Essays give important information on life, history of Labrador Inuit

Robin McGrath
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Settlement, Subsistence and Change

among the Labrador Inuit:

The Nunatsiavummiut Experience

Editors David C. Natcher, Lawrence Felt

and Andrea Procter

University of Manitoba Press

$27.95; 286 pages


There have been a lot of changes in the political and social face of Labrador in the last 30 years or so.

“Settlement, Subsistence and Change among the Labrador Inuit” is an anthology of essays edited by David Natcher,

Larry Felt and Andrea Proctor, intended to track that change, particularly that brought about by the land claims negotiations that resulted in the establishment of the Nunatsiavut government.

As described by the editors, the book represents “a multidisciplinary exposition of Inuit history, culture and economy” from the perspective of “anthropology, archeology, sociology, biology, environmental studies and geography.”

Twenty six authors contributed to the 12 sections in this book, so I felt safe, for once, in starting at the middle and working my way randomly though the various parts of the collection.

I received the book just as I returned from a visit to Sandwich Bay, where I stayed a gunshot away from the historical Inuit Métis house at North River, so I began with the essay by archeologists Lisa Rankin, Matthew Beaudoin and Natalie Brewster: “Southern Exposure: The Inuit of Sandwich Bay, Labrador.”

Although it is known that Inuit travelled and traded with Europeans in Southern Labrador from the 1500s on, there has long been an argument about whether those Inuit who made contact with Basque, French and English fishers were seasonally in the area to trade or pilfer from the Europeans, or if they were longtime sojourners or permanent nomadic harvesters in the region.

What is certain is that by the 18th century, most Southern Inuit had been forced by violence or lured by trade northward to the Moravian mission areas.

Sandwich Bay is considered to be “outside the core Inuit settlement zone,” which limits the rights the Métis of that area have with regard to land claims. However, if they were traditional users of the area prior to Europeanization, they have every reason to expect their aboriginal rights within the area to be honoured.

According to the authors of this essay, recent archeological findings strongly suggest that Inuit and Inuit Métis families had a “significant presence in the Sandwich Bay region since the early seventeenth century and prior to European settlement.”  

Such findings could have significant ramifications for people who now refer to themselves as NunatuKavummiut with regard to the hunting, fishing and mineral rights of the area.

In other words, when Todd Russell

complains that the Newfoundland and Labrador government is trampling the aboriginal rights of the people he represents, he’s right — they are.

It’s interesting that Susan Kaplan identifies the ability of Inuit to adapt to change by “maintaining a diversity of skills” as well as mental and social flexibility as “the defining characteristics of the Labrador Inuit.”

I’ve always thought that diversity of skills, and a refusal to specialize, is what made Newfoundlanders unique in the Canadian mosaic.

Peter Whitridge explores how different the Labrador sub-arctic landscape must have seemed to the Thule Inuit who migrated south from Baffin, every bit as different as it was for the Europeans coming from the east mere decades later.  

Pete Evans examines the effect Confederation had on the Inuit of Labrador and quotes Adrian Taner as saying that “Labrador Inuit probably lost most in the Confederation process because they had more autonomy to lose.”

Evans’ version of the post-Confederation health and welfare of the Inuit certain supports Tanner’s claim. While Inuit who migrated into Labrador of their own free will managed extraordinarily well, Inuit who were resettled south from Nutak and Hebron did not flourish.

Maura Hanrahan’s essay on Inuit nutritional literature points out that while Inuit occasionally suffered starvation in the contact era, they did not suffer from malnutrition, unlike settlers to Newfoundland.

If they had sufficient food they had

a good diet, while today, when nobody starves, plenty of Inuit have poor health due to dental caries, diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases.

It is ironic that an essay by Larry Felt and 12 others on wildlife harvest argues that “subsistence provisioning remains an important strategy of household and community survival” in Labrador.

Hunting and distributing wild meat and fish is an important social practice. Members of my own household do not hunt but are the recipients of a lot of wonderful country food because the children of our aboriginal friends won’t eat it.

The essay on climate change in Hopedale, by a team from the University of Guelph, has particular resonance.

Apparently local residents identified changes in sea ice formation as their most significant concern. Subsequent to the study, one of the most experienced and knowledgeable hunters in Hopedale drowned when his Ski-Doo broke through harbour ice that he had judged to be solid.

Other pieces in the book cover land use planning, the impact of uranium mining on communities, the politics of wildlife harvesting, the position of elders in aboriginal government, and ethnic membership in Nunatsiavut.      

Some of the material in these essays, such as that on methodology, is pretty dry reading for the layman and the styles are often academic and dense. For example, Peter Whitridge uses the word “imaginaries” as a noun but does not define it. However, you can generally puzzle through what the gist of the argument is.

“Settlement, Subsistence and Change” contains a great deal of important information.

It is to be hoped that writers who straddle the divide between academic and popular publications will make this information more accessible to the general reading public in years to come.


Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is “The Birchy Maid.”  Her column returns Oct. 2.

Organizations: Manitoba Press, University of Guelph, Ski-Doo

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Sandwich Bay, Nunatsiavut North River Southern Exposure Southern Labrador Hopedale Baffin Nutak Hebron Goose Bay

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Recent comments

    September 08, 2013 - 21:50

    "because the children of our aboriginal friends won’t eat it" - this is in Goose Bay, what do you expect, Mary Brown & A&W? Life was semi-nomatic, but intentional; consider how many of us who now live a similar (but now mostly unsustainable) life in two to three locations, home, condo, cottage/cabin. “If we consider what we know of resource procurement and settlement among northern foragers, particularly those of the study area, it becomes apparent that terms such as “permanent” need to be qualified at best, if used at all. The hunting, fishing, and gathering way of life was not characterized by chance encounters with resources but involved a good deal of prior environmental knowledge, planning, and calculation (Tanner 1979). If Southern Labrador, and portions of Northern Newfoundland were not home to Inuit, they would not have remained in the area and participated in conflicts throughout the 16 and 17 centurys and there would be no motivation for Gov. Palliser to produce a treaty for the Crown in the first place.

  • Aunt Birdie
    September 07, 2013 - 13:36

    forced by violence or lured by trade northward to the Moravian mission areas - it is a little more to it than that, Hugh Pallister used the Moravian church to draw the Inuit Northward. The Moravians used the British to gain a foothold in Labrador to carry out it's mission. Education and healthcare kept Inuit from rejecting Christianity and gave them what the Newfoundland government could not. The Moravians would only accept full breed Inuit, no Metis allowed. They did not want the corrupting mixed influence to taint "their Inuit". Trade missions south were discouraged. Pilfer is what modern Canadians do on private worksites. Stealing. Inuit were for the most part salvaging, foraging, from public commons, but preferred trade, as Ramah Bay chert was exported beyond the current USA border. This piece is a factual, informative and a refreshing change from spinning our wheels without the traction of history to let us get where we are going. From Fort York, to Fort Trial, Inuit and British have a great history of cooperation, despite many misunderstandings. Many British-Inuit Metis are living in Newfoundland and beyond, apolitically hoping for unity within Labrador before she is further ravishedby miners and our own crown corporations. History, solidarity and discourse are the way.