Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut History
Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut (formerly Labrador Inuit-Metis) origins date back to the late 18th century when British trading companies began sending employees to coastal Labrador. These workers manned trading posts north of the Strait of Belle Isle, and frequently interacted with Inuit travelling south to exchange blubber, furs and labour for European goods.
Some of these workers – the majority of which were single men – chose to remain in Labrador permanently, but found it difficult to find wives in a land where men outnumbered women eight or nine to one. An almost absolute lack of European women meant that many settlers married Inuit women and it is to these unions that Southern Inuit trace their aboriginal roots.
Their Inuit heritage, however, extends back considerably further. Precontact Inuit, or Thule, entered Labrador sometime after 1400 AD to hunt seals and whales. They appear to have followed these sea mammals as far south as the Strait of Belle Isle, and although they lived for the most part in northern Labrador, John C. Kennedy reports that several Inuit communities were also established in various portions of southeastern Larbador, including St. Lewis, Domino and Dumpling Island.
It is likely that the Europeans married Inuit rather than Innu women in the 18th and 19th centuries because the former lived on the coast, while the latter spent much of the year in Labrador’s less accessible interior. The Southern Inuit population, meanwhile, increased rapidly, and by the mid-1800s, it was commonplace for them to marry other Southern Inuit, rather than Inuit or Europeans. Seasonal migration was central to their resource-harvesting economy and involved trapping furs in the winter, hunting seals in the spring, and catching salmon and cod in the summer.
This way of life continued well into the 20th century, until a series of events threatened to disrupt Southern Inuit culture. The Great Depression of 1929 caused fur and fish prices to drop dramatically, and weakened the Southern Inuit economy. During the Second World War, a large military air base was built at Goose Bay. When construction began in 1941, many Southern Inuit families left their coastal homes to find work on the base, and some decided to remain in Goose Bay permanently.
A series of resettlement programs in the 1960s aimed at modernizing the province's economy further disturbed traditional Southern Inuit practices. During this period, the Smallwood government closed many small Southern Inuit communities and centralized people in specified villages, including Cartwright and Mary’s Harbour. Between 1967 and 1970, one-fourth of the southeastern Labrador population had moved, which reduced the traditional harvesting of resources at winter homes. Support for resettlement dwindled after Smallwood’s Liberals lost the 1971 provincial election. Around the same time, development of the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project resulted in the flooding of land used by Southern Inuit trappers. The effect on the Southern Inuit economy and culture were devastating.
Further threatening Southern Inuit identity was a strategy devised by the federal and provincial governments in the early 1950s to disperse funding among Aboriginal peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador. It was decided that only designated Aboriginal communities in northern Labrador would qualify for government funding. These geographical criteria rendered the Southern Inuit, who lived in southern portions of Labrador, ineligible for funding and undermined their claim to Aboriginality. However, persons who displayed a mixed Aboriginal-European ancestry similar to that of the Southern Inuit, but who lived to the north, were eligible for funding.
Known as Kablunângajuit (meaning "partly white men"), this group has roots similar to those of the Southern Inuit, but inhabited northern portions of Labrador. Historically, they lived in close proximity to the Inuit and to the Moravian missionaries sent to Labrador in the 18th century. Although they initially shunned the Kablunângajuit, the missionaries accepted them into their congregations by the mid-1800s. No such protective or unifying administration existed to the south, where the Southern Inuit spent much of the year isolated from one another during the long winter trapping season.
This divide widened shortly after Confederation, when Aboriginals living in northern communities received government funding, but not those to the south. Moreover, when the Native Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (NANL) and the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) were established in the 1970s, Kablunângajuit were eligible to join, but the Southern Inuit, who lived too far south, were not. However, developments in the coming years would do much to unify the Labrador Southern Inuit as a people.
In 1982, an amendment to the Canadian Constitution Act listed Metis (Southern Inuit), as well as Inuit and Indians, as Aboriginal peoples. Two years later, the Labrador Metis Association (now NunatuKavut Community Council) was formed, with the help of the Native Council of Canada. Intended to represent people of Aboriginal descent in Labrador ineligible to join LIA because of their geographic location, by 2006 NunatuKavut reached a membership of more than 6,000.
In 1991, LMN filed a land claim with the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) for areas in central and southeastern Labrador traditionally used by the Southern Inuit. Although the federal Department of Justice recommended in 1998 that the Southern Inuit claim be rejected, DIAND has the final say on the matter, and had not yet ruled, as of 2006.
Alongside the land claim, LMN is addressing a number of other issues aimed at maintaining the traditional way of Southern Inuit life. At the forefront is development of the Lower Churchill hydroelectric generating project, which affects land traditionally used by the Southern Inuit for trapping. Also of concern is construction of the Trans-Labrador Highway, which LMN fears will negatively impact the environment if dealt with improperly. In 2006, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the provincial government has "an ongoing duty to engage in meaningful consultation with the Labrador Inuit-Metis" regarding the highway.
Many LMN members hope the court decision will set a precedent for other developments impacting Southern Inuit ancestral lands. The decision has also prompted calls from the LMN for the federal government to begin a process to enter formal negotiations on the Southern Inuit land claims agreement.