Nfld. & Labrador

Todd Russell condemns 'hate speech' as tensions spill over at Muskrat Falls inquiry

The Muskrat Falls inquiry exposed some deep divisions between Indigenous groups in Labrador Tuesday, with inflammatory language from a lawyer representing the Innu Nation causing the leader of another group to allege “hate speech.”

Innu Nation lawyer Senwung Luk says Nunatukavut ‘not an Indigenous people’

Todd Russell is president of the Nunatukavut, which represents Inuit in central and southern Labrador. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The Muskrat Falls inquiry exposed some deep divisions between Indigenous groups in Labrador Tuesday, with inflammatory language from a lawyer representing the Innu Nation causing the leader of another group to allege "hate speech."

The issue of land claims is not on the agenda at the inquiry, and commissioner Richard LeBlanc several times had to issue reminders of that as representatives of four Indigenous groups appeared before the inquiry.

"The Innu Nation's position is that Nunatukavut Community Council is not an Indigenous people," said Innu Nation lawyer Senwung Luk as he stepped to the microphone late in the day.

That prompted an immediate interjection by LeBlanc, but immediately raised the temperature in the room with Nunatukavut president Todd Russell sitting just feet away in the witness chair.

The Innu Nation's position is that Nunatukavut Community Council is not an Indigenous people.- Lawyer Senwung Luk

The intent of Tuesday's proceedings was to allow the four groups to speak about their deep and historical attachments to the Churchill River and Lake Melville, downstream from Muskrat Falls.

Afterwards, Russell blasted Luk and the Innu Nation for the comment.

Innu comments 'offensive' to southern Inuit, Russell says

"It's offensive. It's personally offensive to me and to all the people I represent," Russell told reporters.

"It is not factual. It is a lie. And I would think some people would equate this almost like hate speech."

It is a lie. And I would think some people would equate this almost like hate speech.- Todd Russell

The friction was a follow-up to comments made earlier in the day to reporters by Innu Nation land claims advisor Peter Penashue, who accused the Inuit government of Nunatsiavut of trying to extend the territory of its land claim southward.

"We have 2,700 Inuit from the north coast and their descendants that live in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and that's the place they choose to live, but unfortunately it's not a land claim area," he said.

Innu Nation elder Sebastien Penunsi (right) was a witness before the Muskrat Falls inquiry Tuesday, giving an oral history about his peoples' links to the Churchill River and Lake Melville. He is pictured here with Innu Nation land claims advisor Peter Penashue. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

A spokesman for Nunatsiavut later said "nothing could be further from the truth."

Penashue also took aim at Nunatukavut, saying "they have now declared themselves as having Indigenous land rights to these areas that the Innu have been in talks with the (federal and provincial) governments."

Penashue said this has "changed the dynamic" of land claims negotiations.

'A disservice to Indigenous groups'

Nunatsiavut has signed a land claims agreement, the Innu Nation has an agreement-in-principle, and Russell said the federal government acknowledged in July that Nunatukavut is an "Indigenous people with rights."

Russell said the provincial government has also said it will engage in negotiations with his group "at the appropriate time."

He said Luk's comment was uncalled for.

Carl McLean is the former minister of lands and natural resources with the Nunatsiavut Government. He appeared before the inquiry into Muskrat Falls in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Tuesday. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

"When you deny the personhood of an individual, and then the nationhood of a people, there's something wrong with that," said Russell.

"And to hear that kind of language coming out of another Indigenous group does a disservice to all of the Indigenous peoples within Canada."

Luk made the comment at the very end of proceedings Tuesday, and was not available for comment afterward.

Meanwhile, this may not be the last time LeBlanc has to try to calm tensions, with representatives of various Indigenous groups scheduled to appear before the inquiry in the coming weeks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and is based in St. John’s. He previously worked for The Telegram, The Compass and The Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at: Terry.Roberts@cbc.ca.

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