Impacts of Non-Aboriginal Activities on the Innu

Colonialism and Confederation brought dramatic and far-reaching changes to Innu culture, society, and lands. The arrival of Christian missionaries in Labrador during the 1800s helped marginalize the Innu people's religious beliefs, while European traders encouraged Innu men to trap furs fulltime, making them dependent on foreign trading posts for food and supplies. The Labrador Boundary Dispute caused further problems, as the new Labrador-Quebec border divided Innu territory almost in half in 1927.

Roman Catholic procession of Innu, 1863 Roman Catholic Innu procession, 1863.
RC missionaries in the 1800s helped marginalize the Innu's religious beliefs.
Drawn by W. G. R. Hind, chromolithographed by Hanhard. From Henry Youle Hind, Explorations in the Interior of the Labrador Peninsula, Vol. 1 (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1863) 335.
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After Confederation, the provincial and federal governments established the villages of Sheshatshiu and Utshimassit (Davis Inlet) for the Innu people, which largely ended their migratory lifestyles. At the same time, increased industrialization threatened traditional Innu territory. The 1969 Upper Churchill Falls hydroelectric project flooded vast stretches of Innu land, low-level military flight training disrupted Innu hunting grounds, and the discovery of lucrative nickel deposits at Voisey's Bay in 1994 further jeopardized Innu territory.

To protect their culture and resources from outside forces, the Labrador Innu people formed the Naskapi Montagnais Innu Association (today the Innu Nation) in 1976. As a result of the group's efforts, the Canadian government began registering the Labrador Innu as status Indians in 2002, giving them access to federal services and programs available to First Nations people in Canada.

Post-Contact Period

Although European nations were using Newfoundland and Labrador as a migratory fishing station by the early 16th century, their presence did not greatly alter Innu culture and society until the 19th century when Christian missionaries and fur traders established themselves in northern Labrador. Until then, Innu families maintained a largely nomadic lifestyle: they spent much of the colder months hunting caribou, wolves, ptarmigan, and other game in the Quebec-Labrador interior before visiting coastal areas to catch fish, seals, and sea birds. Caribou was particularly important as it not only provided the Innu people with food, clothing, and other materials but also played a central role in many spiritual beliefs and rituals.

HBC Trading Post at Davis Inlet, 1896.
European culture did not greatly impact Innu society until fur traders, like the Hudson's Bay Company, and Christian missionaries arrived at northern Labrador in the 19th century.
Photo by A.P. Low. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (PA-038207).
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HBC Trading Post at Davis Inlet, 1896

Increased contact with Roman Catholic missionaries and European fur traders during the 1800s greatly altered Innu hunting and religious practices. Traders were able to persuade many Innu to abandon or marginalize the caribou hunt to trap furs fulltime. In return for their catch, Innu trappers obtained food, tools, and other supplies at trading posts. Giving up the hunt and specializing in furs, however, made many Innu dependent on European goods for survival.

During the late 19th century, Roman Catholic missionaries also arrived at trading posts in central and northern Labrador, where they came into contact with the Innu people. Missionaries objected to the Innu shamanistic religion and were able to abolish many of its rituals, including drum dances, which they believed were connected to the devil. The Church influenced many aspects of Innu culture – instead of allowing community Elders to name children, as was Innu custom, Roman Catholic priests assumed this duty; they also distributed food and European clothing among Innu people and served as schoolteachers for Innu children, which increased their influence over younger generations.

20th Century

A rise in fur prices during the early 1900s attracted many white and Metis trappers and hunters into central Labrador and Innu lands. As game stocks diminished and new trappers encroached on their territory, it became increasingly difficult for Innu hunters to catch enough furs and caribou to adequately provide for their families. The new arrivals also introduced a system of privately-owned trap lines, which barred Innu from grounds they once used.

Unidentified Innu woman and children, ca. 1930 Unidentified Innu woman and children, ca. 1930.
The Roman Catholic Church influenced many aspects of Innu culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. Missionaries objected to the Innu shamanistic religion and were able to abolish many of its rituals, including drum dances, which they believed were connected to the devil.
Photo by Fred C. Sears. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (PA-148587).
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A drop in fur prices during the Great Depression made things even more difficult and was compounded by a decline in the caribou population during the 1930s. Poor, starving, and cut off from their traditional means of making a living, many Innu had no option but to seek assistance from the government, the Church, and charitable organizations. Increased reliance on government relief, however, made it difficult for the Innu to maintain a migratory lifestyle and many remained close to settlements where missionaries and government representatives worked.

Changes to Innu society and culture became even more pronounced after Confederation with Canada in 1949. Prior to this, the Newfoundland and Labrador government did not have any special agencies to deal with Aboriginal affairs or a system of reserves or land claim treaties with the Innu, Inuit, Mi'kmaq, or Metis people. After Confederation, the province continued to administer the Aboriginal peoples, with the federal government providing various grants to help pay for services in Labrador. The province used some of this money to build houses and schools at Sheshatshiu and Davis Inlet during the 1960s. Government officials threatened to cut off relief payments to parents who did not send their children to school, which forced many Innu families to abandon their tents and nomadic lifestyles to move into state-built homes.

Residents at both communities felt the school curriculum was not relevant to Innu culture and placed too much emphasis on mainstream North American society. English textbooks made it difficult for many students to understand their lessons and drop-out rates were high. Alienated from their own culture and not a part of white society, many young Innu were unprepared to enter the workforce or adopt the traditional lifestyles of their parents and grandparents.

Industrial and military developments during the second half of the 20th century brought additional changes to Innu society and lands. The Upper Churchill Falls hydroelectric project flooded more than 1,300 km² of land in central Labrador, much of which the Innu people used as hunting grounds, campsites, and burial grounds. No known records indicate government officials contacted the Innu people before damming the river; nor did they offer compensation after the flooding.

Innu making canoes, ca. 1920.
Twentieth-century industrial and military developments dramatically changed Innu society and lands.
Photo by Fred C. Sears. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (PA-148593).
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Innu making canoes near Sheshatshiu, ca. 1920

During the 1980s and 90s, many Innu protested low-level military flight training over their traditional hunting grounds, while the discovery of rich nickel deposits at Voisey's Bay in 1994 again made Innu land and resources vulnerable to outside industrial development. Some Innu opposed developing the site altogether, while others demanded a percentage of mining revenues. Today, Canadian mining company Inco Ltd. is extracting nickel from Voisey's Bay and paying royalties to the Innu Nation.

As a result of these changes and developments, the Innu people became increasingly cut off from their land and traditional activities. Many felt they had lost the self-reliance and self-determination that once defined Innu existence. Alcoholism and substance abuse became a recurring problem, while Davis Inlet reported one of the highest suicide rates in the world during the early 1990s; the community made international headlines in 1993 after news reports broadcast a video of six Innu children sniffing gasoline to get high.

That same year, local residents voted to relocate and the federal government later agreed to pay for the move. Between December 2002 and July 2003, about 680 people left Davis Inlet and moved into the new community of Natuashish, about 15 km west of Davis Inlet and 295 km north of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. In February 2008, Natuashish residents voted to ban alcohol on their reserve, making it illegal for anyone to own, sell, or buy alcohol within the community.

Innu Nation

To safeguard their rights, resources, and culture against outside threats, the Innu people of Labrador formed the Naskapi Montagnais Innu Association (NMIA) in 1976, which changed its name to the Innu Nation in 1990. The group filed a land claim with the federal government in 1977 and negotiations are continuing today. The Innu Nation is seeking compensation for hunting grounds, burial sites, and other resources flooded in the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project. It is also negotiating a deal with the province and its utility, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, for an equity stake in the Lower Churchill project.

In 2002, the Innu Nation succeeded in having the federal government register the Labrador Innu as status Indians, giving them access to various federal programs and services for First Nations people in Canada. The government also recognized the communities of Natuashish and Sheshatshiu as reserve lands in 2003 and 2006, respectively. As of 2008, the Innu Nation represents about 2,200 Innu people in Labrador.

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

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