Document Type


Publication Date



Political Science


From 1921 to the early 1970s, the federal government refused to negotiate any new land claims agreements with aboriginal peoples in Canada. In 1973, in Calder, a majority of the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the existence of aboriginal title. The Court ruled that aboriginal title was not a creation of the Crown, but rather stemmed from aboriginal possession of ancestral lands from time immemorial (Macklem, 2001: 268–269). Six months after Calder, the federal government invited aboriginal groups who had not yet signed a treaty with the Crown to enter into negotiations with them under a new federal comprehensive land claims process (RCAP, 1996: 533; Scholtz, 2006: 68–71).

This process, which still exists today, is designed to replace undefined aboriginal rights with a new set of specific treaty rights. To do so, aboriginal groups must prove to the federal and provincial governments that their rights to their claimed lands have never been extinguished; that they traditionally and currently occupy and use their lands largely to the exclusion of other groups; and that they are a clearly identifiable and recognizable aboriginal group (INAC, 1998). Once this is accomplished the three parties negotiate a Framework Agreement, setting out the process, the issues and the timeline for negotiations. Once a Framework Agreement is achieved, the parties negotiate a non-legally binding Agreement-in-Principle (AIP), and then a Final Agreement. The Final Agreement must be signed and ratified by all three parties.

In 1977, the Inuit and the Innu in Labrador each submitted statements of intent to the federal and provincial governments to begin comprehensive land claims negotiations. On 22 January 2005, the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) and the governments of Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador concluded 28 years of negotiations by signing the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement. The Innu, however, are nowhere near to completing their agreement. Although the Innu were able to complete a Framework Agreement in 1996, an Agreement-in-Principle (AIP) remains elusive.

What explains this variation in comprehensive land claims (CLC) negotiation outcomes? The common explanation among politicians, bureaucrats, negotiators and observers is that a large-scale economic development project is a necessary condition to “get a deal.” This paper challenges this explanation by looking at two separate cases located in the same province and virtually ignored by the literature: the Inuit and the Innu in Labrador. To do so, this paper relies on primary and secondary sources, including 28 interviews with Innu, Inuit, and federal and provincial politicians, negotiators, bureaucrats, lawyers, elders, advisors and citizens from Nain, Makkovik, Natuashish, Sheshatshiu, North West River, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, St. John’s, Cornerbrook and Ottawa.1 The main findings of this paper are that a set of internal and external factors relative to the First Nation provides a better explanation for: (a) whether a CLC negotiation outcome is obtained; and (b) at what speed an outcome is obtained.


This article was originally published in Canadian Journal of Political Science, 40(1): 185-207. © 2007 Cambridge University Press