NunatuKavut Inuit identity dispute has long history

Both Nunatsiavut and the Innu Nation dispute the group's claim.

Nunatsiavut, Innu Nation dispute the group's claim

The NunatuKavut community council's land claim, and the question of whether it's an Indigenous group at all, is the subject of an ongoing public discussion.

NunatuKavut first filed a statement of claim for land with the federal government in 1991 — when it was still known as the Labrador Métis Nation.

That claim was rejected by both the federal and provincial governments, but it became active again in 2010 when the group changed its name to the NunatuKavut community council, which members said was a better reflection of members' heritage.

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

"There's never been any confusion amongst ourselves who we are," said Russell in 2018. "We know who we are. We know our story."

But three governing Indigenous bodies representing Inuit and Innu in Labrador say they don't consider the NCC Indigenous.

The Innu Nation has called the group a "a settler organization," and the Nunatsiavut government says it does not consider the NCC an Indigenous collective.

Both Nunatsiavut and the Innu Nation have taken the matter to court.

Defining Indigeneity

There's no universal definition of Indigenous people, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People says "Indigenous Peoples have argued against the adoption of a formal definition at the international level, stressing the need for flexibility and for respecting the desire and the right of each Indigenous people to define themselves."

That sentiment is echoed by Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which calls itself the national representative organization for all Inuit in Canada, including those in Labrador.

In October, Obed said Inuit self-determination is the ability to define its membership, "and that is what we are doing here" in disputing NunatuKavut's Indigeneity.

In September 2019, Ottawa signed a memorandum of understanding with NunatuKavut, recognizing its members as Indigenous under Section 35 of the Constitution Act.

The move meant NCC was considered an Indigenous collective capable of holding rights under Section 35 and laid the foundation for future negotiations regarding land and other resources.

Russell called it "meaningful and important," and "a day that we have long fought for."

It also angered the Innu Nation, which for more than 40 years has been negotiating its own land claim, one with territory that overlaps the area claimed by NunatuKavut.

The Innu Nation's land-claim negotiator, Peter Penashue, has publicly questioned NunatuKavut's legitimacy.

"There has never been a group that sprung out of nowhere, that suddenly became an Aboriginal group," Penashue said. "Now here we are in a very unusual circumstance: settlers becoming Métis, becoming Inuit and now are going to fight us over land."

A month after the signing, the Innu Nation went to federal court to challenge NunatuKavut's Indigeneity, and to ask the court to quash the MOU with Ottawa.

Those court documents state the Innu have never accepted that NCC members can be considered Indigenous under Section 35 of the Constitution Act.

Then in July 2020, the Nunatsiavut government joined that court action, supporting the Innu Nation's request to quash the agreement.

Nunatsiavut followed up a year later, after what it called its own research and consultation process, which it says concludes that while some members of NunatuKavut may be Indigenous, the group is not a collective and has no viable land claim.

In October, ITK weighed in, sending a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that rejected NunatuKavut as a separate Inuit organization and asked Ottawa to exclude them from any federal Inuit programs, policies and benefits.

The letter — signed by Obed, who is from Nain, Labrador — said ITK finds it "perplexing and alarming" that the federal government is talking to NCC with the potential for it to receive rights and territory "on the basis of assertions that appear unfounded."

"An Inuit territory outside of the four regions that constitute Inuit Nunangat does not exist," said the letter.

Obed said ITK's position stems from both academic research and Inuit oral history.

The ITK letter slammed the federal government's process for dealing with the NCC, saying it "sets an alarming and disturbing precedent," for others "with fraudulent claims to a historical Indigenous heritage."

In response, NCC said ITK "does not have the right to unilaterally determine Inuit identity, nor how NCC should be recognized by the federal government."

NCC has made similar statements about the Innu Nation and the Nunatsiavut government, that neither has the authority to accept or reject NunatuKavut's land claim.