Why a residential schools apology has led to calls for N.L.'s Indigenous affairs minister to resign

Newfoundland and Labrador's Indigenous affairs and reconciliation minister, Lisa Dempster, is facing calls to resign over the provincial government's plans to apologize to residential school survivors with only the NunatuKavut community council present. (Danny Arsenault/CBC - image credit)
Newfoundland and Labrador's Indigenous affairs and reconciliation minister, Lisa Dempster, is facing calls to resign over the provincial government's plans to apologize to residential school survivors with only the NunatuKavut community council present. (Danny Arsenault/CBC - image credit)

Arguments over Inuit identity have taken the forefront in Labrador, following the revelation that the provincial government plans an apology to residential school survivors in partnership with the NunatuKavut community council — a group that does not hold federal treaty rights.

Labrador's two other Indigenous groups are now calling for Newfoundland and Labrador's Indigenous Affairs Minister Lisa Dempster to resign or be fired.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Premier Andrew Furey was asked if he would consider their demand.

"I have full confidence in all of my cabinet," he said.

The Nunatsiavut government made a public plea for her resignation Wednesday afternoon and were joined hours later by the Innu Nation.

"If Premier [Andrew] Furey or his government truly believes in reconciliation for Indigenous peoples they must begin to reconcile the harm to the true Inuit and Innu of Labrador by removing Lisa Dempster from her portfolio, immediately," said Innu Nation Grand Chief Simon Pokue in a press release Wednesday evening.

The province promised in 2017 to apologize to residential school survivors. The decision to do that in Cartwright, with only representatives from the provincial government and NunatuKavut in attendance, has caused outrage among the Innu represented by Innu Nation, and the Inuit represented by the Nunatsiavut government.

"An apology to an unrecognized Indigenous group in advance of National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is an insult to survivors and to Labrador Inuit," said Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe on Wednesday.

The NunatuKavut community council says the backlash is uncalled for.

"It's quite egregious," NunatuKavut President Todd Russell said on Thursday. "The remarks are misleading, some border on lies and mistruths. They do not reflect history. They do not reflect reality. In my estimation, this is nothing short of crass politics and playing politics — baseless politics, harmful politics — with the lives of our people."

Inuit identity claims long scrutinized

The dispute between recognized Inuit groups and NunatuKavut goes back to at least 1991, when a group called the Labrador Métis Nation filed a land claim with the federal government.

The claim was rejected by both the provincial and federal governments, but it became active again in 2010 when the group renamed itself the NunatuKavut community council. The council signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal government in 2019, laying the foundation for a path to self-governance.

Todd Russell, president of NunatuKavut Community Council.
Todd Russell, president of NunatuKavut Community Council.

Todd Russell, NunatuKavut president, calls the backlash 'egregious.' (Mark Quinn/CBC)

That angered the Nunatsiavut government and the Innu Nation. Both groups went to federal court to block the agreement from moving forward. Neither believes NunatuKavut is an Indigenous collective.

Russell was irate that the matter would be brought up during something as sensitive as a residential schools apology. He said his group catches flak from Nunatsiavut and the Innu Nation each time it starts to make progress.

"I think it is damnable that other Indigenous people are out there condemning other Indigenous people, just for the sake of greed," he said. "This is unacceptable. This is not the way of our ancestors."

Russell said he's trying to focus on Friday's apology and the support he'll need to give members as they relive traumatic experiences.

Furey says other apologies are coming

The premier said the decision to apologize to NunatuKavut wasn't a snub to any other group. He intends to apologize to each of them individually, he said.

"Someone has to take the first step," he said. "This was a matter of timing and availability, and we hope we can continue the good working relationship we have with the [Nunatsiavut government] and the Innu towards recognizing their apologies as well."

Furey said each group was responsible for drafting their own apologies, and NunatuKavut finished first. He said the Nunatsiavut apology should be coming soon.

"I hope to continue working with them towards dates in the very near future," Furey said. "I have the utmost respect for President Lampe, and as I understand it the language has been finally finalized within the last 24 hours and now we're working towards dates."

The Innu Nation, meanwhile, said it doesn't want an apology until after the inquiry into children in care is completed. It rejected an apology from the federal government in 2017, saying it was too narrow to focus only on schools.

Not the first complaint about Dempster, Innu say

The NunatuKavut community council says it represents more than 6,000 Inuit in southern and central Labrador.

One of those members is Lisa Dempster, the province's minister of Indigenous affairs. She also worked for the community council for 10 years as a career and employment counsellor.

Both the Innu Nation and Nunatsiavut say that places her in a conflict of interest.

Johannes Lampe is the president of Nunatsiavut.
Johannes Lampe is the president of Nunatsiavut.

Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe says the plan to apologize to residential school survivors involving only the NunatuKavut is an insult. (Hamlin Lampe)

"As long as she remains in her current role, we fear that achieving reconciliation will be challenging, if not impossible," Lampe said Wednesday.

The Innu Nation said this isn't the first time the group has called for Dempster's resignation.

"Innu Nation, which represents the First Nations communities of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish, has had long-standing concerns about Lisa Dempster's behaviour, and in particular her conflict of interest, and has called for her removal as minister of Indigenous affairs and reconciliation since February 2021," reads their press release.

Dempster's office did not provide comment when contacted by CBC News about the calls for her dismissal.

Ceremony 'too rushed' for some to attend

Edna Hamel wants nothing more than to be in Cartwright on Friday to honour her mother, who was sent to the Lockwood School when she was about five years old.

Her mother grew up in Batteau, a small fishing village off Labrador's southern coast, but was taken to Cartwright when her mother got sick.

"She showed me some of her scars she had, ones she took to the grave with her," Hamel said from her home in Lewisporte on Thursday. "She told me how she was abused physically, emotionally and sexually. Traumatized. And the story goes on. It was very hard for her to deal with that, and I knew that when she would cry and tell me the story."

Hamel said Wednesday's announcement didn't give her nearly enough time to prepare for the trip. NunatuKavut offered to pay for her flight from Gander to Goose Bay and provide a ride to and from the ceremony, she said, but it wasn't feasible on such short notice.

"It was too rushed," she said. "It's not going to happen."

Cartwright Mayor Robyn Holwell was also surprised with the short notice given to the townspeople. He said the first he heard of it was Wednesday through a social media post.

"I was a little bit concerned there wouldn't be a representative there from the town," he said. "There will be now, but it's a little bit disappointing there's been no communication from the premier's office or the local MHA."

Holwell — whose father went to the Lockwood School — will give opening remarks before handing the floor over to the premier. He would have liked more of a heads-up, especially given how difficult it's going to be for some people in attendance.

"It's a very sombre moment for a lot of people. There's some painful memories that they will have to deal with, but hopefully with this apology from the province they'll be able to [start] another process in healing."

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