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The province’s COVID-19 outbreak has turned an election once about jobs, economics and the province’s fiscal future into a chaotic mess of confusion around voting—and concerns about disenfranchisement.

In Labrador, some see the fiasco adding yet another layer to the many inequities imposed by a government founded on the denial of Indigenous peoples’ rights.

The Independent spoke with Indigenous candidates across Labrador from the three main parties about the issues facing their communities. They told us about the systemic barriers between Labrador and Newfoundland, the challenges of representing Labrador in the House of Assembly, their motivations for entering provincial politics, and the Liberals’ progress towards implementing recommendations from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Everybody has a right to vote”

When Newfoundland and Labrador re-entered Alert Level 5 on February 12, in-person voting across the province was cancelled and replaced with a vote-by-mail process. But the sudden shift has “disproportionately impact[ed] Indigenous people,” says Lake Melville NDP candidate Amy Norman.

“There’s just a whole mess of issues surrounding mail-in ballots and essentially what it’s doing is disenfranchising Labrador voters, and especially Indigenous voters.”

Norman, an Inuk woman and Nunatsiavut beneficiary who lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and other candidates in Labrador’s four provincial ridings are using social media to share concerns around language barriers, lack of phone and internet access, constantly changing rules and deadlines, and Elections NL’s handling of the hurdles facing many Indigenous voters.

Last Friday—the deadline for requesting mail-in ballots—Elections NL announced a new deadline for submitting ballots, which now must be postmarked no later than March 12.

Chief Electoral Officer Bruce Chaulk told CBC News on Saturday he has heard various complaints, but said “if you leave [voting] to the last minute … you bear a certain responsibility on yourself for not getting it done.”

In Labrador, it’s not that simple for many voters, says Torngat Mountains incumbent and Progressive Conservative candidate Lela Evans.

“Everybody has a right to vote,” Evans explains on the phone from her mother’s home in Makkovik. “But right now ability to vote is being determined by who is able to navigate the websites and being able to upload photo ID, or the people that can actually have access to phone, and people who can consistently redial. It’s not fair. It’s not consistent. And it’s actually denying people their right to have access to that ballot to vote.”

One of Evans’ fellow candidates in Torngat Mountains, Patricia Johnson-Castle of Nain, says language has also been a barrier for some voters in the Innu and Inuit communities.

“The ballots are only in English and there are a lot of Innu-aimun and Inuktitut speakers that aren’t going to be able to vote or understand the process,” the Inuk NDP candidate explains. 

The Colonial Roots of Voter Apathy

Even without the latest barriers to voting, the Labrador candidates say many have long felt voting is futile.

Decades of resource extraction and wealth generation have brought prosperity to some in Labrador. But many still live in poverty and find themselves perpetually in the midst of intersecting crises: mental health, suicide, child welfare, violence against women and girls, overcrowded and lack of housing, climate change and diminishing opportunities to sustain traditional ways of life.

What many Innu and Inuit are left with, candidates say, is a profound lack of faith in a government that makes decisions from a thousand kilometres (or more) away. Just four of the House of Assembly’s 40 members are representatives from Labrador.

“If you just think, from a bird’s eye view, about the resource extraction that happens in Labrador—you have IOC [Iron Ore Company of Canada], you have Churchill Falls, you have Muskrat Falls, you have Voisey’s Bay, not to mention all the fisheries that happen up here,” says Johnson-Castle, who is Inuk and grew up in St. John’s before returning to Nunatsiavut two years ago.

“So the province is happy to take the royalties and profits from all those things, and yet they don’t want to provide proper service delivery to any of the people here.”

Norman shares the sentiment.

“How do you try and get people to participate in a system that doesn’t function for them, doesn’t acknowledge them?” she says, speaking of her efforts to encourage voting in her Central Labrador district. “It’s exhausting.”

Evans says her constituents’ concerns boil down to a lack of services.

“Accessing the same services as the rest of the province is the priority for my district, and it’s a priority for our Indigenous people because I can’t believe it—in 2021, it’s our Indigenous populations that haven’t been given equality through access to services. And it’s impacting every aspect of our lives.”

Evans cited the province’s decision to replace the Northern Ranger ferry and Astron cargo ship with the dual-purposed Kamutik W ship as an example. The decision may have felt insignificant to the rest of the province, but she says it has negatively impacted many on Labrador’s north coast.

“They removed the access to the marine freight boat that allowed food and freight and building materials and home goods to get to the north coast at a reasonable cost,” she says. She adds that eliminating the cargo route from Lewisporte to Labrador has forced individuals and business owners along the coast to import goods through Happy Valley-Goose Bay, often at an increased cost.

Evans says this higher cost of living contributes to what she calls a “revictimization” of seniors, single mothers, and other vulnerable demographics.

“The lack of housing and the lack of ability to heat your house and feed your kids—it is contributing to trauma, and it’s contributing to people being isolated, victimized and taken advantage of. 

“It’s a form of either cultural genocide, or [forced] outmigration,” she continues. “They are both the same. It’s almost like a form of resettlement. Because a lot of the young people now, as they become educated, or if they get jobs at Voisey’s, or they get opportunities, they’re moving out because they don’t want this constant struggle that you don’t have to deal with everywhere else.”

Norman, a pharmacy technician, says she sees the healthcare inequities facing people in her district on a daily basis.

“Whether you have to pay thousands of dollars to fly to St. John’s for a diagnostics test, or not being able to access basic appointments like a prescription renewal with a family doctor,” she says. “It’s very frustrating, all the lack of good services here in Labrador.”

Liberals have improved relations with Indigenous groups: Dempster

In June 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report and 94 calls to action directed at all levels of government, as well as institutions, as a path toward reconciliation.

“Starting now, we all have an opportunity to show leadership, courage and conviction in helping heal the wounds of the past as we make a path towards a more just, more fair and more loving country,” said TRC Chair Murray Sinclair (PDF).

A few months later, the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador formed government after twelve years of Progressive Conservative administration. Premier Dwight Ball appointed himself the minister of Labrador and Aboriginal affairs and vowed to “lead the implementation” of the TRC’s recommendations.

Five years later, the province has not officially implemented the more than 30 actions that involve provincial jurisdiction. But it is making progress, Lisa Dempster, the minister responsible for Indigenous Affairs and Reconciliation, told the Independent.

Dempster is also the longest serving female deputy House leader and the minister responsible for Labrador Affairs and the Status of Women. She hails from Charlottetown, in southern Labrador, and is also a member of the NunatuKavut Community Council, which represents the Southern Inuit of Labrador.

She says the Liberals have developed a “really positive relationship with the Indigenous groups” through what she describes as an “open door” policy on the sixth floor of Confederation Building in St. John’s.

Dempster cites recent achievements, including inviting Indigenous groups to share feedback on plans to rename the June holiday in honour of Indigenous peoples, pledging to erect a statue in front of Confederation Building “so that Indigenous peoples see themselves there,” and offering cultural sensitivity training to public servants.

She also points to legislation enacted in 2019 during her time as minister of Children, Seniors and Social Development (CSSD) to address the child welfare crisis.

“We consulted, consulted, consulted, consulted with Indigenous groups,” she says.

“We have over 1,000 children in the province, half of which we know are never going home—about 34 percent Indigenous—so I wanted to work with them to say, ‘what can we do so that we never have to remove your children?’ Let’s get a focus on prevention, let’s get a focus on wraparound support.”

But Dempster likened the speed of legislative changes to turning around a big ship.

“When you think about some of the really complex issues we’re dealing with with Indigenous communities, you don’t see the change of what you’ve done overnight.”

Dempster says the government continues to work with Innu Nation on its land claim, and has finally made progress on the long-awaited inquiry into Innu children in care.

“We finally got to a place where the terms of reference was agreed upon, and the commissioners are now in place,” she explains. “As soon as the election is behind us we will be moving forward.”

During a COVID-19 briefing last week, the Independent asked Premier Andrew Furey to outline the progress his government has made on the TRC calls to action, as well as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls National Inquiry’s calls for justice—particularly in terms of recommendations which could positively impact health outcomes for Indigenous peoples during a pandemic.

Furey pointed to Health Accord NL, the task force on health care announced last year, which he says will include input from Indigenous leaders.

“I’ve had regular conversations with all the Indigenous communities, the leaders, to talk about multiple issues specific to them in their own communities, but also in general about health and how to improve it, how to improve education, and how to improve all systems so that we can work towards true reconciliation and some of the suggestions in those reports.”

He was also asked if he could speak to the social determinants of health or root causes that make Indigenous people particularly vulnerable to infectious disease. Furey, who holds a M.Sc. in Clinical Epidemiology from Memorial University, did not specifically name any of the factors associated with colonialism. But he alluded to recent research that shows “Indigenous communities have a higher rate of morbidity and mortality, frankly, associated wth COVID-19.” 

“We need to make sure, therefore, that we’re protecting their communities, and that’s why we have been doing exactly that and putting vaccines in those communities first, as a priority.”

Furey said “up to 80 percent” of people in Indigenous communities have been vaccinated to date.

The Independent reached out to Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut Government, and NunatuKavut Community Council to speak about the provincial election, but none of the groups’ leadership responded.

“To be honest, there’s not much focus on the election,” Nunatsiavut Government spokesperson Bert Pomeroy wrote in an email last week, at which time there was still a presumed positive case of COVID-19 in Makkovik. “As you can appreciate, our focus is on COVID. There are more pressing issues right now.”

The Personal is Political

Much of the diplomacy between Indigenous governments and the province happens behind closed doors.

First Nations and Inuit governments have their own decision-making processes and forms of engagement with community members. But civic participation in provincial policy and legislation often ends there for Innu, Inuit, and Mi’kmaq peoples of the province.

While she’s not the first Indigenous person to give an impassioned speech in the House of Assembly, Evans’ presence in the legislature has often roused her constituents and others across the province—who share videos of her speeches and statements on social media.

Johnson-Castle says a shift is happening in Nunatsiavut communities.

“I think younger people have had a lot more room to be able to be proud of being Inuit than older generations [did] … having grown up under a more narrowly colonial range,” she explains. “So I think with that comes an expectation and realization of what some institutions that are involved in our lives are supposed to be doing for us.”

Norman says it’s crucial to have voices in the legislature who have a “deeper understanding” of life in Indigenous and remote communities.

“If you have someone in government with that kind of deeper understanding, that emotional understanding—instead of just an academic understanding of an issue—it’s a very different conversation for sure.”

Evans, who is a biologist and left a lucrative job at Voisey’s Bay to enter politics in 2019, makes no bones about it: her presence in provincial politics is personal. She represents a district that is around 90 percent Indigenous.

PC Candidate Lela Evans (centre). (Photo submitted.)

The child welfare crisis, she says, “contributes to intergenerational trauma; it’s happening now. Our youth are being impacted and they’re growing up with this trauma, and it’s going to impact their mental, their social, and on some level their physical health. This is not only about quality of life, this is actually about preservation of life because we have a high rate of suicides.

“Until we can get a handle on that and we can start making real changes that impacts the quality of life and supports people, I fear it’s not going to change,” she continues.

“This is very stressful to me. I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and I can’t get back to sleep. And then you add the layer of COVID on top of this. The pandemic has really exposed how our six Indigenous communities are vulnerable.”

Evans says she senses an unspoken attitude in the House of Assembly, toward people in her district and across Labrador.

“They don’t say it. But they tell you by their actions: ‘Well, Indigenous people are not going to say much anyway,’ right?’” she explains. “While they’re taking our money, while they’re taking our resources, while they’re not delivering the same level of services.” She adds that MHAs are often “really uncomfortable with the voice that I’m bringing… always looking to see, ‘what is she going to say about that?’ Because they’re not used to me.”

Evans describes another phenomenon likely familiar to Indigenous rights advocates: the challenge of tempering themselves while describing what often arguably amounts to human rights abuses.

“I always try to say things in a way people will understand. Really, what I’m doing is educating people,” she explains. “And I’ve always tried to say things in a non-offensive way, not overly aggressive, not cynical. It has to be a controlled anger because I still have to frame things in a way that’s receptive by the general population of Newfoundland and Labrador. Because I need the support of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador for me to get things done, and to be heard, and to be a voice.”

“If I loses that I have nothing, because this government doesn’t do anything out of the goodness of their heart,” she continues. “They don’t do anything because it’s the right thing to do. They don’t do anything because it should be done. I gotta tell you, the way I was raised is not what I’m seeing when I look across the floor in the House of Assembly.”

Meanwhile, Dempster says the feeling of marginalization pervasive in Labrador is part of what prompted her to enter provincial politics.

She acknowledges that her job got much more difficult once the Liberals gained power.

“I’ll confess, my couple of years in opposition was a hell of a lot easier than being in government, especially in this fiscal climate,” she says. “If you’re from Labrador—if you were born and raised—we see lots of things all around us. There was never a shortage of issues to talk about.”

She also sees first hand the attitude among many Islanders toward people in Labrador.

Dempster recounted a “terrible experience a few months ago,” when she took a taxi to the airport in St. John’s.

She said the driver recognized her as a cabinet minister.

“He took my bag and he said, ‘Where are we off to this morning, minister?’

“And I said I’m heading up to Labrador for a couple of days. And he said, ‘Going up with the cowboys and Indians, are you?’”

“There was a time when I would have said nothing,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘Yes, I’m going home.’”

“This province is built on settler colonialism”

Evans and Norman were both involved in the Muskrat Falls protests, and Norman has served as a spokesperson for the Labrador Land Protectors.

Norman is running against independent MHA and former Liberal cabinet minister Perry Trimper, who has been accused on separate occasions of making racist comments. She says she won’t hold back if elected.

“I don’t mind raising a bit of hell. I think that’s a good quality to have in someone who’s in the opposition, so I think that would suit me.”

Evans agrees that brute honesty on Confederation Hill is the way forward for Indigenous peoples.

“I think that we need to start saying: Why are we treated like this? Why is everyone else getting ahead? Why is everyone else able to access services? Why is it just Indigenous communities that’s being really impacted? Because it’s a form of racism.”

Johnson-Castle, too, is frank.

“This province is built on settler colonialism and the extraction of wealth and minerals to prop up the Island. And I think it’s time for service delivery on the north coast to come into the 21st century.”

If elected, she sees herself serving as an educator in the House of Assembly.

“The majority of politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador are white men from the bay who are 40 years or older. And did they learn their Indigenous history in high school? I’m gonna go with a ‘no’ because when I was going through school in the late 90s and early 2000s Indigenous people were still referred to in the past tense—as in, Inuit ‘lived’ in Labrador.”

“It’s easy for settler colonialism in this province to perpetuate itself because we have purposely been made isolated,” she continues, referencing how Indigenous peoples were omitted from Newfoundland’s terms of union with Canada.

“The province is set up to hide from settlers the way that provincial systems are complicit in colonialism and marginalization of Indigenous people of the province.

“The thing about settler colonialism is, if you don’t disrupt it, it knows how to perpetuate itself. So if I got elected, I would spend a lot of time trying to disrupt systems and stop them from just being able to perpetuate themselves over and over again.”

Main photo: Torngat Mountains NDP candidate Patricia Johnson-Castle (left) and Megan Dicker. Photo submitted by Johnson-Castle.

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Justin Brake is an independent journalist from Elmastukwek, Ktaqmkuk (Bay of Islands, Newfoundland) who currently lives and works on unceded Algonquin territory in Ottawa. He is of mixed settler and Mi'kmaq descent and focuses much of his attention on Indigenous rights and liberation, social justice, climate action and decolonization. He has worked in various capacities for CBC, The Telegram, APTN News and The Independent, and is actively exploring new forms and styles of journalistic storytelling through emerging frameworks like movement journalism and systems journalism.