Staking Claims: Innu Rights and Mining Claims at Voisey's Bay


This place has many names, attesting to the different human histories intertwined here. Archaeologists have found evidence here of human habitation going back 6,000 years, and the descendants of these early peoples have continued to make extensive use of the place.(1) To the Innu, it is known as Kapukuanipant-kauashat, or more recently as Eimish (or "Emish"). To the Inuit, it is Tasiujatsoak. Settlers called it Voisey's Bay after the family that established a trading post here in the early 1900s, and this is the name that found its way onto the government maps and into public consciousness in November 1994, when a small company called Diamond Fields Resources (DFR) made a significant mineral find.

This event marked the beginning of an exploration boom that some compared to the Klondike -- but it also set in motion a complex web of conflicts between the Innu, the Inuit, and some of the most powerful interests in the global mining industry. Voisey's Bay/Eimish/Tasiujatsoak became contested terrain, and the issues at the heart of the conflict are a reflection of tensions within contemporary Canadian society.

Staking Claims

"Staking a claim" is an act loaded with significance for aboriginal people. Five hundred years ago, John Cabot had to cross an ocean and plant a flag in order to claim for England what is now Newfoundland. Today, a short visit to the Mineral Claims Office of the Department of Natural Resources in St. John's to draw a few lines on a map, together with the payment of small fee, is all it takes to stake a claim to Innu land.(2)

Once staked, mineral claims give the holder legal rights to explore for minerals and guaranteed ownership over any minerals found. The provincial mineral legislation in Newfoundland and Labrador effectively gives precedence to mineral exploration over all other land uses. Mineral claims confer on the holder the right to explore and develop the claim, and the government is obliged to grant development rights if the holder applies for them, provided that minimal permit conditions are satisfied.

Comparatively, aboriginal rights in the same territory are far less secure. In the language of the federal government's comprehensive claims process, commonly known as the "land claims" process, the Innu and Inuit of Labrador have "claims of unextinguished aboriginal title." Governments, when they agree to negotiate with an aboriginal group, do so on their own terms. Under Canada's 1993 Federal Policy for the Settlement of Native Claims, an aboriginal group must demonstrate, among other things, that it has occupied the specific territory over which it asserts aboriginal title since "time immemorial," and that it continues to use the territory for "traditional purposes."

Even once the aboriginal group provides the necessary evidence and their claim has been accepted for negotiation, governments maintain full jurisdiction over the territory in question. They continue to issue land use authorizations, mineral leases, logging permits, and allow other developments to take place in the territory as if the negotiations were not taking place at all. Furthermore, an explicit pre-condition is applied to the negotiations in which the government guarantees that the rights of "third parties" (non-aboriginal interests) will be protected in a final settlement.

Historical Context

Since the 1950s, Labrador has been transformed in the European consciousness from wasteland to resource frontier. New roads have paved the way for industrial forestry. The huge Churchill Falls hydroelectric development flooded a prime Innu hunting area half the size of Lake Ontario, disrupting watersheds and ecosystems over thousands of square kilometers (see Lutterman, Stern, and Furman in CSQ 24:2). Newfoundland also began strictly to enforce hunting and firewood cutting regulations in the territory, with disastrous effects on Innu culture and their hunting economy.(3) (Armitage, 1990) Because the Innu have not signed treaties and do not fall under Canada's Indian Act, they have no reserves or treaty rights. Innu hunters were treated like "any other Newfoundlanders," and were regularly prosecuted under provincial game laws until the 1990 Sparrow decision in the Supreme Court established the primacy of aboriginal harvesting rights in Canada. (R. v. Sparrow, [1990] 1 S.C.R. 1075) This period of radical change left may Innu struggling for ways to understand what had happened to their people and to their land. Nuk Nui, an elder now living in Sheshatshiu, recalls:

When I first heard about governments, they were good to us. They were building us houses. Education was available to our children. The police were here and other services. We didn't know their plans. Today we understand what they were doing. The younger generation ha become better educated and understands the issues better. Governments promised us many things. This was their way of telling us we should stay in the community. We didn't know why they were doing this.... They used to take advantage of us because we didn't understand. (Innu Nation and Mushuau Innu Band Council, 1992)

Despite this history, aboriginal people continue to challenge and resist the ways in which they and their land are defined. Ironically, Canada's comprehensive claims process was itself the first admission in more than a century by the government of the existence of unextinguished aboriginal fights, and it opened the possibility or negotiating new treaties between aboriginal people and Canada.(4)

Over the past 25 years, this admission and the creation of other significant "gaps" have allowed Innu and other aboriginal people to create and maintain political identities that have helped them become prominent features on the Canadian political landscape.(5) Although the process is clearly stacked against aboriginal people, negotiations have provided resources and political opportunities used by aboriginal people successfully to challenge their marginalized status in the courts, to achieve constitutional recognition for aboriginal rights, and to become a more powerful force within Canada's political structures. In itself, this marks a significant departure from earlier periods in Canadian history where aboriginal participation in public life and political discourse was actively suppressed.(6)

Setting the Stage

The initial Innu response to the mineral discovery and their subsequent attempt to evict the companies in February 1995 were signature events that helped shape and define the project for the Canadian public. The discovery was already being heralded by the press a the "most significant base-metal find in recent years" when the Innu Nation attempted to assert the priority of Innu rights over the claims of the mining company. Innu Chief Negotiator Daniel Ashini told a press conference: "Our priority is the resolution of our land rights negotiations and the protection of our way of life. Any potential development in our territory is a major concern." (Innu Nation Press Release, 1994) The Canadian Press wire service (November 30, 1994) carried the story, quoting Chief Katie Rich: "One of the things we are concerned about is that the mining will go ahead without our say." The article ran in several major Canadian dailies under the headline "Innu Want say in mining plans."

Both the Innu and the Inuit also made direct contact with Diamond Fields, putting them on notice that the discovery was indeed in aboriginal territory, and that any further exploration and development required Innu and Inuit consent. Diamond Fields responded by promising to send Charlie (Russ) Russell, the president of the company, to Labrador to meet with Innu and Inuit leaders in early December.

By the time Russell touched down in Goose Bay on December 5th, the Innu had learned much more about him, about Diamond Fields Resources, and about its principal shareholder, Robert Friedland;(7) the first meeting was far from what the company expected. Russell was in the midst of outlining the company's commitments to consultation with all interested parties and to environmental protection when Ashini asked him about Robert Friedland's role. Russell explained that Friedland was "just an investor" in the company. Ashini then asked about Summitville.

The Innu had learned that both Russell and Friedland were key players in what is generally regarded as one of the worst modern mining environmental disasters in the United States. The Galactic Resources mine at Summittville, Colorado operated for several years and then abruptly declared bankruptcy, but not before polluting the Alamosa River with cyanide and other toxins. Friedland fled to Canada just before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared the mine a Superfund site. Ongoing cleanup operations have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $120 million dollars, and Friedland is still under investigation by the U.S. EPA and FBI, who are seeking to hold him responsible for the cleanup costs. Russell's entire tone and demeanor changed -- he became angry and defensive, and denounced the "environmentalists who had blown the problems way out of proportion." The meeting ended, but not before the Innu were established as well-informed and politically sophisticated adversaries.

Ntesinan, Nteshiniminan, Nteniunan

On February 4(th), 1995, about 100 Innu from Utshimassit traveled to Eimish by snowmobile along the ice-bound Labrador coast in bright sunlight and -40 degree temperatures. They arrived at the western end of the bay after dark, having left Utshimassit late that morning. Tents were quickly erected at a site well known to Innu hunters, and the following morning they continued to the Diamond Fields exploration site. Once at the site, Chief Simeon Tshakapesh and Daniel Ashini delivered an eviction notice to the chief geologist, giving the company twenty-four hours to shut down operations and leave Innu land. A two-week standoff between the Innu and the RCMP followed before a peaceful resolution was reached.

Although the Innu action against the company failed to achieve the practical outcome the Innu desired, it was singularly important in many other ways. Publicly, the action established the Innu as one of the principle actors in the drama unfolding around the mineral discovery, but it also helped to unify the Innu response to the project. Innu leaders, spokespeople, elders, and community members consistently articulated positions that centered On the effects of the project on Innu rights, Innu land, and the Innu way of life.

The Discourse of Prior and Legitimate Rights

Innu people believe in their hearts that Nitassinan (Labrador) is Innu land, and many of them are deeply scarred by the colonial reality that now claims them. Kathleen Nuna, an Innu elder, spoke eloquently to this effect at a public workshop attended by government and industry representatives in Sheshatshiu:

Why do they want us to lose our rights? I am not searching to be rich, to have flowers around my house. I am searching for something in our hearts; something peaceful, meaningful, culturally relevant. We want the same rights that other cultures have, like the Chinese or the French.... We have the stories of our grandfathers, like mine. He said the first people in Canada were Innu. What has happened to our rights? How many times do we have to say it? Are people's ears connected to their brains.... Not everybody has to be the same. We don't [all have] the same needs. I'm not saying we don't like you, the white people, that we hate you. We just want to be afforded respect which we will give back. (Innu Nation Task Force on Mining Activities, 1996)

Some Innu leaders have also adopted Western notions of rights and justice, which they use directly to contest Euro-Canadian concepts of property and ownership. In doing so, they show Euro-Canadian claims to Nitassinan to be recent, arbitrary, and unjust. In a keynote address, Daniel Ashini (1995) told the Newfoundland chapter of the Canadian Bar Association:

Newfoundland issues exploration permits to the exploration companies without any consultation with the Innu people. They do so in complete disregard for comprehensive claims negotiations that are supposed to be underway leading to comprehensive rights agreements between the Innu, Newfoundland and Canada and between the Labrador Inuit Association, Newfoundland and Canada regarding the respective rights of the parties in the Voisey Bay area. The story here is the same as with low-level flying. Innu rights are simply ignored and permits are issued by Newfoundland even though we have unextinguished Aboriginal rights. Is this justice? And when the Innu protest this unilateral, hypocritical violation of our rights, Mr. Wells sends the RCMP into Voisey Bay to act as a private security force for the exploration company.

The discourse of prior and legitimate rights was not directly contested by either Diamond Fields or the Newfoundland government; it was simply subverted and diffused. The company and the government countered Innu arguments by pointing to the fact that the company was obeying the law: it had valid exploration permits and legally staked mineral claims. The company maintained that it was caught in the middle of a dispute between the government and the aboriginal groups. A Globe and Mail article quoted Edward Mercaldo, a senior vice president with Diamond Fields: "We're encouraging the government people to settle the land-claims issue, but it's not our issue.... We can't get in the middle of it. We're willing to deal with whoever the eventual landlord is." (Lamphier, 1995)

Negotiations between the Innu, the governments, and the company were perhaps inevitable, but for the Innu, the decision to negotiate with the company was not an easy one; it required them to make a major shift in their approach to the project. By the summer of 1995, however, it was clear that they had little choice. Inco and Teck had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the project, and the results of ongoing exploration made it apparent that the deposit was going to be worth billions. The Inuit had already started negotiations with the company when the innu leadership met with the company's new president, Cliff Carson, in Ottawa in July 1995 to discuss the possibility of initiating discussions. As Peter Penashue told Carson: "There are two philosophies at the table: DFR is going to get the maximum economic benefit from the project. The Innu want the least impact. How we can accommodate each other can be found out only by discussing our mutual concerns." (Innu Nation internal meeting minutes, 1995)

Although the company was willing to enter negotiations immediately, it took several months of intensive consultation and deliberation before the Innu made the decision to sit down with the company again. Many people felt that the Innu Nation had little choice. George Gregoire, the Innu Nation Communication Officer in Utshimassit, captured the prevailing sense of the situation when he told the Task Force:

What choice do we have to protest or negotiate? We are trying to protect the land and the animals and on the other hand [are] the big companies. No matter where we stand, it's like giving away our land. And if we try to stop it, we won't go nowhere. Mining developments will go ahead anyway. If we protest, how long can we stay there? People will get tired of it. They will feel helpless because they will know mining developments will go ahead anyway. If we don't negotiate, what benefits will we get? Nothing. We'll just watch our land destroyed. In our proposed negotiation, it doesn't say we cannot protest. We still can protest if we have to. I think we should continue to negotiate with Diamond Fields but make sure we get what we want. (Innu Nation Task Force on Mining Activities, 1996)

Although the Innu discourse of prior and legitimate ownership was diffused to some extent when they agreed to participate in the negotiations, their arguments have maintained credibility and persuasive force. Instead of challenging the company's presence in their territory, Innu spokespeople now point to the fact that they are at the table in good faith, and that while billions of dollars have changed hands on the stock market, not a single cent has found its way into the hands of the people who own the land.

The Discourse of Environmental Concern

In establishing themselves as activists for environmental protection, the Innu were on familiar terrain. The Innu had fought developments for several years on similar grounds. Innu environmental discourse is unique in that it is in many ways a synthetic discourse, a fusion of two very different ways of relating to the land. On the one hand, there is a strong cultural tradition of respect for the aueshish-utshimaut (animal masters) and for the knowledge that elders and hunters have about the land. On the other, science does play an important role by enabling Innu leaders to deal with the dominant society on its own terms and to challenge the ways in which science is pressed into service by powerful interests.

Within Innu culture, statements about the land and the effects of a given development are framed in terms of and according to a logic that can be very different from the rigidly factual language of cause-and-effect that characterizes Western scientific discourse. The referents allowing Innu listeners to make distinctions between speculation, spiritual relationships, past events, future possibilities, etc. can be lost on Western audiences. Consider for example, the following:

There will be no fish, caribou, ducks, geese at Eimish after the mining starts. The bear is different. The bear is like the whiteman, but he can't live with them in the winter. He will walk around in the Eimish camp. He will eat at the whiteman's table because the Akaneshau (whiteman) has killed the fish in the river.... Even the moose -- he is the brother of the Akaneshau. He will walk on the streets of Eimish with a tie. The Akaneshau has three friends -- bear, moose and raven, but he can't be friends with the squirrel because it steals from them. The smog from the milling plant will kill the plants and animals. And it will float into our community. we will not see the smog -- it will slowly kill the animals and us.... The wildlife officer will know when he can't find any animals. He will blame us for the lack of them but he will not think about the drilling. (Edward Piwas, in Innu Nation Task Force on Mining Activities, 1996)

This type of discourse is rich in metaphor and cultural significance, but it can create problems and misunderstandings when Western listeners attempt its interpretation within cause-and-effect frameworks. Accordingly, many Innu leaders are now careful when translating and presenting Innu environmental knowledge to help akaneshau listeners understand some of these nuances. Other statements about the project's environmental effects are much more direct. Joseph Nuna, an Innu elder living in Sheshatshiu, told the Task Force: "[The companies] are destroying the land, our wildlife will no longer be there and the people who hunt will no longer hunt there." (Innu Nation Task Force on Mining Activities, 1996)

The synthetic form of Innu environmental discourse is characterized by statements in which the terms of the Western scientific framework are incorporated into Innu arguments. Innu spokespeople tend to be very skeptical of reductive studies and rigid, disciplinary approaches to science and environmental knowledge, but they have readily incorporated the language and explanatory frameworks of more holistic approaches, such as landscape ecology and conservation biology. Terms like `ecological integrity', `biological diversity', and `cumulative effects' are now frequently used by Innu spokespeople. Innu people have been claimed by a world where science is a fundamental frame of reference, and they have adapted and incorporated those aspects of science that make sense to them, while contesting those aspects that do not.

The Discourse of Cultural Survival

Mineral exploration at Eimish is only a recent event in the ongoing history of the Innu's alienation from their land. The discourse of cultural survival, which establishes the Innu as a threatened people, is an essential theme in the Innu articulation of resistance to developments in Voisey's Bay. Innu people speak to their evidence that the company and the governments are ignoring Innu rights, and they express their fears about a project likely to have a disastrous effect on the health of the communities and the Innu way of life. They speak from their hearts about their personal experiences at the brutal edge of the Canadian political system. Peter Penashue opened the February 1995 negotiations between the Innu, the Inuit, and Diamond Fields by making it clear where the Innu were coming from:

I myself was born into the community. But my parents were not. They were encouraged by the church and government to settle. The primary purpose of this settlement was to bring people into the community so they could be assimilated, and our lands could be taken. The objective was to change us. While we lived on the land, Churchill Falls couldn't happen. My grandfather's hunting grounds were flooded. This was the beginning of the assault on our land. Now we face militarization, and now, the Voisey Bay project. You didn't even tell us that you were exploring on our land. You found the Province easier to deal with, because you see the world the same way. This is the problem. We see the world differently. We are not Europeans....

At this time in our history, we are starting to resist.... This is why we protested at Voisey Bay. We may not be ready for it. We need to dream, and we need to come to know what we want, just in the same way that you have. But with so many guns pointed at our heads, we have no choice but to protest. Without Voisey's Bay, Diamond Fields will continue to exist. But things are not so certain for us. (Innu Nation internal meeting minutes, 1995)

Only a few years earlier, the tragedy of a house fire in which six children were killed at Utshimassit focused national attention on the neglect and broken promises that had characterized the government's treatment of the Innu. Within weeks of its announcement, the proximity of the rich discovery to the impoverished community of Utshimassit was already drawing media comment on the disparity. One op-ed author wrote: "Diamond Fields president Robert Friedland controls Voisey's Bay shares worth half a billion dollars. He'll pocket much more when he sells Voisey's Bay rights. Eighty kilometers south, Davis Inlet Innu contend with Third World squalor." (Kennedy, 1996)

Living in the Tension

[I]f we have any power at all in Canada as colonized people, it is thorough our ability to win the hearts and minds of the general non-Aboriginal public to put pressure on government people who make the policies that affect us, and to take our issues to international publics. (Ashini, 1996)

In the midst of mining industry claims, Innu are seeking to reclaim their future. The critical task for Innu spokespersons is to make the connections that will give people cause to care about the issues that Innu face. The articulate, principled approach by Innu leaders and spokespeople to the challenges of the Voisey's Bay development has been a step toward achieving this goal.

References & further reading

Armitage, P. (1990). Land Use and Occupancy Among the Innu of Sheshatshiu and Utshimassit. Sheshatshiu: Innu Nation.

Ashini, D. (1995, April 12). Access to Justice. Speech to the Canadian Bar Association. St. John's, Newfoundland.

Ashini, D. (1996, May 18). Reflections on News Media Coverage of Aboriginal and Mining Issues in Labrador. Speech given to the Canadian Association of Journalists. St. John's, Newfoundland.

Innu Nation and Mushuau Innu Band Council (1992). Gathering Voices to Help our Children. Sheshatshiu: Innu Nation.

Innu Nation Press Release (1994, November 28). Innu Express Concern over Voisey Bay Mineral Exploration.

Innu Nation Task Force on Mining Activities (1996). Ntesinan, Nteshiniminan, Nteniunan -- Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Sheshatshiu and Utshimassit: Innu Nation.

Kennedy, J. (1996, March 16). Whose Labrador is it? Evening Telegram 16, Pp A4.

Lamphier, G. (1995, April 22). Diamond Fields' dream dazzles. Globe and Mail, Pp B1.

Leslie, J. & Maguire R., eds. (1987). The Historical Development of the Indian Act. 2nd ed. Ottawa: DIAND.

Miningwatch Canada and Canadian Friends of Burma (2000). Grave Diggers. Ottawa: Moody, R.

Titley, E.B. (1986). A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Voisey's Bay Nickel Company (1999). Voisey's Bay Environmental Impact Statement. Toronto: Inco Ltd.

(1). Much of the record was complied during extensive archaeological fieldword conducted by the Innu Nation and the Labrador Inuit Association under contract to the Voisey's Bay Nickel Company in the summer of 1996. A report outlining the results of this work can be found in Voisey's Bay Nickel Company, 1999.

(2). This article deals specifically with the situation facing the Innu in Labrador, the mainland portion of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. To a large extent, the issues presented here also affect the Inuit of Labrador, whose territory overlaps with that of the Innu at Votsey's Bay, but are a separate and distinct cultural group.

(3). The Newfoundland government continued to enforce wildlife laws against the Innu until a 1990 decision by the Supreme Court (in Sparrow) ruled that harvesting was in fact a constitutionally protected aboriginal right.

(4). There is, of course, much more to be said about the evolution of the comprehensive claims process. Government established it in response to the Supreme Court's decision in the 1973 Calder case, where six Supreme Court justices agreed that unextinguished Nisga'a title to their traditional territories existed in law. Although the Nisga'a lost the case, J. Hall's dissenting opinion was later adopted in majority Supreme Court decisions, most notably Sparrow.

(5). Possibly the most significant gap was the recognition and affirmation of existing aboriginal and treaty rights in section 35 of the 1982 Constitution.

(6). The efforts of the Department of Indian Affairs from the late 1800's onward to actively assimilate aboriginal people into the dominant society while suppressing political organization and the pursuit of aboriginal rights in the courts are well documented. Under s. 141 of the Indian Act, the solicitation or collection of funds from Indians to actively pursue claims on their behalf were forbidden. This provision was in effect from 1927 to 1951, Aboriginal people were not permitted to vote in federal elections until 1960. See generally Leslie & Maguire, 1987, and Titley, 1986.

(7). Friedland and Friedland-controlled companies have gained notoriety for alleged offenses against the environment and indigenous peoples. See Miningwatch Canada and Canadian Friends of Burma, 2000.

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