Labrador: The Inuit Experience

The Coast of Labrador is the eastern section of the great Ungava-Quebec Peninsula which it shares with its wealthy neighbor, the Province of Quebec. Politically, it is part of the Province of Newfoundland which it shares with the Island of Newfoundland to the south. Labrador’s climate is much like Alaska’s: temperate on the coasts, but with a lot more fog, and frigid in the interior where winters reach -40 degrees. Labrador embraces 112,826 square miles of land, of which 10,195 square miles is covered by fresh water.

In 986, Bjarni Herjolfsson was on his way from Norway to Greenland when he was blown off his course by a storm. He ran into the coast of Labrador, making him the first European to visit the North American Continent. This discovery led Leif Ericsson to organize several expeditions from Greenland about 1000 A.D. The settlers wintered over and became acquainted with the Inuit people who had quietly occupied Labrador in 1900 B.C. and who had been living off the land those twenty-nine hundred years.

Labrador was again visited by the Genoese-Venetian navigator John Cabot in the early part of the 16th Century and then by Jacques Cartier who called it “the land God gave Cain.” In spite of these feelings, he claimed the land for France. During the first quarter of that century, the waters off Labrador were fished by French, Basque, English and Portuguese adventurers. Then, with the Treaty of Utrech, title was passed to England.

In 1699, Parliament decreed that Labrador-Newfoundland was to be exploited as a mother-country industry rather than as a colony. As a result, the area was managed for 150 years as a private fiefdom by commercial fishing interests under the rule of fishing captains. The waters of Newfoundland and Labrador did more than supply Britain with income. They also served as a nursery for the seamen who were to establish Britain’s maritime supremacy. Possession of the fisheries was an important element in the European balance of power.

In the 1770s and 80s, the Moravian Mission established permanent stations at Nain (1771), Okak (1776), and Hopedale (1782). Mission communities were later established at Hebron (1831) and Makkovik (1896). In the mid-nineteenth century, the Hudson Bay Company maintained a trading post at Postville and Rigolet.

These communities gradually became the centers for religious, social, and trade activities, but a sedentary resident population did not develop. There were (and there remains) no alternatives to a subsistence economy based on hunting, fishing, and trapping. This meant that different sites, closer to seasonal hunting grounds, were occupied as they had been prior to the coming of the Europeans. Even today, villages are but stopping-off points in the yearly round of seasonal activities which cover huge areas of land and sea.

The residents of Newfoundland to the south never had much use for Labrador. They were a sea-going people and the beauty of the barrens and tundra was completely lost on them. As late as 1949, when the two territories joined the Dominion of Canada, the interior of Labrador had never been explored or mapped except by the Native residents.

The Labrador fishery was the most dangerous of the Newfoundland fishing grounds and the least profitable. Part time settlers called “stationers” sailed to Labrador in the summer and lived in summer homes they erected on the islands off the coast. There were other newcomers who made Labrador their permanent home, “liveyers” who came from the British Isles along with a few others from Newfoundland and elsewhere. They were the ancestors of today’s “native settlers.” some of them found jobs with the Hudson Bay Company or other trading outfits or set themselves up as trappers. For the most part, these men and women settled in the wooded bays between Makkovik and Hopedale. A few other families settled further to the north, as far as the tree line at Napartok Bay. They settled along side the Inuit and adopted their subsistence economy and lifestyle. They learned Inuit techniques of harvesting renewable resources which they enriched with more European values of seasonal resource management. Eventually, they became almost indistinguishable from the aboriginal population and usually were of mixed blood.

The Labrador Boundary Dispute

When England took over the property, Labrador was assigned to Newfoundland as a coastal fishery “to the height of the land from which the rivers flow.” This was not very clear, but for a long time nobody seemed to mind, and both Quebec and Newfoundland settled into Labrador quite comfortably. Quebec had been assigned the responsibility of administering the territory, but as the later controversy was to reveal, neither government made any attempt to do so.

When Canada became a Dominion in 1880, Newfoundland opted to be left out. Both Newfoundland and Quebec claimed Labrador at this point but not much happened until the early 1900s when Newfoundland began issuing timber permits in the interior of Labrador and the issue began heating up. Quebec took the case to court in 1902 where it was bounded around until a decision was finally reached in 1927. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of England awarded the huge inland region to Newfoundland and established the present borders between Labrador and Quebec, a judgment which the Province of Quebec does not recognize to this day. The issue again became white hot in 1949 when Newfoundland was negotiating to become part of the Dominion. Quebec was demanding that transfer of Labrador to Quebec be a condition of union, and the leader of the Newfoundland negotiating team, Joey Smallwood, reacted by calling Duplessis “Hitler marching on the Sudentenland.”

As strongly as the Newfoundlanders felt about the boundary issue, they had little use for Labrador and couldn’t wait to get rid of it. during the Depression and the 30s they tried to sell it several times, first to Canada and then to a group of businessmen. All these attempts to sell what they regarded as surplus and worthless property failed. the government devised a new plan: Labrador was to be developed, not to benefit the people of Labrador, but for the benefit of Newfoundland.

The Problem of Native Welfare

Part of this policy was to keep welfare and administrative costs in Labrador as low as possible. Until union with the Dominion, the easiest way of handling that was to farm out social services to the missions: the Moravians got the Eskimos, the Catholics got the Montagnais Indians, and the Anglicans got the stationers.

The influence of the Moravian church on the lives of the Inuit had been considerable. In the face of the highly commercial European operations over centuries, the Moravians have been credited with saving Inuit culture from complete extinction in Labrador. They had arrived from Greenland already fluent in the Inuit language. They developed an Inuit phonetic script, opened trading posts, and encouraged European habits of thrift and hard work. When a smallpox epidemic in the early 1800s wiped out most of the southern Inuit settlements, they moved them north to avoid further contact with the whites. With the exception of the Greenlanders, the Labrador Inuit were perhaps provided better educational and medical services than any other Inuit group in the Arctic. They tended to be better off than Labrador’s white population.

In 1892, Doctor Wilfred Grenfell, called the Albert Schweitzer of his time, founded the International Grenfell Association to provide medical services for Labrador fishermen. A medical center in St. Anthony’s, Newfoundland, and hospital ships were provided to do this. The Association also came to run an orphanage and boarding schools for Labrador children, carry the mail to remote areas, administer justice, and set up the famous Labrador cooperatives. It developed literacy programs, adult education classes, and small industries. Clarence Birdseye was managing one of these, a fox farm in Labrador, when he discovered the value of quick-freezing as a means of preserving foods, a trick long known to the Inuit.

The financing of these enterprises came from charitable organizations in England and America. some Newfoundlanders were embarrassed that Labrador and even remote parts of Newfoundland were being administered as an international charity, but they didn’t let it bother them.

In 1942 as a part of the “war effort”, the U.S. constructed an air base at Goose Bay, the first major project in the Labrador interior and which had a major impact on Inuit life there. Radar bases were set up on the coast at Nain, Hopedale, and Makkovik. Local people flocked to these communities for work. The town of Northwest River and suburban Happy Valley serving the Goose Bay military personnel became the largest community in Labrador. When the U.S. closed the base in 1975, 500 jobs were lost. The military base not only gave the Inuit their first taste of labor wages, it also introduced them to the products of industrial society: processed foods, taverns, and houses with central heating. Because of the new air transportation made available by the airport, exploration of the rest of the interior became possible and the stage was set for the invasion of Labrador by the multi-national corporations seeking minerals and fuel.

The second major event to change life in Labrador came with the Treaty of Union which brought Newfoundland and Labrador into Canada in 1949. The Canadian social welfare system and transfer of tax money to the Province enabled Newfoundland to set up a welfare bureaucracy. Although skimpy by Canadian standards, its impact on the native population was tremendous. One thing that stands out in the history of the Labrador Inuit is the absence of the federal government. Back in 1942, the Hudson’s Bay Company closed down their operations with a loss for several years. The government took over the posts and operated them as welfare offices aimed to rehabilitating the Eskimos.

During the negotiations for union, the Newfoundland government refused to hand over its native population for federal administration on the grounds that nearly everyone in Labrador had some Native blood. No treaties had ever been signed with the Natives who had the same civil rights as all other Newfoundlanders (or, so it was claimed). Canada did undertake to pay the costs of Native health services and to discharge at least that responsibility.

During the mid-50s, the Inuit of the north experienced a decline of the seal population and faced starvation. The government relocated the two northernmost communities of Nutak and Hebron and the residents moved to Nain, Hopedale, Makkovik, and Northwest River. The social upheaval and crowding caused by that event are still present. These communities look like government-sponsored housing projects.

Resource Exploitation

Native welfare was one problem faced by the new Provincial government. The other was how to profit as extensively as possible from the resources Labrador had to offer.

In the 1900s, surveyors discovered that Labrador had the largest deposits of iron ore in North America after the Mesabi Range of Minnesota. In 1937, Jules Timmins bought the Labrador Mining and Exploration Company with its mineral rights to 24,000 square miles in the interior. When a worldwide iron ore shortage developed in the 40s, Timmins persuaded the five largest American steel companies to form the Iron Ore Company of Canada. The Knob Hill Mine at Schefferville began operations in 1955 and by 1960 was supplying Canada with 60 percent of its iron ore. by 1960, Schefferville had a population of 5,000, mostly from central Canada. The total population of Labrador at the time was 15,000. Slightly over 900 Indian and Inuit Natives were employed at the mine.

The operation was a bad omen for Newfoundland. The raw iron ore was shipped out Labrador’s back door on a railway through Quebec Province to Sept-Isles where it was loaded on ships to be sent to Pittsburgh for processing. The $150 million railway timber and other mineral resources through Quebec ports, not Labrador-Newfoundland ones. The Labrador interior was locked into a Quebec-controlled system. Most of the goods and services are distributed throughout the area from Montreal. Many Labrador communities are now French-speaking. Whether intentionally or by coincidence, Quebec had established control over what the Privy Council had given away in 1927.

Because the royalty agreements had been made before the war, the mine brought little cash and virtually no employment to Newfoundlanders. Undaunted, they waited for new opportunities.

Their chance came in 1952 when the Iron Ore Company of Canada returned a 2,4000-square mile concession to Newfoundland as part of an agreement. It was a rich deposit containing $2 billion worth of iron ore, the Wabash mining field. The government hired a swashbuckling smalltime operator to develop the field, John Doyle, who was characterized as Cecil Rhodes as played by Errol Flynn. He was small enough that the government felt he could be controlled in his dealings with the conglomerates. The project was fraught with danger. While the Canadian company had built their $150 million railroad with comparative ease, the $16.5 million bond issue Newfoundland had backed to build a spur to Wabash threatened the entire Province with bankruptcy if the new company failed. Worse, Doyle could not find markets for his ore which would be needed as collateral in rising money. The U.S. steel manufacturers were not about to help anyone break their cartel.

The breakthrough came in 1956 when Doyle sold out to a group of U.S., Canadian, and European steel producers. The purchase agreement gave Newfoundland royalties of 223 cents a ton, the highest in Canada. Over 4,000 jobs were created by the $235 million project. Labrador City servicing the mine became the largest community in Labrador.

During the same period, Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood began drumming up support for a hydroelectric project on the Hamilton River which promised to produce 5.2 million kilowatts a day. he went to England looking for investors and got the support of Winston Churchill who prophetically called the project “a great imperial concept.” The project was named Churchill Falls after its patron. But in the end, the only benefit Newfoundland received from the project was the privilege of giving it the name.

Among the companies that Smallwood signed up were Rio Tinto, the House of Rothschild, the Anglo-American Company of South Africa, and the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Corporation. The British Newfoundland Corporation (Brinco) was formed in 1953 to carry out the project and within a year 22 other companies, mostly North American, joined the project.

Needless to point out, Newfoundland found itself way over its head in this sea of corporation giants, any one of which could have afforded to buy Newfoundland and Labrador outright. Newfoundland had granted incentives that were indeed imperial: 60,000 square miles of mineral rights, 1500 square miles of prime spruce forest, generous tax concessions, and power marketing rights to all of Labrador and half of Newfoundland. After three years of negotiations, the project emerged as the property of Hydro-Quebec, Quebec’s government-owned hydroelectric company, the largest in the world. Nearly all the 5.2 million kilowatts would be sold to the State of New York. The power plant itself as virtually the private possession of Hydro-Quebec.

The failure of Churchill Falls to provide the much-eluded prosperity disappointed the people of Newfoundland so much that they turned Smallwood out of office. The major theme of the succeeding government under Frank Moores has been to recapture higher returned from resource development. It has yet to be seen if the Moores government has the adroitness and power necessary to deal with Ottawa, Quebec, and the multi-nationals in regaining this control.

For a while, plans were laid to construct a Lower Churchill hydro-project as a way to recoup losses, but the same familiar problems emerged and plans have been postponed indefinitely. It seems that there is not way for the Province to engage in such a large-scale project — for which it does not have the capital — without giving away the land and the resources.

For the first time ever, when plans for the Lower Churchill were being discussed, there was a public outcry against the environmental damage that would be caused by the project. The fact that there were not environmental impact statements prepared or any public hearings on any of these projects speaks loudly about corporate, Canadian, and Newfoundland attitudes toward Labrador.

Offshore Oil Exploration

Another prospect is the development of offshore oil reserves on the coast of Labrador where oil exploration has been going on since 1966. This has been a grave concern to the Inuit as they feel that current government policies, over which they have no control, are lacking in environmental safeguards and are too lenient. The oil and danger of blowouts pose a serious threat to land and sea resources, especially the fisheries which are the main source of income for people living on the coast.

The oil companies have spent only $200,000 on environmental studies in contrast to the $250 million spent on exploration (In the Beaufort Sea where risks are much lower, companies have been required to spend $12 million in 30 different environmental studies.). The people of Labrador have also protested the lack of production plans. There are indications, for example, that a gas pipeline is being prepared to bring gas ashore at Makkovik, making that village a target for development impact. Yet the people are being kept in the dark about it.

In Labrador to date, the major drilling operators have been Eastcan Exploration and British Petroleum. There has been no oil discovered in the 10 completed well, but condensate gas was found in three wells, a remarkable success rate for wildcat drilling. Eastcan is a consortium of seven companies including Eastcan Exploration with 28 and one third percent of the interest; Total L’Enard Inc., five percent; American Minerals Canada, 16 and two thirds percent; Aquitaine Co. of Canada Ltd., 13 and one third percent; Agip Canada, ten percent; and Sunoco Exploration and Production Ltd., ten percent. British Petroleum has a 60 percent interest in its operations and is joined by Columbia Gas, Chevron Standard and Gulf Oil. Independently exploring the same region are Imperial (Exxon), Texaco, Shell, Gulf, and Aquitaine.

In 1976 representatives of the Baffin Region Inuit Association (BRIA) and government officials met to pass several resolutions collectively called the “Pangnirtung Resolution.” One of these stated that no further seismic work be carried out in that area until environmental studies on sea mammals are undertaken. The area in question includes Baffin Bay, Davis Straight, and Lancaster Sound, said to be the richest body of marine life in the world.

In July, 1976, the government responded to the resolution by proposing a $13 million comprehensive environmental study which would be undertaken before drilling could begin. Out of this total, $1.5 million would be spent in pure biological research off the coast of Labrador. One of Canada’s foremost biologists examined the program for BRIA and remarked that while the study was a good start, it was really a “pygmy proposal” in comparison to what the resources called for. In light of this, BRIA called for a five-year moratorium on any further exploration for gas and oil, a modest request in the background of the North Sea blowout and the Justice Berger Inquiry recommendation of a ten-year moratorium in the Mackenzie area.

In Labrador, there is also a jurisdictional dispute going on regarding offshore development. Traditionally, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) has jurisdiction north of 60 degrees latitude and the Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources south of that latitude. Energy, Mines, and Resources is strongly pro-development. Newfoundland is contending that it has sole jurisdiction to regulate offshore gas and oil development and is preparing legislation to guarantee that jurisdiction.

Canada recently set up an environmental impact review board called the Environmental Assessment Review Panel (EARP) which is administered by the Department of Fisheries and Environment. EARP is essentially a bureaucratic process designed to protect government and industry officials rather than control them and is fraught with weakness. There is the possibility, however, that the Inuit would be able to build it into an extensive and far-reaching forum for airing views on specific projects. Otherwise, EARP contains all the ingredients of another bureaucratic nightmare.

Labrador Inuit Land Claims

On August 8, 1973, the Government of Canada announced that it as ready to negotiate with the Native peoples on the basis that where their traditional interests in land, variously known as “aboriginal title,” “original title,” or “Inuit title”, could be established, an agreed form of compensation would be provided to the Natives in return for that interest.

On September 15, 1975, the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) representing the 2,500 Inuit of Labrador, entered into contract with the Minister of DIAND which was charged with the research into Native land claims. The LIA agreed to provide documentation to its claims. They presented a detailed study of land use and occupancy which was gathered mainly through house-to-house interviews conducted between September 1975 and September 1976. Among those interviewed were hunters who were asked to outline on maps the areas in which they had hunted, trapped, and fished within various given time periods selected for each community.

The most striking feature of these maps is the extraordinary wide-ranging distances covered and the variety of species of animals found in the different locales. The maps detail the huge areas occupied for subsistence use. Accompanying these maps are essays which detail the ecology, habitats, and movements of the wildlife.

The case was made for the protection of these subsistence resources. “for it is out in the country and on the sea that people lead their lives. A continuing use of land and sea resources is as important in the present as it was in the past, back to the pre-settlement period.

“The areas where species are seasonally plentiful are known, as are the behavior, habits, and fluctuations in migration or population size over time. This knowledge of wildlife and habitat constitutes a coherent system of land use that has continued since the first people occupied Labrador, and will continue in the future as the present communities increase in size and develop economically. What is abundantly clear, and must be stressed time and again, is that this land use system is still viable and as relevant today as in the past.

… And so in a very real sense our moral and political claim is to the right to continue to live lives which have sustained us in the past and which we believe will be meaningful and coherent for our children.”

The legal basis of the Inuit claim utilizes the concept of the “lex loci” (customary law of the place), or the “common law” of the Inuit, which predates and “survives” the assertion of territorial sovereignty by the Crown. As a matter of law, the traditional Inuit common law can be abrogated only with the consent of the Inuit or by the Parliament of Canada. Inuit common law exercised jurisdiction over not only property, marriages, adoptions, and fish and game management, but also over land use and management. It is on the basis of this traditional jurisdiction over the land that they claim their aboriginal rights to the land, sea, and sea-ice on which they have lived and hunted. The Inuit stress they are not asking for privileges not enjoyed by other Canadians but merely the continuation of rights and jurisdiction they have always exercised.

The LIA also makes claims in behalf of the “native settlers” who have shared their subsistence lifestyle for so long. Although only aboriginal people can claim aboriginal rights, the native settlers have exercised jurisdiction over vast regions of Labrador under the provisions of Inuit common law.

It can be said that the present problems of the Labrador Inuit are shared with the other residents of Labrador: alienation from the central government as well as the provincial government, lack of adequate educational opportunities, unemployment and under-employment, and domination by large institutions, mainly the extractive industries. Coastal Labrador, mostly native, is facing a period of severe decline and is receiving little aid from Newfoundland. These communities find themselves in competition with the technological elite of the interior communities of western Labrador, mostly French-speaking. As in Alaska, outsiders to to Labrador to get rich quick, but their commitment and money go to other parts of Canada. This large number of transient workers merely intensifies the lack of community spirit and the absence of self-government. The larger towns of Labrador are run as company fiefs with all the services and even city administration in the hands of the company, making it virtually impossible for the unions to strike. for these and other reasons, the people of Labrador have lacked strong political traditions.

Recently, however, they have moved beyond this deference to authority. A new populist party, the new Labrador Party, has been formed which is challenging the concentration of power in St. John’s in Newfoundland and seeking a “new status” for Labrador. The gradual development of school boards, municipal government, and trade unions is creating a local leadership class. In the last few years they have been complaining loudly that the territory is being milked through royalties, crown land leases, and taxes that provide social services to the Island, while the level of those services remain unacceptably low in Labrador.

Along with the Inuit and the other Labrador Natives, the other residents of Labrador are finding out that control over their own lives goes hand in hand with strong local government and control of their economic resources.

(Iglulik Eskimo woman)
(A song that would always send the shaman Uvavnuk into a trance.)
The great sea stirs me.
The great sea sets me adrift,
it sways me like the weed
on a river-stone.
The sky’s height stirs me.
The strong wind blows through my mind.
It carries me with it,
so I shake with joy.
(Copper Eskimo man, Ellis River, Queen Maud’s Sea)
Fear hung over me.
I dared not try
to hold out in my hut.
Hungry and chilled,
I stumbled inland,
tripping, falling constantly.
At Little Musk Ox Lake
the trout made fun of me;
they wouldn’t bite.
On I crawled,
and reached the Young Man’s River
where I caught salmon once.
I prayed
for fish or reindeer
swimming in the lake.
My thought
reeled into nothingness,
like run-out fish-line.
Would I ever find firm ground?
I staggered on,
muttering spells as I went.