In Canada’s north, a society of a few thousand people is rebuilding from a harrowing century. With an incredible past and an unwritten future, places like Nunatsiavut might just help define the future of an incomplete country.
The first of two parts. Read part two now.
By Matthew Halliday
Original photographs by Jennie Williams
A Blink Among Centuries
he village of Nain is the northernmost permanently settled community in Atlantic Canada—but let’s go a little farther north. Not too far, just up around the air strip and the dump and into Nain Bay, the vast mouth of Labrador’s Fraser River. Here on the shore you can find a weather-scarred monument to one of those moments in time—a blink among the centuries—that cleaved a whole civilization’s past from its future.
There are no roads to this village of 1,125 people, so to get here you’ll have to fly to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, then hop on a Twin Otter heading up the coast of Labrador, “The Big Land.” Make sure to take in the edge-of-the-Earth scenes passing underneath: the great glacial wounds of the fjords stretching nearly from the Labrador Sea to the Quebec border. The snow-capped islands in the bays, breaching the sea ice like the backs of great whales. To the west, mountains upon mountains upon mountains; to the east, the edge of the landfast sea ice, where for generations Labrador Inuit have hunted and fished. As you descend to land you’ll see faint lines criss-crossing the frozen bays below. They’re the first signs of human presence in this immensity—snowmobile tracks cutting sharp diagonals through the snow.
This is Nunatsiavut, 121,000 square kilometres of land and sea, inhabited by around 2,300 people, mostly Inuit, in five tiny communities—Rigolet, Postville, Makkovik, Hopedale, and Nain—scattered over a territory larger than Ireland or Denmark. Its name means “Our Beautiful Land,” and from the cruising altitude of a Twin Otter, you believe it. It’s the easternmost of the four regions that comprise Inuit Nunangat, the homeland of Inuit in Canada, which altogether makes up more than a third of the country’s landmass. It’s also home to the world’s most southerly Inuit communities, and the vista below isn’t Arctic tundra, but a dusting of abbreviated boreal forest perched on the cliffs and crags of the Labrador coast.
“I think this part of the world rivals anywhere on the planet in terms of history, and just, amazingness.”
You’ll land at the Nain airstrip, a little gravel scar at the edge of town. If you’re handy with a snowmobile, climb onto one and head to the harbour, zipping between the ballicatters, the otherworldly ice formations created near shore during the fall freeze-up. Finally, after a few minutes bouncing across the sea ice, mount the frozen beach. Here they are: two weathered stones poking above the snow. Dig them out and you’ll see, faintly engraved: GR UF 1770.
GR is for King George III. UF is for Unitas Fratrum—the Unity of the Brethren, an obscure sect of Protestant missionaries better known as Moravians. 1770 is for the year these stones were placed here, to mark the land that would become Nain, granted to the Moravians by Britain.
When I visited Nain in April, Nunatsiavut’s resident archaeologist, Jamie Brake, brought me out here. An easygoing 40-year-old from Newfoundland, Brake has found a bit of a dream job in Nain, exploring one of the best-preserved and most exhaustively documented—yet least well-known—histories of contact between Indigenous people and Europeans in North America. “I think this part of the world rivals anywhere on the planet in terms of history, and just, amazingness,” he told me on the phone before I arrived.
Brake had been here many times before, but kneeling in the snow before the stones, he still seemed a little awed by the unlikely collision of cultures they represent. (He whispered, half to himself, “sick.”) These beat-up rocks mark the beginning of one of the knottiest colonial entanglements in what is now Canada, when a Moravian missionary named Jens Haven kicked off the first sustained European presence on this coast. His arrival wasn’t the beginning of some colonial clean sweep, though. Life here changed more glacially, a century and a half of slow transformation and mingling of Inuit and European cultures. It was when Newfoundland and Labrador became part of Canada in 1949 that things changed more swiftly, and more cruelly.
But that led, in its own way, to a new beginning. On January 22, 2005, after 28 years of negotiation, representatives of the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) and the federal and provincial governments gathered at Nain’s school—Jens Haven Memorial—to sign the Labrador Inuit Land Claim.
Canada’s 20th settled comprehensive land claim—or modern treaty—it was intended to restore some measure of the sovereignty stolen in decades past from Labrador Inuit, providing province-like jurisdiction over much of their land, economy, government, and more. In the bleachers sat a packed house of newly minted Nunatsiavummiut—citizens of Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, and now their own government, Nunatsiavut. “I don’t think I’ve seen people feel so happy,” says Jim Lyall, a former executive director with the LIA, who in 2008 became Nunatsiavut’s first elected president.
“If you think about interesting, innovative Indigenous governments, it’s at the top of the scale. What they’ve done in Nunatsiavut goes way beyond.”
Today Nunatsiavut is the only Indigenous self-government in Atlantic Canada, and the mandate it’s wresting from the provincial government is expansive, ambitious, even experimental. “If you think about interesting, innovative Indigenous governments, it’s at the top of the scale,” says retired University of Toronto political scientist Graham White, among the few southern academics who’s spent much time thinking about the democratic innovations in Canada’s North, home to the majority of the country’s settled land claims. “What they’ve done in Nunatsiavut goes way beyond.”
It’s also incomplete. Like Nunavut, Nunatsiavut was created in a burst of enthusiasm for the modern treaties and self-government arrangements that have swept the North since the mid-1990s. That enthusiasm has since been tempered by a host of hard realities, social, fiscal, and other. In Nunatsiavut’s case, all the labour and effort needed to build not just a new government but a new kind of government is being drawn from a tiny population—about 2,300 land-claim beneficiaries in Nunatsiavut, and a little more than 5,000 elsewhere in Labrador and across Canada—emerging from one of the most painful chapters in a long, incredible history. After almost 14 years, it’s still in the warm-up phase.
“We’re talking about 7,500 or so people,” says Natan Obed. A Nunatsiavummiut who spent much of his childhood in Nain, Obed is today president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), which represents all Inuit in Canada. “Trying to find something that doesn’t go overboard on rules and protocol, that is still open and accepting to all members of our society, and links up enough with the provincial and federal governments to speak the same language…well, my hat goes off to all those who’ve spent their careers trying to make it work.”
Not many Canadians are paying attention to places like Nunatsiavut. But what happens here matters far beyond even these capacious borders. A whole lot about how Canada does—or doesn’t—meet the challenge of reconciliation with Indigenous people, of what shape this country takes in the next century, is already emerging in places like this. “Newfoundland and Canada have signed on too,” says Isabella Pain, the deputy minister of the Nunatsiavut secretariat, and one of the LIA negotiators who spent years labouring to bring the claim to life. “This is about everyone. People don’t really get that.”
So on a bright afternoon this April, farther north than most Canadians will ever set foot, I’m waiting in the lobby of Nain’s only hotel, the Atsanik Lodge, for a 62-year-old Inuk with a German name and a devotion to a faith born in 15th-century Bohemia. He survived the cruel rending inflicted on his homeland decades ago, and many of the traumas that reverberated from it: violence, addiction, suicide. He’s a son and a father, a husband and a hunter, a TV presenter, translator, mayor, and minister.
Today he’s the president, his name is Johannes, and his snowmobile has just skidded up the snowbank in front of the lodge.
ait, back up a minute. Before we meet the president, we’ve got to take a really quick historical detour to figure out what exactly he’s president of. Modern treaties now cover more than 40 percent of Canada’s landmass, yet few of us have a clue what they’re all about.
According to Frances Abele, they’re about nothing less than completing Confederation. “People need to understand that we’re on a journey,” says Abele, a professor of public policy at Carleton University, where she focuses on circumpolar politics and Indigenous-Canadian relations. “People are negotiating consent to be part of Canada.” In other words, Canada is about much more than 10 provinces and three territories—or at least, it should be. Canada’s not fully cooked yet.
This is an idea Canadians should be able to get behind pretty easily. Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949. And Nunavut—the best-known product of a settled land claim—was created in 1999. But for whatever reason, the idea of carving out space within Confederation to restore sovereignty to those on whom Canada was imposed still rubs a lot of us the wrong way. (This seems especially strange in a country where provinces have enough autonomy to wage trade wars with each other, or decline to sign on to the constitution, but there it is.) This year, 66 percent of respondents to an Angus Reid poll believed Indigenous people should be “governed by the same systems” as all Canadians, rather than have “more independence.” Fifty-three percent said they should be “integrating into broader Canadian society, even if it that means losing more of their own culture.”
That’s basically what Pierre Trudeau espoused in 1969, when as prime minister he tabled the White Paper, a policy document proposing equality by assimilation—converting reserves into private land and abolishing treaty rights, eliminating recognition of Indigenous people as having distinct rights. Amid a ferocious backlash, Trudeau withdrew it with a characteristic barb (“we’ll keep them in the ghetto as long as they want”). But not long after, Frank Calder, a British Columbia cabinet minister, and the president of the Nisga’a Tribal Council in British Columbia, brought to provincial courts a claim that Nisga’a title to historic lands had never been extinguished. He lost on a technicality, but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that un-extinguished Indigenous title to land does exist, leading to the Constitution Act of 1982, which recognized “existing Aboriginal and treaty rights.” In 1995, the government recognized those to include self-government—clearing the path for places like Nunatsiavut.
“People need to understand that we’re on a journey. People are negotiating consent to be part of Canada.”
It hasn’t been as simple as all that, of course. Land claims have since been criticized as a sort of White Paper redux, undermining Indigenous sovereignty by asserting the Crown’s supremacy. They require Indigenous groups to extinguish title to vast portions of traditional lands, taking just a fraction as private property, and some see them as a way for the state to secure land and resources with a veneer of mutual respect. Russell Diabo, a Mohawk activist from Kahnawake in Quebec, has called land-claims negotiation tables “termination tables.”
Nunatsiavut itself has butted heads with Canada and Newfoundland in federal court, and deals with the frustrations common to most, if not all, modern-treaty holders. Those include limited funding, meager infrastructure, legacies of colonialism, and governments often reluctant to honour the commitments—financial and otherwise—made to implementing them.
“The federal government wants to hold up modern treaties as shining examples of collaborative federalism,” says Hayden King, director of the Yellowhead Institute at Ryerson University, a First Nations-led research centre that looks at land and governance. “But they don’t talk about the implementation problems which plague them.”
Recently, Justin Trudeau’s government has been working toward a new Indigenous rights framework to overhaul land-claims and self-government, provoking new critiques: that it’s happening too fast, without consultation, and isn’t especially substantive. Some First Nations have rejected it outright, with leaders and activists calling for a re-imagining of the process led by Indigenous people.
But, says Natan Obed, “Inuit have a different relationship with the Crown than First Nations or Métis. We have pushed from the beginning of this [federal] government for a bilateral space, at the highest possible level, to ensure priority areas we both have can be worked through politically.” That bilateral space came together in February 2017 as the Inuit-Crown Partnership, which includes Obed, Justin Trudeau, the leaders of all four Inuit regions, and various federal ministers.
Its ultimate success, and the ultimate shape of Indigenous self-determination in Canada, remains unknown. But whatever happens in the future, decades worth of human effort and energy are embedded in the 26 modern treaties that exist now, and in the dozens under negotiation. And in them we might be able to discern something of the shape of the Canada to come.
So let’s meet the president.
We would be very thankful if someone could let us know what is going to happen to us in the future
n a mid-April day, Nain is bright, a hard blue sky above a landscape of ivories. When Johannes Lampe opens the door into the lobby of the Atsanik Lodge, the flare of a northern afternoon spills in with him. Eventually Nain comes into focus behind him, and below that the horseshoe-shaped harbour and the landscape beyond. Snow covers everything, streets included, more than a metre deep; by April it’s so high you could just hop up and give a little tap to the thick bundles of utility cables drooping alongside the roads. Most of the cars and trucks are buried, and people get around exclusively by foot and snowmobile, which are parked in clusters in front of every public building: the northern store, the government building, the Jens Haven school. Many tow komatiks, the wooden sleds used for hauling everything from groceries to wood to passengers. (The stench of snowmobile exhaust is thick at midday, lingering long after any passing vehicle.)
Lampe walks in and unzips his coat, revealing a black hoodie with an inutsuk over the breast, above the single word: Nunatsiavut. His presidential hoodie. He’s short, slightly stocky, with a trim mop of greying hair and a neat moustache that droops a little at the edges. His habitual expression is sober, slightly inscrutable, definitely serious—unless he smiles, which is warm and sudden.
So here we sit and I ask him questions about where we are and what everything around us means, and he does his best to explain the landscape, the history, his life. I’m wary of hearing wrong, because the act of listening feels in some ways like an act of translation: it’s hard to imagine two Canadians with more disparate experiences of the country where they were both born and grew up.
Lampe was born in December 1955, far north of Nain, near a now-deserted community called Nutak. He, his mother, and his father were among 38 families living in the area, most more or less self-sufficiently, in hunting and fishing camps ringing the coast and islands near the village. Nutak itself wasn’t much more than a waystation and government store, through which the seven-year-old Newfoundland government provided a handful of services.
The relocation of Hebron’s 233 residents is a touchstone in Labrador Inuit history—a low point from which everything since has been, in a way, a climb back.
In early 1956, heading into the village for supplies, locals learned the news: the province would stop supplying the store, and the trade depot would be shut down too. Those who lived there had no say in the decision; it came straight from St. John’s.
That fall, Lampe’s parents packed a dogsled and headed south. His father knew a shortcut overland, and years later, from the perch of a helicopter, Lampe took note of the route, navigating the coarse geography of the coast. “I was able to see that,” Lampe told me, “and that way I started to understand more about my father.”
The closure of Nutak, and the larger community of Hebron three years later in 1959, were by many accounts the rock-bottom of the 20th-century Labrador Inuit experience—a low point of disenfranchisement and dispossession from which everything since has been, in a way, a climb back. Hebron was founded in 1831 for the conversion of “northlanders,” the most spiritually incorrigible Inuit (at least, from the missionaries’ perspective). But over the next century and a half it became the social and cultural centre of gravity for those who lived on the far north coast.
After Nutak was vacated in 1956, the whispering about Hebron’s future began. That year, elder Levi Nochasak wrote to F. W. Rowe, Newfoundland’s minister of mines and resources:
“Dear Dr. Rowe,
We people from Hebron have heard that Hebron is going to be closed down without giving us enough information about it. We would like to know if this is true or not so that we can be prepared for it….We would be very thankful if we are not moved from our community, and we would appreciate it if you could consider our interests in not moving. And also we would be very thankful if someone could let us know what is going to happen to us in the future.”
One April morning in 1959, two planes, a single-engine Otter and a single-engine Beaver, touched down in the village. The five men who disembarked represented the Moravian church, the Newfoundland government, and the International Grenfell Association, which provided medical services on the coast. They assembled as many of the village’s 233 people as possible into the church, and confirmed the rumours: the province was withdrawing all services. The hills were too high for planes, they said, and the distance too great for boats. In Our Footsteps are Everywhere, the exhaustive land-use and occupancy document that informed the land claim that would eventually create Nunatsiavut, a Hebronimiut named William Onalik is quoted: “My mind was angry because I couldn’t speak out in the church; I knew in my heart what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t say anything. I don’t know how to explain this….we had a hall, if it had been at the hall people could have spoken up to say they did not want to move away.”
The meeting in the mission building closed with a prayer and a hymn, and throughout the summer to come, people trickled out, the rush coming in August as they departed by their own boats, or the small freight boat making its last runs this far north. Families moved south, in some cases to communities where they knew no one, without resources to accommodate them. The best hunting spots were already claimed and families struggled to eat; hunters struggled to provide. Without housing, some relocatees lived in tents on the beaches of their new communities through that first long, cold winter. Communities bonded by centuries of family and social cohesion were sundered literally overnight, family members scattered across hundreds of kilometres.
So here was another of those cleaving moments.
“You learn to accept, and you learn to forgive and forget to those who have done you wrong,” Lampe says. “But reconciliation, it is very challenging.”
History clings to Lampe, in his gravity and his seriousness, in the quiet voice he uses when speaking about personal hardships, and in the way he unfailingly circles his own life’s narrative back to the challenges of Labrador Inuit—a ready-made story of recovery and resilience, a path being charted. Each time I speak to him, regardless of where the conversation goes, at some point there is a remarkably similar account of the dislocation of Labrador Inuit in the 20th century. He tells it like a story packaged for outside consumption—which, as was later pointed out to me by another Labrador Inuk, it probably is, since he’s told it so often. But it’s no less raw or true for that.
he culture of Labrador Inuit today bears all these fragments and fingerprints left over by the Moravians: a written version of Inuttitut drawn from their Latin alphabet, rather than the syllabics found in western Inuit regions. The Teutonic architecture of the mission buildings. The traditional Moravian brass bands that still today perform renditions of Haydn and Mozart that 18th-century Inuit choirmasters rewrote—just a few years after they were written in Europe—to suit Inuit voices and harmonies.
And right into the 20th century, Inuit affairs were managed by sophisticated local governments controlled by local church elders. According to scholar Peter Evans, “Men’s meetings—enlivened with Inuit political rhetoric, consensual decision-making, and written issuances—were a highly developed Inuit institution by the time of Confederation.” All of that basically collapsed after the relocations.
Jack Hicks, an adjunct professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, co-authored a book with Graham White on the Nunavut government, and helped create that territory’s suicide-prevention strategy. He likens Labrador’s experience of relocations to those of Inuit in the high Arctic in the mid-1950s, with a key difference: “In the high Arctic, they went through some horrific shit, but they went through it together…and there was a lot of solidarity formed.” Whereas what happened in Hebron, he says, “blew families apart.”
“It just escalated and escalated to a point where it became dangerous to our lives. Ending up in the hospital or in jail. And that opened our eyes to wanting to change.”
Jim Igloliorte was born in Hopedale and educated at the Yale School—a residential school in North West River founded by Yale students in the 1920s—and became a provincial court judge in 1981. Today retired, he was for years the only Inuk judge in Canada, working the Labrador coast through the 1980s and 1990s.
“I think from the earliest days, in 1980 or 1981, when I started coming to the coast, you could see that Makkovik, Nain, and Hopedale [ed: where most relocatees were sent] is where the most violence was directed against family and close associations,” he says. “Not a lot of random violence, but violence tied in to those you’re closest to. As you thought about it, and observed it over time, you had to say to yourself: Where does this violence and trauma and alcoholism and frustration come from?”
When Lampe’s family moved to Nain, he was less than a year old, and the relocation affected him second-hand, as it did for many of his generation. “I myself, I didn’t understand what was going on, especially with my father,” says Lampe. “He would sometimes drink, and when he would drink he was not the same man…. it’s only many years later that I started to realize what the reason was.”
Lampe’s father kept up the family’s ties to the far north coast, though, bringing his children back to Nutak every summer for years. He taught them hunting, fishing, harvesting seals, in his homeland and theirs, and Lampe has continued to return throughout his life.
As his father’s drinking and health worsened, Lampe left school at 14 to take on more of the responsibilities of a family provider. At only 20 years old, in the mid-1970s, he was approached to serve on Nain’s town council, though he still doesn’t know why, exactly. (“There was new blood needed,” he guesses.)
It was an energetic time on the coast. The LIA had just been founded in 1973, a sort of sub-Arctic iteration of the global civil-rights movement. In 1977, the LIA filed its land claim with the province and with Canada, plunging itself into the work of rebuilding Inuit autonomy. Lampe worked as an interpreter/translator with the LIA in those early years, often writing out translations longhand for want of a typewriter. He worked in the 1980s and 1990s as a radio and television producer with the OKâlaKatiget Society, the Inuit broadcaster stationed in Nain since 1982.
By 1980, he was married and had a son, Hana. By 1984, a daughter—but one year later, on the night before her first birthday, she died, a crib death. Not long after, his wife was diagnosed with cancer; she too died. Like his father, Lampe began to drink, and drink a lot: “I fell down so hard.”
Lampe’s story mirrors that of his own people—brought low by forces beyond their control, today undergoing renewal from within. Whatever its imperfections, Lampe’s narrative inevitably arcs toward a better future.
In 1992, he became involved with Rutie Jararuse, the woman who would become his second wife. Their first few years together were marked by addiction, dysfunction, violence. “It just escalated and escalated to a point where it became dangerous to our lives,” she says. “Ending up in the hospital or in jail. And that opened our eyes to wanting to change.” In 1995, Lampe entered an alcohol-recovery program; three months later, Rutie joined him. At age 39 he became active in the Moravian church, first as a chapel servant and soon as a minister himself.
Lampe narrates his own life in terms of recovery. In his case, the story mirrors the history of Labrador Inuit—brought low by forces beyond their control, today undergoing renewal from within. Whatever the imperfections of that renewal, Lampe’s narrative inevitably arcs toward a better future. It hasn’t been a perfectly straight line. In 2008, Lampe lost his 28-year-old son, Hana, to suicide. And in 2010, his 20-year-old adopted daughter, Kimberly—Rutie’s biological daughter—was killed by her boyfriend.
So much has been taken from Lampe, and so much of that loss can be traced right back to the intergenerational aftermath of relocation, to residential schools, of culture and language loss, to the poverty that followed relocation. But in describing his losses there’s no apparent self-pity, but gratitude for what remains: Rutie, his adoptive grandchildren, an elderly mother who lives right across the road from the hotel where we speak. Even his faith, imposed on his ancestors but which over centuries has been absorbed and adapted by his own culture. And of course, the opportunity to serve as president, a job he threw his hat into the ring for three times before getting it.
There’s a levity to Lampe as well, a sense of sly humour. Something similar—a burden balanced with a lighter spirit—characterizes Rutie, too. Last year they celebrated their honeymoon, 20 years late, taking a few days off and going to, of all places, Niagara Falls.
“We talk to each other not only about little things or pretty things,” says Lampe. “We talk about hard stuff too, and that’s what we have to live with. No matter how ugly things get sometimes. We have to be honest with each other. Sometimes we’ve said to each other, ‘You can’t handle the truth! And nobody else will tell you!’”
The Fight Starts
n August 1999, more than 150 relocatees and their descendants travelled north for a Hebron reunion. (Lampe, who had “a pretty good boat at the time,” ferried up as many as he could.) Some hadn’t been back in 40 years, and some were seeing friends and former neighbours for the first time in as long.
Erected in the 1830s, the mission building at Hebron is huge, like a small skyscraper laid on its side. Thirty windows and doors end-to-end, topped with an ornate Germanic cupola, it’s really an interconnected series of buildings: church, mission house, store, and residences for the missionaries and storekeeper. Today it’s a lovingly restored national historic site, but in 1999 it was a near-ruin of decayed timber. The long spine of its peaked roofline buckled and sagged, the chimneys arrayed along its length silhouetting the sky at askew angles. The surrounding village had mostly fallen down.
A four-man Moravian brass band played a dirge-like rendition of “God be with you ’til we meet again,” as the Hebronimiut filed into the church—a reversal of the scene 40 years earlier, as a similar band played at the wharf, while families packed their belongings into boats and set out down the coast.
The reunion was documented in Forever in Our Hearts, by filmmaker Nigel Markham, who’s made several films about the 20th-century experiences of Labrador Inuit. Inside the church, residents shared stories about the relocation and their lives afterward.
A cynic might be forgiven for wondering if without Voisey’s Bay, Barbour wouldn’t still be sitting at an endless series of negotiation tables.
A woman describes leaving on the supply ship MV Trepassey, unable to bear even turning back for a final look at her home as the boat carried her away. An elderly man talks about going hungry in his new community, watching people eating fermented harp skins for want of other food. “As soon as the elderly people were relocated, they died very quickly,” he says, “craving the food they used to eat.” Another seems to sum up the essence of the reunion: “Only after we have cried and released what is inside us, can we talk about our feelings and our thoughts.”
Rutie Lampe’s family was from Hebron and scattered areas further up the coast. She says that the relocatees found it empowering to return, but they also “talked about how there needed to be follow-up and mental-health support after the reunion. If not, the spirit of the relocation was going to cause a lot of chaos, the trauma and the hurt, and the anger and the pain…everything that went with it was opened up again and it seemed like the spirit of suicide went into our communities.”
Whether it was the spirit of the relocation or simply a coincidence, 2000 is a year no one in Nain much wants to talk about: 10 months, 10 suicides—mostly young people, dead by hanging, shooting, and in two cases, jumping from a broadcast tower. The dead included deputy mayor Jim Webb, as well as the daughter of William Barbour, then president of the LIA. A few weeks after his daughter’s death, Barbour issued a statement saying that “the situation right now in Nain is very fragile.”
2000 was also the home stretch of the long, laborious land-claim negotiations between the LIA and the federal and provincial governments.
For Barbour, it was the most personally and professionally demanding period of his life. The LIA was simultaneously settling its land claim and negotiating an impact and benefits agreement over the Voisey’s Bay mine—a massive vein of nickel, copper, and cobalt, discovered just weeks after Barbour took office in 1994. The year prior, two prospectors flying over the coast in a helicopter noticed a rusty discolouration on a hillside not far from Nain, within the land claim area. Over the following months, drilling and testing confirmed it to be the biggest mineral find in Canada in decades. It touched off something like a gold rush in Nain.
“Prior to that,” says Barbour, “negotiations were so slow it was not funny. A waste of time for us, for the province, for the feds.” The land claim was already 16 years old by this point. A cynic might be forgiven for wondering if without Voisey’s Bay—and the desire by the province and federal government for certainty around mineral rights—Barbour wouldn’t still be sitting at an endless series of negotiation tables.
Then 35, Barbour had spent much of his life as a wildlife technician, working outdoors in the Torngat Mountains, a dramatic chain of peaks that spans 250 kilometres of Labrador’s northernmost coast, and contains some of the most ancient rocks on Earth. (In Inuttitut, Torngat means “place of spirits.” The mountains became a national park in 2005, when the land claim was signed.)
After the Voisey’s Bay find, however, he was travelling up to eight months of the year around the coast, and to Ottawa and St. John’s and elsewhere, learning the ins and outs of the mining industry. “Just so Inuit could be treated like people,” as he said in Eye of the Storm, another Markham film. It documented the frenzy of prospecting and deal-making that enveloped Nain in the days after the first mineral finds. Barbour’s days on the land were over. “Too often, I don’t have time for the Inuit side of my being,” he told the National Post a few months after his daughter Amy’s death. Talking about the period today, Barbour’s voice immediately sounds wearier. “It took a lot of life out of me,” he says.
“The one message we heard was, ‘you negotiate the agreement, it comes into effect—and then the fight starts.’”
The LIA’s chief negotiator, Toby Andersen, was a former fishing boat skipper who joined the negotiation team in the mid-1980s. He’d been part of a series of community consultations the LIA held as they moved closer to a final agreement—open houses where people could share ideas as to the design and structure of the new government. Their ideas went back to the LIA board, who used them to frame out the beginnings of the Labrador Inuit Constitution and government.
Andersen is relatively sanguine about the three decades it took to negotiate the agreement. In 1995, the federal government had started permitting land claims and self-government to be negotiated simultaneously, so although the LIA settled its claim long after other Inuit regions, it became the first with a self-government agreement. But Andersen also took a note of caution from other region’s experiences: “We had meetings with the Nisga’a, Nunavik, Nunavut, and Inuvialuit regions,” Andersen says. “All had claim agreements, and the one message we heard was, ‘you negotiate the agreement, it comes into effect—and then the fight starts.’”
n the January day in 2005 when the Nunatsiavut land claim was signed in the Jens Haven gym, Johannes Lampe was freshly back in town, just off a caribou-hunting trip near Nutak. Forty-nine years old, he was deeply involved in the life of the community, but he hadn’t had a lot to do directly with the claim or the negotiations that brought it to life. Unlike Barbour and his eight months of annual travel, or Toby Andersen and his hours upon hours at negotiation tables, Lampe was still able to make time for things like caribou-hunting trips.
His snowmobile journey back to town had brought him through an especially brutal blast of wintry weather, and Lampe recalls feeling a bit wary as a TV interviewer got him on camera to share his thoughts. He remembers what he said less than he remembers that his face was blackened with frostbite.
Today, at 62, Lampe looks a lot more presentable on television—no frostbite-blackened features—but something has been lost as well. In 2010, he was first elected as one of Nain’s ordinary members, the local representatives to the Nunatsiavut government. A friend told him that he’d miss being able to spend his days in the solitude and stillness of the land where he’d found such plenitude and peace. “He was right,” says Lampe.
He’s certainly getting around, though: Between the time I meet him in Nain and the next time we speak over the phone a few months later, he’s been up and down the coast repeatedly. He’s been in Ottawa. He’s been in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, for the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which brings together delegates from Inuit communities in Canada, the United States, Greenland, and Russia. He’s been in Inuvik, in the Inuvialuit region in the Northwest Territories, to see Natan Obed re-elected as president of ITK.
“Rutie said that since becoming president, I’ve grown old in two years,” he says. And he inadvertently echoes exactly what William Barbour had said about those most intense years of negotiation circa 2000: “It takes your life out of you.”
But whatever his qualms about losing, Lampe has been gunning for the president’s job since the job existed.
Politically, Nunatsiavut is a baby, still emerging from a period of devastation difficult to imagine for anyone who didn’t experience it.
Jim Lyall was Nunatsiavut’s first elected president, chosen in 2008 in a campaign featuring himself, Obed, and Lampe, who placed third that year. Tall, trim, and plain-spoken, Lyall became executive director of the LIA in 1977. In part, he thinks, they wanted someone familiar with the entire coast, and Lyall had spent years hopping from community to community managing the government-operated stores.
Lyall only spent one term as president, declining to re-offer in 2012. A three-way election that year saw Lampe in the race again, squaring off with two other candidates, Sarah Leo, then executive director of the OKâlaKatiget Society, and Susan Nochasak. Nunatsiavut uses a run-off voting system, requiring one candidate to win a clear majority of votes cast. Lampe won the first round of voting, but facing Leo alone in the second round, lost narrowly.
The adopted daughter of a settler mother from Voisey’s Bay, and an Inuk father who worked as a fisherman and served as an LIA board member, Leo grew up in a house full of discussion about the land claim and local politics. She moved away in 1984 and spent 21 years criss-crossing Canada in the Canadian Forces, and spent two tours in Bosnia. She moved back in 2005, and in 2006 became angajukKak—basically the equivalent of mayor in Nunatsiavut’s community governments.
In 2010, Lampe was elected one of Nain’s two ordinary members, and was later appointed minister of culture, recreation, and tourism. In 2016, he took another crack at the presidency—and won by acclamation, with no other candidates offering.
The juxtaposition between Lampe and his predecessor is in some ways stark. Leo lived much of her life in southern Canada, and returned to Labrador in mid-life. Lampe is a northerner, whose family passed through the crucible of relocation, fluent in the language and in the land. In Leo’s words, Lampe would be considered “a complete Inuk.”
Both downplay any difference between their priorities as leaders, however. Self-determination, and the re-assertion of control over their own land and communities, override any difference. Both also take pains to point out that in Nunatsiavut’s consensus-based government—without formal parties or opposition, or a combative parliament—the president’s powers are limited in scope. Cooperation and discussion are paramount.
“Flipping colonialism on its head, but also using the instruments of colonialism in the self-government, there’s going to be a familiarity in the disappointment.”
Nunatsiavut is able to take over, in whole or part, whole swathes of provincial jurisdiction, but its approach has been incremental. It’s assumed some control over health care, especially mental health and addictions. It has potentially province-like jurisdiction over education as well, but so far only administers a few training programs and some post-secondary funding programs, already taken over by the LIA in the 1980s. (Of Jens Haven’s 22 teachers, only two are Inuit.)
A decade after Nunatsiavut elected its first president, the slow pace of change has worn down some of the early enthusiasm that Jim Lyall saw in the Jens Haven gym on that January day in 2005. The fact remains that Nunatsiavut represents a resource- and cash-strapped region of just a few thousand people.
As a society it’s almost staggeringly resilient, and has centuries of tradition to draw upon. But as a political entity it’s a baby, still emerging from a period of devastation difficult to imagine for anyone who didn’t experience it. And, as Toby Andersen said, the fight to settle the land claim ended only to see an all-new fight begin, for recognition and respect from higher levels of government, which represent constituents who mostly don’t understand what Nunatsiavut is, or the role it’s supposed to play alongside the province and federal governments.
Fran Williams was president of the LIA from 1980 to 1984. When I asked her how thoroughly the Nunatsiavut government has changed life on the coast, and how quickly, she reiterated what she used to say to any random skeptical southern pundit or know-it-all kablunaat who questioned the need for self-government in the first place: “An Inuit government will make mistakes,” she says. “They will be our mistakes.”
When I asked Lampe, he smiled and made the obvious but unassailable observation: “Negotiating a land claim is one thing. To implement it is another.”
After more than a decade of self-government, what does Nunatsiavut look like today? And is Canada ready to help places like this succeed?
Words by Matthew Halliday
Matthew Halliday is a journalist, editor, and co-founder of The Deep. He’s written for The Walrus, Hazlitt, and The Globe and Mail, among others.
Original Photography by Jennie Williams
Jennie Williams is an Inuit visual artist, born and raised in Labrador. She photographs people in their everyday environments and circumstances, working to document practices and traditions in the manner that they are celebrated in Labrador today.
Edited by Chelsea Murray
Readers – Katherine Laidlaw, Ossie Michelin