ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Newfoundland and Labrador's Minister of Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation is reaffirming a commitment to rename Red Indian Lake following a round of public consultations with nearby residents.
"Our premier and Indigenous leaders have been pretty clear that it's 2021, and 'red Indian' is not really acceptable," Lisa Dempster told reporters Monday when asked if it was possible the name would remain unchanged.
But there are some in the province who disagree.
The lake is the second-largest in Newfoundland, stretching roughly 65 kilometres from the central to the western interior of the island. Its shores were a popular hunting and overwintering site for the Beothuk people, who were among the island's original inhabitants. The last Beothuk is believed to have died in 1829.
Dempster said Monday the government is still considering the lake as the final resting place for the remains of Nonosabasut and Demasduit, two Beothuk people whose remains were returned to the province last year from Scotland. Their bodies had been exhumed from a Newfoundland grave site almost two centuries ago.
The government's plan to change to name of the lake has so far been controversial. Premier Andrew Furey sparked outrage in April when he announced the name would be changed to "Wantaqo'ti Qospem," which means "peaceful lake" in the Mi'kmaq language. Residents of the three towns nearest the lake — Buchans, Millertown and Buchans Junction, which are collectively home to about 800 people — said they weren't consulted and that they deserved a say.
The government shelved the renaming plan and announced Dempster would lead public consultations with local residents. There is also an online portal set up for public feedback that closes Friday.
In a May 19 Facebook post, Chris Tibbs, the area's Progressive Conservative member of the legislature, said the "unanimous" consensus of local residents is to leave the name as is. "And that is the opinion of my people," he said. "They do not want Red Indian Lake to be changed."
Chief Mi'sel Joe of the Miawpukek First Nation said he felt the consultation process and the ongoing discussion surrounding the name provided a good opportunity to educate the public about racism and the province's Indigenous history.
"The problem is, it's been called Red Indian Lake for over 200 years," Joe said in an interview in May. The name is not acceptable, he said, adding: "I think, in time, (people) will come to realize that."
Joe said he's heard several attempts to justify the name, including that it comes from the red ochre the Beothuks wore on their faces. "I don't want to be called Indian any more than I'm sure the Beothuk people would want it," Joe said.
Dempster said Monday that the government will review all of the public feedback and meet with Indigenous leaders to plan the next steps for the lake's renaming. So far, a lot of people writing in are asking that "Beothuk" be part of the lake's new name, she said.
Joe said he's "fine" what whatever is decided. "My take on it is to find a place where we can safely put the remains back to rest where they belong," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2021.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press