Labrador's Inuit-Metis: the Historical Background

Labrador's first Inuit-Metis were the children of European men who came to the coast of southern and central Labrador to work in the fish trade, starting in the 1760s, and Inuit women. While significant questions remain, research is revealing the history of Labrador's Inuit-Metis.

Geographical Location of the Inuit

It is now clear that Labrador Inuit had been exposed to European goods for centuries. Indeed, some archaeologists, for example Lisa Rankin (2009), believe that Inuit first arrived in Labrador from Baffin Island during the 15th century, looking for the European metals they had once obtained indirectly from the Norse in the eastern Arctic. A trading economy based on baleen was the eventual result. During the French Regime, Jolliet in 1694 and Fornel in 1743 described two linked Inuit adaptations: whale hunters in the far north, and highly mobile foragers and traders in the south (Kennedy). Existing accounts of southern Inuit traders describe an established trade protocol. Inuit men, led by influential Inuit men Euroamericans called 'captains,' greeted Europeans in French and gestured that trade best occur ashore; ordinarily women and children were kept safely out of sight. Southern Inuit traded baleen obtained from the north with an ever-changing array of Euroamerican customers, on occasion leading to misunderstandings and violence. In addition, northern Inuit sometimes migrated south on a seasonal or temporary basis.

Scholars have disagreed about how far south the Inuit actually lived. A 1980 edition of etudes Inuit Studies was devoted to this question. Some contributors argued that northern Labrador is the real Inuit homeland. Their view was that during the 17th and 18th centuries, Inuit travelled south seasonally to trade with Europeans, and only settled in southern Labrador in the 19th century. Other contributors presented archaeological, cartographic, and documentary evidence showing long term Inuit occupation as far south as the Quebec North Shore.

Recent research increasingly supports the second interpretation. Archaeology, including extensive surveys by Marianne Stopp and her colleagues, has discovered numerous prehistoric and early historic sites in southern Labrador. Many of these sites are now (2012) being excavated. Rankin and her students have excavated a number of Inuit sod houses in the Sandwich Bay area, including an Inuit communal house similar to those excavated in northern Labrador. Although many questions remain, archaeologists see few differences between Inuit sites in northern and southern Labrador (Stopp).

Inuit-British Relations

The Inuit had become used to dealing with the French, but at the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, New France, including Labrador, became British territory. The "coast of Labrador" was placed under the jurisdiction of the Governor of Newfoundland, at that time Commodore (later Sir) Hugh Palliser. British policy was to develop a British migratory cod fishery in southern Labrador, which Palliser called "that New Fishing Coast." However, the implementation of his plan was complicated by the presence of Inuit whose behaviour was unpredictable and sometimes hostile. Like the French before them, the British feared the Inuit.

As a result, and in order to facilitate British trade in southern Labrador, Governor Palliser resolved to try and contain the Inuit in the north. Palliser recommended that Inuit be moved "as far northward as possible" (Whiteley 154) and restricted to what were essentially reservations under tutelage of Moravian missionaries who wanted to convert them to Christianity. (Hiller 83).

At least initially, containment did not work. During the last decades of the 18th century, Moravian missionaries at Hopedale described Inuit continuing to travel south to trade and back north again, much as they had done for generations (Rollmann 2010). But by the end of the 18th century, the northern Inuit whale fishery had ended, as had long range Inuit travel along the coast. Inuit traded now with the Moravian stores in the north or European merchants in the south.

The Moravians chronicled every detail about 'their Inuit', but we know far less about the south. Nevertheless, it seems certain that in south and central Labrador, Inuit lived near the European merchant posts where they worked and traded. The Slade Company ledgers at Battle Harbour (1798; 1810) contain 'Indian' (Inuit) accounts. These list the seal skins, seal oil, and pelts that Inuit such as Oglucock, Smilmuck, and Young Jack exchanged for guns, powder, swanskin, and other commodities. Better evidence comes from missionary reports. In 1824, when Rev. Thomas Hickson (1825) visited Dumpling Island, he reported that the Dartmouth merchant Philip Beard employed 100 Europeans, and some local Inuit. At Cuff Harbour, in "the Great Bay of Esquimaux" (Lake Melville) Hickson mentioned a merchant, Mr. Langley [Cox], and several European settlers, two living with the natives in "a state of concubinage for many years."

European-Inuit Unions

So far as we know, the earliest unions between European men and Inuit women began in the 1770s and 1780s. One of the first such unions was that of William Phippard, who had worked for the Bristol merchant Jeremiah Coghlan, who operated posts between Alexis and Porcupine Bays. Phippard left Coghlan around 1776. George Cartwright recorded in his diary that Phippard wintered at Lake Melville in 1777-78, where he met and "married" an Inuk woman called 'Sarah' (Campbell; Young). Similar unions, essentially cohabitation, followed, many later solemnized by visiting clergy. Over a century later, in 1894, the Rev. F. W. Colley met 'Old Phippard' at Shoal Bay, whose grandfather "[William] Phippard, had lived in the Isle of Wight, ran away from home, and was the first Englishman to settle north of Battle Harbour. His (Old Phippard's) grandmother and mother were Esquimaux" (Rollmann 2008, 11). Although the surname Phippard no longer exists in Labrador, the genealogist Patricia Way links the Phippards to extant Inuit-Metis families such as Reeves and Blake.

In 1824, 326 people lived in Lake Melville. These included 160 Inuit, 60 'half-Esquimaux', 90 European settlers, and 16 Canadian settlers (Hickson 137). Further south, 24 years later, Bishop Edward Feild described a similar social mosaic. Along the southern Labrador coast, Feild observed, men outnumbered women "eight or nine to one." Except for Mrs. Saunders, wife of the C and E Hunt company agent at St. Francis Harbour, there were no English women between Battle Harbour and Sandwich Bay. Instead, Feild continued, "all, or nearly all, are Indians [that is, Esquimaux or Inuit] or mountaineer [Innu] or half Indians, and of course the children are the same mixed race." There were no native and non-native regions, as the provincial government tried to insist a century later. Feild wrote that "between the Seal Islands, and the first Settlement (Hopedale) occupied by the Moravians, is a line of Coast of between 200 and 300 miles, in which are the deep and extensive Sandwich and Esquimaux Bays, inhabited almost exclusively by natives" (Feild, quoted in Rollmann 2008, 10).

Inuit-Metis Lifestyle

The Inuit-Metis children of European fathers and Inuit mothers, like the Phippards, developed a way of life based on the seasonal round. Between spring and fall, Inuit-Metis families hunted migratory waterfowl and seals, and fished for salmon and cod from homes located on the headlands and islands of Labrador's outer coast. With the exception of permanent 'outside' settlements like Black Tickle and Battle Harbour, most families wintered in forested bays and coves, where they trapped, hunted, and gathered forest products. There were considerable local variations, but generally, the Inuit-Metis economy revolved around the local possibilities of each season. Social life was also seasonally-ordered.

The dispersed, family-based winter settlement pattern reduced contact between families. Although perhaps an extreme case, Lydia Campbell, writing from Mulligan (Lake Melville) in 1894, noted that her nearest neighbor was 70 miles away. But in summer, contact with other Inuit-Metis families, and with visiting Newfoundland fishers, was common in the larger outside stations where Inuit-Metis congregated to fish. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, some Inuit-Metis women married Newfoundlanders, and this, along with disease, diluted the Inuit pedigree. Even so, in July 1860, the South Carolina geologist Oscar Leiber described what he called the "Esquimaux" settlement at Spotted Islands. He met an Inuit woman who spoke both Inuktitut and English with an "Irish brogue" and encountered "many other half breeds, the progeny of a New Foundland Fisherman, who married an Esquimau woman." In 1893, Dr. Elliot Curwen met a "Mrs. Keith, an Esquimaux, the 'wise woman' [shaman or curer] of the neighbourhood" at Domino, and across the run at Spotted Island, "a number of half-breed Esquimaux who live there all year round" (Curwen 59-60). Curwen also met Sam Hallowell, son of an Englishman and his "Esquimaux wife", whose Inuit-Metis descendants, now spelling their name Holwell, live today in Cartwright.

During the early decades of the 20th century, Inuit-Metis trappers ventured further into the interior, trapping along the Grand (now Churchill) River and along several rivers emptying into Sandwich Bay. Men trapped many kilometers from their families, leaving their wives, including the diarist Elizabeth Goudie, to meet the needs of home and children. Fish and fur prices plummeted with the stock market crash beginning in 1929, weakening the meager though meaningful subsistence-based economy. Construction of an air base at Goose Bay in 1941 and radar installations along the coast offered Inuit-Metis their first wage employment. In the 1960s the new province of Newfoundland closed many small settlements and centralized Inuit-Metis to centres such as Cartwright, that administrators believed offered better futures. These and other changes, including Ottawa's mismanagement and eventual closure of the cod and salmon fisheries, have tested but not broken the relationship that Inuit-Metis have with the land and sea.