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Labrador Innu move towards autonomy.


The Innu Nation of Labrador says part of a loaf is better than no loaf at all. The agreement they signed Nov. 24 with Canada and Newfoundland, which returns to the Innu some control over their own affairs, is but a step along the way to regaining autonomy as they negotiate land title and self-government. Still, perhaps for the first time in the unhappy history of outside interference on Innu unceded territory, the Aboriginal inhabitants of Labrador have a reason to believe the latter-day governments are taking them seriously.

The agreement sets out six interim measures by which the Innu, with the co-operation and assistance of the federal and provincial governments, will develop capacity to solve entrenched socio-economic problems in their communities. The agreement does not confer First Nation status on the Innu people, but speaks of "First Nations equivalency."

According to Clarence MacLennan, Indian and Inuit Affairs' manager for Newfoundland and Labrador, that's the way the Innu want it. They see the reserve system and the bureaucracy that runs it as a regressive step that fosters dependency.

Peter Penashue, who was reelected president of the Innu Nation on Nov. 16, Chief Paul Rich of Sheshatshui, Chief Mark Nui of the Musuau Innu, Premier Brian Tobin, and federal Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister Robert Nault signed the pact for change. On Dec. 15, when Windspeaker spoke to the Innu Nation's acting executive director, Nancy Nuna, the three chiefs and Innu land negotiatior Penote (Ben) Michel were at a meeting in Ottawa and could not be reached.

The media release from the premier's office, forwarded through Indian and Northern Affairs' Atlantic regional office, states Newfoundland will transfer the land occupied by the communities of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish (the new name for Davis Inlet when it relocates) to federal jurisdiction, anticipating their eventual inclusion in a land claim settlement. The agreement also stipulates the governments will work with the Innu to transfer control of education and policing to them and to conclude a policing agreement "as soon as possible." Because Canada will pay for Innu education programs now instead of the province, money the province saves from its education budget will be allocated instead to Innu policing. Any additional savings will be invested in other Innu priorities as worked out among the parties.

They agree to put in place whatever legal arrangements are necessary for Innu governance to "give effect to" the items in the agreement. Also, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada will open an office in Labrador to render assistance to the Innu in taking over their new responsibilities. MacLennan said the office will have four to five staff, which will also serve five Inuit communities.

Finally, signatories to the agreement reaffirm their commitment to "the expeditious conclusion of an Innu land claim and self-government agreement," the press release states.

Utshimassits (Davis Inlet) community member and tribal policeman Simeon Tshakapesh said the agreement is "probably the best thing that ever happened to us now. The province of Newfoundland has recognized our proposals -- the province used to ignore us." He says previously Newfoundland did not accept it had any responsibility towards the Innu or recognize they have rights as the original people of the land.

The people are buoyed by the turn of events in their favor but know it will be a long time before their jurisdictional and social problems are resolved, according to Tshakapesh.

"I think our people are overwhelmed that the premier has come to make up his mind and say, `OK, maybe we have something here that we have to sign with the Innu people'," he said.

MacLennan mentioned many logistical problems in dealing with more than one government, and says sorting out such things as compensation for those who will be affected by redrawn boundaries and surveying a remote territory without roads will not happen quickly.

Nevertheless, Tshakapesh says control over education programs and policing "is self-government to us." He attributes the new willingness to negotiate with the Innu at least partly to media pressure put on the Newfoundland government as a result of Innu suicides especially, for which the Innu hold the government accountable. According to Tshakapesh, there were approximately 18 to 20 suicides among his people in the month preceding Dec.16, but this is not being reported to the public. He mentions Survival International's report (Canada's Tibet--the killing of the Innu, released Nov. 8) as helping to bring their plight before the world and focus public attention on Newfoundland's and Canada's roles in oppressing the Innu.

Sheshatshiu and Utshimassits are the only permanent Innu settlements in Labrador. Nine other communities in the Innu territory of Nitassinan lie within Quebec and are not parties to the agreement. According to Nancy Nuna, Sheshatshiu may have 1,800 residents, although government spokesmen estimated 1,100. Utshimassits has about 600.

"If we have our own police system and justice system," says Tshakapesh, "we know how to deal with the people. The white system that we have today, it's not working for our people."
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Author:Black, Joan
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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