Could the German Air Force resume low-level flight training over Indigenous lands in Newfoundland and Labrador?

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Video: Hunters and Bombers (1990).

CBC reports the German air force has requested that low-level flight training resume at 5 Wing Goose Bay, a Canadian Forces Base situated on the traditional territory of the Innu in Newfoundland and Labrador.

In an emailed statement to CBC/Radio Canada, Department of National Defence (DND) spokesperson Andrée-Anne Poulin says: “We are open to future requests, and will pursue positive engagement with Indigenous communities regarding such requests.”

Poulin adds: “The war in Ukraine has … increased the strategic importance of 5 Wing Goose Bay for Canada and NATO’s collective security, and in support of our bilateral and multilateral defence relationships.”

In September 2023, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey wrote Canadian Defence Minister Bill Blair highlighting: “My government stands ready and willing to host GAF [the German Air Force].”

Photo: In December 2022, the German government announced it would be purchasing 35 F-35 warplanes. Training with the first new planes is scheduled to begin in 2026.

Premier Furey’s government has helped to facilitate consultations with potentially affected Indigenous communities — for example, the Innu Nation, the Nunatsiavut government (representing an autonomous area claimed by the Inuit in Newfoundland and Labrador) and the NunatuKavut community council (the governing body for the territory of Inuit who reside primarily in south and central Labrador).

CBC further reports: “The Innu Nation confirmed representatives outlined their ‘grave concern’ about low-level flying in a meeting with DND.”

Grand Chief Simon Pokue says: “We cannot ignore our past experience — low-level flying has affected our people, our environment and the caribou. There are elders and many other members of our community alive today who were jailed or whose family members were jailed for protesting low-level flying.”

Photo: Grand Chief Simon Pokue with Innu Elder Tshaukuesh (Elizabeth) Penashue.

In a letter dated December 18, 2023, the Innu told Defence Minister Blair: “Low-level flying makes no sense and would undermine our own efforts and further destroy surviving caribou populations.”

The full article can be read at Return of low-level flight training over Labrador on German air force’s radar (Rob Antle, Patrick Butler; CBC News; February 28, 2024). A CBC Radio Labrador Morning interview with Antle can also be heard here.

Subsequently, on March 14, 2024, SaltWire reported that Hollis Yetman Jr. is one of several residents of Happy Valley-Goose Bay who is supportive of low-level flying.

Yetman Jr. tells Saltwire: “Personally, I would think that you will see an agreement with the Indigenous people in Labrador that will allow low-level flying to go ahead because I don’t think there’s enough negatives to stop it. I think they will eventually come to some agreement. Whether that’s monetary or otherwise, I don’t know.”

That same article notes that Happy Valley-Goose Bay Mayor George Andrews also supports low-level flight training as does the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Labrador Affairs.

In a statement to SaltWire, the provincial government says: “The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador supports a proposal submitted by the German Air Force to the Federal Government to resume low-level flight training activities in Labrador, as long as it has the support of Indigenous communities.”

The SaltWire article adds that the Nunatsiavut Government declined to comment on this, while the NunatuKavut Community Council says it has not been approached by the Department of National Defence on this.

The full article can be read at Taking off: Happy Valley-Goose Bay residents hoping German military will bring low-level flying back to region (Sanuda Ranawke; SaltWire; March 14, 2024).

Innu opposition in the 1980s

Years ago, Innu Elder Tshaukuesh (Elizabeth) Penashue commented: “In the 40 years that the military has been in Goose Bay [the airfield was established in 1941], the Innu’s culture has collapsed. The use of our lands by others, without our being consulted, has caused stress in our family relationships and links to our family violence. The Innu did not welcome foreign domination. It happened against their will.”

Photo: A German air force Tornado fighter jet at Goose Bay in 2005.

Beginning in the late 1980s, the Innu, led mainly by women, began defending their land against NATO low-level fight testing for the cruise missile. More than one hundred Innu land defenders and their supporters were arrested at re-occupations of the Goose Bay airfield and the Minipi Lake bombing range.

Photo: Elders outside a prison when Innu land defenders were being arrested for opposing fighter jets flying over their lands. Photo by Bob Bartel. 

Penashue has noted: “Innu women never used to go out to meetings, but it was time to wake up and do something to stop the destruction caused by low-level flying and weapons testing. …I went to the bombing range with other activists. We put tents on the base to protest. We were jailed many times, in Goose Bay and Stephenville. We walked from Toronto to Ottawa and they put us in jail there, too. I went to Europe twice to speak.”

Photo: A protest at the Goose Bay air force base in 1988 in opposition to NATO low level flight training over Nitassinan.

Photo: Another Innu protest against low-level flight training, 1989.

In October 1994, the Peace Brigades International-North America Project (PBI-NAP) commented: “A continuing issue for the Innu of both Labrador and Quebec is low-level flight training over their hunting territory by Canada and other NATO countries.”

PBI-NAP highlighted at that time the lack of free, prior and informed consent: “The training began without any prior consultation with the Innu.”

It wasn’t until 2005 that the 50+ years of low-level flying operations by NATO member countries over these ancestral lands finally ended.

Almost 20 years later, the issue appears to have emerged again.

We continue to follow this.

Photo: Innu Elder Tshuakuesh Elizabeth Penashue and Peace Brigades International-North America Project activist Anne Harrison in 1995.

Further reading: What impact will Canadian F-35 warplanes at CFB Goose Bay have on Innu territory in Labrador? (PBI-Canada, February 21, 2023) and Canadian and U.S. fighter jets to conduct “exercise flights” over “sparsely populated” Innu territories this week (PBI-Canada, September 20, 2020).

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