Nfld. & Labrador

Nunatsiavut government claims 'cultural appropriation' in NunatuKavut's plans for Inuit curriculum

The Nunatsiavut government and the NunatuKavut community council are at odds over NunatuKavut's plans to build a curriculum around the Labrador Inuttitut language.

Government, community council at odds over Inuttitut language instruction

Four people in orange shirts hold up pieces of paper in front of a NunatuKavut banner.
On Sept. 30, from left, Scott Reid, parliamentary secretary to the minister of education; NunatuKavut president Todd Russell; Indigenous Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster; and Christina White, the provincial English school district's assistant director of education for Labrador, signed a memorandum of understanding. (Submitted by Waylon Williams)

The Nunatsiavut government and the NunatuKavut community council are at odds over what Nunatsiavut is calling "cultural appropriation."

On Friday, Nunatsiavut issued a press release criticizing NunatuKavut's signing last month of a memorandum of understanding with the provincial government and the English school district to develop an Inuit curriculum.

Nunatsiavut Language, Culture and Tourism Minister Roxanne Barbour took issue with NunatuKavut's plans to build a curriculum around Labrador Inuttitut, or Nunatsiavummiutut, because NunatuKavut has maintained the Inuit of south and central Labrador had a different language system than Inuit in northern Labrador.

"NCC claims to have their own language distinct from ours. The language they will be learning is Nunatsiavummiutut delivered by a Nunatsiavummiuk instructor. This is harmful, offensive and is nothing more than cultural appropriation," Barbour said in Friday's release.

NunatuKavut disagrees.

In its own press release, issued Monday, the organization said it's disappointed by what it called an "attack" by the Nunatsiavut government, saying the group is making "ludicrous and careless statements" about NunatuKavut.

"We are saddened that Minister Barbour, who is responsible for the promotion of Inuttitut, would disparage the sincere and genuine efforts of language reclamation in other Inuit communities. Relearning Inuttitut is a priority identified by our people across our territory and it is a critical part of our path to self-determination," reads NunatuKavut's release.

"Our history and present-day realities make very clear that Inuttitut is our ancestral language. Our traditional territory has Inuit place names. Our land claim document presents clear evidence that a unique dialect of Inuttitut existed throughout south and central Labrador. While the last Inuttitut speakers in our territory passed away in the early part of the 1900s, our people continue to use Inuttitut words as part of everyday life."

Long-standing problems

The dispute goes back years.

NunatuKavut's negotiations with Ottawa to recognize the group's Indigenous rights and self-determination, begun in 2018, was met with pushback from other groups. In September 2019, Ottawa signed a memorandum of understanding with NunatuKavut, recognizing its members as Indigenous under Section 35 of the Constitution Act.

NunatuKavut says it represents about 6,000 Inuit in southern and central Labrador, a claim President Todd Russell says is based on a mix of oral history and academic research.

But three governing Indigenous bodies, representing both Inuit and Innu in Labrador, dispute that claim.

Nunatsiavut says it doesn't consider NunatuKavut an Indigenous collective while the Innu Nation — which represents 3,200 people in Natuashish and Sheshatshiu — has called the group "a settler organization." 

Both groups have taken the matter to court.

The Innu Nation has its own issues with NunatuKavut's dealings with Ottawa, after four decades of negotiating its own land claim, which includes territory that overlaps the area claimed by NunatuKavut.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national representative organization for all Inuit in Canada, has also weighed in.

In October, ITK president Natan Obed sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejecting NunatuKavut as an Inuit organization. ITK asked the federal government to exclude NunatuKavut from federal Inuit programs, policies and benefits.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from CBC Newfoundland Morning and The St. John's Morning Show