The country’s largest Inuit organization is asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to cut off land claim negotiations and federal funds for a Labrador organization it accuses of making “fraudulent claims” to a historical Indigenous heritage.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents more than 65,000 Inuit in Canada, wants the federal government to exclude the NunatuKavut Community Council from accessing federal programs and initiatives intended to support Inuit people. The group says the NCC, whose members say they have mixed Inuit and European heritage, is not a legitimate Indigenous group.
The NCC, formerly known as the Labrador Metis Council, rebranded as NunatuKavut in 2010 – and stepped directly into a fight over Indigenous identity by beginning to self-identify as Inuit. Inuit and Métis are two distinct Indigenous groups, and the NCC has said it changed its name to better reflect the heritage of its members.
The ITK objects to a land claim by the NCC, which has made a controversial assertion of historical rights to a large portion of southern Labrador, including territory occupied by the Innu, another Indigenous group. At stake is potentially millions of dollars in development fees for Indigenous groups who can negotiate with mining firms and other companies who want to access Labrador’s natural resources.
The ITK says the NCC is claiming territory that archeological and historical evidence suggests has never been permanently occupied by Inuit. They say Inuit Nunangat, an Inuktitut term that refers to the traditional Inuit homeland, has never extended as far south as the NCC claims.
Natan Obed, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s president, said he doesn’t object to NCC members’ individual claims of Inuit heritage among their ancestors. But it’s another thing for the NCC to argue it can negotiate for collective Indigenous rights as a distinct Inuit group, he said.
“This is really hard for us to understand, that there could have been another Inuit land in this country that we didn’t know existed until 10 years ago,” he said in an interview.
“On an individual level, everyone has their own ancestry. But we’re talking about a group claiming to be an Inuit collective. … These conversations are happening across the country, where there are more and more people claiming Indigenous status.”
Todd Russell, a former Liberal MP who is now president of the NCC, did not respond to a request for comment. The group’s spokesperson said she could not send an immediate response.
Mr. Obed said it’s frustrating to see another group’s land claim apparently “fast-tracked” by Ottawa, after a decades-long fight for Inuit self-determination.
“We fought for decades to establish our land claim agreements and to protect our culture and way of life. … For others to come in and suddenly claim that same status, it’s difficult to accept,” he said.
One of the NCC’s most prominent members is Labrador Liberal MP Yvonne Jones. She has vigorously defended the NCC’s right to a land claim in southern Labrador, and rejected complaints of conflict of interest by other Indigenous groups.
The MP was named in an application filed in federal court in 2019 by the Innu Nation, challenging a memorandum of understanding on self-determination between the federal government and the NCC. That agreement, to formalize negotiations for Indigenous rights for the group, sparked legal challenges from both the Innu and Nunatsiavut, the Inuit region in northern Labrador.
The dispute over Indigenous identity in Labrador led former Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq to state on social media in April that Ms. Jones is “not an Inuk,” and southern Labrador is “not an Inuit region.”
But Ms. Jones, who has said her father was of Inuit descent, has dismissed the court challenge and insists members of the NCC don’t need to explain their heritage to anyone.
“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 told The Globe and Mail in June, 2020. “We know what our origins are. If someone else doesn’t like it, that’s their problem.”
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