert or co-operation with.”

Colonial perspectives

As Dr. Côté points out, difficulties with regards to documenting Indigenous participation in various realms of the city isn’t surprising.

Generally, it wasn’t recorded; beyond that, she says, people didn’t declare their heritage.

“The data we have discovered can be really ambiguous. Newspapers, for example, document colonial perspectives on Indigenous participation – the perspectives of Indigenous people were not recorded.”

Dr. Côté hopes the second phase of the project will include interviews with community members, with the aim of gathering their stories and perspectives on the local history of the area.

“There is apparently evidence that Inuit women used to help pump the water out of whalers in the 19th century.” — Dr. Rochelle Côté

Some examples of Indigenous Peoples’ presence in the student’s archival search are multiple references to Miꞌkmaw guides hired to take settlers into the province’s interior and that Indigenous artists and performers, practised and performed, including touring medicine shows, in St. John’s.

References to the Beothuk appear in documentation of the ongoing archaeological digs at various Beothuk settlements around the Avalon.

Towards reconciliation

The next round of data collection will focus on the Maritime History Archive in the Henrietta Harvey building in order to discover how Indigenous Peoples participated in maritime culture.

“There is apparently evidence that Inuit women used to help pump the water out of whalers in the 19th century,” said Dr. Côté. “But we need to actually go into the archives and find this out for ourselves.”

Ultimately, the researchers’ plan is for a complete, publicly accessible database to reside on First Light’s website. One result of that goal will be that community members will have access to information involving members of their families and their resulting legacies. Another potential outcome of the work is a geo-tagged walking map of Indigenous sites.

For Ms. Howse, the first step towards reconciliation is acknowledging the past.

“This project will do just that.”


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