Since the mid-1500s, intense competition had existed between the Inuit and Europeans for the whale, seal and fish resources of central and southern Labrador. Beginning in the middle of the 16th century, the Inuit first skirmished with and then attacked Basque whalers to protect their land and resources. This seriously hindered any Basque whaling efforts for several years.
From about 1610, Inuit attacks in the Straits of Belle Isle area against French fishermen led the fishermen to request permission to arm themselves. The French were mainly interested in southern Labrador due to its closeness to the lucrative fishing grounds off the coast. Parts of Labrador farther north held no attraction for them. By the early 1700s, France had gained international recognition for its claims to southern Labrador. (See also Indigenous French Relations.)
In the first half 18th century, relations between the French and the Inuit had not improved, and conflict continued. French people along the coast of present-day Quebec continuously asked France for military protection. This led to the construction of forts and increased attacks against the Inuit. As a result, by the 1730s the Inuit had retreated to the Atlantic coast. The Inuit continued to fight back and in 1741 burned the French post at Cape Charles. The French also abandoned their post at Chateau Bay sometime before 1757.
Meanwhile, Britain and France were themselves in conflict during much of the early 1700s, culminating in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63). France lost this war, and by the Treaty of Paris, signed in February 1763, Britain gained control of almost all of France’s North American territories, which included Labrador. By a Royal Proclamation in October that year, Britain assigned the government of the coast of Labrador to Newfoundland.
Although Newfoundland was a British colony, in fact it was little more than a fishing station. It had a governor but few of the other trappings of government such as a legislative assembly. As it was for the French, the fishing area off the coast of Labrador, especially the Strait of Belle Isle, was extremely valuable to the British. They were interested in resource exploitation, however, and not settlement. But the long-standing conflict in the region between the Inuit and Europeans created an obstacle to trade with the British and their obtainment of resources.
In April 1764, the Lords of Trade and Plantations (who oversaw the administration of British colonies) appointed Hugh Palliser lieutenant-governor of both Newfoundland and coastal Labrador. The British were keen to allow their fishermen to take part in the Labrador fishery and not permit the French or the Inuit to prevent this. The Lords’ instructions to Palliser of 10 April 1764 specifically ordered him to report on whether forts should be constructed to protect the fishery or to carry on trade with the Inuit. They also ordered him to stop other nationalities from trading with the Inuit and to encourage the Inuit to trade only with the British.
On 1 July 1764, Palliser issued a proclamation to the residents of Newfoundland, which ordered them not to harm the Inuit. He also advised them that he was hoping to convince the Inuit to conclude a treaty with Britain. Palliser informed the Lords that he intended to use Moravian missionaries who first visited in Labrador in 1752 to help him negotiate a treaty. The Moravian missionaries were members of a German religious sect who had learned Inuktitut, an Inuit language, in Greenland. ( See also Indigenous Languages in Canada.) Their aim was to establish themselves among the Inuit and convert them to Christianity.
Shortly after he received his instructions from the Lords, Palliser sent an invitation to the Inuit through a Moravian missionary to meet with him. In response, more than 300 Inuit of south and central Labrador gathered at Chateau Bay in August 1765 to meet with the governor. Assisted by Moravian translators, Palliser and Inuit representatives held a conference over a few days.
The British had previously used peace and friendship treaties with various Indigenous peoples in northeastern North America to promote good relations and to trade with them. This was the method they wanted Palliser to follow with the Inuit.
Palliser and the Inuit representatives successfully concluded an agreement between them, which was signed on 21 August. By allying themselves with the Inuit, the British hoped to protect themselves against interference from the American colonies or France. For their part, the treaty promised the Inuit the protection of the British Crown, self-government, use of wildlife and natural resources and the right to commercial trade.
In 1985, the Labrador Métis Nation (LMN) was formed, originally as the Labrador Métis Association. (See also Métis.) It was renamed the Nunatukavut Community Council (NCC) in 2010 and represents about 6,000 Inuit. Based on the 1765 treaty, in 1991 the LMN filed a land claim with the federal government for a significant part of southern Labrador, which it maintains is the traditional territory of the central and southern Inuit. In September 2019, the federal government signed a memorandum of understanding with the NCC, establishing the conditions for future negotiations about rights and self-governance. The NCC named their territory Nunatukavut (“Our Ancient Land”).
According to some researchers, the 1765 agreement between the British and the Inuit of southern Labrador is not, in fact, a peace treaty. They agree that a meeting did take place, but its terms were not of the comprehensive type usually found in peace and friendship treaties of the era. Other Innu organizations in Labrador also object to the NCC land claim. In particular, they believe the land claims of the NCC will weaken any negotiations with the federal government.