Impacts of Non-Aboriginal Activities on Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut

Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut (formerly Labrador Inuit-Metis) are people of mixed Aboriginal and European descent who live in the Lake Melville region and some southern coastal communities. Their origins date back to the early 19th century when contact between Aboriginal women and European men working at Labrador trading posts became more common and often led to marriage. Although some marriages involved Innu, Mi'kmaq, and French people, the vast majority were between Inuit women and British men. The descendents of these unions are the Southern Inuit.

Rather than identifying with either their Inuit or English ancestors, the Southern Inuit developed a distinct culture and society that blended qualities from both their Aboriginal and European heritages. Seasonal migration was central to their way of life and allowed them to harvest furs in the winter, seals in the spring, and catch fish in the summer. Non-Aboriginal activities did little to interfere with the Southern Inuit way of life until the second half of the 20th century, when a variety of industrial developments, game laws, resettlement programs, and other developments threatened land and resources the Southern Inuit used.

Before Confederation

By the time the first generation of Southern Inuit was born in the 1800s, Moravian missionaries had much influence over the lives of the Labrador Inuit. Alongside controlling trade operations, they provided the Inuit with religious, educational, and medical services. The Moravians opposed unions between Europeans and Inuit, and at first would not allow them onto their lands. Know then as Settlers or Kablunângajuit, by the 1860s Moravians had accepted them into their congregations and schools – although not in the same classes as the Inuit students. Anthropologist John C. Kennedy suggests that by maintaining such distinctions, the Moravians helped create an atmosphere in which the Settlers further distinguished themselves from their Inuit ancestors (1997).

During this period, many Settlers began moving south, while others remained in the north. Eventually a divide formed between these two groups. In the north, the Kablunângajuit maintained fairly close ties to the Inuit and many continued speaking Inuktitut. Moravian missionaries helped preserve Aboriginal practices among Inuit and Kablunângajuit by barring European fishers and traders from entering mission grounds. No such administration existed in the south to isolate the Southern Inuit (or Settlers) from their English-speaking neighbours and many began using this language instead of Inuktitut. Southern Inuit also spent much of the year isolated from one another during the long winter trapping season and had few opportunities to form a group or cultural identity.

As a result of their geographic separation, cultural differences emerged between the Kablunângajuit and Southern Inuit people despite their similar ancestries. This was further intensified after Confederation when federal policy provided funding to Aboriginal people based on where they lived and not on their ancestry. Under this program, many northern communities became eligible to receive federal funding, but not those to the south.

The Southern Inuit population increased rapidly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was largely unaffected by the Spanish influenza and other European diseases that killed many other Aboriginal people in Labrador. Seasonal migration remained central to their economy, which was based on trapping furs in the winter, hunting seals in the spring, and catching cod and salmon in the summer.

The 20th century, however, brought a series of changes to Labrador that threatened the Southern Inuit way of life. The Great Depression caused fur prices to drop significantly during the 1930s and made trapping an almost profitless enterprise. Many Southern Inuit families experienced deep poverty until the Second World War, when construction of a military air base at Goose Bay created thousands of jobs for Labrador people. Although the base provided a much-needed source of income for Southern Inuit workers, it also altered their way of life. Many families abandoned their coastal communities and seasonal economies to work year-round at Goose Bay, where they became increasingly dependent on cash and the material goods it could buy.

Confederation

Changes to Southern Inuit life and land increased after Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949. Before Confederation, the Newfoundland and Labrador government did not have any special departments or agencies to deal with Aboriginal affairs, nor had it developed a system of reserves or land claim treaties with its Aboriginal peoples. In Canada, the federal government had to provide special funding to Aboriginal peoples under its Indian Act. At the time of Confederation, however, both governments decided against extending the Act to the new province, partly because doing so would make Newfoundland and Labrador's Aboriginal peoples ineligible to vote – a right they first exercised in 1946. Some academics have since argued it would have been easy for negotiators to include a clause giving Inuit, Southern Inuit, Innu, and Mi'kmaq the right to vote; they instead argue the high costs of extending the Act to Labrador's remote population was a greater deterrent for Ottawa.

Instead, federal officials gave the provincial government money to help pay for health, education, and other social services in northern Labrador communities showing high concentrations of Aboriginal residents, including those where Moravian mission stations once operated. As a result, Kablunângajuit living in northern Labrador benefited from federal money, but not Southern Inuit in the south. The designated community system undermined the Southern Inuit people's claim to Aboriginality by failing to provide them with the same level of funding Labrador's other Aboriginal people received.

The provincial government's resettlement policy of the 1960s further undermined Southern Inuit lifestyle and identity by encouraging southern Labrador families to leave their traditional homes and move into larger growth centres, including Cartwright, Port Hope Simpson, and Mary's Harbour. This placed greater pressure on local resources and created tensions between long-time residents and newcomers.

At the time of resettlement, Southern Inuit life had changed little from what it was in the 19th century – technological advances made life in the bush and at home more comfortable, but most families still relied on a seasonal economy of trapping, fishing and other resource-harvesting activities. However, provincial game laws and rapid industrialization during the late 20th century dramatically impacted Southern Inuit resources and practices. Particularly devastating was the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project, which flooded vast tracts of wildlife habitat and Southern Inuit traplines. Today, a variety of developments continue to affect land and resources the Southern Inuit use, including the Voisey's Bay nickel mine, the proposed Lower Churchill hydroelectric project, and construction of the trans-Labrador highway.

Labrador Metis Nation

The Southern Inuit people organized under the Labrador Metis Association (later called the Labrador Metis Nation and then the NunatuKavut Community Council) in 1985 to promote their culture and protect their land against industrialization and other outside threats. The group filed a comprehensive land claim with the federal government in 1991, although officials have not yet decided if they will accept the claim for negotiation.

The group is also lobbying for special hunting and fishing rights for NunatuKavut Community Council people and for increased involvement in various developments on NunatuKavut Community Council land, including the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project and trans-Labrador highway. Today, the NunatuKavut Community Council represents about 6,000 people living in central and southeastern Labrador.