The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP) is defending the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) against accusations the Labrador group is co-opting Inuit identity to obtain resources, lands and rights.
In a statement released Friday, CAP National Chief Elmer St. Pierre accused Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) President Natan Obed of perpetrating "heartless lateral violence" by circulating an open letter denouncing NunatuKavut as a non-Indigenous organization earlier this week.
"While Canada is striving towards advancing reconciliation, ITK's attacks against NunatuKavut Inuit only work to divide our own people," St. Pierre said in the statement.
But CAP's defence comes as the head of northern Labrador's recognized Inuit treaty organization says he fully endorses Obed's letter.
"NCC has no legitimacy or credibility as an Inuit organization, and its attempts to claim Inuit rights and status are an insult to the true Inuit of Canada," said Johannes Lampe, president of the Nunatsiavut Government, also in a Friday statement.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe met in Nain, N.L., in May for a meeting of the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee, with ITK President Natan Obed in the background. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)
Nunatsiavut represents beneficiaries of the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement, which was federally ratified in 2005. Lampe is on the board of directors of ITK, which advocates for roughly 70,000 Inuit in Canada.
NunatuKavut is affiliated with CAP, not ITK, and represents some 6,000 self-identified Inuit in south and central Labrador. It was known as the Labrador Métis Association and then the Labrador Métis Nation until 2010, when its members began asserting Inuit identity.
The NCC has tried to get its own land claim accepted for negotiations for more than three decades, but the Canadian government rejected the claim on four occasions, according to federal documents filed in court.
CAP was established in 1971 as the Native Council of Canada to represent the interests of Métis and non-status First Nations people. Today, CAP says it represents off-reserve status and non-status First Nations, Métis and southern Inuit.
Dispute has complex history
CAP defended NunatuKavut's integrity in its statement, saying its members have deep cultural roots, ties to their territory and centuries-old traditions. The NCC membership process also affirms Inuit identity, heritage and kinship ties to the community, CAP said.
The friction between Nunatsiavut and NCC has a complex history, dating at least to the ratification of Nunatsiavut's land claim, which NCC leaders, then identifying as Métis, opposed.
In 2004, the only member of the provincial legislature to vote against the agreement was Yvonne Jones, a NunatuKavut member who is now Labrador's Liberal MP in the House of Commons.
"I rise today in this house, not to vote against the Inuit people of Labrador but to vote for the same freedoms and independence for my people, for the same dignity and same respect for the Métis people of Labrador," she said in the legislature.
Despite identifying as Métis previously, NCC maintains its members have always been Inuit and that their Inuit forebears occupied areas south of Nunatsiavut thoroughly enough to establish their rights.
Lampe said in his statement that NunatuKavut has changed identity to suit its political agenda.
"NCC is not only trying to steal from us, but also trying to erase who we are. We must not allow that to happen," he said in the statement.
Allegations called 'lies and innuendo'
NunatuKavut President Todd Russell, a former Liberal member of Parliament, has rejected Obed's allegations as defamatory, disgusting, appalling and ignorant. In a reply statement earlier this week, Russell said the fears about NCC obtaining Inuit-designated resources are manufactured.
"This could not be further from the truth and there is not one shred of evidence to suggest otherwise," Russell said.
"We challenge ITK to produce anything that supports their lies and innuendo."
Russell also assured NCC's members, youth and elders the group would continue pressing for recognition. CAP's St. Pierre echoed the sentiment in his statement.
"President Obed is causing a lot of hurt and pain for NCC members, especially the youth," he said.
"Improving the lives of all Indigenous Peoples will never happen if we're busy fighting amongst ourselves."
Newfoundland and Labrador's court of appeal held in 2007 that NCC has a credible but unproven claim to Indigenous rights, giving rise to the Crown's duty to consult, a ruling the Supreme Court of Canada declined to review.
In 2019, NCC and Crown-Indigenous Relations then-minister Carolyn Bennett signed a memorandum of understanding, which said Canada has recognized NunatuKavut as an Indigenous collective.
The Innu Nation in Labrador, consisting of the First Nations communities of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish, is mounting a court challenge to quash this agreement.
A secret-stamped Aug. 15, 2019 memo, which Canada disclosed in court, shows senior federal officials were troubled by the agreement and warned Bennett's department not to sign before the council's Indigenous rights were confirmed and its rights-bearing members defined.
The Innu are supporting Obed and alleging "partisan politics" factored into NCC's recognition, which Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree has said is not the case.
The Métis National Council and the Manitoba Métis Federation also expressed solidarity with ITK this week.