The Inuit of Labrador, located in the southernmost part of the Arctic and subarctic regions of the world of all the Inuit peoples, have much in common with their northern kin. Centuries of transitory migration had placed them in contact with the alternatively thawing and freezing salt seas, where natsiq (the little ringed seal) provided heat, shelter, food, and clothing to help sustain them. They lived exclusively on the Arctic tundra and among the freshwater lakes and rivers, where tuktu (the caribou) provided the necessities to also help sustain them. Their mastery over kimmik (the sled dog) allowed winter travel over the frozen land and sea, and this ingenious travel technology kept their culture alive and vibrant. Their exposure to the ways of Qallunat (the white man) transformed semi-nomadic ways into permanent communities, where incidents of transition resulted in personal and social upheaval.
As with other Inuit groups in Canada, Labrador Inuit are now beginning to define their own version of history, to shape the important elements of their own society, and to take control of their own governance in a new transitional phase, which is only one of many more to come. These changes do not occur in a vacuum, but rather in the living context of people and government policies with their unique regional and community histories.
Unless the histories are written and accepted by the people themselves, reconciliation for perceived inappropriate actions in the past will not occur.
The recent apology given to Survivors of the residential school system by the prime minister and the leaders of the Canadian parliamentary system, in the presence of representative Aboriginal groups, was a powerful symbol of the reconciliation process at work in this country, and this will encourage the less visible aspects of Canadian-Aboriginal relationships to be revealed. This article is intended to allow a small corner of the Canadian mosaic to express its truth, so that over time a more complete picture is portrayed of how reconciliation can overcome marginalization, even in circumstances that are remote from this country’s centre.
The Confederation Story for Labrador Inuit
Dr. Maura Hanrahan, writing for the research component of the 2002/2003 Newfoundland and Labrador Royal Commission on Renewing and Strengthening Our Place in Canada, exposed what she referred to as an untold story in Confederation. Prophetically titled, The Lasting Breach: The Omission of Aboriginal People From the Terms of Union Between Newfoundland and Canada and its Ongoing Impacts,3 Hanrahan’s report relates the unprecedented actions by the premier, Joseph Smallwood, and the prime minister, Lester B. Pearson, to ignore the federal government’s responsibility to exercise its fiduciary duty of legislative and administrative control over the Aboriginal population, as was the case in other provinces:
After World War II the global map was being redrawn as Britain and other European powers disposed of their colonies and territories. Newfoundland became a province of Canada in 1949; the Terms of Union were the legal agreements that bound the two countries. While the Terms described everything from Canada’s transportation obligations in the new province to the colour of margarine, they did not mention Aboriginal people. According to the 1945 Census, there was a significant Aboriginal population in this jurisdiction; there were 701 Eskimos, 527 Halfbreeds, and 431 Indians … The presence of Indians was recognized in Newfoundland law, if only through the ban of sale of liquor to Indians … The omission appears to be a remarkable oversight, especially given the special status of Aboriginal people elsewhere in Canada. Recent historical research, mainly by First Nations lawyer Jerry Wetzel, describes the process through which this happened.4
In countering the federal and provincial justifications for the Newfoundland anomaly, she goes on to say:
The claim that the province wanted to administer Aboriginal affairs is meaningless; no other province was ever given the option to do so, given Canada’s fiduciary relationship to Aboriginal people and federal jurisdiction over Aboriginal issues. Whenever other territories had joined Canada, Ottawa had made treaties or other arrangements with the relevant Aboriginal nations, set aside reserves, enforced the Indian Act, and began providing programs and services. This did not happen in Newfoundland. According to one legal opinion, because of the omission from the Terms of Union, s. 91 (24) of the Canadian constitution makes Aboriginal matters in Newfoundland and Labrador federal jurisdiction – as in the rest of the country … Further, S. 91 (24) of the Constitution articulates the fiduciary responsibility of the federal government for the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples of Canada.5
Hanrahan relates that this omission had the consequence of Ottawa’s program delivery in the various Canadian regions being applied to this province and covered under the aegis of Atlantic Canada, even though there might be no programs funded in Labrador:
This province is considered as “covered off” whenever projects in the Atlantic region are funded. In other words, if projects or programs go ahead in Nova Scotia and/or New Brunswick, they are considered to cover the whole region – even though the Aboriginal people in Newfoundland and Labrador do not participate or benefit in any way.6
Reconciliation Through Land Claims
Thankfully, at least for Inuit in Newfoundland and Labrador, this half century of constitutional oversight was addressed in the comprehensive Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement, which was formalized in 2005. The Agreement resulted in Inuit-owned and Inuit-controlled lands, including an offshore zone; Labrador Inuit lands where Inuit could exercise self-government control; the establishment of a national park; percentage shares in resource revenue from the province; wildlife and plant-harvesting rights; and a federal government compensation package. These tangible aspects of the Agreement strengthened a real sense of accomplishment and transition to greater autonomy in determining Inuit affairs and, over time, will result in self-governance and sovereignty that could reverse the unsettling negative consequences to Inuit families.
Following the formal signing ceremony, the province and the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) negotiated an apology to be given to the survivors of the Hebron and Nutak relocations of 1959.7 As a ten-year-old boy, I had witnessed the incidents of relocation in the late summer arrival of these northern strangers, many of whom became my school friends, as they were segregated to the back of the village and into their canvas tents. I remember the shy and quiet entrances by couples visiting our parents in the early days in an apparent attempt to combat homesickness and longing for their community as well as to get relief from the crowded conditions in what we called the Hebron side. The rigorous structure of the Moravian Church services and religious year clearly helped soften the cultural differences and offered some continuity, but alcohol abuse from homebrew and other liquor purchased from the American Distant Early Warning Line base on the hill near the village affected everyone’s daily life.
In the next few years, before my departure for high school in central Labrador, you could see the influence of the Moravian missionaries waning as the pull of secular life combined with the natural tendency to rebel against strict religious practices grew. Upon my return to Labrador in 1981 as a lay magistrate and subsequently as a provincial court judge, I saw first-hand the full flowering of social destruction, as explained in the words of Carol-Brice Bennett:
Without a community and hunting places of their own, Hebron Inuit lost their social and economic security. Family networks were severed as married sons and daughters moved to different communities, and lived apart from their elderly parents and from aunts and uncles, cousins and childhood friends. Poverty, demoralization, and frustration led people to consume alcohol in excess which contributed to family violence, accidental deaths, criminal offences and the further breakdown of family relations. Elderly people are believed to have died sooner from the heartbreak of being exiled from their homeland, and from being humiliated in the communities where they ended up living. The last wish of many elders was to be buried at Hebron, but even this request could not be fulfilled.8
The apology was, for the Hebron and Nutak relocatees, as necessary and important as the land claims agreement for other members of the LIA. It was given on behalf of the province by newly-elected Premier Danny Williams, who appreciated the importance of the event because he ignored the bureaucratic fear of attracting negative and excessive attention to a highly charged emotional atmosphere. At the last minute, during a meeting with survivor Andrea Webb and me (I was master of ceremonies), we exchanged hugs in the centre of the school stage rather than remain at our respective microphones at opposite ends of the large stage. Both parties had thrown aside bureaucratic wisdom in favour of a genuine display of apology and forgiveness. The sincerity of the statements, including the Premier’s agreement to a spontaneous private meeting by the assembled Hebron and Nutak survivors and the reciprocated display of respect for the Premier, demonstrated to me the power of reconciliation on a scale I had not thought possible.
A New Challenge
Labrador Inuit accept that this country needed to express its apology to Survivors of the Indian residential school system, and they are happy for the acknowledgement by Canada that the truth has come out about this dark chapter of Canadian-Aboriginal history. Yet the impact of the Government of Canada’s omission in the Newfoundland Act’s Terms of Union still haunts Labrador Inuit. The newly formed Nunatsiavut (translated: Our beautiful land) Government is now forced to make a case that Inuit families were affected by the common experience of removal from family, culture, and social structures in the same era that resulted in the undeniable truth of the Indian residential school system. Canada acknowledges that First Nations children and some Inuit attended the narrowly defined residential school system. What is the bureaucratic fear that denies the impact on Inuit but precipitates the apology for all the others? In the new truth and reconciliation process, which is about to start, there is little doubt that the overwhelming evidence will favour the inclusion of those Labrador Inuit survivors who were separated, by the best of intentions, from nurturing families and a distinct and vibrant culture. The inevitable reward of patience for Inuit is as certain as their knowledge in the healing power of the land.
James Igloliorte was born in Hopedale, Labrador. As a young boy, he attended the Moravian-run grade school in his home community along with the Yale School in North West River. He then graduated with a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Education from Memorial University (Newfoundland) in 1974. In 1980, his legal career began when he took up duties as a lay magistrate. In 1985, he graduated with a Bachelor of Law from Dalhousie University (Nova Scotia) and, later, returned to take up duties in Happy Valley-Goose Bay as a circuit judge. James has been a deputy judge of the Territorial Court of the Northwest Territories and was honorary colonel of 5 Wing Goose Bay for a year. He retired from provincial court in 2004.
James had taught a preliminary course in legal process with the Inuit-only Akitsiraq Law School, affiliated with the University of Victoria, in Iqualuit, Nunavut. He has been a Labrador director with the Innu Healing Foundation and was a commissioner with the Royal Commission on Renewing and Strengthening Our Place in Canada. He has also worked as Newfoundland and Labrador’s Child and Youth Advocate. James is currently employed as sole Commissioner of Qikiqtani Truth Commission in Nunavut. He is also a director with the International Grenfell Association and was president of the St. John’s Native Friendship Centre.
In 1999, James was awarded a National Aboriginal Achievement award in the field of law. He also received an honorary Doctor of Law from Memorial University in 2002. ↩
- Newfoundland Act, 1949, 12–13 Geo. VI, c. 22 (U.K.). An Act to confirm and give effect to Terms of Union agreed between Canada and Newfoundland. Retrieved 14 October 2008 from: http://www.exec.gov.nl.ca/royalcomm/resources/nf_act.htm ↩
- Nunatsiavut Government (2005). Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement. Retrieved 14 October 2008 from: http://www.laa.gov.nl.ca/laa/liaclaims/pdf/January212005AgreementComplete.pdf ↩
- Hanrahan, Maura (2003). The Lasting Breach: The Omission of Aboriginal People From the Terms of Union Between Newfoundland and Canada and its Ongoing Impacts. Nain, NL: Royal Commission on Renewing and Strengthening Our Place in Canada. ↩
- Hanrahan (2003:235) (references removed). ↩
- Hanrahan (2003:236) (reference removed). ↩
- Hanrahan (2003:240). ↩
- Williams, Danny (2005). Speaking Notes: Statement of Apology to the Inuit of Nutak and Hebron, January 21, 2005 (see Appendix 5 for a copy of the statement, including Andrea Webb’s response to the apology on behalf of the Hebron Committee). Retrieved 14 October 2008 from: http://www.nunatsiavut.com/pdfs/Hebron_Apology.pdf ↩
- Brice-Bennett, Carol (2000:11, 13). Reconciling With Memories: A Record of the Reunion at Hebron 40 Years After Relocation. Nain, NL: Labrador Inuit Association. ↩