CORNER BROOK — Talking to Todd Russell on Tuesday afternoon, it was clear that the president of NunatuKavut Community Council was one happy man.
“It is a great day,” said Russell from his office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
The reason for his enthusiasm came from the recognition of the Inuit and Metis people he represents in the form of a Federal Court decision stating that Metis and non-status Indians are indeed “Indians” under a section of the Constitution Act, and fall under federal jurisdiction.
The case was launched in 1999 by the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and several Metis and non-status Indians.
The NunatuKavut group is an affiliate of the congress and represents a collective of Inuit and Metis people in southern Labrador that number around 4,000 in official members, but include a total of about 6,000 people.
Russell said the court’s decision only confirms what his people have always said.
“We are a collectivity. We are a group of aboriginal people. We have a unique way and we have rights,” he said.
“The beauty of this court decision is that it equalizes the playing field,” Russell added. “Basically it says that regardless of how people have been described, as whether they’re status on reserve, non-status Indians in certain contexts, or whether one is a land claimant Inuit group or non-land claimant Inuit group, and if you are in fact Metis, the law is clear. The federal government in this particular case has responsibilities to us all equally.
“No more can the government discriminate against us on the basis of categorizing us as a certain class of aboriginal people. In the past we’ve been treated as the poor cousins of other aboriginal peoples in the country.”
He said every excuse in the book has been used to deny rights and access to health and education programs.
Russell said the decision also represents a turning point in NunatuKavut’s relationship with not only the federal government, but also the province.
He said the provincial government now has to recognize the NunatuKavut people and can no longer dismiss them because they don’t have land claims.
“This has implications for very immediate things that are happening like Muskrat Falls, like the Labrador-island transmission link,” said Russell. “This certainly equalizes our position around Muskrat Falls.”
Russell said his group now wants to see both levels of government sit down and negotiate a land claim agreement with them, and to establish a table to make sure their aboriginal rights are preserved and protected.
The group will also look for help with housing needs and access to health programs and education benefits.
Meanwhile, Chief Brendan Sheppard of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band said the decision won’t impact his organization.
“That wouldn’t have any bearing with respect to our talks, and our negotiations and our process with the federal government,” said Sheppard.
He said the decision could very well mean a lot more for the government to consider as it would involve greater numbers of people than Qalipu has.
Sheppard has followed the case for quite some time and was pleased with the decision.
“It’s certainly a breakthrough for the Metis people of Canada, and there’s no doubt it’s good news.”