‘We know who we are’: Inuit row raises questions over identity and ancestry

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For centuries, Inuit in Canada have thrived in the sprawling territory known as Inuit Nunangat – the homeland – which stretches from a thin sliver of land in the Yukon territory to northern Labrador, a vast domain more than 3.3m sq km (1.2m sq miles) in size.

“Inuit have long understood where our communities are, who belongs to our communities, and have fought over the last 50 years to create modern treaties that identify these specific homelands,” said Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a group that represents the four main Inuit regions.

But a new group, whose members trace their lineage to Inuit who lived in Labrador and intermarried with colonial settlers, have complicated that narrative.

Related: 'Sea, ice, snow ... it’s all changing': Inuit struggle with warming world

Two years ago, the NunatuKavut community council signed a memorandum of understanding with Canada’s federal government that established their Inuit identity, effectively laying the groundwork for myriad benefits and paving the way for future negotiations over land claims. Controversially, their claimed territory lies outside the borders of Inuit Nunangat.

Canada’s largest Inuit organization has rejected the claims as “fraudulent” and in a recent letter called on the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, to halt all negotiations with the group. The escalating row has raised thorny questions over identity, ancestry – and who speaks for Indigenous peoples.

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The 6,000 members of NCC live in the rocky, coastal region of southern Labrador. While most have lost their connection to the Inuktitut language, they nonetheless claim a strong cultural tie to the region, defined by cultural protocols, an emphasis on kinship ties and a deep connection to the land, said Debbie Martin, a professor at Dalhousie University and a member of the NunatuKavut.

“I’ve studied and tried to understand why our people have never had their rights recognized,” she said, adding that residents have “never wavered in their deep and lasting ancestral ties to the territory”.

[Residents have] never wavered in their deep and lasting ancestral ties to the territory

Debbie Martin

The group’s website chronicles a history of trading, warfare, peace, colonialism and revitalization. “We know who we are and what we’ve accomplished. Our Inuit rights are protected and enshrined in the constitution of Canada. All of us must respect and honour these rights.”

But the two Indigenous groups in the area, the Nunatsiavut government and the Innu Nation, both reject NunatuKavut’s claim.

Obed said his concern was not with any one individual’s claim to Inuit ancestry. Instead, he worried that NunatuKavut identifies as an Inuit collective – even though no other Inuit organization has validated those claims.

“We are quite concerned about the ability for a newly formed collective to then demand rights and compensation and overlapping claims for areas that have been identified Inuit lands under modern treaties,” said Obed, who represents more than 65,000 Inuit in Canada.

Under Canada’s constitution, Indigenous groups have the right to self-govern and enter into negotiations with the federal government over land claims. But Obed fears the government’s recognition of NunatuKavut could weaken the negotiating authority of established Inuit groups.

“[Inuit] have been here throughout and we take it upon ourselves to self-determine who is a part of our community. And that’s why we’ve made the decision to speak publicly about our position on the NCC,” said Obed.

His comments highlight another complicating factor in the feud: there is no formal arbiter in Canada over who is rightfully granted Indigenous status as a collective, and who gets to speak for those groups.

Similar frictions have emerged in in western Canada, where in some communities, band councils and hereditary chiefs have taken contradictory stances over pipeline projects.

Related: Landmark agreement gives indigenous 'forgotten people' power to self-govern

Also at issue is the growing number of people identifying as Métis, and trace their ancestry to both Indigenous people and European settlers in the Prairie region. Some such groups have faced allegations they are appropriating Indigenous identity.

Critics of the NunatuKavut point out that in 2010, it changed its name from the Labrador Métis Council. NunatuKavut, which has been an organization since the 1980s, says the term Métis was used for a lineage of both Indigenous and settler ancestry – but that Inuit now better reflects their membership.

Others remain skeptical.

“What we’re seeing is the phenomenon of non-Indigenous people, or those with a very distant ancestry – from the 1600 and 1700s – now claiming that they now have political rights which prevail over those Indigenous nations,” said Veldon Coburn, a professor in Indigenous studies at the University of Ottawa and member of the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn.

“And they use the idea of ‘Indigenous self-determination’ as a bulwark against any outside criticism. They’ve adopted the rhetoric and so nothing can pierce that shield.”

What we’re seeing is the phenomena of non-Indigenous people, or those with a very distant ancestry … claiming that they now have political rights

Veldon Coburn

Last week, NunatuKavut issued a statement calling Obed’s letter to Trudeau “appalling and repulsive”.

For the community’s members, criticism of the group has prompted frustration that their claims are being cast aside.

“It’s disheartening that ITK would feel as though its mandate is to assess and determine the identity of a collective of Indigenous people located in Labrador,” said Martin. “Their mandate is to advocate for the rights of Inuit to the federal government– not to determine who is Inuit and who is not.”

Martin, who says scholarship by historians and anthropologists supports the NCC claims, sees no reason they should undermine other Inuit rights.

“As someone who has a clear and distinct connection to the territory … [the criticism] feels like a personal attack on my own identity. I would never claim an identity if I didn’t feel comfortable and confident in doing so,” said Martin. “I would love to advance Inuit rights across Canada. But it is difficult to do so when there’s no acknowledgment of my existence.”

For Obed, the row represents a different challenge to existence.

“When governments have made decisions that negatively impact our Indigenous communities, we as Indigenous people are the ones that are often left trying to assert our identity,” he said.

“The federal government has played an arbitrating role in defining Indigenous collectives – something that rightly belongs with First Nations, Inuit and Metis. We are going to have to work with that reality. But we also are going to have to unravel the consequences of that reality for some time.”

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