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Part of a special feature focused on celebrating and recognizing the contribution and impact of Aboriginal Peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador and highlighting contemporary topics and opportunities related to Aboriginal Peoples worldwide. This feature coincides with Aboriginal Peoples Week running March 21-24.

By Jeff Green

Despite many Aboriginal Peoples throughout the world still feeling stigmatized by stereotypes associated with their ancestry, in this province Dr. Mario Blaser says he’s witnessing a “reassertion of cultural pride,” as individuals and groups embrace their Indigenous identities.

As Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies, Dr. Mario Blaser has spent more than 20 years doing research with Aboriginal people in both North and South America. Since joining Memorial in 2009, he has worked with Labrador’s Innu organizations as well as the NunatuKavut Council, which represents Inuit of Southern Labrador.

“People assume that because many do not have the physical appearance of an Aboriginal person, the identity is ‘invented’ merely for the purpose of receiving some sort of benefits.” — Dr. Mario Blaser

The bulk of his research has focused on how Aboriginal communities find ways to “pursue their life projects; that is their own unique visions of a good life, including in some cases the reclamation of their identities.

“In the past, there was a stigma attached to being Indigenous, thus, many people in Southern Labrador didn’t want to be labelled with that, you would not mention your origins in certain settings,” said Dr. Blaser, who is also an associate professor cross-appointed in the Departments of Archeology and Geography. “This had a profound effect on individuals and their perceptions of themselves.”

But, he says, there’s a new generation of Aboriginal people who are “re-gaining the pride of who they are as they start to investigate their past.”

That was one of the findings of an extensive five-year project Dr. Blaser was part of, which documented the history of the Inuit in Southern Labrador. The investigation, titled Understanding the Past to Build the Future, was led by Dr. Lisa Rankin, associate professor, Department of Archaeology, and funded by the Community-University Research Alliance (CURA).

Fostering a sense of pride

As part of his own research with the project, Dr. Blaser produced a documentary about the Inuit in Southern Labrador and their struggle for their own identity. The People of NunatuKavut aired on CBC during the summer of 2013.

“Through veiled or not so veiled commentaries and attitudes, the Inuit of Southern Labrador often have to confront the suspicion that their claims of Aboriginality and the life projects associated with it are somehow spurious,” he noted.

“People assume that because many do not have the physical appearance of an Aboriginal person, the identity is ‘invented’ merely for the purpose of receiving some sort of benefits.”

He says the CURA project helped foster a new sense of pride among NunatuKavut members, which is highlighted in the documentary.

“The film shows how the people of NunatuKavut have come to self-perceive and affirm their identity as Aboriginals, in part through the knowledge of their own history as passed down from generation to generation, and in part as a result of the archaeological, historical and genealogical research of the CURA project itself,” explained Dr. Blaser.

Relationship with the land

Originally from Argentina, Dr. Blaser completed a bachelor of arts in Buenos Aires before coming to Canada; he obtained his master of arts from Carleton University and his PhD from McMaster. He has spent considerable time working with the Yshiro people of Paraguay. Some of this work is also reflected in a documentary, Biodiversity Conservation for Whom.

Since taking up his position at Memorial, Dr. Blaser has been able to further develop his research interests in Aboriginal Studies. He has supervised several graduate students and presented nationally and internationally about his research.

He is also conducting a research project with the Innu-run Tshikapisk Foundation and the Innu Nation focused on the conflicts that emerge between Innu hunters and governmental conservation agencies.

“Hunting is fundamental to their way of life,” he noted. In January 2013, the provincial government announced a five-year ban to hunt George River caribou in Labrador. Some members of the Innu Nation refused to accept it, saying caribou hunting was as important to their culture as resource development is for a government that prioritizes economic growth to any cost.

Respecting relationships

For Dr. Blaser these recent events highlight a constant tension between Aboriginal communities and nation-states.

“In the name of a supposedly general common good, outsiders lay a claim to what will be done with the land and local people are not given a say,” he noted, “in this context, stressing Aboriginality is a way to signal that the very special relationship that a people sustains with the land must be respected.”

Dr. Blaser pointed out the importance of establishing an Aboriginal Peoples Week at Memorial. The initiative, led by the Office of the Special Advisor to the President on Aboriginal Affairs and the Aboriginal Resource Office, takes place March 21-24. This year’s focus will be on Truth and Reconciliation.

“As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has indicated, mending the damages of past actions like boarding schools cannot proceed if colonial attitudes are ongoing,” said Dr. Blaser, “and these attitudes will continue if Canada does not come to terms with the fact that there are people here for whom the land is not simply a resource.”

For more on Aboriginal Peoples Week: Truth and Reconciliation, please visit here.

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