NunatuKavut members reject Inuit identity questions

The head of the NunatuKavut community council, as well as one of its members, are firing back against recent assertions questioning the organization's Indigeneity.

NCC president releases letter to ITK counterpart

NunatuKavut president Todd Russell, seen here in 2019 announcing exploratory land claim talks with the federal government, wrote a letter to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed on Monday. (Bailey White/CBC)

The head of the NunatuKavut community council, as well as one of its members, are firing back against recent assertions questioning the organization's Indigeneity — questions that reached the office of the prime minister.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents 65,000 Inuit in Canada, called NCC's legitimacy into question in an Oct. 7 letter to Justin Trudeau. President Natan Obed wrote that an Inuit territory outside of the already established boundaries "does not exist," and called the federal government's dealings with NCC "alarming and disturbing."

NCC is in the midst of negotiations with the federal government over self-determination, and has been since the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding in 2019.

NCC says it represents 6,000 Inuit in southern and central Labrador. That area is just south of ITK representation, which ends with Nunatsiavut, the Inuit territory encompassing Labrador's north coast.

Todd Russell, president of the NCC, released a written response to Obed on Monday, calling Obed's letter "a dark stain on the reputation and good work that ITK has been doing."

Russell wrote that he invited Obed on two occasions — most recently in May  — to visit NCC lands and learn of the local history and culture. Rather than responding, Russell said, Obed instead wrote the letter to Trudeau in which he "chose to try to inform opinions about us, without us."

Obed's letter is not the first instance of Indigenous resistance to NCC's existence. Both the Innu Nation and the Nunatsiavut government have applied to federal court to block NCC's memorandum of understanding.

Obed, right, is pictured with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Obed asked Trudeau in his letter to deny the NunatuKavut community council access to any Inuit-specific pots of funding. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

Research questions

Russell's letter detailed a history where Inuit travelled freely across Labrador, into Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula and Quebec's North Shore. To divide Labrador into "north" and "south" doesn't reflect the lived reality, he said.

"While some of our experiences of colonialism may differ from other Inuit groups, we remain a distinct people in the same territory that our ancestors have occupied," said Russell, adding that traditional activities, including living according to the seasons, are still widely practised today.

Obed told CBC News that both oral tradition and academic research uphold ITK's assertions about NCC. Russell said that information is "based on biased, patriarchal and Eurocentric views of our history."

Another NunatuKavut member, herself an academic, also says there are flaws in what Obed cited.

Debbie Martin said some literature comes from non-Indigenous researchers in decades past who "had a particular reason" for not including some Indigenous voices. There are also NCC members' own oral histories to consider, she said.

"To suggest that unilaterally we don't exist is false. It's incorrect," Martin, a professor at Dalhousie University, told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning.

"And the fact that the president of ITK is saying that our claims are fraudulent is really concerning, because it demonstrates that he's relying on research that is outdated and has been since debunked."

On Wednesday, the Nunatsiavut government released a report examining NCC's land claim, with research commissioned from Darryl Leroux, a professor at St. Mary's University in Halifax. Leroux concluded the "nature and scale of the NCC's claims aren't supported by the evidence they bring forward," and the existence of Southern Inuit is "baseless."

Martin said work Leroux cited in Obed's letter didn't follow ethical research guidelines, as it examined NunatuKavut people and history without proper approvals.

"[Leroux has] no expertise on Inuit issues, nor has he ever been invited or has he asked to learn from the people of NunatuKavut," she told CBC News in an email.

Debbie Martin, right, is pictured with her daughter. Martin says she wants future generations of Inuit from southern Labrador to be able to enhance and secure their culture. (Submitted by Debbie Martin)

'Divide-and-conquer mentality'

In his letter, Obed asked the federal government to deny NCC access to funding programs designated for Inuit.

Russell called ITK's attempts to block access to policy or programs "a colonial position." Martin said NunatuKavut members hold a wealth of expertise and experience that would be better put to use advocating for the rights of all Inuit.

"The argument that we don't exist, it really falls into the trap of a divide-and-conquer mentality that works to the advantage, I would think, of the federal government, because it diminishes everybody's ability to work collectively towards doing what we all want to do," said Martin.

Martin said she wants to see more acknowledgement for Inuit in southern Labrador, and the ability to continue to maintain a relationship with the land and culture free of outside interest and developments.

"To be able to enhance our own cultural connections, right? To bring back our language, to bring back our cultural traditions, to make sure that … they don't disappear for future generations," she said.

Russell said NCC's offer for Obed and ITK to visit southern Labrador remains open.

"It would appear this is needed more now than ever," he wrote.

"While we are open to sharing our stories and our homes, we do not accept your call for exclusion."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Labrador Morning