Despite the naysayers, southern Labrador Inuit rise up to claim their rights

“We come from Inuit. We are on the land of our ancestors, still there.”

Todd Russell, the president of the NunatuKavut Community Council, and Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, shake hands at the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the NunatuKavut council and Canada recognizing Indigenous rights and self-determination, on Sept. 5, 2019. With Bennett is Yvonne Jones, a NunatuKavut member who is the current Liberal MP for Labrador. In that MOU, Canada recognizes the NunatuKavut as an Indigenous people under section 35 of the constitution. (Photo courtesy of NunatuKavut Community Council)

By Jim Bell

No matter how much disbelief the doubters may throw at him, Todd Russell does not question who he is and who his people are. They’re Inuit, always and forever.

“We come from Inuit. We are on the land of our ancestors, still there. To me, there’s no other questioning. That’s who we are, that’s where we’re from, that’s what we’re about,” Russell said.

Russell, 53, grew up in a tiny southern Labrador community called William’s Harbour, whose people were resettled in 2017. A skilled orator, he served as the Liberal MP for Labrador between 2005 and 2011, and has been president of the NunatuKavut Community Council, also known as the “NCC,” since 2012.

The NunatuKavut Community Council says it represents about 6,000 Inuit-descended people of mixed ancestry, who until 2010 identified as Métis and who primarily are from southern and central Labrador, south of the Churchill River.

Todd Russell, the president of the NunatuKavut Community Council: “And I say to our people, don’t let other people tell you anymore about who you are and what our history looks like. Just think about yourself and your own family and where you come from.” (Photo by Jim Bell)

They say they’re the inheritors of a treaty reached in 1765 between the Inuit and the British Crown—but they don’t have a modern comprehensive land claim agreement. Very few speak the Inuit language, although words like “ulu” and “komatik” are still used locally and many still harvest seals and caribou and fish for salmon or cod.

And for many years, the federal Justice Department did not recognize the NunatuKavut as an Indigenous people capable of holding rights under section 35 of the Constitution, and hardly anyone else recognized them either.

Ottawa says NunatuKavut have Indigenous rights

But all that changed in July 2018. That’s when Carolyn Bennett, the Crown-Indigenous relations minister, agreed to start talks with the NunatuKavut people about their Indigenous rights and their right to self-determination.

Those talks bore fruit, in the form of a potentially history-making deal signed on Sept. 5, 2019, just before the start of last fall’s federal election campaign.

In that agreement, styled as a memorandum of understanding, Canada recognizes the NunatuKavut as an “Indigenous collective capable of holding section 35 Aboriginal rights.”

The process they’ve agreed to start isn’t quite the same as a land claim negotiation. It’s based on a new idea from the federal government called “recognition of Indigenous rights and self-determination,” or “RIRSD.”

But others don’t seem willing to acknowledge the NunatuKavut as an Indigenous people. When Nunatsiaq News contacted Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in late January to ask if, as a result of the MOU, ITK now recognizes the NunatuKavut as a representative Inuit organization, ITK did not answer the question.

“At this time, we respectfully decline to comment,” an ITK spokesperson said.

As for the neighbouring Innu Nation, they flatly refuse to acknowledge the NunatuKavut as an Indigenous people.

The NunatuKavut community of William’s Harbour, Labrador, whose people were resettled by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador in 2017. (Photo courtesy of NunatuKavut Community Council)

In light of all this, Russell sat down with Nunatsiaq News at the Northern Lights trade show in Ottawa last month to talk about his people’s aspirations and what they hope to achieve through their new arrangement with Ottawa.

Access to benefits program

He said that right now, they’re still narrowing down a list of issues to be negotiated. But a big one is access to the federal government’s Non-Insured Health Benefits program.

That’s the scheme that covers those supplementary health care costs—such as medical travel, prescription drugs and dental work—for Indigenous peoples who aren’t covered by provincial-territorial health insurance.

“Health is huge,” Russell said.

To that end, the NunatuKavut council isn’t waiting for a deal that would give its members NIHB access.

They’ve already introduced their own $1.75-million program—as a one-year pilot—to help members with the high cost of medical transportation. Their do-it-yourself program offers an annual medical travel benefit of $5,000 per patient or $7,000 for a patient and an escort.

They’ve also just announced a home repair program offering grants of up to $11,000 to members with combined incomes below $40,000.

Another item on their to-do list is infrastructure, Russell said, citing the community of Black Tickle, where a house burned to the ground in early February, while community members stood and watched. Black Tickle, which has a population of about 120, has no fire department and no firefighting equipment.

The NunatuKavut community of Black Tickle, Labrador. (Photo by Tara Keefe)

Other discussion topics include education, resource development and the fishery.

And, throughout all their talks with Ottawa, the NunatuKavut will seek self-governance.

“We know that when we run our own programs for our own people, designed in our own way, responding to our own people’s priorities, the Inuit of NunatuKavut, we will be very well served by this approach,” Russell said.

On economic development, the NunatuKavut already have their own development corporation, called the Nunacor Group of Companies. Nunacor owns the Royal Inn Suites in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and is active in crab and shrimp harvesting, real estate, training and other areas.

Kenneth Williams, business development officer with Nunacor, the economic development arm of the NunatuKavut, at the Northern Lights trade show last month. (Photo by Jim Bell)

Legal conflict with Innu Nation

Eventually, the Indigenous rights and self-determination process will lead to discussions on land rights. On that point, a map illustrating the area claimed by the NunatuKavut reveals what could become an extremely difficult issue: overlapping claims with their neighbours, the Innu Nation and the Nunatsiavut Government.

“They can be worked out as long as there’s a willingness on the part of the different parties to come to the table with respect, with understanding,” said Russell.

But not everyone seems willing to do that. After Russell and Bennett signed their Indigenous rights pact last September, the Innu Nation lashed out at them with an application to the Federal Court of Canada that seeks to quash the Ottawa-NunatuKavut deal, claiming Bennett had no legal authority to sign it.

That court action accused the NunatuKavut of being, in essence, imposters.

“The Innu of Labrador do not, and have never, accepted that NCC or any of its predecessors represent an Aboriginal people of Canada within the meaning of s. 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982,” the lawsuit states.

And they alleged that Yvonne Jones, a NunatuKavut member who is also the current Liberal MP for Labrador and was Bennett’s parliamentary secretary when the MOU was signed, was in a conflict of interest.

The NunatuKavut responded with a statement describing the Innu Nation allegations as inflammatory, misleading and unfounded. “These allegations are a form of racism and lateral violence against NunatuKavut Inuit and perpetuate colonial narratives,” their statement said.

As for the Nunatsiavut Government, for now they’re taking a non-committal position: “We have not issued any position statements on this,” the spokesperson said.

This map shows the area of southern Labrador that the NunatuKavut say they have traditionally used and occupied.

The Nunatsiavut Government represents more northerly people who were accepted as members of the old Labrador Inuit Association.

Like the NunatuKavut, many beneficiaries of the Labrador Inuit land claim agreement are also of mixed ancestry. In the past, they were known as “settlers” or “livyers.” Many settlers were unable to speak the Inuit language but lived alongside the Inuktitut-speaking people and made a living through hunting, trapping and fishing.

After much debate, those mixed ancestry settlers were admitted into the Labrador Inuit Association as members and are legally described as “Kablunângajuit” in the 2005 Labrador Inuit land claims agreement. A few Nunatsiavut beneficiaries have no Inuit ancestry at all—but were eligible to become land claim beneficiaries by meeting certain criteria.

In contrast, most of the mixed ancestry people of southern Labrador have never been legally accepted as Inuit—even those with family ties to Nunatsiavut beneficiaries.

“In central Labrador especially, you’ll find that some of the older people are members of Nunatsiavut and then all the youth, the younger generation, are all members of NunatuKavut,” Russell said.

The reasons for that are complex, having to do with the history of European contact and occupation in Newfoundland and Labrador, the history of the Moravian mission in northern Labrador, the unique way in which identity politics developed in Labrador over the past 40 years, and the stigma—caused by racial prejudice—which in the past led many southern Labrador people to hide or deny their Indigenous ancestry.

John Kennedy, an anthropologist at Memorial University, described that stigma in a lengthy article he published in 2015, titled “Being and becoming Inuit in Labrador” in the journal Études Inuit Studies.

And the Labrador Inuit land claims agreement itself contains a complex, multi-part definition of who is eligible to be considered a beneficiary and who isn’t, based on time and place of birth and ties to certain regions.

“We do have situations where there are direct family members, and some are in ours and some are in Nunatsiavut. Some of that might be about choice, some of that might be that they can’t get into one or other of the organizations,” Russell said.

But he says research reveals a long history of Inuit occupation in Labrador, reaching as far south as the Northern Peninsula of the island of Newfoundland.

“Inuit lands, Inuit culture extends all the way down the coast of Labrador into some of the interior areas. This is a fact. Even the Northern Peninsula. That’s a fact. We can’t deny that our people lived in some of these places,” he says.

But when discussions of complex overlap questions turn to the story of how the southern Labrador people have been reclaiming an Inuit identity, Russell’s rhetoric soars to poetic heights.

“That is such a beautiful and energizing and invigorating part of our story. And I say to our people, don’t let other people tell you anymore about who you are and what our history looks like,” Russell said.

“Just think about yourself and your own family and where you come from. There’s more truth in that story and that narrative and that way of being than there ever was in some of those history books that were taught sitting there in that one-room school with the wood stove burning.”

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(23) Comments:

  1. Posted by ALOUPA KULULA on

    No matter if your bio father or mother was a decent of European origin if the other is of this land your children are Inuit or Innu Cree not metis as we see it as inuit anyways

  2. Posted by Inuk on

    It is deplorable that these non indigenous people get indigenous recognition. No you are not descendants maybe one or two of you are. No!

  3. Posted by No Moniker on

    The word ‘Metis’ seems to have lost its meaning. It was never meant to be synonymous with mixed ancestry. Still I can see the appeal to using it this way as it is a recognized term that bestows a kind of legitimacy on an identity, whether it belongs there or not.

  4. Posted by Inuk on

    I would like to know where ITK stands on this? Do they support it or not? Also the Nunatsiavut Government needs to have a position on this! By keeping quiet its like they support this!

    • Posted by Turin Horse on

      Why does any of this matter to you?

      • Posted by Inuk on

        Because this sets a precedence that non indigenous people can work the system to get indigenous titles, we have to be careful who is recognized as indigenous and I think this group worked to system and loopholes to get what they want.
        They are not Inuit, so I don’t understand why ITK and the Nunatsiavut are not standing up and saying anything about it! This will have a impact on all Inuit outside of Newfoundland and Labrador.
        Any group that might have 5-10% of indigenous blood in them could start saying they are indigenous. One out of ten might have a small percentage of Inuit in them and that doesn’t mean the whole group is Inuit now. This is really shameful and these people should be a shamed of themselves, they are not Inuit.

        • Posted by Kalley Greene on

          @Inuk what makes you the “determiner” of who or what is Inuit? Exactly. Nothing. Stop hating on things you know NOTHING about. To make it this far, the NunatuKavut people have proven their ancestry and their rights – and I’m sure they don’t give a rats ars’ about what YOU think! Get over it, they were always here – and they will always be here – and they’re getting the same rights and recognition as YOU do. Worried? 🙂

          • Posted by Inuk on

            Yes I am worried as do many Inuit, these European descendants should not be recognized as Inuit when they are not, they have done a wonderful job playing the system trying to be recognized as Métis people at first then when that did not work they claimed to be Inuit.
            Even with your arrogant comments which does not change the facts that you are not Inuit and never will be this will have to be challenged by other Inuit.
            Nunatsiavut government is too afraid, ITK or other Inuit organizations need to speak up and challenge this.

  5. Posted by What is their dialect? on

    Honest question. If the NunatuKavut community is an Indigenous people, what was their original Inuttitut dialect(s)? How was it different from Northern Labrador dialects? Who among the NunatuKavut today can speak the distinct dialect(s) of NunatuKavut? Where can I find materials in the distinct dialect(s) of NunatuKavut? Tukisittiarumagama.

    • Posted by Dialect Doesn’t Matter In The Least on

      Their dialect is completely meaningless to their claim. There are plenty of folks who are considered to be Inuit who can’t say more than 20 words in any of the historic Inuit languages. That doesn’t reduce their claim, or lessen their identity.

  6. Posted by ALOUPA KULULA on

    It’s DNA not language

    • Posted by Pat on

      Did they all have a DNA test done?

  7. Posted by Bobby on

    According to the map, once again, Quebec invaded and claim what was and is used by these inuit of Labrador. So, Quebec will have to negotiate with them.

  8. Posted by Fake treaty on

    Nunatsiaq’s reporting seems to get lazier and lazier. The 1765 treaty cited in the article – the treaty upon which this group of people’s entire claim to Inuit ancestry is based, doesn’t exist and can’t be found anywhere. It’s a fictitious treaty – just as fictitious as this group’s claim to Inuit ancestry.

    • Posted by Frank Budgell on

      Hey buddy, I think you want to read this and then revise your statement: Mitchell, Greg, “The Palliser Friendship Treaty: The Esquimeaux-British Treaty of Southern Labrador (August 21, 1765),” Newfoundland Quarterly 98: no. 1 (2005): p.m. 48-51.

      But it does not really matter if the treaty exists or not because their claim is not based on that treaty anyway. Under Canadian law on Indigenous rights, these are the boxes you have to tick off.

      1. Has this group used and occupied the territory since before European contact? Check.

      2. Does this group still use and occupy this territory? Check.

      3. Does this group have land use studies to back their claim of continuous use and occupancy? Check.

      CIRNAC lawyers are not stupid and they know they have to recognize this NunatuKavut collective.

      • Posted by Fran on

        But are they Inuit? Have they done DNA test to show that they are Inuit? How did they conclude that they are Inuit?

  9. Posted by Inukman on

    This is very dangerous as it sets a precedence to allow others to claim they are Inuit when they are not, this group of European descendants are not Inuit
    A court challenge may be needed to squash their claim.

    • Posted by Kalley Greene on

      Good luck with that. They have PROVEN their rights. They are just as entitled now as any “Inukman” is. You don’t know anything about this group or what they have submitted to make it this far. They were always the poor cousins, and now . . . now not so much. People are getting worried I think. You watch what this organization will do with any extra funds that may be associated with their new rights. They will blow your mind (in a good way). NOT a lazy bunch. They are all for their people. ALL.

      • Posted by Inukman on

        Don’t worry Kalley, other Inuit organizations are talking about this and they will come together to say these are not Inuit, not all of them are and this needs to be re-evaluated and corrected.
        Just wait and see.

  10. Posted by Partial NunatuKavut Ancestry on

    So, if people meet the like 25% DNA ancestry requirement than I think they for sure deserve the same benefits. If they don’t I think it’s wise to recognize their ancestry and teach them more if they wish to learn but no I don’t think they deserve land claims. My father has a status card and I think it’s BS. He deserves no land and I don’t see how he qualifies for tax breaks. It’s my ancestry yes but I understand other inuit groups concerns. I myself would be around 15% Indigenous by DNA standards. I would love to learn more about my ancestry and be accepted into groups to learn more but I deserve no government benefits and want no government benefits. Even if I was the 25% why would I take benefits for a thing that never really affected me. I look more white than anything else, I never grew up knowing that this was part of who I am, and I never suffered the same way in the system as someone who actually looks indigenous. Those in the group that meet the status requirements and can prove they are at least 25% should be given benefits if that is what they wish. But I completely agree that if a group of 8-10% or no DNA at all are given benefits than it is extremely corcerning and is going to lead to a bunch of people abusing the system. I think this group, my group needs to tread more carefully. You can be part inuit but accept your huge European ancestry as well and acknowledge that you did not suffer the same way as people who are completely indigenous do even to this day. It is still a sensitive topic for most especially those who lived or still live on some of the poorer reservations.

    • Posted by PJ on

      At least in Nunatsiavut we don’t get any tax breaks (that’s a comment misconception, most Indigenous people in Canada pay taxes: https://apihtawikosisan.com/2011/12/first-nations-taxation/), we pay full income tax but Nunatsiavut Government gets the federal portion of our income tax return as their core budget.

      I totally agree with your comment about white privilege though! There are lots of white presenting Inuit, First Nations, and Metis across Canada, and people need to be aware of how that changes their interactions with the outside world and even within the community (ie, less likely to be racially profiled by the cops, followed around at the store etc)

  11. Posted by Justin on

    How did this group determine they are Inuit? I remember them trying to say they are Métis a couple years ago now they are Inuit.

    Did each of them have a test done to see if they are Inuit and how much % of Inuit they have?

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