If the incoming Liberal government plans to make good on its promise to renew Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau may first want to address a brewing controversy in Newfoundland and Labrador.

During an Oct. 5 election debate in Corner Brook, a city on the west coast of the island of Newfoundland, a Liberal candidate’s unsettling track record on Indigenous rights came to light.

Gudrid “Gudie” Hutchings went on to win the seat in the Long Range Mountains, one of Canada’s enduring Liberal strongholds, but questions are being raised over her role in the Liberal caucus in light of her actions at the time of the 1996 Indigenous-led Eagle River protests in southern Labrador. Protests which resulted in the arrest of almost 50 people, most of them southern Labrador Inuit.

Throughout the summer of 1996, hundreds protested the construction of a fishing lodge by Hutchings’ company KGY Group Ltd. on southern Labrador Inuit land, for which the Labrador Metis Association — now the NunatuKavut Community Council — initiated a land claim with Canada in 1995.

During the recent debate Hutchings made a number of statements regarding the protests, including claims she was “shot at” and an “aircraft was put in danger,” but Ricochet has learned there is no known evidence to support the new MP’s allegations, and that the RCMP later apologized for comments made by an officer who policed the protests and suggested a gun had been fired.

In a subsequent interview, Hutchings was unable to provide Ricochet with evidence of the aggression she says was directed toward her by residents of the area. She suggested her memory of the events may be unreliable.

Other sources, including Elders and a former southern Labrador Inuit leader, say Hutchings’ claims are false and amount to a smear campaign against the Indigenous people of southern Labrador.

Local Indigenous leaders and at least one associate member of the local Liberal riding association are calling on incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to “take action” and hold Hutchings accountable for her past actions.

NunatuKavut elder Jim Learning told Ricochet that during the Eagle River protests Hutchings “was determined to crush” the southern Labrador Inuit “no matter what.”

On Oct. 7 Trudeau sent a letter to Todd Russell, the president of NunatuKavut and a former Liberal MP, stating his “longstanding and unwavering commitment that a Liberal government will accept the NunatuKavut Land Claim and move it to the negotiating table immediately.”

In a written statement Russell said he “remains very confident” in the Liberal Party’s commitment. The Liberal Party of Canada did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

A defining moment

Throughout the early and mid-1990s the southern Labrador Inuit (also referred to as Inuit-Metis) repeatedly ignored federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans regulations on salmon and trout fishing in southern Labrador waters, defiantly risking arrest in exercising what they claimed — and still claim today — is their right as Indigenous people to harvest food on their traditional lands.

Following a series of prosecutions of southern Labrador Inuit fishers between 1993 and 1995, the May 1996 arrest of Paradise River elder Violet Brown — who had fished the Eagle River her entire life to feed her family—put the community on edge.

While it was becoming increasingly difficult for southern Labrador Inuit to harvest traditional foods on their own land, they watched as a growing number of wealthy outsiders were flying in to experience the Eagle River’s world-class salmon fishing.

Suspicions that the legal process was designed to favour certain interests were bolstered by the fact that the Crown attorney who prosecuted Brown and other southern Labrador Inuit on fisheries-related charges was Joseph Hutchings — Gudie Hutchings’ husband at the time.

Negotiations between the provincial government, KGY Group and the Labrador Métis Association failed, and on May 27 the latter called for an independent inquiry into the province’s decision to issue a licence for a new non-resident fishing camp on the Eagle River. The association argued that if any private interest were to eat into the limited number of available salmon fishing licences, it ought to be a business run by Indigenous residents.

Russell, the president of the LMA, issued a stern warning to the provincial government that “unless the province is willing to review its camp licensing policies and bring them in line with Metis land and resource rights, then conflict is all that can reasonably be expected.”

Todd Russell

NunatuKavut government

The following day Yvonne Jones, an independent MHA for Cartwright—L’Anse au Clair at the time and a member of the southern Labrador Inuit nation, stood in the provincial legislature and told the Brian Tobin administration that in light of the events transpiring in southern Labrador “the LMA and the people across my district find it very difficult to see this not just being a coincidence but being something that is certainly intended.”

“People of my district … feel that this case is one of wrongful and even malicious prosecution in order to suppress the Labrador Metis fishing rights while opening up the lucrative sports fishing rivers in Labrador to, as they say: friends of the government.”

She concluded her lengthy speech by echoing Russell’s warning that “in the coming days you will see more protests regarding this issue until something can be rectified for the benefit and equality of all people involved.”

The last straw

More arrests were made as southern Labrador Inuit staged protests throughout the summer.

On Sept. 13, KGY Group began shipping materials to the remote site of the Rifflin’ Hitch Lodge on the Eagle River against the will of the local Indigenous people.

John Martin, a Cartwright resident who helped coordinate the protests, says the construction of KGY’s lodge “was the last straw” and “brought the people together like I never saw before or since.”

“Finally here was a bunch of Labradorians sticking up to the provincial government and the way they dealt with us over the years.”

For about nine days, hundreds of residents from Cartwright and nearby communities in the Sandwich Bay area employed methods of non-violent resistance to keep a supply vessel and helicopter from delivering materials to the construction site.

Deploying small fishing boats, they blocked KGY’s ship from carrying construction materials to the Paradise River area, where they would then be airlifted to the site. And in Cartwright, recalls Learning, they took turns “day after day and night after night for about five nights,” holding hands around a helicopter intended to help with the supply delivery.

Learning says the protest against KGY Group’s territorial encroachment “was probably the first big action that gave us the real shot” needed to assert Indigenous rights. “It was a defining moment in our history.”

The actions, described as “peaceful” in news reports from the time and by local sources interviewed for this story, prompted a call to the RCMP for help. The federal police force called in reinforcements from other regions of the province and put 50 officers on the ground to police an area where more than a single cruiser is rarely seen.

Meanwhile, Canada’s Coast Guard deployed a search and rescue ship to disperse residents who had taken to the river to block the Beothuk Venture, a supply vessel named after the Indigenous people of Newfoundland who were wiped out in a genocide by European settlers.

Over five days the joint RCMP and Coast Guard operation arrested at least 47 residents involved in the protests, including youth, and charged most of them with mischief. Russell decried the operation, accusing authorities of “acting like a private security force to solve the logistical problems of a private entrepreneur,” according to one local news report in the Evening Telegram.

It was during that week, Hutchings claimed on Oct. 5 in response to a question from Long Range Mountains Green Party candidate Terry Cormier, that she was “shot at,” “an aircraft was put in danger,” and a woman “was beaten.”

Continuing her recollection of the dramatic events that unfolded during the protests against her business’ presence on Indigenous lands, Hutchings also said the angry residents “did break the law” with “over 60 charges laid,” but that “at the end of the day all the charges were stayed for political reasons.”

“Nobody had the backbone to follow through on the charges,” she said.

In June 1999 the Crown entered a stay of proceedings on all charges laid against members of the Labrador Metis Nation during the Eagle River protests.

Martin says he was taken in for questioning over the alleged gunshot, as was his young son, who had been with Martin on a moose hunting trip the day of the incident.

“The RCMP were coming on a little bit strong, more or less insinuating or implying that I was the one who had supposedly fired at a helicopter — and I had all kinds of evidence that I wasn’t even in town at the time, and that was proven,” he recalls. “I offered to take a polygraph test and then I never heard tell of the RCMP after that.”

Helicopter held by protesters, September 14, 1996
Warrick Mesher

Kirby Lethbridge, a former southern Labrador Inuit leader, recalls the RCMP going “house to house, telling people that they were close to making an arrest” over the gunshot that was claimed to have hit the helicopter.

Lethbridge believes the alleged incident created an opportunity for police to target the southern Labrador Inuit people perceived to be leading the protests. “The goal was to break the influence of certain people, myself being one of those,” he says.

“They manufacture whatever they need to in order to get their own colonial way.”

Residents remained peaceful but strong in their resolve throughout the protests, says Learning. But the RCMP and Coast Guard intervention effectively hampered their efforts and made way for Hutchings’ company to transport building materials to the construction site.

In the media, Russell declared victory for the LMA, saying they “delivered a TKO in Round 1,” and that they would soon begin Round 2.

“The message to the world is clear,” he continued. “Labrador belongs to Labradorians, not to friends of the great and near great in St. John’s or Corner Brook.”

The following May, the RCMP formally apologized to the southern Labrador Inuit over comments made by Inspector John Henderson during the protests that suggested a gun had been fired at a helicopter.

“The statements attributed to the officer in charge of Labrador sub-division go beyond what we consider appropriate,” read a letter from RCMP Commissioner Phil Murray. “I apologize for any inconvenience caused to the Labrador Metis Association as a result of these comments.”

No proof allegations are true

During a telephone interview with Ricochet days before the election, Hutchings said she is “proud” her business “employed lots of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.” She described herself as a “strong supporter of Aboriginal rights and the freedom of people to exercise that right.”

She also said as a member of the federal Liberal Party she will “support any agreements” for NunatuKavut and the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation Band on the island, the bulk of whose members live in her riding.

Asked if she thought it was right to set up a business on Indigenous lands against the will of an Indigenous group that is trying to negotiate a land claim, Hutchings said she “followed all the guidelines that were set out in that public proposal call” and the onus to answer the question should fall on the provincial government.

She also said that the Rifflin’ Hitch Lodge, which she has since sold but now manages “from afar,” was not built in a “traditional area because it’s …18 to 20 miles inland from the mouth of the river, where you cannot get by boat. So it was not travelled, it wasn’t fished regularly by anyone.”

Lethbridge calls Hutchings’ claim “colonial horse shit.” The former southern Labrador Inuit leader says the Eagle River “was the backyard to many families, mine included. Eagle River and Paradise River people, White Bear River families, Dove Brook and the Mountain Shore people always used the country in there.”

On Sept. 16, 1996, Ernie MacLean, the provincial minister of government services and lands, issued a press release stating the government was informed by the RCMP on Sept. 13 that officers “had been called to Cartwright to deal with protesters who were interfering with the commercial activities of a private company seeking to develop a sports fishing lodge in the Eagle River.”

MacLean said “the government did not call the RCMP” and the call “was made by a private citizen.” Later in the statement he specified that “KGY requested police assistance.”

October 5 Long Range Mountains all-candidates debate
(L-R): Gudie Hutchings, Conservative candidate Wayne Ruth, NDP candidate Devon Babstock, and Green Party candidate Terry Cormier.
Mary Cormier

During the Oct. 15 interview with Ricochet, Hutchings said she “did not” make the call to the RCMP and had “no idea” who did. “There are thousands of people in Labrador,” she said.

She went on to suggest the call would have been too expensive for her. “At the time the satellite telephone rates were through the roof, and I had one small satellite phone and I was in the wilderness,” she said.

Pressed on the contradiction between her Oct. 5 allegation that she was “shot at” during the protests and the RCMP’s 1997 concession that there was no evidence a gun had been fired, along with the lack of media reports describing the incident, Hutchings said, “I guess if you can’t find it in the media, it wasn’t reported and it didn’t happen.”

Asked about another allegation she made on Oct. 5 that a woman had laid charges against a protestor but later dropped them “because she was beaten,” Hutchings suggested her memory wasn’t reliable.

“What did you do 20 years ago?” she asked. “Can you recall what you did?”

She called the situation “very trying,” adding she “had a young son at the time and it was very challenging, me being in the middle of nowhere, my family being here at home.” Since then, she said, she has “gone on to do some great work in Labrador.”

Asked to clarify which statements were true, the ones she offered during the interview or those she made during the Oct. 5 candidates’ debate, Hutchings responded, “Good question.”

“I guess if I didn’t have the actual proof, right? In the heat of the moment I was taken totally off guard last week. We were in a conversation that was about the election and policy and what our parties were doing and I was not expecting that at all. Now I know one should be prepared for anything, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for 20 years ago, right?”

A Gudrid Hutchings problem, or a Liberal Party problem?

Immediately after the Oct. 5 debate in Corner Brook, Hutchings issued a news release firing back at Cormier for publicly questioning her role in the Eagle River protests.

“These are at the level of the political attacks we see on American television and have come to expect from others. Until today, it had been something not done here in the Long Range Mountains,” she said. “Hopefully we will return to the decency and mutual respect that has come to define western Newfoundland politics.”

Cormier told Ricochet he raised the issue because as MP for Long Range Mountains, Hutchings will represent thousands of First Nations people.

In 1996 “what happened was that outside interests connected by money and power obtained, over the claims of the Inuit-Metis of Labrador, rights to fish on Eagle River, and then they proceeded to oust the Indigenous people from their own river,” he said. “We need political leaders who are standing up for Indigenous people and not trying to squash their rights, but really trying to reinforce them and acknowledge them and help them realize their rights rather than take them away from them.”

Deanna Clarke, a member of the Mi’kmaq First Nations Assembly of Newfoundland and an associate member of the Liberal Party’s Long Range Mountains district association, says Trudeau has a “responsibility to take action” in light of Hutchings’ “continued disrespect of Aboriginal people.”

Yvonne Jones endorsement of Gudrid Hutchings

Clarke feels Yvonne Jones, re-elected on Oct. 19 as Liberal MP for Labrador, should be held to account as well, since Jones endorsed Hutchings despite presumably knowing about Hutchings’ past. She says Trudeau should “investigate the facts and hold Gudie Hutchings accountable for her actions, and both she and Yvonne Jones accountable for not being truthful to the people of Long Range Mountains regarding those facts.”

Lethbridge and Martin both say they would like to hear Jones’ thoughts on the matter, and on why she endorsed Hutchings in light of Hutchings’ past.

Jones did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.

Russell, who sat as a Liberal MP for Labrador from 2005-2011, was contacted for an interview but would only issue a brief written statement in response to the claims Hutchings’ made on Oct. 5.

“We state categorically that this was a peaceful and orderly protest. This fact was supported by statements made by the RCMP at the time. Any other version certainly does not match with the facts,” he said. “Comments to the contrary [are] concerning and should be clarified by Ms. Hutchings.”

Lethbridge worries Jones and Russell’s reluctance to engage more directly in the matter indicates where their priorities stand, saying they “are Liberal loyalists first, and our Aboriginal rights are barely secondary as an issue for them.”

Russ Diabo, a Kahnawake Mohawk and policy analyst, says Hutchings’ candidacy for the Liberal Party is indicative of “a problem with the Liberal process of vetting candidates,” and that during the election campaign there were a number of Liberal candidates across Canada who are “probably in a conflict of interest regarding some of the promises [the party is] making about a nation-to-nation relationship and resolving the land claims issues.”

Some of those who witnessed firsthand Hutchings’ attitude and disregard for Indigenous rights say they’re concerned over her recent election win and want others in the province to know her past.

“If I was in her district I’d certainly think twice before voting for her,” says Martin. “She lied about the incident. I mean when the RCMP comes out and makes a statement like they did, and then for her to come out now and say she was shot at — whoa.”

Martin says Hutchings’ actions in 1996 and the power she wielded as a wealthy businessperson were “very disturbing.”

Responding to Hutchings’ denial that she recruited authorities to quell the protests, Martin says if it wasn’t her it must have been someone well-connected and willing to help her establish her business on southern Labrador Inuit homeland.

“I mean, someone with a lot of clout sent the Coast Guard vessel there, which it probably cost $30,000 or $40,000 a day to run that boat.”

“When someone owns the law like that, that can make you think how much power some of these people got.”