The Innu

The Innu of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam and Matimekush-Lac John share common ancestors but now form two distinct communities and societies within the larger Innu Nation. Their traditional territory, called “Nitassinan” in the Innu language, covers a significant area of Labrador and Northeastern Quebec. Like their ancestors, these two First Nations occupy and inhabit their traditional territory and practice their Innu way of life, which includes their traditional activities, particularly, hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering.

The arrival of IOC/Rio Tinto in Innu Territory

In the late 1940s, it was in the Nitassinan of the Innu of Uashat mak Mani-utenam and Matimekush-Lac John that the Iron Ore Company of Canada (“IOC”), now majority-owned by the mining giant Rio Tinto, started the construction of its iron ore mining megaproject. This megaproject includes 20 abandoned mines in the Schefferville area, 9 mines at its mining complex currently operating in Labrador City, the QNS&L railway, the 3 hydroelectric dams of Menihek, Twin Falls (later, Churchill Falls) and Sainte-Marguerite 2 and the IOC port facilities in Sept-Îles. The megaproject permanently devastated the Innu’s Nitassinan and forced the eviction of Innu families from their homeland while illegally dispossessing them of what was the essence of their traditional way of life.

Efforts by the Innu to make peace with IOC/Rio Tinto

For 4 years now, the two Innu communities have shown great openness and a genuine desire to find an honourable way to settle their conflict with IOC/Rio Tinto, including attempting to negotiate an Impact and Benefits Agreement (IBA) in good faith with the representatives of IOC/Rio Tinto, just as they have successfully done with the four other mining companies which operate in their Nitassinan (one of which, ArcelorMittal, has been operating in Innu territory since the 1960s).

Partnership agreements (often called “impact and benefits agreements” or “IBAs”) between natural resource industries and First Nations are now an integral part of the modern economic landscape in Canada. These agreements allow First Nations to address the glaring socio-economic needs in their communities while allowing industry to avoid the costs and risks associated with projects which are subject to unsettled rights claims.

IOC/Rio Tinto is trying to do everything it can to resist this new reality, which after all, ensures an orderly development of natural resources in Canada, to the benefit all Canadians. In fact, IOC/Rio Tinto’s behaviour is all the more surprising considering that the Supreme Court of Canada just delivered a clear and unequivocal message (in a case similar to that of the Innu against IOC at the Superior Court of Quebec) to governments, as well as to developers, in the Tsilhqot’in v. BC judgment. Indeed, in this historic and highly publicized judgment of the Supreme Court reminded governments and developers that they cannot ignore the rights of First Nations to their traditional lands and to their natural resources.

Legal action instituted and authorized against IOC/Rio Tinto

It is in these circumstances that the Innu of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam and of Matimekush-Lac John filed their legal proceedings against IOC on March 18, 2013, at the Superior Court of Quebec in Montreal. In such proceedings, the Innu invoke their Aboriginal title with regard to IOC/Rio Tinto’s project sites, in the same way the Tsilhqot’in First Nation successfully did regarding forestry operations in their historic victory in the Supreme Court on June 26, 2014. The Innu motion seeks to stop IOC’s projects in Quebec and Labrador and also seeks compensation for the damages caused by IOC, which are evaluated at $900 million.

In this respect, IOC tried to have the case dismissed by trying to convince the Court that the Innu had to sue the governments instead of IOC. However, the judge rejected IOC’s motion this past September 19, thereby allowing the Innu to continue their legal proceedings against the company.

History of the “Stones of shame” returned to IOC/Rio Tinto

The stones returned to IOC/Rio Tinto had been erected at the entrance of the churches in Uashat and Mani-Utenam on September 4, 1970 (as well as another one in Schefferville on September 5, 1970) in a ceremony presided by the Prime Minister of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, to commemorate 100 years since the discovery of iron ore in the Labrador Trough by Father Louis Babel. Father Babel had taken note of the geology and geography of the Trough in his journals during his expeditions to evangelize the Innu of the Québec North Shore. These stones of iron ore, weighing a few tonnes each and approximately 1 meter high, represent not only the discovery of iron ore but also the tragic period of IOC/Rio Tinto mining such ore in the Nitassinan of the Innu.

These stones, extracted from the Innu’s Nitassinan in the Schefferville area, represent the commemoration of a false discovery since Father Babel simply noted the territorial knowledge passed on to him by the Innu during his expeditions. Moreover, IOC was able to build its first mine because of the territorial knowledge of the great Innu hunter Mathieu André, who revealed in 1937 the location of a rich iron ore deposit, as confirmed in IOC’s book Cain’s Legacy.

Finally, 144 years later, these iron ore stones representing IOC/Rio Tinto’s glory evoke, on the contrary, a long and grueling trauma for the Innu of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam and Matimekush Lac John, who suffered the infringement of their rights, traditional activities, Innu way of life and identity.

Today, the awakening of the two communities and their calls for restitution flow from the indignation of a people who has seen its territory devastated and its rights constantly violated by IOC/Rio Tinto, the first company to intrude on their Nitassinan and yet the last one to establish a partnership with the true owners of the natural resources. Reflecting the constant assertion of their rights and their pride as a people, it is in this context that these stones were removed from the Innu communities and returned to IOC/Rio Tinto.