Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut Organizations and Land Claims

The Labrador Metis Association formed in 1985 to represent people of mixed Aboriginal (mostly Inuit) and European ancestry living in central and southeastern Labrador. The group changed its name to the Labrador Metis Nation (LMN) in 1998 (now called the NunatuKavut Community Council), two years after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples reported that the Southern Inuit are a distinct people who display characteristics fundamental to nationhood.

By 2008 the LMN represented about 6,000 Southern Inuit (formerly Labrador Inuit-Metis) living in 23 communities in southern Labrador. It filed a comprehensive land claim with the federal government and was awaiting Ottawa's decision to either accept or reject the proposal for negotiation. The group has been also active in the promotion of Southern Inuit identity, culture, and rights. It has been lobbying for increased participation in resource development on land the Southern Inuit use, and for special hunting and fishing rights for Southern Inuit people.

Government Involvement

The Southern Inuit had little contact with government officials or departments before Confederation. Labrador was remote from the centre of political activity at St. John's and it was both difficult and costly for elected officials to deliver services to the region's sparse population. Instead, the Newfoundland and Labrador government delegated administrative duties to trading companies and religious officials in the area. The first Newfoundland Rangers also arrived at Labrador in 1935 to enforce game laws and serve as government representatives.

When Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949, the Southern Inuit way of life had changed little since the 19th century – winter trapping and hunting formed the backbone of the Southern Inuit economy and were supplemented by summer fishing and spring sealing. Many families spent large parts of the year separated from one another in isolated homesteads, and although conscious of their Aboriginal heritage, had not yet formed a well-articulated group identity. Before the term Southern Inuit began to be used the word Metis was more common, but it had only begun to be frequently used in Labrador in the 1970s. Before that, most people of mixed Inuit and European descent living in southern Labrador referred to themselves as Settlers or Livyers, while those in northern Inuit communities referred to themselves as Kablunângajuit (‘partly white’ in Inuktitut).

At the time of Confederation, the Newfoundland and Labrador government had no special agencies or departments to work with the Aboriginal population, nor had it developed any land claim or other agreements. When Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada, the federal government agreed to help pay for health, education, and other services in Labrador's Aboriginal communities. Many northern settlements qualified for funding, including Inuit communities that had sizeable Kablunângajuit populations, while southern Southern Inuit settlements did not. Anthropologist John C. Kennedy argues the designated community system helped bestow Aboriginality on the Kablunângajuit, while excluding their Southern Inuit counterparts in the south (1997).

At the same time, a variety of industrial and other developments under the Smallwood and subsequent administrations threatened land and resources the Southern Inuit people used and depended on. These included logging and mining operations, construction of the trans-Labrador highway, low-level military flight training, and the Upper Churchill Falls hydroelectric project, which flooded caribou habitat and Southern Inuit traplines.

Labrador Metis Nation

The Southern Inuit people organized under the Labrador Metis Association (LMA) in 1985 to preserve their culture and resources from outside threats and repair the imbalances of the designated community system. They were the last Aboriginal people in Newfoundland and Labrador to formally organize under a political group. The province's Inuit, Innu, and Mi'kmaq joined a pan-Canadian movement of Aboriginal peoples in the 1970s to assert their rights as First Nations after the federal government unsuccessfully proposed abolishing the Indian Act. Many Aboriginal people felt such a move would threaten their rights and formed political organizations to represent their interests.

Three groups existed in Newfoundland and Labrador by 1976 – the Federation of Newfoundland Indians represented the Mi'kmaq, the Montagnais Naskapi Innu Association (today the Innu Nation) represented the Innu, and the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) represented the Inuit and Kablunângajuit. Although the Southern Inuit and Kablunângajuit are of similar ancestry, the Southern Inuit were ineligible to join the LIA because they lived too far south of Inuit land. This left the Southern Inuit without any formal representation and undermined their status as an Aboriginal people.

In 1982, the amended Canadian Constitution Act gave a sense of legitimacy to the Labrador Southern Inuit people's claim to Aboriginality by stating in section 35 that the country's Aboriginal people include “the Indian, Inuit and Métis.” The LMA formed three years later to represent Southern Inuit in southeastern and central Labrador. A Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples provided further support to the Labrador Southern Inuit in 1996 by reporting they display characteristics essential to nationhood. “It seems clear that the Inuit-Metis [Southern Inuit] of Labrador are an Aboriginal people within the meaning of section 35,” stated the report. “They display the social and geographic distinctiveness, the self-consciousness and the cohesiveness of a people, along with an unmistakably Aboriginal relationship to the natural environment.” The LMA changed its name to the Labrador Metis Nation (LMN) two years after the Commission published its findings.

As of 2008 the LMN represented about 6,000 people living in central and southeastern Labrador. An elected Council governed LMN affairs, which included a president, vice-president, 11 councilors, two elders, and one youth councilor. The group also encompassed seven departments: finance, legal, natural resources, research, business development, human resource development, and social sector.

The LMN has been seeking increased involvement in various industrial and other developments affecting Southern Inuit land and resources, including the proposed Lower Churchill Falls hydroelectric project, the Voisey's Bay nickel mine, and construction of the trans-Labrador highway. It has supported special hunting, trapping, and fishing rights for Southern Inuit people and promotes the preservation of wildlife and wildlife habitat.

Land Claims

The LMN filed a land claim with the federal government in 1991 for land in central and southeastern Labrador. As of 2008, Ottawa had not yet decided if it would accept or reject the claim for negotiation. If the claim was accepted, negotiations could take years or even decades to complete and would have to pass through a series of stages, including a Framework Agreement, an Agreement-in-Principle, a Final Agreement, and implementation.

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, but did not hand over to European colonists or subsequent governments. Aside from the Southern Inuit, three other Aboriginal peoples have filed land claims in Newfoundland and Labrador – the Innu, Mi'kmaq, and Inuit. Of these, only the Inuit have resolved their land claims, while the others are engaged in varying stages of talks with the federal and provincial governments.