Life on the Edge: The Inuit of Labrador

 

To most observers, Labrador is that distant stage upon which has been played a quintessentially Canadian tragicomedia. Indeed, there seems something almost farcical in the pitting of NATO's military might against a stubborn band of native hunters; what began as a divergence of views over the environmental impact of low-level training flights has emerged as a profound debate on native rights and the nature of economic development in the North.

Like the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry a dozen years before, the debate over military activity in Labrador has made national headlines and prodded, once again, our collective conscience. Native interests, regional economic disparity, environmental protection-even the state of East-West relations-have been thrown into the fray, for better or for worse.

 But the current controversy, while synthesizing a range of issues under the rubric of militarization, is really only one facet of the cultural change affecting Labrador. Lost in the shuffle to a large extent are the Inuit of the scattered coastal communities in¾ Nain, Hopedale, Postville, Makkovik, and Rigolet-and the land claim negotiations underway between the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA), the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the Government of Canada.

 

This issue of Northern Perspectives introduces the cultural landscape of Labrador through the words of Hugh Brody, whose essay for the 1977 LIA land use and occupancy study, Our Footprints Are Everywhere, provides an enduring and very human glimpse at what Jacques Cartier once called "the land of Cain".

The opening of land claim negotiations last year was a victory of sorts for the Labrador Inuit Association, but it marked, as well, the beginning of a process that most participants agree will continue well into the decade. The challenges facing negotiators on all sides are summed up in the remarks of former LTA president William Andersen III, who stressed that a claim settlement "can ensure our future as a people or...lead to our oppression and possible extinction". Nova Scotia lawyer Veryan Haysom has worked closely with the LIA in developing the Inuit claim position. In this issue, he outlines the framework of the Labrador claim and describes those elements that distinguish it from other claims under active negotiation.

 For the Department of National Defence (DND), low-level flight training and related concerns have fumed into a media firefight. While the department wheels out the "techno-fix"-sophisticated computer programs and communications networks-to assuage the fears of aboriginal residents and environmentalists, there is the sense that the battle for public opinion has already been lost.

 Looking at the issue from the Inuit perspective, LIA adviser Judy Rowell suggests that the initial reluctance of the department to consider environmental impacts and the rights of native Labradorians helped set the stage for the bitter and very public fight which ensued. Liberal MP Bill Rompkey sees himself as caught between a rock and a hard place in attempting to speak for both native peoples and the nonnative urban population. His decision to actively back thé establishment of a NATO flight training centre at Goose Bay has drawn criticism from several quarters. In this interview with Northern Perspectives, Mr. Rompkey defends his decision as the only viable option for a community faced with economic stagnation. The release of the long-awaited Environmental Impact Statement by DND in October touched off a new round of debate. Brig.-Gen. (ret'd) Christopher Young, co-ordinator of the Goose Bay proposal, spoke with Northern Perspectives in December, and refuted charges that military planners have been insensitive to native concerns.

 The remoteness of Inuit communities in northern Labrador places severe constraints on the provision of basic services. Chief among these is health care, a subject examined by Dr Maureen Baikie, who notes that social problems in the region are a "provincial and national disgrace".

Finally, Fred Hall, Managing Director of the Labrador Inuit Development Corporation, explains the organization's role ~n promoting new economic opportunities while, at the same time, working to preserve the traditional l:nd- and sea-based economy upon which Inuit have depended for thousands of years.


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