'Understanding the Past to Build the Future' is an outcome of meetings and discussions between representatives of the Labrador Métis and the researchers involved in the project over the past several years. The Métis were eager to mobilize knowledge about their history and heritage, and to this end they hoped to enlist the aid of university scholars in conducting more research, in making the results of 'academic' research more accessible, and in providing support for student skills training and education, and adult skills training and literacy. Over the course of those discussions, it became apparent that there was a significant concordance between the research aims of the university-based scholars, and the more community-oriented aims of the Métis themselves. The result was the launching of this collaborative initiative, the first comprehensive multi-disciplinary research into the history of the Labrador Métis.
The Labrador Métis are a people of mixed European and Inuit ancestry who live in the small communities along the coast of central and southern Labrador, from Lake Melville south to the Strait of Belle Isle; the overall aim of this project is to document and interpret their history, from their beginnings some 500 years ago up to the present. The project combines archaeology, archival research, and new ethnographic and educational work – initiatives in which Métis students and adults will be trained to work with academics to explore their past.
The Labrador Inuit, descendants of the pre-contact Thule Inuit, entered northern Labrador in the late 15th or early 16th century A.D. and moved southward, reaching the Lake Melville area by the 17th-century. By that time, they were occasionally in contact with Europeans visiting the southern Labrador coast, with whom they traded each summer.
Because of the importance of European commodities to Inuit economy and society, academics have long debated whether Europeans and trade lured Inuit southward or whether southern Labrador was in fact a traditional Inuit land-use and settlement area. Recent archaeological investigations, including those by team members Dr Lisa Rankin (and her students) and Dr Marianne Stopp, have identified a variety of Inuit cultural features along the southern Labrador coast. Excavations at two 17th-century Inuit settlements (at Baie des Belles Amours, Strait of Belle Isle and in Sandwich Bay) show that Inuit occupation here occurred earlier than previously thought, that it was of a permanent nature, and that it encompassed the entire study area. Since archaeology is the only way to gather information about a people's history and lifestyle in the absence of written records, this project is conducting new archaeological research to better understand the pre-contact and early contact period of Inuit occupation in southern Labrador. This research seeks to expand and refine our understanding of the antiquity, distribution and nature of Inuit settlement south of Groswater Bay, thus updating older interpretations. The location of these archaeological investigations will be Sandwich and Alexis Bays where both Rankin and Stopp have noted many Inuit dwelling structures in previous archaeological surveys.
Beginning in the late 18th-century, European men who came to Labrador to work in the fishery occasionally married Inuit women, forming the ancestral population of today's Labrador Métis. The history of these early interactions between Inuit and Europeans along the southern Labrador coast is found in the records of missionaries and trading companies, who helped to create the social and economic milieu in which Inuit and Europeans met and interacted. The analysis of these records is one of the principal research activities of this project.
There are several ways in which archival materials may clarify issues related to Inuit-Métis history. Careful consideration of maps and associated commentaries by several missionaries from the late 18th-century will yield valuable information concerning Inuit settlement in the study area. German and English Moravian archival materials (detailed travel accounts, administrative records, internal and external correspondence) outline Moravian contact with Aboriginal communities and Europeans, and provide valuable information on the society and culture of Inuit and Inuit-European individuals and families from Lake Melville southwards to Island of Ponds, Labrador. During the early 19th-century Methodists directed their attention to the Labrador Inuit residing between Lake Melville and Sandwich Bay. Several Methodist missionaries visited Labrador and one lived among the Inuit at Snook's Cove. There are also Anglican archival materials relating to Labrador. These unpublished historical, ethnological and demographic data will greatly expand our knowledge of the history of the Métis and Inuit of southern Labrador.
Like missionaries, traders, including the Hudson Bay Company, occasionally recorded observations about the local populations, and documented interactions, including marriages, between Inuit and Europeans. There are also accounts by American fishers, who operated the largest fishery off the southern Labrador coast from 1783 to ca 1870, and HBC journals for Rigolet, North West River, Cartwright and Frenchman's Island. At the moment, our knowledge of many of these companies and the social history they recorded is fragmentary at best. It is the goal of this project to locate and analyse the records of early traders and trading companies along the coast of southern Labrador, as well as the journals, logs and diaries residing in archives.
As interaction between Inuit and Europeans intensified, so did cultural exchange and borrowing. For example, Inuit adopted and incorporated many items of European material culture, while Europeans who took up residence on the coast often constructed stone and sod-walled dwellings similar to Inuit autumn and winter houses. Further, as intermarriages became more common, a distinct new population, the Labrador Métis, began to become established along the coast of Southern Labrador. One of the aims of the project is to investigate the ways in which the cultural attributes of the ancestral Inuit and European populations merged in the newly developing Métis culture. One outcome of our research will be to move beyond the present state of knowledge and to improve our understanding of changes in household structure, material culture and economy as the Inuit and European populations met, interacted, and eventually merged to become the Labrador Métis.
Archaeology is the most appropriate tool for interpreting culture change in the remote past, when records were absent or sparse, but more recent cultural changes are more accessible through archival research and informant interviews. Combining the different narratives provided by archaeology, historical records, oral history and living memory into an integrated history of the Labrador Métis is one the strengths of this project.
In theory, education builds individual and community capacity, yet the relatively remote location of Métis communities inhibits this in various ways. Being perceived as isolated by teachers from Newfoundland, southern Labrador communities experience a high rate of teacher turnover, and a consequent loss of involvement and 'connectedness' between educators and students. Further, with the notable exception of Borlase's (1994) book (see the Resources section of this web site) used in grade 7 and 8 social studies classes along the southern Labrador coast, Newfoundland-based school curricula contain few local references and thus often fail to stimulate student interest. Statistics Canada figures from 2001 show that, in comparison with the island of Newfoundland, fewer southern Labrador students, especially males, complete high school, and that a smaller percentage of students attend post-secondary institutions.
A key community outcome of this project will incorporate information produced by our research into school curricula for southern Labrador, and material for adult literacy support. We will produce textual, graphic and web-based materials to incorporate into existing curriculum structures. While not a panacea, our partnered exploration and dissemination of Métis history will enable local schools to supplement existing Provincial Department of Education curricula with greater local content for use in social studies and history classes, attracting student interest and stimulating learning, and thereby building individual and community capacity.
In much of southern Labrador, as in Newfoundland and Labrador generally, out-migration of skilled and entrepreneurial people combined with the demise of the traditional fishery, has led to an economic down-turn in small coastal communities. Meeting the social and economic challenges of the future will require strong local leadership and new economic initiatives.
The southern Labrador Métis have already begun to develop a heritage tourism industry in the Cartwright area, largely as a result of archaeological work by Dr. Rankin and her students in Sandwich Bay and the Porcupine Strand. At present, this is on a small scale, consisting of taking tourists by boat or sea kayak to visit ongoing excavations, or to tour archaeological sites around Sandwich Bay in the 'off season'. The success and popularity of these small initiatives promises that heritage tourism could be much further developed in this area, and could become a stable industry, providing employment for a considerable number of people in several communities. The work to be conducted over the five years of this project will be a significant stimulus to this industry. Moreover, the employment of numerous Métis students and adults on the project, as researchers, assistants, guides and logistical personnel will provide a body of trained and experienced people capable of developing and maintaining the heritage tourism business in southern Labrador.
One of the lasting community outcomes of this project will be the creation of a variety of informational resources to be housed in southern Labrador communities. These will not only be of value in themselves, as resources to be consulted by the leaders and members of the communities, but they will also serve as foundations for further initiatives on the part of the Métis in the areas of heritage research and conservation, education, political action, and economic development.