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Sorrow in Sheshatshiu: the Innu of Labrador.

There's an old joke about Canada that goes something like this. An American, an English person, a French person, and a Canadian were asked to write an essay on The Elephant. The American wrote about whether the international conspiracy between elephants required military intervention; the English person wrote about the elephant and little dogs; the French person's essay was about the love life of the elephant, and the title of the Canadian's essay was "The Elephant, a Federal or a Provincial Problem?"

Much of the focus of this column over the past issues has been to try to give some sense to the complicated historical and legal reality of matters pertaining to Aboriginal law in this country. In the past, I have pointed out how Canada was pretty much fully settled with Aboriginal people before European contact and how our relationship with those aboriginal inhabitants has been affected by almost 500 years of shared history as Canada moved along to its present reality. And that's where the Canada joke comes in. Part of our shared history is the split between federal and provincial responsibility. Canadians are forever arguing about who is responsible for this or that issue, and the Innu at Sheshatshiu and Davis Inlet are a vivid and shameful example of that old Canadian custom of falling between the cracks.

A little bit of history first, with the usual apologies to the people who really know the history involved; it's hard to cram 8,000 years into a few paragraphs. The Innu are not Innuit (the people that we used to call Eskimo); they are caribou hunting Indians that we used to call the Montagnais. All told there are about 16,000 Innu spread throughout eastern Quebec and Labrador. Approximately 1,600 Innu live in the two communities on the east coast of Labrador that have been (sadly) so often in the news recently, Davis Inlet and Sheshatshiu. Up until relatively modern times, there hadn't been a lot of colonization pressure on northeast Quebec and Labrador and the Innu could at least attempt to pursue a traditional life, although of course they suffered immensely with the usual burdens of smallpox, tuberculosis, and residential schools. In the last 50 years, however, modern society has come calling and with a vengence. Huge power projects in Quebec and Labrador, iron ore mines at Schefferville and Labrador City, the Goose Bay air training base, and the Voisey's Bay ore deposits have obligated the Innu to acclimatize to modern life in one or two generations, and without a lot of support.

You see, Newfoundland and Labrador didn't join Confederation until 1949. Until that time, Indian affairs in Newfoundland hadn't been a huge preoccupation. The Beothuk Indians who occupied the island of Newfoundland had been wiped out (some say actually hunted to extinction by the colonists -- but that's another sad story) and the Innu were pretty much ignored in Labrador. When Newfoundland joined Confederation, Indian Affairs were exempted out of federal responsibility and kept by the Province of Newfoundland who needless to say didn't have a lot of time and money for them. And this is where the Innu fell through the cracks. As late as last year, the federal Minister of Indian Affairs, Robert Nault had to apologise because although his department was in negotiations with the Innu for Indian status, he didn't know that they weren't Inuit and got it mixed up in statements.

The federal government has finally (November 1999) agreed to grant status as Indians to the Innu of Labrador, making them eligible for limited health, educational, and welfare benefits, but they don't have a reserve. They have legitimate land claims as the legal occupants of at least some of the lands, and the same needs as any modern community for a recognized legal, governmental, and economic base for their community, but land claims settlements have been stalled for years. This sort of thing is not unknown in Canada. Land claims were not settled historically in British Columbia and that province is struggling to put those deals together at this late date. Isolated bands in other parts of Canada (for example, the Lubicon Cree in Alberta) are having similar struggles obtaining status and finalizing the land claims that will result in them obtaining jurisdiction over the lands and resources that will give them the economic and political base for their population.

And there are things that can be done. The Innu have legitimate land claims to some valuable economic resources that we mentioned above like hydroelectric potential and mineral deposits. Even the NATO air training facility at Goose Bay that has supersonic jets zooming all over the Innu hunting territory at low level, scaring the animals, generates between 1.2 and 1.4 billion dollars worth of revenue in local economies. Any responsible level of local government would want to participate in these economic opportunities including employment for their citizens and a reasonable tax base for the funding of the usual sorts of public works and services.

In historical times, the Innu had viable ways of making a living and keeping society together by utilizing the traditional economy which was based on the resources of their lands (then, hunting and trading with neighbors). In the twenty-first century, they are owed the opportunity to make a modern living out of the resources that the modern economy uses (hydro-electric potential, mineral resources, shipping, and air bases). Until these legitimate claims are resolved, we are going to be reminded of our failure by shockingly sad news items about gas sniffing and suicide rates. The situation is serious and a serious international embarassment. A British human rights organization recently published a book entitled "Canada's Tibet, The Killing of the Innu". I personally get a little steamed when some smarty pants Eurodogooder sticks their nose into our business. However, in this case the problem is real and won't go away until we resolve Innu claims and start to address their problems by getting them plugged in to the modern economy and decently set up to be self sustaining.
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Author:Fenwick, Fred R.
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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