Ottawa opens talks with one Labrador Indigenous group, but infuriates another

The president of NunatuKavut is emotional at announcement, but the Innu Nation says it was not consulted by the federal government.

NunatuKavut president emotional as announcement made

The president of NunatuKavut, Todd Russell, and Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett are all smiles at the announcement Thursday. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

They're not calling it land claims negotiations, but the federal government and the NunatuKavut Community Council have announced the beginning of talks to recognize Indigenous rights and self-determination.

NunatuKavut president Todd Russell, who was emotional at Thursday's announcement in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, called the day significant for the group. 

But the Innu Nation, which represents the Innu of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish, says it was not consulted by the federal government in advance of the announcement and it is not happy.

"It's like a slap in the face," said Innu Nation Grand Chief Gregory Rich.

"The federal government needs to address our claim."

First statement of claim filed in 1991

Carolyn Bennett, federal indigenous relations minister, and Russell were both present at the announcement of exploratory talks.

"We will be sitting down with a blank sheet of paper," said Bennett, who said the federal government had no mandate going in and priorities would be set by the NunatuKavut people.

"It's clearly time to sit down and talk."

The council, which was formerly known as the Labrador Métis Nation and which represents Inuit and people of Inuit ancestry in southern Labrador, has been working on a land claim agreement for decades. The first statement of claim was filed in 1991.

"We are a first people of this land and we have rights on this land," said Russell.

Specifics on the discussions were not released but in a joint media advisory, the two governments said they would be community focused and cover a range of issues.

"The goal is to obtain greater clarity on the rights, needs and interests most important to the community as well as finding common ground to move ahead in partnership toward shared solutions that help advance reconciliation and renew the relationship," the advisory read.

Carolyn Bennett, federal Crown-Indigenous Affairs Minister, speaks at the announcement of exploratory land claim talks between the federal government and the NunatuKavut council. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Innu Nation questions NunatuKavut identity

At a separate news conference on Thursday afternoon, Innu Nation Grand Chief Gregory Rich — who referred to the NunatuKavut Community Council as "a settler organization" — said he was disappointed to learn of the talks.

Rich, who said the Innu Nation and NunatuKavut claim much of the same ancestral territory, said he is worried about Innu rights to land and resources.

"Our land claim is before them and it has been for ongoing for over 40 years now," he said.

"What is going to happen to our claim?"

Innu Nation Grand Chief Gregory Rich and land claim negotiator Peter Penashue at a press conference on Thursday afternoon. Penashue say the lands and resources the Innu are negotiating for are now in jeopardy. (Bailey White/CBC)

While there is precedent for negotiating multiple claims dealing with the same land, Innu Nation land claim negotiator Peter Penashue said this situation is unique.

"There has never been a group that sprung out of nowhere, that suddenly became an Aboriginal group," Penashue said, suggesting that members of NunatuKavut are not Indigenous at all, despite research to the contrary.

"Now here we are in a very unusual circumstance: settlers becoming Métis, becoming Inuit and now are going to fight us over land."

'Canada has just created a huge mess in Labrador'

Penashue and Rich want a meeting with Bennett to discuss the status of the Innu Nation claim, which is much further along than NunatuKavut's.

The two parties have an agreement-in-principle, but there are still details to be worked out.

"Canada has just created a huge mess in Labrador," Penashue said.

NunatuKavut President Todd Russell maintains the two groups can come to an agreement.

"They may be a little concerned now but if they're interested in a table to talk about that, I think that's very encouraging," he said.

"I believe if we do that and we are co-operative, then all of our people are raised up in these discussions. All of our people will benefit."

Todd Russell hugs longtime friend Jean Crane at a celebration outside NunatuKavut's office on Thursday. (Bailey White/CBC)

As for the question of Indigenous identity, Russell encouraged others to reach out and learn more about NunatuKavut.

"There's never been any confusion amongst ourselves who we are. We know who we are. We know our story. It's just that today other people are acknowledging the truth of our story."

Read more articles at CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Peter Cowan

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