HAPPY VALLEY-GOOSE BAY, N.L. _ The NunatuKavut community in southern Labrador is entering into historic talks with the Canadian government, as Ottawa moves to formally recognize the Inuit group.
Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut Community Council, and Carolyn Bennett, the federal minister responsible for Crown-Indigenous relations, announced Thursday the start of formal discussions around Indigenous rights and self-determination.
An emotional Russell addressed community members and politicians in central Labrador, saying the recognition of NunatuKavut rights is the most significant announcement from the Crown since the British-Inuit Treaty was signed in 1765.
“Our land and rights have not been respected for many years, but today is a new beginning,” he said.
“It means that we will give expression to the way we want to govern in our own land, something we have been fighting for for many, many years.”
The NunatuKavut Community Council represents about 6,000 Inuit in southern Labrador.
It has been trying to negotiate a land claim with Ottawa for decades.
The ongoing discussions will address questions of governance and NunatuKavut’s land and resource interests in Labrador.
Bennett said it was an “amazing honour” to make the announcement on behalf of the federal government, noting that her most recent visit to Happy Valley-Goose Bay was last November, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized to survivors of Newfoundland and Labrador’s residential schools.
Bennett said talks would take a “collaborative approach” between partners. She said priorities brought forward by the NunatuKavut Community Council will be first on the agenda as discussions commence.
“Our goal is to develop a joint mandate,” said Bennett. “We will be sitting down with a blank sheet of paper.”
Bennett and Russell did not discuss details, but in his opening remarks, Russell discussed the potential for more decision-making power, greater ability to deliver health care and education, and a stronger voice in the development of government projects on NunatuKavut land.
Russell said there is no set timeline for the discussions, but he said he hopes the collaborative approach will be more fruitful than following the rigid structure of land claim processes in the past.
Russell said talks will be structured with “liaisons in almost every community” to ensure that community members are involved.
Bennett said the federal government is aware there are overlapping Indigenous interests in the area.
“Obviously, we are very keen to work with other Indigenous groups in Labrador,” Bennett said.
The Innu Nation later issued a statement, saying the Innu were not consulted about Thursday’s announcement.
“The Innu Nation has a 30-year ongoing land claim with Canada and are concerned what impact this will have on their negotiations,” the statement says.
_ By Holly McKenzie-Sutter in St. John’s, N.L.