Innu Organizations and Land Claims

The Innu Nation is an organization that represents the approximately 2,300 Innu in Labrador. These Aboriginal people never had a treaty and were not recognized as status Indians under Canada's Indian Act until 2002. It was not until 2011 that a land claims Agreement-in-Principle, the modern equivalent of a treaty, was signed, and negotiations for a final agreement were still in progress in 2013.


At the time of Confederation in 1949, the Innu population was quite small, estimated at 272. The Newfoundland and Labrador government did not have any special agencies in place to deal with Aboriginal affairs. Nor had it developed a system of reserves or land claim treaties with the Innu, Mi'kmaq, Inuit, and Inuit-Metis. In Canada, the Indian Act made the federal government financially responsible for the delivery of health, education, and other social services to much of its Aboriginal population.

When Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada, the two governments did not extend the Act to the new province's Aboriginal peoples. Government officials argued that doing so would disenfranchise Newfoundland and Labrador's indigenous residents because they had the right to vote, while most status Indians in Canada did not. Some academics question that argument and suggest that the large costs of providing services to Labrador's remote and dispersed population also deterred Ottawa from including its Aboriginal peoples under the Indian Act (Tanner, 1998: 249), but the story was somewhat more complex (MacKenzie,2010:176).

Unidentified Innu man, 1912.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government did not have any special agencies in place to deal with Aboriginal affairs before Confederation; nor had it developed a system of reserves or land claim treaties with the Innu, Mi'kmaq, Inuit, and Métis people.
Photo by Robert Flaherty. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (C-143635).
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Unidentified Innu man, 1912

Instead of extending the Indian Act, federal officials agreed to pay money to the Newfoundland and Labrador government for the delivery of education, health, and other services in Aboriginal communities. The province used some of these funds to build houses and schools at Sheshatshiu and Utshimassit (Davis Inlet) in the 1960s. It also made it mandatory for Innu children to attend school and threatened to stop welfare and family allowance payments to families who did not comply.

As a result, many Innu families had to live in the two communities for most of the year, despite their concerns that doing so would threaten their migratory way of life and connection to the land. Innu parents also believed the school curriculum was teaching their children more about white North American society than their own, and worried that younger generations were becoming alienated from their cultural traditions.

Also, post-Confederation natural resource, industrial, and military developments took place in central Labrador during the 1960s and 1970s. These occurred without consultation with Aboriginal peoples or, indeed, with any residents. Yet, these developments had significant impacts on traditional land use and occurred in areas where the Innu had claims of Aboriginal land rights.

Innu Political Organizations

Recognizing a need to protect their land, resources, and culture, the Innu joined the province's Mi'kmaq and Inuit people in 1973 to form the Native Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (NANL). The Innu broke away from NANL three years later to form the Naskapi Montagnais Innu Association, which changed its name to the Innu Nation in 1990.

The Innu Nation acts under the direction of a 14-member elected board of directors. Its mandate is to protect the interests of the Labrador Innu, to pursue land claim and self-governance negotiations, and to help deliver education, health care, and other social services to its membership.

Alongside the Innu Nation, residents of the two main Innu communities elect Band Councils to represent their needs. The Mushuau Innu First Nation Band Council represents the approximately 900 Innu of Natuashish, and who formerly lived at Davis Inlet before relocation in 2003. The Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation Band Council represents the approximately 1,400 Innu living at Sheshatshiu. As of 2013, the Sheshatshiu Band Council consisted of one chief and six councillors, while the Mushuau Band Council consisted of one chief, one deputy chief, and three councillors. The band councils direct the day-to-day affairs of each community and possess powers similar to a municipal council.

In 2002, the Innu Nation and the two Band Councils succeeded in having the federal government register the their people as status Indians, giving them access to various federal programs and services as provided for under the Indian Act. The federal government also recognized the communities of Natuashish and Sheshatshiu as reserve lands in 2003 and 2006, respectively. Additionally, the federal government paid for the relocation from Davis Inlet to Natuashish.

Land Claims

Aboriginal groups file land claims with the federal and provincial governments to obtain rights to land and resources they and their ancestors used in the past and did not hand over to European colonists or subsequent governments. Land claim negotiations often take years or decades to complete and must pass through a series of steps, including a Framework Agreement, an Agreement-in-Principle, a Final Agreement, and implementation.

The Innu Nation filed its first claim with the federal government in November 1977 for land in central Labrador. Government officials decided there was not enough information backing up the claim and asked for more research, particularly into Innu land use and occupancy. The group filed another land claim in October 1990, which led to the signing of a Framework Agreement in 1996.

Another step forward came on 26 September 2008, when the Innu Nation and provincial government signed the Tshash Petapen (or New Dawn) Agreement. It resolved key issues relating to the Innu land claims, the anticipated Lower Churchill hydroelectric development, and compensation for the Upper Churchill hydroelectric development that had been completed in the mid-1970s. The agreement was approved by both Innu communities in a referendum held in 2011.

The New Dawn Agreement also formed the foundation for a trio of agreements that were signed on 18 November 2011 and known collectively as the New Dawn Agreements. Two of the agreements deal with hydroelectric projects and were signed by the Innu Nation, provincial government, and Nalcor Energy:

  1. The Lower Churchill Project Impacts and Benefits Agreement grants the Innu Nation five per cent of all project revenue and ensures that the Labrador Innu will benefit from related employment and training opportunities.

  2. The Upper Churchill Redress Agreement compensates the Innu for impacts associated with that hydroelectric project. They will receive about $100 million over 30 years.

The third agreement was a Land Claims and Self-Government Agreement-in-Principle, signed by the Innu Nation and the provincial and federal governments. If finalized, it will grant the Labrador Innu legal title to 12,950 square kilometres of land in central Labrador, hunting and fishing rights to an additional 36,260 square kilometres, and a $148-million financial package. As of 2013, negotiations towards the final land claims and self-government agreement are ongoing.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2008, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

Updated October 2013

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