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Métis and Innu nations back Inuit leader in Labrador identity dispute

November 9, 2023

Innu say ‘partisan politics’ responsible for NunatuKavut recognition — something federal minister has denied

A man wearing a black shirt sits at a table in front of a microphone.
Innu Nation Grand Chief Simon Pokue denounced the NunatuKavut Community Council’s claims at a news conference in Ottawa on Oct. 10. (CBC)

CBC Indigenous: The Métis and Innu nations are showing solidarity with Natan Obed, after the national Inuit leader released an open letter this week denouncing what he calls “illegitimate claims to Inuit rights” being made by a self-identified Indigenous group in south and central Labrador.

The Innu Nation, which comprises the Labrador First Nations communities of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish, said this week it “stands solidly behind” the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) president as he attempts to raise awareness about the disputed identity assertions of the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC).

“It is through partisan politics and the manipulation of policies intended for Indigenous rightsholders that NCC has advanced this far,” said Grand Chief Simon Pokue in a statement Tuesday. “Both governments need to take responsibility for the mess that they have created in Canada by allowing false claims to Indigeneity to go unchecked.”

ITK is a national organization that advocates for and promotes the interests of 70,000 Inuit in Canada.

The NCC, which represents 6,000 people who self-identify as Inuit, was incorporated in 1986 as the Labrador Métis Association. It changed its name to the Labrador Métis Nation in 1998, and in 2010 changed it again to NunatuKavut.

Two politicians sit down for a committee meeting in a room.
President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Natan Obed, left, and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Gary Anandasangaree take their seats at the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee in Ottawa on Oct. 30. Obed says the identity issue was raised at the meeting. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

In his open letter, Obed dubbed this the “shape-shifting” of a non-Indigenous organization angling for money and rights. He noted the Métis National Council (MNC) did not include the group in its governance when it identified as Métis.

The MNC, formed in 1983 by Métis political associations in the three Prairie provinces, has joined the Innu in backing Obed.

In a statement this week, MNC President Cassidy Caron said the council “calls on the federal and other governments to show leadership to prevent the erosion of Indigenous rights by continuing to pander to and support fraudulent organizations such as the NunatuKavut Community Council.”

The Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) co-founded the MNC but withdrew in 2021 following a long-running identity dispute with the council’s Ontario branch. While deriding the national council’s position as hypocrisy, the federation also lent Obed its support.

“We stand with all legitimate Indigenous rightsholders in Canada who are fighting in defence of their identity, including the Inuit,” said MMF minister Will Goodon in a statement.

‘It is not a political decision:’ minister

NunatuKavut has maintained its members were always Inuit, but chose the term Métis at a time when “Indigenous representativity was constantly in flux,” according to its website

NCC President Todd Russell, a former Liberal member of Parliament, condemned Obed’s letter as disgusting, appalling and fuelled by ignorance and greed. “They have manufactured a fear that they will lose something as we progress,” said Russell. “This could not be further from the truth and there is not one shred of evidence to suggest otherwise. We challenge ITK to produce anything that supports their lies and innuendo.”

Newfoundland and Labrador’s court of appeal held in 2007 that NCC has “a credible but unproven claim,” to Indigenous rights, giving rise to the Crown’s duty to consult.

The federal government rejected the group’s land claim in 1991, 2003, 2013 and 2017 “because it did not meet the current legal tests for Inuit Aboriginal rights and Inuit Aboriginal title,” say government documents filed in court.

In 2019, NunatuKavut achieved what it considered a historic milestone with the signing of a reconciliation agreement with the federal government that noted, “Canada has recognized NCC as an Indigenous collective.”

A bald man stands at a podium. He's wearing an orange t-shirt along with a pin of an orange shirt over his heart.
NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell speaks following an apology for residential schools from the Newfoundland and Labrador government on Sept. 29. (Jon Gaudi/CBC)

In an interview last week, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree said politics plays no part in the decision to recognize Indigenous rights. “It is not a political decision. It’s one that is rooted in law, that’s rooted in history,” he said.

NCC interpreted the comment positively. “It has been on the grounds of law and history that we have had our rights and recognition affirmed time and time again,” said Russell.

The Innu rejected it.

“NCC’s access to the corridors of power and its skilled manipulation of well-intended academics and government officials has led to wide circulation of NCC’s fabricated history and identity,” the Innu statement said.

The First Nations group has launched a court challenge that aims to quash the decision by then-Crown-Indigenous Relations minister Carolyn Bennett to sign the agreement with NCC.

After launching the case, the Innu accused Liberal MP Yvonne Jones, a NunatuKavut member who represents Labrador in the House of Commons, of being in a conflict of interest. Jones responded by calling the Innu leadership “misguided” and motivated by anti-Liberal animosity.

That chilly relationship dates to 2017, when Innu Nation boycotted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology for residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador. Both Innu and NCC leaders were eager to have their day in court last month, but the hearing was unexpectedly rescheduled until 2024.


Brett Forester, Reporter

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.