NunatuKavut president Todd Russell says most people do not have a full understanding of Aboriginal Peoples — not only here but also across Canada.
NunatuKavut, formally the Labrador Métis Nation has offices here in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
Elected last May as president of NunatuKavut, Russell says the battles for recognition and preserving Muskrat Falls has, in some ways, divided his nation. He says many feel that Muskrat Falls should be shut down by protests, while others feel there has to be meaningful talks and accommodation.
Russell says he was surprised by comments made by Grand chief Joseph Riche regarding Muskrat Falls and NunatuKavut.
On Aug. 6 Riche said: “There has never been any recognition of so-called Métis within the rights of Labrador and the land claims that we signed goes back about 30 years.”
Russell said he was surprised and thought the comments came out of the blue.
“They were uncalled for and unwarranted,” Russell said.
“We have sat down at common aboriginal conferences with the Innu and other groups in Labrador. I think a lot of it is politically motivated,” he said.
Russell says the comments also speak to the larger issue of the overwhelming need for the federal government and provincial government to join in negotiations with the Métis around land claims.
Russell said, “not only are talks needed about Muskrat Falls, but around a range of issues such as hunting rights, harvesting issues, mining, forestry and hydro developments.”
“I think what Joseph Riche is saying is that we must have clarity and we must have some certainty on these things and the only way we will get clarity and the certainty is at the negotiating table,” he added.
Russell says the federal government recognizes that NunatuKavut has an asserted land claim regarding Muskrat Falls as well as other parts of Labrador, backed up by the Newfoundland Court of Appeal and by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Russell emphasized that his nation has the only claim in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador that is predicated on aboriginal rights and does an aboriginal group win the only one.
“Based on this, I do believe the federal government does recognize that we do have an asserted and credible claim, whether they choose politically to enter into negotiations is something I cannot answer,” he said.
Right now, Russell says they are in talks with the federal government in the establishment with the Mealy Mountain National Park. He said it is part of a benefit and impact agreement that his Nation is moving towards.
“This is in no doubt a sure sign that the federal government understands the rights and interests in the park area that could be impacted with the damming of Muskrat Falls,” Russell said.
Russell says his nation has been in a battle with the federal government regarding fishing rights in Labrador, as segregation of traditional lands and traditional waters, which he says has been a tactic of the federal government, since the earliest of times.
“What we are trying to do is emphasize with the department is we have to have a holistic agreement, a comprehensive agreement that covers all of our traditional waters as well as our traditional territories,” said Russell.
He hopes that talks with Fisheries and Oceans will bridge the gap as far as fishing in traditional waterways and allow his NunatuKavut people to fish in all areas instead in sections of the lakes and rivers in Labrador.
Russell has been questioning why there is a need to a comprehensive approach to the rights issues regarding land, the waters, if the federal government is going to settle little pockets of claims known as sub-agreements.
“In dealing with Lake Melville, we stepped up exercising our right to fish in the lake this summer. It may not have been as aggressive as some wanted, it may not have been as forceful as some people wanted,” he said. “But I am willing to sit at a table and see if we can arrive at some kind of accommodation.”
Russell says if an agreement cannot be reached, the NunatuKavut people have other options available to continue to assert their rights. He did not say what the other options would be.
Aboriginals and land claims
Russell says when it comes to land claims made by Aboriginal Peoples, most take their time in asserting those rights because most nations have been around mush longer than non-aboriginals, making land claims.
“We have been here along time, we have seen the battles, we have been through them time and time again, yet we have persevered through most of them, but it is unfortunate that the government has not learned its lesson yet,” he said.
Russell says part of the problem is that the government has not come forward and reconciled for the sake of reconciliation. He says he has never seen in the history of Canada a land claims settled because it was the right thing to do.
“Every land claim I have seen in this country was because, either the federal government, provincial government or corporate interests felt that their rights were being violated.”
Russell says that in dealing in land claims, governments have an agenda that it is not about what is right, but to get to their goal of appeasement.
“This is the wrong approach in working with land claims. This is one of the reasons we have trouble even after modern treaties,” he added.
Russell says if people disagree with governments, they try to take things away, such as funding.
“Can you imagine taking the food out of the mouths of those that are hungry? This is basically what they (government) is doing, so your belly aches a little more,” he said. That is exactly what the government tries to do, is to try to beat you into submission, by withholding services, programs.”
He said that the ones who suffer are the elderly because when services are withheld they cannot get the health care they need and the youth cannot take advantage of the education they need.
“So what this does, it re-victimizes the victim and yes the government does use this as a tactic, but your rights are far more important then a dollar,” said Russell.
Death, missing, murdered
Earlier this year Inuit Burton Winters died tragically on the ice after being lost on his snowmobile. There have been numerous protests in Happy Valley-Goose Bay as well as other parts of Canada all asking for an inquiry into the 14-year-old’s death.
For Russell, it is proof that there are serious problems with SAR in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“People have to keep raising their voice, it is such an important issue. The minute that we forget, it will happen again, look mistakes were made and the government has to answer for that,” he said.
Russell, who has spent 18 years in federal politics, says this is the worst example of a government’s unwillingness to live up to its responsibilities.
“I am absolutely certain that if Burton Winters was not aboriginal, living in a remote part of Canada and was living in an area in the south of Canada, dominated by non-aboriginals, there would have been an outcry,” he said.
Russell says that there is systemic racism in certain levels of government, as well as service industries.
Russell said that is also the case of missing and murder aboriginal women, whose totals now have surpassed well over 600.
“It is time for the government to step up and looks at solutions and answers to this problem,” he said.
He says that there are distinct differences between non-aboriginal and aboriginal media based on Burton Winters, the missing and murdered aboriginal women. Aboriginals often in mainstream media only get covered if the news portrays them in a negative light, he said.
Russell says the non-aboriginal media is no different then a system of government.
“It is dominated by primarily white males, so how the hell is that system suppose to report on true aboriginal issues? There is no doubt aboriginal media will be sensitive to issues that stab at the breath of an aboriginal over that of non-aboriginal media,” he said.
Russell says all of these things affect the nature of the story being told as well as the coverage of story.
“I think in Labrador, you get a far better balance, because Labrador is predominately aboriginal and the media that do come here take the time to understand the issues,” he said.
Russell says that the only time mainstream media shows an interest in aboriginal issues is when there is abuse, poverty, protest and mismanagement of money — all of these things that are negative.
“It seems they only cover full stories when the rights of aboriginals and non-aboriginals collide, only then is it a national story,” Russell added.