Boswell: The dark flip side of Canada’s oldest English coin

Good reminder to be more inclusive in reporting such discoveries and include the historical context:

The discovery in Newfoundland of what appears to be the oldest English coin ever found in Canada certainly does “spark the imagination,” as a provincial government press release noted this week.

But there’s also been a failure of imagination in communicating the significance of this 525-year-old artifact dug up at Cupids Cove Plantation Provincial Historic Site, settled in 1610 after a series of English expeditions to the region over the previous century.

Yes, it’s true: As those heralding the find have noted, this silver relic — a two-penny piece believed to have been minted in Canterbury between 1493 and 1499 — symbolizes a landmark moment in the history of European colonization in Canada.

It features the likeness of King Henry VII, who championed English exploration of the “new founde land” and paid sailors to “serche and fynde” the fabled territory across the Atlantic, bring it under his control and spread Christianity to the New World.

However, there’s a flip side to every coin. And in this era of long-overdue reckoning with the Indigenous history of North America and the often-violent dispossession of First Peoples, the province shouldn’t trumpet the unearthing of such an archeological prize without at least acknowledging the dark side of history that’s also associated with it.

Specifically, in this case, that’s the forced retreat of the Beothuk inhabitants of Newfoundland from coastal sites in the face of the 17th-century English settlement of the island, and their eventual extinction.

The vanishing of the Beothuk is one of the great tragedies of Canadian history. Does recognition of this sorrowful outcome of East Coast colonization complicate an otherwise super-cool, time-machine tale about archeologists digging up a coin at Cupids Cove stamped with the visage of the first Tudor king?

Yes, it’s now a more complicated story. Much more. Or we could say the narrative has just become more layered, more comprehensive, more balanced — and more true.

Along with a sense of awe about the efforts of early English colonizers to gain a toehold in Canada centuries ago, we now also need to consider what the coin represented to the millennia-old Beothuk civilization, and what news of the coin’s discovery this year might mean to present-day Indigenous people.

I was a national reporter for many years with a history buff’s fascination for archeological discoveries shedding light on Canada’s past. I wrote many stories in a voice of breathless enthusiasm that, in hindsight, should have been told with a more reflective tone, a deeper awareness of what milestone moments in the European “discovery” and settlement of the Americas would have meant to the people who had already been living here for countless generations.

Granted, that’s not how such discoveries were typically framed by scholars, museums and governments in past decades. But in 2021, just weeks after Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, we are in the midst of an ongoing transformation in the way historians shape stories, curators construct exhibitions, and governments manage controversies over street names, memorials and other landmarks of historical commemoration.

In short, across the country in recent years, there’s been an ever-strengthening push to bring other, overlooked, often-obliterated sides of Canada’s history into official depictions of the past.

In recent weeks, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador has taken important steps to rename “Red Indian Lake” – henceforth to be called Beothuk Lake – and erect a statue honouring the disappeared nation outside the provincial legislature.

But genuine reconciliation means going beyond symbolic gestures and reframing many of our historical narratives – at least enough to acknowledge the ultimate impact of contact-era settlements on the Indigenous peoples encountered during the European colonization of the lands that became modern Canada.

In other words, why rename a lake and build a statue to pay tribute to the Beothuk if other historical narratives perpetuate their erasure?

The old coin, to be sure, is an amazing find that tangibly, evocatively recalls “the story of the early European exploration in the province and the start of English settlement,” as Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism Minister Steve Crocker put it in Wednesday’s formal announcement.

But that’s not the only tale it tells. Celebrating the discovery of the coin and extolling its value as a long-lost, newly-found symbol of European exploration and English settlement leaves a glaring gap in the storytelling.

The province’s press release on the find — and, predictably, the subsequent news coverage — makes no mention of the fallout for the Beothuk of England’s colonization of Newfoundland. It’s like all those local history books filling the shelves of Canadian libraries that begin the biography of this county or that township with an account of the day the first white settler arrived in the place, chopped some trees and pitched a tent circa 1820 — as if First Peoples hadn’t already been there for many thousands of years.

There is a lesson here for all governments and all politicians across Canada. If they’re serious about healing relationships with the country’s Indigenous peoples, high-profile gestures of reconciliation must be matched by routine, sincere adjustments in the way they understand, frame and talk about history — especially in the context of the European age of exploration and so-called discovery.

Historians and archeologists, heritage officials and Indigenous leaders, teachers and multiculturalism advocates, municipalities and historical societies — these and many other individuals and groups in Canada are already engaged in difficult discussions about how to rewrite and rejuvenate the nation’s history, to rediscover the many voices and experiences that have traditionally been pushed into the shadows of the country’s past.

The last known Beothuk, a young woman named Shawnadithit, died in 1829. Her aunt, Demasduwit, survived an 1819 kidnapping attempt that left her husband and newborn child dead. But she died in 1820 after helping to create a record of the Beothuk language, and a painted portrait of her held by Library and Archives Canada remains an iconic image of a lost people.

The Newfoundland discovery of the coin stamped with a 15th-century king’s face is exciting and important. But it also illuminates a largely forgotten face of Canada’s history.

Randy Boswell is a Carleton University journalism professor and a former national reporter with Postmedia News.

Source: The dark flip side of Canada’s oldest English coin

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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