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Innu Nation disputes Canada's recognition of NunatuKavut in Federal Court

Elizabeth (Tshaukuesh) Penashue, right, speaks in Innu outside the federal courtroom in the Supreme Court of Canada building in Ottawa as Anastasia Qupee interprets. (Brett Forester/CBC - image credit)
Elizabeth (Tshaukuesh) Penashue, right, speaks in Innu outside the federal courtroom in the Supreme Court of Canada building in Ottawa as Anastasia Qupee interprets. (Brett Forester/CBC - image credit)

Outside a downtown Ottawa courtroom on Wednesday, Elder Elizabeth (Tshaukuesh) Penashue speaks slowly but passionately in the language of her Innu ancestors.

Inside, lawyers for the Innu Nation of Labrador were making their case against federal recognition of a group they say is falsely claiming Indigenous identity.

"I feel like the government is trying to kill off the Innu. That's the way I feel," Penashue said through interpreter Anastasia Qupee.

"Now we have another group the government wants to recognize but I feel like the government wants to kill the Innu off. And this is why we're here. We're going to fight."

The elder's comments highlight what the Innu feel is at stake as the dispute over land, rights and identity in Labrador ramped up this week in the capital.

Innu leaders are contesting a 2019 memorandum of understanding in which the Canadian government recognized NunatuKavut Community Council as an "Indigenous collective."

Penashue joined an Innu delegation flown in by chartered plane to witness the Federal Court hearing nearly five years in the making.

"They are settlers," said Innu Nation Grand Chief Simon Pokue outside the courtroom.

"They are using the Inuit identity to present themselves but to me, this is fraud."

The Innu Nation comprises two First Nations communities in Labrador: Sheshatshiu and Natuashish. They never signed a treaty with the Crown and had a land claim accepted for negotiation in 1978.

NunatuKavut represents 6,000 self-identified Inuit in south and central Labrador. The group identified as Métis between 1986 and 2010. The government rejected NunatuKavut and its Métis predecessor's land claim four times.

NunatuKavut hailed the MOU as a step forward, and NunatuKavut President Todd Russell, a former Liberal MP, was eager to get his day in court.

"We felt that we presented a very, very strong case," said Russell outside the court, where he was flanked by supporters.

"We felt that the government presented a very, very strong case, and we are confident that we will have a favourable ruling."

Innu want MOU scrapped

At issue is whether the decision to sign the MOU was reasonable, given the unproven nature of NunatuKavut's claims.

The Innu want the agreement scrapped, saying they weren't consulted and accusing government of unilaterally creating a new fourth category of Indigenous people: the "Indigenous collective."

At the time, Crown-Indigenous Relations minister Carolyn Bennett was warned internally that implementing the agreement was risky and could set a precedent with other groups whose Indigenous rights are "subject to doubt," according to a memo filed in court.

Members of NunatuKavut Community Council, including president Todd Russell, second from left, are in Ottawa for the two-day hearing.
Members of NunatuKavut Community Council, including president Todd Russell, second from left, are in Ottawa for the two-day hearing.

Members of NunatuKavut Community Council, including president Todd Russell, second from left, were in Ottawa for the two-day Federal Court hearing. (NunatuKavut Community Council/X)

The Nunatsiavut Government, which represents some 7,000 Inuit with a settled land claim in northern Labrador, has intervened to support the Innu and oppose NunatuKavut.

"Their claim is not legitimate," said Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe.

"They are appropriating the ways of life of the true Labrador Inuit, and some of the Labrador Innu."

The much-anticipated hearing brought a rush of activity as the organizations sought to rustle up public awareness and support.

Innu Nation joined forces with Nunatsiavut and advocacy organizations Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador at a joint news conference on Parliament Hill on Tuesday.

Then on Thursday, Nunatsiavut kicked off a public relations campaign targeting NunatuKavut. A promotional video warns of "a new threat" posed by settlers with shallow roots in the land claiming kinship to cultures not their own.

Almost simultaneously, Russell held a news conference of his own to accuse his opponents of spreading misinformation. He said the evidence of NunatuKavut members' Inuit heritage is irrefutable.

"There were Inuit on the coast of Labrador where we live. We are the descendants of the Inuit that lived on that coast," Russell told CBC Indigenous.

"We are still there. We come from Inuit, we are Inuit, and we are in the land of our ancestors."

The courts have previously deemed NunatuKavut's claims unproven but sufficiently credible to trigger the Crown's duty to consult, which applies to Indigenous Peoples on matters that may impact them.

The Canadian government, meanwhile, argued in court files it was within its rights to recognize NunatuKavut — a decision Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree has said is based on law and history, not politics.

This week's judicial review yielded no immediate decision.