For 28 years, the Inuit of northern Labrador fought for the right to self-government.
Now comes the hard part.
Part 2 of 2. Read part 1 here.
By Matthew Halliday
Original photographs by Jennie Williams
Cover photograph by Darren Calabrese
The Land That God Gave Cain
n 1534, Jacques Cartier gave Canada its name based on a misunderstanding of an Iroquois word. The same year, he jotted down a less-than-impressed review of Labrador in his shipboard journals: “It is not a place to be called the new Land…but rather a place fit for wilde beastes…there is nothing else but mosse and small thornes scattered here and there, withered and dry. To be short, I believe that this was the land that God allotted to Caine.”
Joey Angnatok could show Cartier a few things. One of Nunatsiavut’s economic-development strategies is to become among the world’s most “in-demand circumpolar travel destinations.” Should that come to pass, its Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism might want to consider hiring the 42-year-old hunter, fisherman, handyman, search-and-rescue worker, and occasional scientific researcher as a tour guide. After a few hours tagging along with him on a snowmobile trip out of town, what might look like so much waste and void comes, quite literally, alive. Angnatok—who runs the largest commercial fishing operation on the coast, with his 20-metre longliner, the MV What’s Happening—draws out the abundance for even the most untrained eye. “All these shorelines in the spring,” he says, “just char everywhere, and seals, and every square foot of this shore is covered in mussels and kelp.”
Not far from town he peels his snowmobile around PiKalujak Island, a nearly vertical face of bare rock that rises, wreathed in fog, from the frozen waters of Nain Bay. It’s known informally as “the iceberg” because that’s exactly what it looks like—a big stone berg rising from the water. (The story goes that it was created when two shamans were testing their powers against one another, and one turned an iceberg that had drifted into the bay into stone.) Leaning in its shadow against his snowmobile, Angnatok describes PiKalujak at dusk, “just before the light is out of the sky, crows everywhere, flapping all around just like in a movie, for the ptarmigan eggs.”
Angnatok grew up in Nain, in a home headed by a single mother: “The kind of house where you’d have to shake off your blankets in the morning after a blizzard,” he says. He started working with extended family at 10, making $50 a week checking char nets and bringing the catch to the local fish plant.
“Let’s say going down the road one day, you see someone. And you nod and say hello. And they say hello back. And then the next day, they’re not there anymore.”
He was 23 in the winter of 2000, when, in the midst of that year’s spate of suicides, his 15-year-old brother Martin was shot to death in a domestic dispute. Weeks after Martin’s death, Joey was volunteering with a program called Ulapitsaijet, or, “Inuit listening to Inuit.” The concept was simple: to go door-to-door and listen to people’s fears and anxieties at a difficult time, in their own homes, without judgment. This was far from Angnatok’s only volunteer commitment—he’d also been visiting Jens Haven School since he was 17, teaching kids basic land skills. He describes himself as a troubleshooter, and I got the sense that consoling others may have been his own form of self-therapy during that terrible winter.
He volunteers today in another youth-focused program, “Going Off, Growing Strong.” Stemming from the government’s suicide-prevention efforts, it aims to connect kids in need of role models with local hunters and harvesters who bring them out to experience the land and learn basic hunting skills. Anything they bring in goes to the town’s community freezer—an insurance policy against hunger in a community where 80 percent of households report skipping meals to save food. (It’s literally a medium-sized deep freeze in the back of the Nain Research Centre, a narrow, two-storey building attached to the former Parks Canada local office.)
Going Off was spearheaded and shepherded by Angnatok’s sister, Dorothy. But in 2016, “Duru,” as she was known to friends and family, committed suicide herself. Today her presence lingers quietly in the research centre. One wall is adorned with hundreds of snapshots of Going Off trips, and she’s there in many—posing with kids, atop a snowmobile, or somewhere at work in the background. On the front door is a sticker bearing her hashtag catchphrase, #createagoodday; there’s another on a refrigerator upstairs.
After Dorothy died, what remained of Going Off was kept up mostly by the sheer force of her brother’s will. In winter, Angnatok shows up at kids’ houses early in the morning, sometimes waking them himself, convincing the reluctant ones and managing the occasional on-the-ice outburst. It’s time-consuming, emotionally exhausting work. I ask him why he does it, and he sighs and seems to deliberate before answering by way of a slightly cryptic anecdote: “Let’s say going down the road one day,” he says, “You see someone. And you nod and say hello. And they say hello back. And then the next day, they’re not there anymore.”
Besides Going Off, and his fishing outfit, Putjotik Fisheries Ltd., Angnatok works with the local search and rescue, and consults freely with various levels of government on just about anything related to fisheries or marine issues. And at the end of every summer fishing season, he turns the What’s Happening into a research platform, sailing up and down the coast collecting water samples and seabed sediment, and harvesting wildlife in collaboration with researchers and scientists who journey to Nain from southern universities. He shows them the lay of the land, and clearly relishes the chance to act as a tour guide.
When he took me out, each spot on his informal itinerary made plain the human dimension of the land. He pointed in one direction, to the inlet that leads off to so-and-so’s cabin; then in the other, to the traditional family lands of such-and-such. We ended up at his own cabin, on land his family has returned to for generations. Each site was separated by a few kilometres’ worth of sea ice, but the human geography that dwells for him within this land couldn’t be more apparent. The North is roomy, but it isn’t empty.
And to an outsider, that may be the most difficult thing to grasp—not just the fullness and abundance of the land, but what it means to a culture when the land is a source of sustenance, spiritual life, cultural history, recreation, and far more.
In 1986, Toby Andersen, the LIA’s chief land-claim negotiator, surprised his counterparts from the provincial and federal governments who had arrived in town for discussions. He met them at the air strip, pointed to some gassed-up snowmobiles, and told them they were heading out on the land instead. They travelled almost all the way down the Fraser River canyon, nearly into Quebec, hunting caribou, patridges, and wolves; sleeping in igloos; and talking. “When we went back to the table and started talking about land issues,” he says, “they looked at us and said, ‘we understand.’”
Even a few hours out here make plain that the land is literally and figuratively Nunatsiavut’s foundation. The government has spent much of the past 10 years figuring out how to put together a new system that marries Inuit tradition with 21st-century bureaucracy—but also how to govern a land-and-sea-based culture in a time when the land itself is changing: when the sea ice is becoming ever more unsafe for travel, when the warming waters are changing the mix of wildlife in the oceans, and when, here in Nain anyway, the melting permafrost underfoot is slowly swallowing entire buildings.
Nunatsiavut stands astride a difficult past and an uncertain future, one foot planted in tradition, the other in modernity. A guy like Angnatok—a fisherman, amateur scientist, social worker, father of two teenagers—is in many ways extraordinary. In others, he’s just another Nunatsiavummiut, one of 7,500 people reinventing an ancient society anew each day.
unatsiavut’s first elected president, Jim Lyall, said he’d never seen anyone as happy as those in the Jens Haven gym the day Nunatsiavut’s land claim was signed. But he knew that joy was freighted with tremendous expectation. “I remember saying to someone, ‘You’ve got to be careful—the excitement will only last for a few weeks,’” he recalls. “Then it’s going to be ‘what are you doing for us?’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
Nunatsiavut back then was a blank slate, free to construct itself more or less as it pleased. Its two tentpoles are the conventional Westminster parliamentary system, and the consensus approach of traditional Inuit governance, which sees factions coalesce and dissolve around specific issues and legislation, rather than across party lines. “We do have rules and procedures in the assembly,” says Isabella Pain, deputy minister of the Nunatsiavut Secretariat. “Our challenge is how you incorporate Inuit culture into that. But when you sit there and observe, you can really see the traditional style of decision-making.”
Nunatsiavut shares this consensus approach with the better-known Nunavut—but in many other ways, the two are far less alike than you might expect. Nunavut’s more-or-less conventional government structure was largely inherited from the Northwest Territories when the two split in 1999, whereas Nunatsiavut points to the creativity that Indigenous experimentation may yet inject into Canada’s ostensibly mature democracy. As Graham White says, “if you’re doing self-government, you can do some off-the-wall things.”
Among others: land-claim beneficiaries outside of Nunatsiavut’s borders are represented in the assembly by four ordinary members—two for Labrador’s Upper Lake Melville region, and two more for beneficiaries nationwide. The latter live right now in Edmonton and Toronto, and fly to Hopedale, Nunatsiavut’s legislative capital, for assembly meetings.
“If you’re doing self-government, you can do some off-the-wall things.”
Another: the angajukKat of the region’s five community governments sit in the assembly and serve as a sort of defacto opposition, questioning the ordinary members and executive council. (Imagine Canadian mayors sitting in Parliament, grilling MPs.)
Nunavut doesn’t just provide a more traditional counterpart to Nunatsiavut—it’s also a cautionary tale. Nunavut was created more or less overnight, and most observers today agree that it was simply unprepared for how much came at it, and how fast. After nearly two decades, it still depends on Ottawa for up to 80 percent of its annual budget, and the litany of social problems that it faced in 1999 are little changed today. Several years ago, the territorial government commissioned a “report card” on its progress. It concluded that Nunavummiut remained optimistic about their future, but also felt that in a lot of ways, things had been better under the Northwest Territories government.
The point isn’t lost on many of Nunatsiavut’s leaders, who advocate for a slow-and-steady approach to taking on the full jurisdiction that the land claim will eventually permit. “Having gone through years of negotiations,” says Toby Andersen, “and getting the agreement that we did, what I have always said to our officials is, ‘Don’t try to run before you can walk. Take it one step at a time, and plan, plan, plan’.”
But you don’t have to go far to find dissenting opinions—just because it’s easy to bump into the president at the Northern Store doesn’t mean Nunatsiavummiut will hesitate to sound off about what they feel isn’t working. And the slowness of change is by far the most common complaint. Nunatsiavut’s second president, Sarah Leo, told me she doesn’t believe the government is moving fast enough to claim it’s a functioning self-government. She wasn’t the only one.
Tony Andersen is a former Nain angajukKak, a past vice-president of the Labrador Inuit Association, and in 2008 served as acting president of the transitional government before Nunatsiavut’s first presidential election. “People thought the world was going to change,” he says of 2005. “There was going to be so much money thrown at us by Canada and the province for taking down programs that everything was going to change overnight…we may have misrepresented how long it would take.”
A decade after that first election, much of the big-picture progress has yet to be made. Nunatsiavut has yet to take over education from the province, a major source of frustration, especially given the extremely low fluency in Inuttitut in the younger generation. A chronic housing shortage remains mostly unrelieved. And the social dysfunction that southerners are used to hearing about the North—substance abuse, poverty, domestic violence—is certainly still here, if often hidden behind closed doors.
But there’s a flipside that southerners rarely see. The creativity, energy, and necessity that inspired Nunatsiavut’s creation in the first place is also abundant—and not just within the still-emerging government, but on the streets, in homes, and in many cases behind those same closed doors. All it takes to find it are eyes open to seeing the place for what it is.
Caskets, Komatiks, Kitchen Cabinets
decade ago, an Australian environmental researcher named Glenn Albrecht invented a new word. It was a word we didn’t know we needed until we had to describe a new idea: solastalgia, the longing and loss experienced when your surroundings change faster than you can adapt to them. It’s homesickness without leaving home. Maybe, as the world hurtles deeper into irreversible climate change, solastalgia will become an all-new diagnosable mental-health condition. In places like Nunatsiavut, it’s arguably already here.
All of those family camps, all the human geography that I saw from the back of Joey Angnatok’s snowmobile, is accessible for much of the year only via ice. As the weather warms, travel becomes more difficult and dangerous, and that connection to the land, to culture, to sustenance itself wanes, year by year. One researcher working in Nain has described the local impact as “anticipatory grief.”
I was thinking of this as I sat with Joey on a perfect afternoon, about 45 minutes west of town, at a serene spot atop a sliver of land that divides Nain Bay and Tikkoatokak Bay. Here, Angnatok has spent the better part of this year and last building a cabin for kids in the Going Off program. Whenever he gets a spare moment, he’ll load up a komatik with some tools and building materials and head out to do some work. (Spare moments for Angnatok are few and far between, hence the slow progress—though to be fair, there was a minor setback this spring when a bear ripped out most of the insulation. )
When we visited the cabin, though, it was taking shape. There was a wood-burning stove against one wall, and Angnatok got it going and started preparing a very Newfoundland and Labrador mid-afternoon snack: a few tins of Vienna sausages, water for tea, and a box of Purity-brand cream crackers. Then he lay on a stack of plywood, stretched out, and started talking.
As the weather warms, travel becomes difficult, and the connection to the land wanes. One researcher has described the impact as “anticipatory grief.”
He talked about why Nain needs a new airport, maybe big enough for 737s, to support a bigger, healthier future for the fishery.
He talked (bragged a little, really) about one long night aboard the What’s Happening, off the coast of Newfoundland, when he threaded the needle between a pack of icebergs to lead a fleet of fishermen through the treacherous waters until dawn.
He talked about Imappivut, the new marine-management plan that Nunatsiavut has embarked on with the federal government. Imapivvut (“Our Waters”) will create by far the biggest Indigenous-led marine management plan in the country, almost 50,000 square kilometres, giving Nunatsiavut a say in resource development, shipping, and fisheries.
But mostly he talked about the land, and loss. The potential extinction of the local caribou population is especially disquieting, and at some point just about everyone I spoke with in Nain mentioned with longing the loss of the animals, long a staple of the local diet. The local George River herd has declined from more than 800,000 animals in the early 1990s to just over 5,000 today. Suspected culprits include wolf predation, parasites, habitat disturbance, and the effects of climate change, but the speed of the decline has surprised everyone. The province banned caribou hunting in 2013—which to Angnatok, has made the experience of the land something less than it once was.
“I guarantee you one thing, man, it’s not the same feeling as it used to be,” he says. “Like getting a present Christmas morning without a ribbon.”
And of course, he talked about the ice. Several hunters have lost their lives in recent years during shoulder-season hunting trips, taking a chance on weak ice. A few years ago, two of Rutie Lampe’s cousins died falling through the ice near town, returning from a hunting trip. “They were following this fellow who was ahead of them, on the snowmobile,” she recalls. “The fellow ahead looked back once, and they were there. And when he looked back again, there were no skidoo lights.” When rescuers returned to the site, the snowmobile had sunk. One man drowned; the other froze to death. Rescuers found his frozen body gripping a gas can, floating in the open pocket of water.
This makes adaptation a watchword in Nunatsiavut. It also makes the Nain Research Centre, operated by Nunatsiavut’s Department of Lands and Natural Resources, one of the most important places in town.
A few days after I arrived in Nain in April, a crew of academics and researchers from Memorial and McGill universities, the Canadian Ice Service, and elsewhere flew into town, bunking at the research centre next to the Atsanik Lodge. They were there to install weather stations and ice-pressure sensors in the local sea ice, part of a program called SmartICE, pioneered by the Nunatsiavut Government and researchers from Memorial University. The project uses enormous sensors—more than twice as tall as a person, drilled into the ice—that transmit temperature and ice-thickness data to satellites. The location of the initial deployments was informed in part by traditional knowledge of reliable travel routes, and the information is accessible with an online map showing colour-coded travel zones.
The project is now expanding across the Arctic, and for the past four winters, Angnatok’s participation has been key to the whole thing. Among other jobs, he pilots a “SmartQAMUTIK”—a sled towed behind a snowmobile, outfitted with a mobile sea-ice thickness sensor.
“I’ve always been sort of a science geek,” says Angnatok. “Never did a whole lot in school now with regards to it, but I’ve always liked to take one and one and make two. I’d talk to elders and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve never seen a hole there in the ice before, I wonder what’s going on?’”
In the research centre, a little disagreement broke out between Angnatok and one of the researchers, about the best way to mark for other snowmobilers where a sensor was buried. Should they use the more traditional indicator of an obstruction, a tree branch bent over and tied together? Or a wooden cross, as the scientists had planned? The morbid connotations of the latter rubbed Angnatok the wrong way, and after a few discussions as to solutions (make the cross an X?) Angnatok’s idea won out.
This kind of collaboration—and occasional collision—between traditional knowledge and southern science is very much part of Nunatsiavut’s modus operandi. In 2010, the government invited researchers to the Tukisinnik Research Forum, which became a turning point in the fraught and troubled history between southern scientists and Inuit, who for decades had been subject to invasive fly-in research. Today, any scientists visiting Nunatsiavut must have their work approved by the government’s research advisor, Carla Pamak. Labrador Inuit are collaborators, guides, and ultimately decision-makers with regards to the way research is conducted, or whether it happens at all.
This is the headline-grabbing stuff, of course—SmartICE has even made it to The New York Times. But much of the adaptation and innovation transforming life here is more ad-hoc, more small-scale, happening out of sight, but transformative all the same.
ne sunny afternoon, I stop by Nain’s community shed—a one-storey shack that doesn’t look as if anything much will be inside—to meet Noah Nochasak. He’s a twentysomething from Nain who’s just moved back from British Columbia, where he graduated from the Adventure Studies program at Thompson Rivers University. He hopes to launch a program in Nain to resurrect the Labrador kayak, teaching others to build, travel, and hunt with them. The idea is to reintroduce a lost, culturally important skill, get people who can’t afford motor boats out on the land, and provide a way for them to hunt, helping address the community’s food-insecurity challenges.
When I arrive at the shed it’s full of kayaks, their skeletal forms in various stages of completion, hanging from the ceiling. Half-buried in the snow outside are the stacked remains of aborted vessels that didn’t quite work out. It turns out that Nochasak himself is out of town, though. Instead, I find lay minister Harry Green inside, using a jigsaw to contour the edge of what is unmistakably a casket.
The Moravian church has relied on lay ministers—non-ordained volunteers—since it stopped employing a full-time minister in town in the early 1980s. At first the sight of Green bent over a casket is surprising, shocking even. But on reflection, that’s a southern reaction: in a community supplied through an eight-month winter only by unreliable Twin Otter service, it makes sense that expensive, space-hogging mortuary supplies would be made in-town. Green also digs graves in the town’s cemetery, a traditional “God’s Acre” Moravian affair with characteristic simple, flat stones, facing straight to the sky.
Collaboration—and occasional collision—between traditional knowledge and southern science is very much part of Nunatsiavut’s modus operandi.
This casket is for an older woman, a Hebronimiut, who’d died a few days prior. The shed is a pilot project operated by Nunatsiavut’s Department of Health and Social Development. It opened early last year, as a place for locals to learn woodworking and socialize. And as Green explains, it’s used to build just about everything, from caskets to komatiks to kitchen cabinets.
Not far from the shed sits the newest major building in Nain, the Illusuak Cultural Centre. Completed this year, it stands in stark contrast to the community. (Footsteps from this striking slice of modernity, arctic char dries in a rack on the roof of a nearby house.) Yet to the credit of its architect—Newfoundland-born and Norway-based starchitect Todd Saunders, who also designed Newfoundland’s Fogo Island Inn—it already feels as if it belongs here.
Illusuak is an Inuttitut word referring to the summertime sod dwellings built in centuries past by Labrador Inuit. The cultural centre is an undulating series of golden curves, with one section of the building seeming to emerge from the last, as of a house emerging from an earthen mound. Situated between the Northern Store and the former residential school, it sits right at the bay, with a view of the church to the north, the incline of the town above, and out over the ballicatters to the vista of open fjords and mountains beyond.
Belinda Webb, deputy minister for culture, recreation, and tourism, shows me around the building’s offices, whose interior dimensions are dictated by the building’s wiggly form. Parks Canada recently moved its offices here from the nearby research centre, and they’ve installed a fat grey cubicle farm in their room, a southern imposition if ever there was one—the blunt beige partitions are an affront to the room’s graceful proportions, and block the view outdoors, which is half the point of the place. But elsewhere, the building’s remarkable harmony is intact.
Webb is especially enthusiastic about the kitchen, which she hopes will serve country foods—char, seal, ptarmigan, and so on—a respite from the jiggs dinners and meat-and-potatoes offered up at the Atsanik Lodge. She shows me the black-box theatre, outfitted with the only cinema on the coast. And she shows me the electrical room, not normally a highlight of a building tour, but this is the only structure in town which won’t draw its power entirely from the diesel plant up on the hill, on the other side of the harbour. Inside are a series of pipes carrying hot water from a solar-powered heater on the roof.
As impressive as it all is, it’s frankly difficult to imagine the cultural centre being well-patronized. Webb explains that Nunatsiaviut’s tourism strategy envisions Nain as the jumping off point for adventure tourists to the Torngat Mountains National Park, hundreds of kilometres north, at the very top of Labrador. That won’t be a short-term goal: Nain’s barely adequate airstrip and limited accommodations are one impediment; the prohibitive cost of travel entirely another. But it’s a start. Just like any ambitious bit of civic starchitecture, the centre isn’t universally applauded. Most controversial is the cost: $8.1 million from the federal government, and $7.4 million from the Nunatsiavut government.
When I spoke to Nain angajukKak Julius Dicker at the town hall, he gestured out the window in the cultural centre’s direction and said, “We’ve got this, supposed to be done in 2017, over-budget.” And then he gestured out the window at a small house in the opposite direction: “There are 15 people in there living in four bedrooms, and that’s not an isolated case.” (Housing is one of Nunatsiavut’s biggest problems—74 percent of houses in Nain require major repairs due to damage from shifting permafrost, and it costs more than $200,000 to service a typical lot for development. This past year saw a tuberculosis outbreak stemming from overcrowding, which took the life of a 14-year-old.)
Dicker’s lament is familiar enough: why fund frills when there are potholes to fill? Or in this case, why fund a cultural centre when there aren’t enough places for people to live, or enough food to eat, or when children can’t speak the language of their ancestors?
But as Webb explains it, the centre is a keystone in the government’s long-range plans not only to foster tourism, but a cultural re-awakening. It isn’t simply for visitors, but for Labrador Inuit themselves.
“Imagine, says Webb, “if kids are asking questions like, ‘Well, why is my family in this situation?’ My hope is that the cultural centre will help provide an understanding for youth in regards to residential schools, or relocation, and how that impacted their grandparents, and how that impacted their parents, and how that’s impacting them now.”
The Illusuak Centre is one of a trio of buildings down here with particular importance. After archaeologist Jamie Brake and I went out one day, we headed back through town, passing all three in short order. The first was the Moravian Church, and the cemetery next door, buried deep in snow. A little ways further ahead was the cultural centre. And behind that, a diminutive wooden building dating to the 1920s, two storeys tall, snow piled up to the second floor. The windows were boarded and the clapboard pocked and peeled. This was once Nain’s residential school—taken over by the province of Newfoundland on April 1, 1949, the day it joined confederation.
Because Newfoundland and Labrador’s schools were founded before the province joined Canada, Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology for the abuses of residential schools specifically excluded them, despite that they operated within Canada for decades after 1949. After the school closed in 1973, the building was used until 1998 by the OKâlaKatiget Society, Nain’s TV and radio broadcaster.
“Some people want to reclaim it, and turn it into something new,” said Brake. “Other people just want to knock it down, and never set foot in it again. You can’t blame anyone for that.”
Taken together, the three buildings seem to present a little tableau, 250 years of cultural life intersecting down here at the waterline, all the tradition and disruption of history and modernity made tangible.
No matter how much creativity and invention Nunatsiavut—or any Indigenous self-government—brings to the table, its success or failure depends in large part on Canadians as a whole. Can we imagine reconciliation as something real and concrete, something legislated into reality, that changes the balance of power in our society? Or will it just be a fuzzy buzzword? One negotiator who worked with the LIA during the land-claims process told me that the optimism that took hold in Nunatsiavut after the claim was signed quickly gave way to a realization that the Nunatsiavut government would be treated as little more than a glorified lobby group, unless it kept fighting for the rights it was already supposed to have.
The most tangible example is the by-now infamous Muskrat Falls—a planned 824-megawatt hydroelectric dam that will require a 101–square kilometre reservoir to be flooded behind the dam itself. The problem is fairly simple: decomposing organic matter releases methylmercury, and any vegetation or organic material in the reservoir will release it into the water. The mercury will eventually end up in Lake Melville, a vital source of traditional foods for beneficiaries in the area.
The dispute is years old by now. In 2011, provincial energy corporation Nalcor decided on a partial reservoir clearing, against the recommendation of an expert review panel who recommended full removal of soil and vegetation. Nunatsiavut lodged concerns the following year. After the Department of Fisheries and Oceans approved the project without topsoil removal—even after a Harvard University study recommended it—Nunatsiavut brought to federal court an application for a judicial review. They challenged that the federal government hadn’t fulfilled its obligations to consult Nunatsiavut under the Labrador Inuit Land Claim Agreement. The application was dismissed. Years later, nothing has been resolved, and the project creeps toward construction.
There is optimism that things are improving, though, especially on the federal level. The emerging Inuit-Crown partnership between Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the federal government aims at the full implementation of Inuit land claims. And Nunatsiavut has begun to see funds for health and infrastructure, including funding specifically to address housing and other issues.
Nunatsiavut’s success or failure depends on Canadians’ ability to see reconciliation as something concrete, something that changes the balance of power, not just as a fuzzy buzzword.
The difficulties remain daunting, however—there’s a reason why Nunatsiavut’s first two presidents declined to run for a second term. This April, President Lampe told me he hadn’t decided whether or not he’ll run again: “If I saw a young person who wanted to take on that responsibility, and wanting to make that difference, I’d retire right away.”
Lampe turns 63 this month, and there is a sense that he’d simply like to be, in his words, “a normal person” again. Which to him means spending far more time with family, more time on the neglected parts of his life, more time on the land, while he’s young enough and well enough to get off and enjoy it.
Lampe believes the younger generation may find it easier to achieve the balance between the demands of the presidency, or any public office, and traditional life. (Joey Angnatok, younger than most of Nunatsiavut’s leadership at 42, told me he thinks “every day” about running for office. But it’s hard to imagine him finding enough time amid his epic to-do-list, or sitting in an office all day.)
For many, the land remains culturally vital, but more of a weekend occupation than it was for the older generation. Nunatsiavut is still very much a work-to-live culture: quitting time is quitting time, and on Friday afternoon the komatiks are packed and snowmobiles loaded for a weekend going off. But there is without question a Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five rhythm to life that isn’t all that unlike the south—and which would have been very foreign to life here a century ago.
In June, in a story about the expansion of the Voisey’s Bay mine and improved local job opportunities, Lampe told CBC that “traditionally, Inuit are hunters, trappers, fishers and gatherers…but those days are slowly going, and our children and our grandchildren are now learning to become miners, and other things too.”
hen Frances Abele at Carleton University said to me that land claims and modern treaties are about “negotiating consent to be part of Canada,” she also made sure to point out that we’re still decidedly in an experimental phase. “At the level of principle, it works,” she said. “At the level of practice, there’s still a lot to figure out.”
Places like Nunatsiavut are some of the boldest strokes so far in that experimentation, and as this incredible, often unbelievable year draws to a close—as we observe the narrow, exclusionary, mean-spirited visions of nationalism popping up, whack-a-mole style, around the globe—what could be more incredible and encouraging than a nation actively expanding and reimagining what its confederation means, and who gets to exercise authority within it?
But we’re not there yet, and self-congratulation is premature. We have our own hyperbolic debates about border crossings, refugees, belonging, “Canadian values.” And when it comes to land claims and modern treaties, negotiations are slow, governments are often less than enthusiastic about giving up autonomy, Canadians in general are still on the fence about it all, and there remains abundant skepticism about how truly committed Canadian society is to the reality, and not just the idea, of reconciliation.
“These are…points in time that we’ll look back on, 150 years from now, and say ‘These are origins of modern self-determination.’”
When I asked Hayden King at the Yellowhead Institute just how transformative the modern-treaty process has the potential to be, he said, “It’s too difficult a question…we have no data, no evidence except anecdotal that modern treaties are working…even after 40 years, we just don’t have enough information to say one way or the other.”
“I’ve been across this country, and I talk to so many people, and I don’t believe that Canadians want land claims to fail,” said Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. “But…30 or 40 seats are not going to move from Liberal to Conservative in Ottawa based on one decision or another about our interests. That allows for politicians and bureaucrats to not take treaty implementation seriously.”
But he remains optimistic: “The way I look at it, these aren’t agreements that will be renegotiated and forgotten or lost. They are points in time that we’ll look back on, 150 years from now, and say ‘These are origins of modern self-determination.’”
You leave Nain in the opposite way that you arrived—on a series of progressively larger planes, to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, then to somewhere else, and somewhere else again. As you ascend you might spot the shaman’s glacier, or this island or that, but soon the horizon grows too far, the landscape too monumental. All that’s left are the broad bays, and islands rising, round and white. Near you, the scattered coastal communities criss-crossed with snowmobile tracks; farther away, only eternity.
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