APTN News: The Innu Nation grand chief is calling out two Mi’kmaw law professors in Nova Scotia after they asserted that an Inuit organization in Southern Labrador have a credible claim to Indigenous identity.
In a letter written to Dalhousie University where the two work, Grand Chief Simon Pokue alleged that Naomi Metallic and Cheryl Simon made misstatements and both were in a conflict of interest when they made the claim that the Nunatukavut Community Council, or NCC for short, has a credible claim to Indigenous identity.
“… it is discouraging to see the NCC’s claims given legitimacy while Innu concerns and the concerns of all Inuit of Canada are dismissed out of hand,” said Pokue in the letter addressed to Dalhousie president Kim Brooks and obtained by APTN News. “The authors fall short of that standard by failing to disclose their conflict of interest and promoting the false assertions of NCC as truth while ignoring the Innu and Inuit,” said Pokue.
Fifteen presidents of universities across the country were cc’d on the letter.
The NCC, previously called the Labrador Metis Nation, claims to represent 6,000 Inuit and their descendants in southern Labrador.
The alleged conflict of interest is Metallic and Simon’s connection to the Halifax law firm Burchell, Wickwire and Bryson – lawyers that represent the Nunatukavut Community Council.
Metallic is a practicing lawyer at the firm.
“We did it as academics,” said Metallic when contacted about the letter by APTN. “Yes I have an association with Burchell but I’ve never represented the NCC and I have knowledge about NCC claims because of my association with Burchell and other work.
“I also have knowledge about all other kinds of Indigenous groups throughout Canada because of the work that I’ve done.
Simon’s husband is a lawyer at the firm and was legal council for the NCC in November 2023 at a Parliamentary committee in Ottawa.
“My husband is a lawyer yes, but there are safeguards that keep his clients interests and even clients themselves I don’t actually know all the clients he works for, nor can I and there are already professional safeguards that separate me my work my thinking from that of my husband,” she said.
APTN asked Simon if she knew her husband was legal counsel for NCC when she and Metallic wrote their legal analysis. “I honestly don’t know what he’s working on or for whom at any given time, he’s not allowed to disclose who his clients are. It’s been this way for us as a couple since we were both articling as clerks.”
Report started a controversy
Last fall, Dalhousie released a report called Understanding Our Roots, Task Force on Settler Misappropriation of Indigenous Identity.
The task force sets out recommendations to verify Indigenous identity, previously the university relied on self-identification. The recommendations include non-status applicants must provide written confirmation of membership with a federally recognized band or tribal authority in the United States or Canada.
Metallic interpreted that as First Nations having the authority to determine if non-status people can claim Indigeneity, and the recommendations rely too much on the Indian Act. “It is more sort of structured it’s a status card and if not a status card, then membership in a formal community and so at least as how I read it, I don’t see a lot of, sort of opportunities beyond those sorts of things,” said Metallic.
She and Simon wrote a 75-page human rights and legal analysis of Dalhousie’s understanding our roots report. They argued that Dalhousie excludes the NCC whose members are not officially recognized federally.
“We say look to a bunch of different factors, look at what’s going on in the courts and we do cite cases and those can be independently verified, and people can go and look at them and say, ‘well if that’s been overruled, they can say so publicly,’” said Metallic. “We did to our knowledge cite the cases that we believe speak to NCC having credible claim to Indigenous identity under section 35.”
APTN asked Pokue for an interview, but his office said he wasn’t available.
In a statement, he said Metallic and Simon show a clear bias towards NCC.
“They say the court recognized that NCC has s. 35 rights – that’s false. The court said NCC met the very low threshold of having an asserted claim,” the statement said. “The court did not grant NCC section 35 rights, and the Memorandum of Understanding signed with the Canadian government also did not grant NCC any s. 35 rights.”
Patti Bedwell-Doyle, a professor of Indigenous Studies and a Dalhousie University Senator who represents the Indigenous Advisory Council, said Metallic and Simon’s report is problematic.
Metallic and Simon criticized Dalhousie’s proposed verification process because it relies on colonial constructs such as a government issued status card, and confirmation of membership with a federally recognized band.
Bedwell-Doyle said, yet Metallic and Simon refer to court decisions and the Federal governments’ MOU with NCC, to support NCC claims.
“Well, it’s like if we’re going to talk about colonialism, then let’s not just focus on the Supreme Court of Canada and what the government has done. The Indian Act is what the government has done, so you can’t say ‘oh the Indian Act sucks and we’re not going to use that,’ we’re going to recognize the difficulties in that, then we’re going to base it on what the colonial courts have said which is another colonial structure.”
Dalhousie’s task force report does not mention the NCC, but said applicants will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Brent Young, co-chair of the Dalhousie proposed verification task force and academic director for Indigenous health said: “It obviously it raises concerns in my mind when the task force report, we’ve been very intentional in not drawing specific conclusions with individual organizations or groups again we recognize that further discussions and process and decisions will need to be made.”
Simon said she’s concerned people will be left out. “At the same time, we can’t punish the nations who are not there yet because self-governance has so much work to be involved with and not every nation has got to the point where they can take that type of action and definitively say yes or no.”
Doyle-Bedwell said ultimately, it’s not up the university to decide, “How do we make that decision and if we believe as Indigenous people, we have the right to determine who our own members are then if the Inuit people and the Innu people don’t believe that the NCC are not Inuit then how do we you know; how do we square that.”
Despite the controversy, Metallic hopes the task force considers their report. “I think there is broader conversations within nations, and we hope that what we wrote can help most immediately it’s about Dal and Dal’s human rights obligations to people who are coming here.”
But the Innu Nation, the Nunatsiavut Government, and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami allege the NCC is making false claims to an Inuit identity.
NCC President Todd Russell, a former Liberal MP, has repeatedly told APTN the organization is legitimate. “Our story is one and it that is deeply rooted in our places, in our history in our culture in our language and all of that, all of that makes us Inuit,” said Russell during an interview on APTN’s Nation to Nation last fall.
Russell isn’t the only NCC member with Liberal political ties. Yvonne Jones was a Liberal MP for Labrador and Lisa Dempster is the minister Responsible for Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation for the Liberal provincial government.
Pokue said NCC members with powerful positions, “Who claim to be Indigenous taking those opportunities from Indigenous people with recognized rights, like Innu, by saying they are Indigenous they are taking up seat allocations and scholarships that are intended for Indigenous people and that are meant to create equity and opportunity.
In 2019 the federal government signed a memorandum of understanding with the NCC to recognize it as an Indigenous collective capable of holding section 35 rights, for the purpose of entering discussions regarding rights recognition and self-determination.
The Innu Nation is fighting that recognition in federal court.
In the letter to Dalhousie, Pokue said, “Innu Nation has never disputed that some NCC members may have Indigenous ancestry. However, that does not make NCC, as a collective, an Indigenous people, nor should NCC membership provide a guarantee of access or preferred treatment at Dalhousie or any other university.”
Pokue said he’s concerned that Metallic and Simon’s letter is widely circulated amongst academic institutions. “We strongly oppose any verification process that takes at face value NCC’s claims about its status or recognition or relies on this inaccurate article to structure that policy,” the letter said.
APTN repeatedly requested an interview with Dalhousie’s president, Kim Brooks. The statement the university provided did not address our questions.