Trudeau's arrival in Labrador said to be first Nunatsiavut visit from a sitting PM

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NAIN, NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR — The president of the organization representing Inuit in Canada hailed the arrival of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a small village on Labrador's north coast Friday as "momentous."

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed said Trudeau's visit to Nain, N.L., is the first time a sitting prime minister has travelled to Nunatsiavut, the Inuit region of Labrador.

"This is a long time in the making," Obed said as he sat next to Trudeau in the Illusuak Cultural Centre, which looked out onto a landscape of frozen sea ice and sprawling mountains. "I've been inviting the prime minister to my hometown of Nunatsiavut since 2015."

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Trudeau was in town for a regular meeting of the Inuit-Crown Partnership Committee, of which Obed is a co-chair. The meeting was closed to the public and the media, but Obed said there were 14 items on the agenda, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the difficult housing situation faced by many in Inuit Nunangat, which is the traditional homeland of Canada's Inuit and spans the northern region from the tip of the Yukon Territory to Nunatsiavut.

Marie-Josée Houle, Canada's federal housing advocate, said late last year that housing shortages in the region amounted to human rights violations. Over half of Inuit in Inuit Nunangat lived in overcrowded homes in 2021, and more than a quarter lived in homes in need of major repairs, according to Statistics Canada.

Lela Evans, the provincial New Democrat member for the Nunatsiavut area, says housing shortages and food insecurity are driving higher suicide rates in the region. She made an emotional plea for action from the provincial government last month, citing a study that showed women in Nunatsiavut were almost 32 times more likely to die of suicide than women in Newfoundland.

Trudeau told reporters he knows the needs are significant.

"We have worked very, very closely with communities like here in Nain, but with leadership right across Inuit Nunangat to work with them to meet the need in responsible, realistic ways," he said.

The latest federal budget promised $4 billion toward an Indigenous housing strategy over seven years, beginning next year. Trudeau did not answer directly when asked if he felt that timeline would meet the region's housing needs quickly enough.

The prime minister attended a community feast at a local school, which featured Inuit throat singing and drum dancing. Obed told the hundreds of people packed into the school gym that the meeting that day was for them — and for all of Canada.

"Ultimately, the work that we do is to improve all of your lives," he told the crowd.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2023.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press