Court dismisses Innu Nation challenge against recognition of disputed Labrador group

Innu Nation Grand Chief Simon Pokue has described NunatuKavut as a race-shifting organization comprised mainly of settlers, a charge the group rejects. (CBC - image credit)

The Federal Court has dismissed the Innu Nation's court challenge against federal recognition of a Labrador group making disputed assertions of Inuit identity.

Judge Cecily Y. Strickland on Wednesday rejected the Innu Nation's application for judicial review of a contested memorandum of understanding between the federal government and the NunatuKavut Community Council.

In a written decision, Strickland concluded the agreement doesn't actually recognize NunatuKavut as having Indigenous rights. Ottawa's decision to sign the agreement can't be ruled upon by the courts and any negative impacts on Innu rights are "entirely speculative," the judge wrote.

NunatuKavut is controversial and represents 6,000 self-identifying Inuit in south and central Labrador. The group identified itself as Métis until 2010 and is not recognized by national organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

The Innu Nation, comprising two First Nations communities in Labrador, and the Nunatsiavut Government, representing recognized Inuit in northern Labrador, say NunatuKavut is a settler organization engaging in Inuit identity theft.

In the 2019 MOU, the Trudeau government described NunatuKavut as an Indigenous collective capable of holding Indigenous rights under section 35 of Canada's Constitution.

The Innu took legal action, arguing "Indigenous collective" is a meaningless phrase since only the recognized "Aboriginal peoples of Canada" can hold these constitutionally protected rights.

Since NunatuKavut's status as Inuit is disputed, the Innu Nation and Nunatsiavut joined forces to argue Canada's decision to sign the MOU was incorrect and unreasonable.

But Strickland concluded the MOU is an "expression of good will and political commitment" that doesn't create, recognize or deny any legal or constitutional right or obligation on the part of either party.

"It also does not recognize NCC as an Aboriginal people under section 35 of the Constitution," Strickland wrote.

"Accordingly, any impact on NCC's, Canada's or the [Innu Nation's] rights are entirely speculative and do not arise from the MOU."

NunatuKavut may or may not be recognized as belonging to the Indigenous peoples of Canada once negotiations with Canada conclude, but the MOU is the beginning and not the end of this process, according to the judge.

The Innu Nation also argued the government failed to uphold its duty to consult the Innu on the MOU, but the judge rejected this argument, too.

"The duty to consult has not yet been triggered," Strickland wrote.

The judge wrote the duty to consult wasn't triggered because "the MOU itself does not have the potential to adversely affect Innu Nation's asserted rights."

That duty may arise as NunatuKavut's talks with Ottawa proceed, Strickland wrote.

In a statement, NunatuKavut called the decision an unequivocal victory.

"We are so pleased that the court has heard, listened and acted the evidence, supported by the law and the facts. We look forward to continuing negotiations," said NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell in the statement.

CBC Indigenous has reached out to the other parties to the case for reaction.