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The Sango Mountains loom behind Natuashish, an Innu community of about 940 people in northern Labrador. It was here that the government resettled the once-nomadic Innu into a permanent village. Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Joachim Nui remembers a time before anyone cared about the endless interior of Labrador, when the Innu were left alone to live as they always had.

Born in 1934 in a hide tent at the edge of Mistastin Lake, he didn’t see a white person until he was a teenager. His inland people, distinct from Labrador’s coastal Inuit in their language, customs and history, were the last of Canada’s Indigenous groups settled into permanent villages. Living in small, nomadic groups, their world hidden deep inside Labrador often had little contact with outsiders until the mining companies, radar stations and the hydroelectric projects came.

Mr. Nui’s people believe a land claim settlement could give them control over their own destiny again. But the Innu’s hopes for self-determination have been recently complicated by a competing claim, made by Labradorians who have mixed Inuit-European ancestry, which asserts rights to much of what the Innu see as their traditional land.

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When Mr. Nui was a child, his people survived by following the caribou and the other wild bounty the land provided. By the late 1940s, that way of life began to change – the Innu were eventually forced by the provincial government to end their nomadic ways, and he was placed in a school at the age of 15 for the first time in his life, taught by Roman Catholic missionaries.

“I remember being in school and it was a beautiful day outside. I looked out the window and saw the frost on the snow, and I looked at the land, and I knew that old way of life was over,” he said, speaking through a translator.

“To me, that was a good life. The kind of life I see today, it’s a white man’s life.”

His family was moved and resettled three times by the government, first to Nutak, an abandoned settlement, then Davis Inlet, a failed planned community where they lived without treated water or sewage, and then finally here, to Natuashish, about 300 kilometres north of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Today Mr. Nui, 85, lives in a modern bungalow in this planned community of about 940 people where pickup trucks dodge wild dogs in the road and his grandchildren speak English to each other.

Negotiations with the federal government over the land claim began in the 1980s, but the Innu Nation say a final agreement is close. It would be followed by a vote on whether Innu members want to become a self-governing people, with their own territory and laws.

For the Innu’s leadership, it’s a chance to deal directly with mining companies, to create social programs for their people and to have a say over how their land, and the animals that live on it, are managed. “This land, it’s the heart of the Innu people,” said Innu Nation Grand Chief Gregory Rich, who has led the land claim process. But the fight over the competing claim not only complicates their desire for self-determination, but illustrates the debate over what defines an Indigenous people in Canada.

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Joachim Nui, 85, sits with his caribou-skin drum in the basement of his bungalow in Natuashish. A key adviser to the Innu Nation, he spoke to The Globe about how he's seen the Indigenous way of life change in Labrador over the decades. The Globe and Mail
Gregory Rich, the Innu Nation's Grand Chief, is more focused on future generations and what the land-claim process will mean for them. Here, he speaks about the importance of Innu control over Innu territory.

A competing claim

To the Innu, who have official status under the Indian Act, the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) – the group behind the competing land claim – are imposters, a “settler organization” whose ancestors were English-speaking white trappers and fur traders. The group, led by former Liberal MP Todd Russell, say they are the descendants of Inuit women who married European men, and have the same right as the Innu to negotiate for self-governance.

The NunatuKavut’s negotiation with the federal government, which formally began in 2018 and asserts more than two-thirds of Labrador as their traditional territory, has angered and stunned the Innu people, who have lived in Labrador’s interior for thousands of years. The NCC argue their Inuit ancestors also hunted and travelled on the same land at different points in history.

Labrador

Innu lands

DETAIL

NunatuKavut

land claim

QUE.

Voisey’s Bay

N.B.

Natuashish

Mistastin

Lake

QUEBEC

Davis Inlet

Labrador

Sea

Smallwood

Reservoir

Lake

Melville

Labrador City

LABRADOR

Happy Valley-

Goose Bay

QUEBEC

0

95

KM

NEWFOUNDLAND

Gulf of St. Lawrence

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP cONTRIBUTORS; HIU;

government of canada; nunatukavut.ca

Labrador

Innu lands

DETAIL

NunatuKavut

land claim

QUE.

Voisey’s Bay

N.B.

Natuashish

Mistastin

Lake

QUEBEC

Davis Inlet

Labrador

Sea

Smallwood

Reservoir

Lake

Melville

500

Labrador City

Happy Valley-

Goose Bay

LABRADOR

QUEBEC

0

95

KM

NEWFOUNDLAND

Gulf of St. Lawrence

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;

OPENSTREETMAP cONTRIBUTORS; HIU; government of

canada; nunatukavut.ca

Labrador

Innu lands

DETAIL

NunatuKavut

land claim

QUE.

Voisey’s Bay

N.B.

Natuashish

Mistastin

Lake

QUEBEC

Davis Inlet

Labrador

Sea

Smallwood

Reservoir

Lake

Melville

500

Labrador City

Happy Valley-

Goose Bay

LABRADOR

QUEBEC

0

95

KM

NEWFOUNDLAND

Gulf of St. Lawrence

JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP

CONTRIBUTORS; HIU; government of canada; nunatukavut.ca

For decades, many of the NCC’s members denied their Indigenous roots, before organizing as a métis political group and eventually rebranding themselves as “southern Inuit,” acknowledging that métis was the wrong label. They were excluded from a political organization representing northern Inuit in Labrador, which eventually became the self-governing Nunatsiavut region. About 40 per cent of the NCC’s members live outside Labrador.

The NCC made slow progress in their hopes for self-determination until two years ago, when Carolyn Bennett, the Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister, agreed to start talks with the group about their Indigenous rights and their right to govern themselves. Those talks led to an agreement signed last September, declaring that Canada recognizes the NunatuKavut as an “Indigenous collective capable of holding Section 35 Aboriginal rights.” Labrador’s Innu leaders were furious, dismissing it as a political stunt, designed to shore up election support for one of the NCC’s most high-profile members – Labrador MP Yvonne Jones, who has southern Inuit heritage.

At stake is potentially millions of dollars, since whoever has ownership of large swaths of Labrador would have the right to negotiate development fees and permits with the mining firms and other resource companies who covet that land. Since the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine began production here in 2005, a steady stream of surveyors, prospectors and geologists have flowed into the region, looking for the next big deposit.

For the roughly 2,200 Innu in Labrador, it would mean revenue to lift their people out of poverty, and jobs in a place where youth suicide and addiction remain a persistent problem. It would also give them more control over the environmental assessment process, allowing the Innu to decide if a project is good for their land. “We need to secure this for future generations,” said Mr. Rich, the Innu Nation Grand Chief. “It will affect generations to come. It affects our kids, and children who aren’t even born yet.”

Todd Russell, shown with then prime minister Paul Martin in 2005, is head of the NunatuKavut Community Council.

Jim Young/Reuters

Mr. Russell, the NCC’s president, acknowledged whoever controls the land will benefit financially. The NCC owns a hotel, fishery operations, real estate and an energy firm through its affiliated Nunacor Development Corp.

But Mr. Russell said his members are also negotiating for improved health care, greater freedom to hunt and fish and access to other Indigenous programs. “We’re asking to be self-sustaining,” he said. “Because we want some control over our own resources to be self-sustaining, that’s not fair? That’s very fair, and it’s exactly our vision.”

He believes it’s possible to compromise, and find a way for both groups to share the land they’re claiming.

The Innu argue Ms. Jones, Labrador’s Liberal MP, is in a conflict of interest, using her position in Ottawa to advance the cause of the NCC. She was named in an application filed in federal court last October by the Innu Nation, challenging a memorandum of understanding on self-determination between the federal government and the NunatuKavut.

Ms. Jones, who says her father was of Inuit descent, has dismissed the court action as a personal and partisan vendetta, pointing out the Innu’s chief negotiator is former Conservative MP and political rival Peter Penashue. She said members of the NCC don’t need to explain their heritage.

“I’m proud to be Inuit. I know who I am, and I don’t feel I have to prove anything to anyone else,” she said. “We know what our origins are. If someone else doesn’t like it, that’s their problem.”

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Yvonne Jones, shown in 2013, is a Liberal MP and leading member of the NCC.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Mr. Rich argues NunatuKavut should have to prove they’re a legitimate aboriginal people, just as the Innu have spent decades doing as part of their land claim process. “Do they have a language? Do they have artifacts? Where are their elders? Do they have Inuit maps? Show me on a map where their people lived. Where were their communities?” he said. “Innu Nation needs to see the proof before we can decide if they’re Indigenous. I need to hear Todd Russell speak in an Inuit language. I’d like to hear him speak one sentence. Me, I can speak my language.”

Mr. Russell says the Innu are using the approach of “colonizers” when they talk about language – arguing NCC members lost their connection to the Inuit language generations ago because their ancestors often weren’t allowed to speak it in the house.

“Don’t blame Todd Russell because I don’t speak Inuktitut. That was not my choice, it was not my mother or father’s choice, or my grandmother’s choice, and that hurts when people use language as a weapon of authenticity," he said.


Children play in a gymnasium at an after-school program in Natuashish. Education and child welfare are among the things Mr. Rich, who has three Innu foster children at home, hopes to address with self-government.

MaryJane Tshakapesh, middle, laughs while working in Natuashish's craft shop. Now 25, Ms. Tshakapesh was taken from the community as a child and put into the foster care system in Ontario. She says she has used craftwork to reconnect with her community and culture.

Photos: Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail


The politics of self-identity

The federal government says it can negotiate with two overlapping land claims at the same time.

“Any one process does not reduce, in any way, the federal government’s commitment to meeting its obligations and objectives in relation to any other process," said Mélanie Mellon, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada.

"Before concluding discussions with one Indigenous group, Canada will consider the perspective of any other Indigenous group which has an overlapping claim.”

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But Jean Teillet, a Vancouver-based lawyer and one of the country’s most experienced negotiators around Métis and First Nation land rights and self-governance, argues for a higher standard for Indigenous status. A history of intermarriage, perhaps hundreds of years in the past, isn’t enough to make a people a distinct Indigenous group, she said.

Someone who had an Inuit ancestor centuries ago has a weak claim to Indigenous rights in the eyes of the law, she said. Intermarriage between white settlers and First Nations women was common in Canada in the 19th century, she said, but that doesn’t make their descendants automatically Indigenous.

An Indigenous group needs more than that – including a collective name that has lasted through history, a language, an origin story and a sense of solidarity that has survived, Ms. Teillet said. And they need to participate in things such as elections, or show they have a history of selecting hereditary leaders, she said.

“Genealogy is not enough. It never was and it is not enough now. In the absence of other much more important sociological historical facts, genealogy is nothing more than an interesting fact,” said Ms. Teillet, author of the book Métis Law in Canada.

“If they’re claiming something like land and rights, we can say ‘put your money where your mouth is and show us the proof of your existence as a group through history.’”

Mr. Russell, who was acclaimed for his sixth term as president of the NCC, said his members go through a “robust” and “intense” vetting process to prove their Inuit heritage. Genealogists have been hired in the past to verify members’ ancestry claims, he said, acknowledging sometimes that Inuit heritage is limited to stories passed down through families, or was hidden for generations.

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There is some evidence that the NCC’s ancestors had reason to hide their heritage, according to research by John Kennedy, a retired Memorial University anthropologist. That includes racial prejudice and opposition by Moravian missionaries further up the Labrador coast, who considered these mixed-race people to be unwelcome “settlers,” or intruders, in the 19th century.

Most people in southern Labrador who had Inuit ancestry were very reluctant to admit it until the last generation or so, he said. They were excluded from the self-governing Inuit region of Nunatsiavut by a “completely arbitrary” boundary, and unlike Inuit farther north, never had the benefit of any religious or government institutions to protect them, he said.

“They were left to fend for themselves,” Mr. Kennedy said.“The stigma argument that they have is quite true. ... They invariably denied their ancestry until the onset of identity politics.”

Their claim for much of Labrador as their traditional territory, however, appears to be based on a history of fur trapping in the interior that took place between the late 19th century and the Second World War, Mr. Kennedy said. Compared with Innu people, there’s no question who’s been there longer, he said.

“The Innu, in contrast, have been using that land for thousands of years. There’s really no comparison,” he said.


A map of Innu claims, settlements and hunting areas hangs in the office of Damian Benuen, one of the land-claim negotiators. Over all, Labrador is home to some 2,200 Innu.

David Nui walks on the Natuashish community wharf. In the background is Iluikoyak Island, the second Davis Inlet site, where Innu lived in unsanitary conditions before being relocated in the early 2000s.

Photos: Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail


Protecting a way of life

For many older Innu living in Natuashish, the shadow of Davis Inlet still lingers.

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Davis Inlet, where the Innu were placed into year-round housing in 1967, was a notorious example of government neglect and poor planning. The homes were built without basements, running water or sewage systems, and soon disease and contamination crept in. Until they were relocated again in 2003, the Innu were removed from their traditional hunting grounds and forced to adapt to store-bought food.

Inhalant abuse became a widespread problem, and suicide was rampant. Mr. Rich says both of his parents were alcoholics and he recalls a lot of violence in his home.

But there are good memories, too. Those came often when Mr. Rich went out onto the land with his father for months at a time. Away from Davis Inlet, his father would be sober, and teach him how to survive in the wild, build snowshoes, hunt, fish and live off the land. He developed a pride in the old Innu communal way of life.

“It was a completely different way of living,” Mr. Rich said. “It was always less stressful in the country than it was in the community. There is peace and less worries there.”

The land claim represents a critical stage in Innu history. Their leaders see it as more than a negotiation over physical boundaries. For them, it’s about protecting their whole way of life.

“When you separate us from the land, the whole thing goes,” said Damian Benuen, one of the negotiators on the land claim. “This isn’t just about the land itself. We go there to hunt and fish. It’s the culture and the language that goes with it.”

A caribou's hind leg thaws on Hank Rich's kitchen table. Its oils and fats, and the marrow from caribou bones, will be turned into a soup-like dish for a mokashan, a ceremony honouring the animal's spirit.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

One of the key priorities of Innu self-governance is control over the caribou hunt. The animal is at the heart of their culture, and the reason they were able to survive for thousands of years in Labrador’s harsh northern climate.

But Labrador’s caribou are also endangered. The George River herd, which straddles Quebec and Labrador, was once the largest caribou herd in the world with as many as 900,000 animals. Today, there are only about 9,000 left.

Newfoundland and Labrador instituted a five-year ban on George River caribou in an attempt to save the herd – resulting in a constitutional challenge by Innu hunters who were charged with hunting the animals in 2013.

After generations of Innu being told how and where to live, the Grand Chief sees the land claim as a chance for his people to have control over their lives again. They would have the power to tackle social issues such as child welfare, language preservation and addictions, developing homegrown solutions, instead of those from outside government agencies.

That would include an overhaul of a foster care system that currently removes Innu children from their families and places them in English-speaking homes, sometimes out of province, often for years at a time. The children are never the same when they return, said Mr. Rich, who has three Innu foster children at home.

If they ever come back, it’s often as troubled young adults. Too many come home addicted to drugs or alcohol, unable to speak their people’s language, no longer a part of their Innu community, the Chief said. He’s buried too many of them in the village cemetery.

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Parents are forever changed when their children are taken out of the community, too. A mother who had her child removed from Natuashish a week prior became suicidal, he said – she started sniffing gas and crashed her Ski-Doo into the store, injuring herself.

After decades of seeking self-governance, the Innu believe they’re close to finally achieving their goal – they see the NCC as a new barrier to their vision.

If they can become a self-governing people, the Innu could begin to rebuild their community around the teachings of their elders, Mr. Rich said, relying on wisdom that served them for thousands of years. By looking at the past, they believe they can find a better way forward.

“These would be policies made by the Innu, not the government,” he said. “Following the policies of the government hasn’t worked for us.”

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail


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