The NI Interview
After decades of government paternalism the Innu people of Labrador are fighting
to regain their land and their self-respect. Wayne Ellwood meets a soft-spoken woman
with 22 grandchildren and a knack for organizing sit-ins.
In northern Labrador on the bleak, windswept coast of Voisey Bay prospectors have just confirmed the world’s largest nickel deposit, a fabulously rich strike which mining moguls estimate will meet global demand for 30 years. But Elizabeth Penashue is not impressed. She is worried – worried that this new discovery will further disrupt the lives of her people, the 13,000 Innu who live in the sub-arctic lands in Northeast Quebec and Labrador. The Innu call this harsh region Nitassinan – ‘our land’. But they are afraid both the land and their centuries-old culture are slipping from their grasp.
‘This Voisey Bay, this is the big one,’ says Elizabeth. Her words are slow but precise. Before the interview begins she apologizes for her halting English. But there’s no mistaking the passion of her words.
‘The government is talking about getting everything in there: an airport, a wharf for big boats, hotels, stores, houses. But no-one is asking what it will mean for the Innu people. Labrador is my land, Innu land, it’s where I want to stay. We got to do something before it’s too late.’
The Innu have never ceded title to this part of Northeast Canada. Many take part in twice-yearly forays into the bush with their families to hunt and fish. For Elizabeth these excursions are essential to her people’s survival.
‘When we go into nutshimit (the bush) in fall and spring we are very happy there; it’s not the same as in our village, Sheshatshiu. There I always worry about my kids. Maybe they’re gonna spend all their time drinking or they’re gonna commit suicide like so many of our young people have done. In the bush we teach them everything about animals, about hunting and medicine. And my kids and my grandkids they are all the time asking when we gonna go. We have to be the teacher of our children otherwise they’re gonna lose everything about our culture.’
It wasn’t until the early 1950s that the Innu felt the first real pressures to settle and halt their semi-nomadic lifestyle.
‘The Government moved our people into houses. When I was young there were no schools, no hospitals, no houses. When we got our first house my mom said: “Oh, we gonna have water, we gonna have washing and a bath.” She was happy. She didn’t understand that was part of what the Government was doing to change the Innu.’
That change has been dramatic and the impact of modern society on traditional Innu culture devastating. Today alcoholism is endemic, teenage suicide rates are sky-high and family breakdowns common.
‘In the summer we used to live in tents along the ocean,’ explains Elizabeth, ‘we were always visiting, we shared fish or meat. Now we are always inside. Too much television and no more visits. It’s sad. When people stayed in the bush we never had problems like diabetes or high blood pressure. We always ate fresh meat: caribou, porcupine, rabbits, partridge, beaver. Now we go to the store and get some eggs or canned food and we have lots of problems. Old people in the bush, even at 70 or 80, were always working, always happy. In Sheshatshiu today people sometimes die at 40.’
Since the early 1980s the Innu have been fighting yet another threat from the outside. The Canadian Government appropriated without compensation more than 100,000 square kilometres of Nitassinan to allow Canadian and foreign military jets to practise low-level flying. Canadian Airforce pilots, along with their British, Dutch and German counterparts, fly thousands of sorties a year at levels as low as 30 metres above the ground, mostly along river valleys and over lakes where the Innu travel and build their camps.
Elizabeth and others have protested for nearly ten years to stop the flights. They claim the ear-piercing noise of the screaming jets threatens wildlife populations and disrupts their traditional way of life. Despite the unresolved land claim both the Canadian and European governments continue to ignore Innu protests. Under terms of a recent deal the Canadian Government will allow 15,000 test flights a year, nearly triple the current number.
Elizabeth has organized dozens of peaceful sit-ins, mostly by women, on the runway at the air base in Goose Bay, Labrador. Small bands of protesters have also crossed into no-go areas which the military has designated as test bombing ranges. Elizabeth herself has been arrested half a dozen times but says stoically that the stakes are too high to give up now.
‘The first time was five years ago,’ she recalls. ‘All us women had a meeting and decided to do something. Next morning over 100 people sat down on the runway – kids, women and even some men. We just sat there, we didn’t make no trouble or break no planes. Then the RCMP (Mounties) dragged us away to a big bus and put us in jail.’
On a more recent protest she and 38 others were convicted of another runway sit-in to prevent Dutch pilots from taking off. After her release she went back to the base and was immediately re-arrested. ‘My friends were still in jail,’ she recounts with a smile. ‘And when I walked back in they all got up and clapped.’
Elizabeth warns that the Innu’s protests will continue until there is a full land-claim agreement. ‘The Government never asked to use our land,’ she says softly. ‘And we never signed any paper saying they could. How many times do we have to say that’s enough?’
Given the gold-rush mentality surrounding the Voisey Bay nickel discovery and the Government’s reluctance to treat the Innu claim seriously, Elizabeth and her people will need all the support they can muster.
For further information on how you can help, especially if you live in Britain, Germany or Holland, please contact:
Innu Nation, PO Box 119, Sheshatshiu, Labrador, Canada A0P 1M0, Tel: 709 497 8398, Fax: 709 497 8396
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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996