Inuit group feels land move with Supreme Court decision

Josh Pennell
Published on June 27, 2014

The leader of an aboriginal group in this province says the law of the land has swung in favour of groups like his across the country due to a Supreme Court of Canad ruling on an aboriginal land claim case in British Columbia.

Todd Russell is the president of NunatuKavut — a group comprised of people of Inuit descent in southern Labrador.

He says this week’s Supreme Court of Canada decision to recognize the land claim of the Tsilqot’in Nation in B.C. has repercussions for groups throughout the country, including his own.

“This is huge, this landmark,” says Russell. “It holds great promise for us.”

He isn’t the only person using such language this week. Reporters across the country writing on the case were using such powerhouse terms as “landmark” to describe the decision.

Land claim disputes between aboriginals and governments have long been onerous, partially because major developments need the land to go ahead and because the rules describing if a group has rights to land are often vague.

Eight Supreme Court judges unanimously agreed that the Tsilqot’in Nation has rights to 1,750 square kilometres of land in south-central B.C.

Claiming territory

The argument was made by provincial governments in the past that a group can only claim a territory where there was intensive use, and traditionally nomadic, migratory people had trouble proving this due to the nature of their people’s lifestyle.

This court decision changes that, says Russell.

“The court said no. No. Any area where the people have a traditional use and occupied it for hunting or fishing or gathering berries or medicines or anything of that nature, just like our people have done through large areas of Labrador, that is sufficient.”

There also doesn’t have to be an unbroken line of continuity, he added. People living in generally the same area and still practising some of the traditions of their ancestors now have a stronger land claim argument.

“We know now and we’re more confident than ever that we can meet that continuity test,” Russell says of his own people.

The NunatuKavut people have been looking for an agreement with the federal government over their land claim for decades. They have been met with years of delays and silence.

“At the same time we have these huge developments like lower Churchill and the Labrador-island transmission link going right through our land,” says Russell. “They had no right to give up large tracks of our unceded territory without our consent.”

If this new court decision does indeed lead to a land claims settlement, there could very well be retroactive consequences for those projects already underway on what might be recognized as Nunatu­Kavut land.

Approach government

Russell says he will approach both the federal and provincial governments on the issue, and will do so with unbridled confidence.

“You’d have to be stunned as a stump not to get the message on this stuff,” he says. “It is not the aboriginal people that are a stumbling block to development or to certain projects happening. It is the government themselves who refuse to embrace the direction of the courts.”

The provincial government was a little less certain in its email response when contacted by The Telegram.

“This court decision has no immediate effect on the provincial government’s view of the land claim of NunatuKavut,” the email from the Department of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs reads. “The federal government is responsible for making the initial decision to accept or not accept a land claim for the purposes of negotiation and we are confident it will take the court ruling into consideration. The federal government has not accepted this claim for many years, and we await its decision on the most recent claim documentation from NunatuKavut Community Council.

The email also said the provincial government is reviewing the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision and will assess any implications for the province.

“This is a complex matter and it will take time to evaluate its implication for us,” the email stated.