For centuries, the Inuit of Canada thrived in the sprawling land known as Inuit Nunangat – the homeland – which stretches from a thin strip of land from the Yukon Territory to northern Labrador, a vast area of over 3.3 m²) in size.
“Inuit have long known where our communities are located, who our communities belong to, and have fought for the past 50 years to create modern treaties that identify these specific lands,” said Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a group that represents the four main Inuit regions.
But a new group, whose members trace their lineage back to the Inuit who lived in Labrador and married colonial settlers, complicated this tale.
Two years ago, the NunatuKavut Community Council signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government of Canada that established their Inuit identity, laying the groundwork for a myriad of benefits and paving the way for future negotiations on land claims. Controversially, their claimed territory lies outside the boundaries of the Inuit Nunangat.
Canada’s largest Inuit organization has dismissed the allegations as “fraudulent” and, in a recent letter, called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to suspend all negotiations with the group. The escalating dispute has raised thorny questions about identity, ancestry – and who speaks for Indigenous peoples.
NCC’s 6,000 members live in the rocky coastal region of southern Labrador. While most have lost their connection to the Inuktitut language, they nonetheless claim a strong cultural connection to the region, defined by cultural protocols, an emphasis on kinship ties and a deep connection to the land, said Debbie Martin, professor at Dalhousie University and member of NunatuKavut.
“I have studied and tried to understand why our rights have never been recognized,” she said, adding that the residents “never wavered in their deep and enduring ancestral ties with the land”.
The group’s website tells a story of trade, war, peace, colonialism and revitalization. “We know who we are and what we’ve accomplished. Our Inuit rights are protected and enshrined in the constitution of Canada. We must all respect and honor these rights.
But the region’s two Indigenous groups, the Nunatsiavut Government and the Innu Nation, both reject NunatuKavut’s claim.
Obed said his concern did not relate to the claim of an individual of Inuit ancestry. Instead, he was concerned that NunatuKavut could identify itself as an Inuit collective – although no other Inuit organization validated these claims.
“We are very concerned about the ability of a newly formed collective to then seek rights and compensations and overlapping claims for areas that have been identified as Inuit land under modern treaties,” Obed said, which represents more than 65,000 Inuit in Canada.
Under Canada’s constitution, Indigenous groups have the right to self-govern and to enter into negotiations with the federal government on land claims. But Obed is concerned that the government’s recognition of NunatuKavut will weaken the bargaining power of established Inuit groups.
« [Inuit] have been here all along and we take it upon ourselves to determine who is part of our community. And that is why we made the decision to speak publicly about our position on the NCC, ”Obed said.
His comments highlight another complicating factor in the quarrel: there is no formal arbiter in Canada to determine who is legitimately granted Indigenous status as a collective and who can speak on behalf of those individuals. groups.
Similar frictions have arisen in western Canada, where in some communities band councils and hereditary chiefs have taken conflicting positions on pipeline projects.
The growing number of people identifying as Métis and tracing their ancestry to both Indigenous peoples and European settlers in the Prairie region is also to blame. Some of these groups have been accused of appropriating indigenous identity.
Critics of NunatuKavut point out that in 2010 it changed its name from the Labrador Métis Council. NunatuKavut, which has been an organization since the 1980s, says the term Métis was used for a lineage of Indigenous and settler ancestry – but Inuit now better reflect their affiliation.
Others remain skeptical.
“What we are seeing is the phenomenon of non-natives, or those of very distant ancestry -om the 1600s and 1700s – who now claim that they now have political rights that prevail over these native nations.” said Veldon Coburn, a professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Ottawa and a member of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn.
“And they use the idea of ’indigenous self-determination’ as a bulwark against external criticism. They have adopted rhetoric and therefore nothing can pierce this shield.
Last week, NunatuKavut issued a statement calling Obed’s letter to Trudeau “appalling and repulsive”.
For community members, the group’s criticism sparked frustration that their claims were put aside.
“It is disheartening that ITK feels that its mandate is to assess and determine the identity of an Aboriginal collective located in Labrador,” said Martin. “Their mandate is to defend Inuit rights with the federal government, not to determine who is Inuit and who is not. “
Martin, who says the studies of historians and anthropologists support the NCC’s claims, sees no reason why they should undermine other Inuit rights.
“As a person who has a clear and distinct connection to the land… [the criticism] looks like a personal attack on my own identity. I would never claim an identity if I didn’t feel comfortable and confident doing it, ”said Martin. “I would like to advance Inuit rights across Canada. But it’s hard to do it when there is no recognition of my existence.
For Obed, the row represents a different challenge to existence.
“When governments have made decisions that have a negative impact on our indigenous communities, we as indigenous peoples are often the ones trying to assert our identity,” he said.
“The federal government has played an arbiter role in defining Indigenous communities – something that rightfully belongs to First Nations, Inuit and Métis. We are going to have to work with this reality. But we’re also going to have to unravel the consequences of this reality for a while. “