I am a two-time alumnus of Dalhousie University. I began as a student in 2002, as a faculty member in 2009 and am now a Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples’ health and well-being. I am Inuk. I am also a member of NunatuKavut.

In an open letter released earlier this year. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami’s (ITK) President Natan Obed suggested that I, along with all members of NunatuKavut, are criminals.

“Before 2010, NCC called itself the Labrador Métis Nation, and its members, including president Todd Russell, identified as Métis,” Obed says in the open letter.

Obed then equates the NunatuKavut Inuit with those falsely claiming Indigenous identities and claims we are “shape-shifters” threatening to take resources away from “real” Inuit.

What this fails to recognize is that the term “Métis” was always used as a way to reflect Inuit and mixed Inuit identities in Labrador. It was never used to assert an identity that was not reflective of the deeply rooted Inuit culture and presence in southern Labrador.

Obed’s open letter also asserts that NunatuKavut Inuit “are practicing a perverse form of colonial racism that… might, in certain circumstances, amount to criminal fraud.”

He made a similar claim in a letter written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in October 2021.

Obed argues that the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) is a “fraudulent organization” seeking rights and benefits reserved for Inuit across Inuit Nunangat. Repeatedly, he has asserted what he calls these fraudulent efforts can be curtailed through the implementation of the Inuit Nunangat policy.

That policy, co-developed between the four Inuit treaty organizations (Inuvialuit, Nunavik, Nunavut and Nunatsiavut) and the Crown, is not a rights-recognition policy. It is intended to ensure that federal programs, policies, resources and initiatives that benefit Inuit from the four regions represented by the ITK continue to align with, and support, Inuit self-determination.

A call back to the Indian Act

Yet Obed is asserting the policy should be used to reject the existence of Inuit from NunatuKavut, and that universities, governments and agencies should require proof of Indigeneity. This is reminiscent of the Indian Act – controversial legislation from which most Indigenous leaders nationwide are actively attempting to move away. This is clearly not the intention of the Inuit Nunangat policy.

In Obed’s November letter, he goes further in his demands: “Academic and other institutions should [adopt] formal eligibility policies that cohere with [ITK’s] definition of Inuit.”

This call comes at a time when Indigenous peoples are demanding academic institutions craft policies requiring identity documentation to ensure that academic and staff appointments, as well as student scholarships and awards, are given to legitimate Indigenous peoples and not fraudsters or “pretendians.”

The author (right) is the granddaughter of Violet (Brown) and Paul Holley (left), pictured in her grandparents’ home in Fox Harbour in eastern Labrador.

Creating policy around Indigenous identity verification at academic institutions is no easy task. There seem to be more exceptions than rules. One issue appears conflated in both the institutional responses and in ITK’s own argument – that individuals falsely claiming Indigenous identity and entire collectives of people who have consistently claimed to be Indigenous are all meeting the same definition of “fraud.” This is exceedingly problematic.

The institutional policymaking process is made even more complicated when there are Inuit organizations making defamatory comments about Inuit students, faculty and staff attending these academic institutions.

The evidence

In the case of NunatuKavut, there is a solid case that meets all the criteria to establish NunatuKavut identity as Inuit. There have been several legal decisions, both federally and provincially, that have determined NunatuKavut Inuit have credible claims to Section 35 rights under the Constitution and others where their status as Indigenous was not questioned.

There is archaeological evidence that corroborates oral history, unequivocally demonstrating that NunatuKavut Inuit have been stewards of the lands, water and ice of south and central Labrador since before contact with European explorers and settlers.

It is worthy of note that even after contact with Europeans, Inuit showed organized resistance for about 100 years. There is evidence of armed conflict against the French, preventing them from travelling further north than Cape Charles (located on the very southern Labrador coast).

A cape appropriately named on French charts as Pointe de Detour and Cap Detour, clearly marks the line of resistance. My family has lived from time immemorial just several kilometers from Cape Charles.

The NCC consists of an elected council that has been in existence since the early 1980s. Those who hold full membership with NunatuKavut must undergo a rigorous application process. It requires a genealogical connection to Labrador Inuit (verified by a professional genealogist and Inuit oral histories), a parent or grandparent who grew up in the territory and proven community connections (which must be offered through multiple references).

While there is no “holy grail of Indigeneity” – a settled land claim with the Crown – headway has been made.

In 2017, the federal government signed a memorandum of understanding demonstrating a commitment to negotiate Inuit rights under the recognition of Indigenous rights and self-determination process. Those negotiations are underway, with regular meetings between the NCC and representatives from Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada.

Yet, despite all of this evidence, academic institutions seem to be relying on the position of the ITK when they construct their Indigenous identity policies.

The battle over Inuit identity in Labrador

The policies being created by Dalhousie University, Queen’s University, the University of Saskatchewan and elsewhere are harming Indigenous peoples – the very people who are supposed to be protected by it.

I am a tenured professor – regardless of how Dalhousie University ends up rolling out its Indigenous identity policy. It is unlikely that I would meet the criteria necessary to be fired. That is small comfort to me, however, because it is not clear how I can continue to work at an institution, any institution, that refuses to acknowledge my very existence.

It is also not clear how I can continue when my people, other NunatuKavut Inuit, may be denied employment or admission at Canadian academic institutions for simply insisting that their Indigeneity be recognized.

NunatuKavut Inuit are Inuit.

It is shameful to have to request – no, demand – that my existence as an Inuk woman be acknowledged by the president of a national organization that purports to represent Inuit or to have to request that Obed’s intimation that I am a “criminal” be retracted.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Gary Anandasangaree should take a stance now and speak out against how this policy is being misrepresented by Obed. The government’s silence is complicity. It’s undermining the existence of Indigenous peoples in Canada.

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Debbie Martin
Debbie Martin, PhD, is Inuk and a member of NunatuKavut. She is also a professor in the school of health and human performance at Dalhousie University and the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples’ health and well-being.

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