Ex-Cdn Indigenous Relations minister cautioned against 2019 MOU with Labrador group

NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell shakes hands with Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations at the time, at the signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding between the two parties on Sept. 5, 2019. (Nunatukavut.ca)

By Brett Forester · CBC News

Departments warned of risks given doubts about NunatuKavut council’s Indigenous rights, documents show

The Canadian government was warned internally to hold off on signing an Indigenous reconciliation agreement with a self-proclaimed Inuit group in Labrador, but did so anyway despite concerns about the unproven nature of the group’s rights, documents obtained by CBC Indigenous reveal.

In the fall of 2019, after Carolyn Bennett signed the memorandum of understanding with the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC), the former minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations hailed it as “a huge step forward” on their shared journey of reconciliation.

But internal documents made public in court just two months later show multiple departments raised detailed concerns and urged Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC), then Bennett’s department, not to sign anything before the nature of the council’s rights were confirmed, and its rights-bearing members defined.

Officials said Bennett would run multiple risks implementing the agreement, chiefly by setting a precedent “with other groups whose status as Section 35 rights-holders is subject to doubt,” says a secret-stamped, Aug. 15, 2019, memo, referring to the section of Canada’s Constitution recognizing Aboriginal and treaty rights.

Formed in the 1980s as the Labrador Métis Association, NunatuKavut began officially identifying as Inuit in 2010. Its members were previously long identified not as Inuit or Métis but “settlers” or “livyers,” a term that refers to the European fishermen who settled permanently in Labrador and often married Indigenous women.

The documents show senior officials at central agencies, including the Privy Council Office — the body that supports the prime minister and cabinet — wanted the deal modified to focus on NunatuKavut’s “interests and needs, given the lack of clarity with respect to their rights.”

But officials at CIRNAC recommended Bennett sign the MOU anyway, then confirm what rights NunatuKavut may hold afterward and bring the findings back to seek consensus.

“Should the findings demonstrate that rights exist, CIRNAC will then start discussions with NunatuKavut Community Council to develop a joint negotiation mandate,” explains the memo, which is signed by CIRNAC deputy minister Daniel Quan-Watson and Bennett.

Aware of the risks, the documents show, CIRNAC recommended Bennett take “a low-key communications approach” for the signing “given the sensitive nature of this process and overlapping interests.”

Signing ‘baffling’

While the identity dispute dates back decades, it flared up again last month when Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey apologized for residential schools to NunatuKavut members before offering one to the recognized Inuit of Nunatsiavut, who decried the move, as they haven’t received an apology from the province.

Both the Inuit of Nunatsiavut and the Innu Nation reject the 6,000-strong NCC’s claims to a distinct Inuit identity in southern and central Labrador.

“It is appropriation and most certainly fraudulent,” said Johannes Lampe, president of the Nunatsiavut government, in an interview. “It is a fraud group that is just copying what the real Inuit are saying and doing.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe were in Nain in June 2023 for a meeting of the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

“It’s baffling to us and quite upsetting,” said Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), of Bennett’s decision to sign the MOU before confirming the group’s rights.

As the national representative organization for Inuit across their northern homelands, ITK reaffirmed its opposition to NunatuKavut’s claims shortly before the apology.

Obed said CIRNAC’s approach sets the stage for “fraudulent collectives of newly Indigenous peoples” to continue emerging until it becomes a massive, era-defining crisis.

“This is the next wave of non-Indigenous colonization over Indigenous peoples,” he told CBC Indigenous. “And the federal government is playing an active and supportive role — in some cases, and I’d say in this case — in legitimizing illegitimate activity.”

CIRNAC produced the documents, with censoring, after the Innu Nation sued for judicial review of Bennett’s decision, seeking to have it quashed.

It was slated for a hearing in Federal Court this week but the case was adjourned unexpectedly Tuesday “for exceptional and unforeseen circumstances,” according to the registry office.

Accusations rejected

Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut Community Council, has rejected the accusations of identity theft.

After Lampe denounced the apology to an unrecognized group as “an insult to survivors,” Russell accused the Nunatsiavut leader of spreading “lies, innuendo, lateral violence and hurtful statements.”

Russell was not available for an interview but in a statement said there is nothing surprising or new in the files, and that the officials’ concerns about “lack of clarity” around NunatuKavut’s rights were to be addressed under the MOU itself.

“NCC is looking forward to its day in court. We are confident in the law, the facts and the evidence,” said Russell, a former Liberal MP.

NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell speaks following the provincial residential school apology on Sept. 29, 2023. (Jon Gaudi/CBC)

There are two federally recognized Innu First Nations communities in Labrador: Sheshatshiu and Natuashish.

At a press conference Tuesday in Ottawa, Innu leaders accused Russell’s group of benefitting from English-speaking settler privilege while trying to undermine the Innu treaty process.

“They want to take our rights. They want to take our lands,” said Grand Chief Simon Pokue. “This new group is a threat for our rights.”

“Stop boosting a fake group over the Innu,” said Sheshatshiu Chief Etienne Rich in comments directed at governments.

Rich then addressed the NCC, saying, “Stop using your white privilege to take from the Innu. Stop pretending to be something that you are not.”

Russell hit back again after the news conference on Tuesday, issuing a statement accusing the Innu leaders of spreading baseless allegations and misinformation.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree’s office declined to comment and deferred to a departmental statement supplied instead.

The statement said the MOU’s wording reflects the department’s “intention to resolve pending questions” about the rights NunatuKavut may hold and their potential beneficiaries before advancing negotiations.

“The MOU is intended as an expression of good will,” wrote CIRNAC spokesperson Jacinthe Goulet, “and does not create, recognize or deny any legal or constitutional right or obligation on the part of either party.”

A longstanding debate

The Nunatsiavut government commissioned a report in 2021 by researcher Darryl Leroux, which deemed NunatuKavut’s claims to a distinct southern Inuit identity “baseless.” But NunatuKavut rejected the findings and called for a retraction.

The 1996 report from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples found favourably concerning the then-Métis group, writing, “It seems clear that the Métis of Labrador are an Aboriginal people within the meaning of Section 35.”

Likewise, in 2007, after the group had become the Labrador Métis Nation but had begun to assert Inuit identity, the province’s appeals court also sided with the group.

The ruling said its claims, though unproven, were credible enough to trigger the Crown’s duty to consult.

Group members also “need not ethnically identify themselves definitively as Inuit or Métis” before that duty arises, the judgment said.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Family hopeful after minister says Indigenous people have right to move freely, CBC News 

Norway: Sami-led project seeks to revitalize Indigenous education across Arctic Europe, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Indigenous leaders divided over ANWR court ruling, Eye on the Arctic

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