As I was sitting in class, we discussed what it meant to occupy a place throughout history and how this could result in certain individuals, such as Indigenous people, having more knowledge about the land than those who arrived later in the colonial context. During this discussion, it got me thinking how strange it is that I’m not native to this land. Of course, as someone who enjoys hunting and fishing, I feel very attached to this land in Ontario and I could never imagine myself being anywhere else. All of my ancestors left France and sailed to Canada in the 1600s. Would that make me native to France? I’m not sure, but it’s crazy to think that if my descendants hadn’t sailed to Canada, I would possibly be a proud French from France right now. This feeling of confusion also arises when I’m in the bush in the winter or gone ice fishing with my boyfriend, who is Anishinaabe/ First Nations, and I’m freezing my toes off while he’s perfectly fine. It gets me thinking how, realistically, my ancestors have only been in North America for about 350 years, which, on the scale of evolution, is nearly nothing! My body has not adapted fully to this climate, and I find that extremely humbling since it reminds me that we are all still visitors on Turtle Island, now known as Canada.
As a result, next summer, my sister and I will embark on a journey to France to trace back our lineage and origins. It will be interesting to explore what we possibly would have become if it wasn’t for Antoine Pépin dit Lachance, our great great great (I’m not even sure) grandfather who travelled across the Atlantic in 1652 to settle in Canada. As I will learn more about myself and my origins, I hope it will also serve as a reminder to others that we are all still visitors here, and need to respect the land and the people who identify their ancestry with the original inhabitants of Canada.
It’s when I moved the city that I realised wearing beaver mitts in -30 temperatures is apparently not as normal and natural to others as it was to me… Canada was founded predominantly because of the fur trade. Ironically, this same market is receiving a lot of criticism and is currently experiencing a social change due to PETA’s persistent activism against the fur industry. I am aware that many companies are using inhumane practices that I don’t agree with nor support, however, PETA is claiming that ALL fur industries are horrible. I’m not buying their propaganda, however, a lot of people are… and that, to me, is problematic.
PETA’s well known “Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign dates back to 1991 and has now grown internationally. Their campaign strategies include showcasing numerous images and videos of cute animals that are encroached, drowned, beaten and electrocuted to raise public awarenesss and accuse EVERY fur company of demonstrating unethical and inhumane treatment of animals. They are extremely active on social media and regularly publish articles and launch petitions. Many celebrities and activists have joined PETA’s naked campaign which has furthered their interest and gained the solidarity and support of many. Their various initiatives and commercials have caught the public’s attention, and consequently, fur sales have dropped significantly.
But have PETA’s anti-fur campaigns convinced me to give up trapping and wearing fur items? Not a chance, and here’s why:
Not all fur industries are inhumane
Animals being brought to life for the sole purpose of being sold, used for science or trained for entertainment, such as circuses, zoos, animal tested cosmetics and products, farmed animals and meat factories, are not acceptable. Animals belong in the wild where they can live a free life. While some companies practice unethical treatment of animals, individual trappers do not. The trapping process for most is a fair fight between man and animal, in the wild, just like it has been done since the beginning of time.
After PETA’s 1991 campaign, the fur industry in Canada signed the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards (AIHTS) in 1997 in order to recover sales with Europe. This agreement ensures effective and non-cruel trapping practices. Since then, 8 editions have been released and it continues to be updated.
In addition, other initiatives have been put in place to ensure respect, good practice and protection of animals:
Each trapper who harvests fur must have a trapping license and partake and pass the Fur Harvest, Fur Management and Conservation course.
The license identifies the areas where the trapper can trap and gives harvest quotas for certain species (example: beaver, fox, otter, etc.).
Each trapper can only trap during the open season (varies depending on the animal).
They must also report the number of animals they catch, sell and keep each year under their trapping license (their annual harvest report counts help monitor animal populations).
In spite of these improvements and good initiatives, the fur industry does not have the same platform as PETA and the industry cannot deflect and defend PETA’s accusations. As a result, the fur industry continues to fall under the common narrative that “all fur industry is inhumane and unacceptable”.
For many, there is a cultural importance of land-based activities that support subsistence
Trappers treat the land and wildlife with respect, honor and dignity, and it is unfortunate that PETA’s campaign have had a snow ball effect on the trapping industry. First, the fur industry’s reputation declined as the public became angry and disgusted with all fur products. Second, this led to a lack of demand, hence a decrease in sales and investments for companies. Fur Harvesters Auction’s annual reports clearly show a decrease in fur values. For example, in 2003, skins sold for $150 and in 2016 this amount decreased to $26 (Fur Harvesters Auction Inc, 2017). Thirdly, this decline also affects the lives of trappers. Many trappers have had no choice but to look for alternative careers to earn a salary and to make a living.
Marcel Labelle, a proud Métis, expressed that: “When the fur industry went down, I almost died. We had no source of income but also, being on the trap line, that’s all I ever knew. It was my passion. So I went to university and graduated and got an office job that made good money. But I soon found out that I was also dying in there (verbal communication).”
Additionally, there are a lot of controversial issues exposed by PETA in the media regarding seal hunting, all of which largely overlook the Inuit’s perspective. The arctic regions have very limited access to conventional and supermarket foods so they depend on hunting for food, especially the seal, and then rely on selling the sealskins for income (enough to pay for essential things such as ammunition, gasoline for their snowmobiles, hygiene products and some market foods, if available). Animal rights activists who were outraged by the Atlantic seal hunt directly affected this small group of Inuit by successfully having sealskins banned in Europe. Their already unguaranteed economy was even more disturbed and caused what the Inuit describe as their version of the Great Depression. This lead to prevalent poverty, forced relocation, and even an upsurge in suicide rates.
Valuable lessons are taught from harvesting your own food and clothing
Eating meat to then utilise and wear items of nature in a respectful manner constantly reminds me of the interconnectedness and interdependence of our surroundings. The land feels infinitely more alive, abundant and full of life once you learn how to live from it, and because of that, it is more worthy of care.
Ironically, PETA labels all animal eaters and wearers as “inhumane”, however, the times I spend in the bush hunting or trapping for my own food or fur are the moments where I feel most human.
After doing research on the Innu Nation as part of an assignment in the class EAS2101: Colonialism and Indigenous Peoples with professor Tracy Lynn Coates at the University of Ottawa, I became very attached and fascinated by this nation. So, to better understand this nation, I booked a flight to Goose Bay, Labrador during the holiday break to learn about the Innu in a way books could not teach me.
Who are the Innu Nation?
The Innu, also known as the Montagnais, live in the eastern and northern portion of the Québec-Labrador peninsula. Today there are over 16,000 Innu who live in eleven communities in Québec and two in Labrador, but the term Innu Nation formally represents the Innu of Labrador. There are approximately 2200 persons, most of who live in the two Innu communities of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish in Labrador.
During my visit, I had the chance the go to Shetshatshiu (about 40 km from Goose Bay, where I was staying with my friend and her family). Here are some of the things I learnt that I need to share.
First Hudson Bay Company trading post in Canada
I felt almost uncomfortable standing here… To me, this building represents the beginning of the end for the Innu Nation’s way of life.
At first, fur traders were not dramatically changing the nomadic life of the Innu Nation. It’s in the 19th century, when trappers started insisting that the Innu trap furs full-time instead of hunting the caribou like they had always done, when the impact really started. As a result of giving up their traditional hunting practices and becoming fur experts instead, the Innu became very dependent on the European’s economic practices for survival, food and supplies. When the drop in fur prices occurred during the Great Depression, this made things difficult for the Innu’s new imposed way of life. To make things even more difficult, there was a decline in the caribou population during the 1930’s. The Innu starved and were impoverished. Many felt like they had no option but to look for help from government, the church and charitable organizations.
The company’s arrival also introduced many different diseases such as Smallpox which devastated the Innu Nation and many more Indigenous Nations.
Meeting Elizabeth Penashue
I was a little starstruck meeting Elizabeth Penashue, an elder and one of the first woman to go to jail for Low-Level Flying protests. The low-level flying exercises from the Goose Bay Air Base had a negative impact on the Innu. The jets created an abrupt blast of noise that would make the tent canvass shake, scare the children, and scare off the animals that the Innu hunted and depended on for food and survival.
She talked about the Innu’s traditional lifestyle and relationship with the land. She approaches conflicts with courage and dignity, conquers fears and serves as an inspiration to others. She has protected the rights of the Innu children to be educated in Innu-ainum, their traditional language, and also in a way that made justice to their heritage.
Her efforts have drawn a lot of attention to the Innu struggles. Through her winter walks, canoe trips, speeches and so much more, she is reviving her traditional culture and making a difference for her people and the generations to come.
“The government is not from here. People come from outside to work, once they’ve finished their work, they go back home without really thinking about what they’ve done… to our animals, rivers, medicine, people, land… they should respect those things… not just money and business. I feel very sad when I think about it.”
I used to think that the farther North you go in Canada, the more the land is preserved and untouched. But unfortunately, as I apprehend after my visit, that’s not the case.
These signs are up everywhere. The scenery is so beautiful here, and from a first look, you wouldn’t think that residents can no longer farm, pick berries or hunt on their land because of the pollution left from a former American military site. I can’t imagine how hard this must be for a nation who treated the land as their pharmacy, their educator, their place for proving leadership and their source of spirituality. The land is a storehouse of wildlife and natural resources that have sustained them for generations, and which, they hope, will continue to provide for them in future years.
During this reflection, I keep thinking of what Elizabeth shared with us: “When I think about the loss of our culture, land and animals; I pray, and I feel sad… inside my heart cries.” The soil is so contaminated… some things are growing but the land is still dead. It “makes my heart cry” too, and I want to help.
Currently there is a strong group of Innu, as well as Inuit and settlers, taking part in the #makemuskratright movement in Labrador. It is a resistance to the awaiting flooding and health risk factors at the Muskrat Falls Hydro Electric near Happy Valley Goose Bay, Labrador. They are asking the provincial and federal governments to intervene to stop the injustice, to stop Nalcor and any funding toward it, and to respect the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which the Government of Canada signed off on in May 2016.
The Methyl Mercury produced by this project is making its way into the food chain and it is incredibly dangerous. It is easily absorbed in the body and through bioaccumulation up the food chain. When people harvest fish, seals, birds etc., it can be consumed at much higher levels than recommended by Health Canada. The over consumption can develop disabilities in children, cerebral palsy symptoms in adults, tremors, confusion and more. As a result, people will have to choose between eating traditional foods from fishing and hunting and potentially having health risks not only to themselves, but to their children.
For more information on what you can do to get involved and to help, follow their Facebook page Muskrat Falls Land Protectors and keep the discussion and awareness going.
I feel so privileged to now be learning about different Aboriginal cultures in Canada, like the Innu Nation. To the Innu, the land is their history, their culture, and their future. I’ve learnt about their defeats and sufferings, the challenges they have faced and the ones they are still facing today. Even with their difficult past, it’s amazing to see how they have been able to overcome the burdens placed on them and how they continue to defy their challenges. Sadly, the healing and rehabilitation process of these Nations won’t be possible if not all Canadians are mindful and aware of what went on and what is still going on today.
Growing up, I knew only two things about aboriginal people in Canada: 1) they don’t pay taxes, and 2) their post-secondary education is paid. It’s sad and embarrassing to admit but unfortunately, this is relatable for many Canadians (and those two facts aren’t even necessarily true).
I grew up in a small French town in Northern Ontario, surrounded by people who are proud of their language and their culture. Despite being taught to be proud of my Franco Ontarian heritage, my community failed to teach me about the cultures of the Anishinaabe and Objiwe community, the Nipissing (Nbisiing) First Nations. For most of my life, I didn’t even know this community existed, let alone their culture, their past, and their ongoing challenges… and it’s only about an 8 minute drive from my house (15 minutes if you follow the speed limit…). Seriously though, something’s wrong with that.
Throughout my education, I was taught to honor the famous Jacques Cartier for having planted a flag and “discovering” Canada. He was celebrated, respected but more than that, he was a hero. It was only in an 8th grade history class that I was introduced to residential schools. In this hour long lesson, the teacher justified the actions and intentions of our European ancestors as ‘’good’’. They wanted to ‘’civilize’’ the first people who were here in Canada and it’s thanks to ‘’us’’ that Aboriginals today live such a “good life”. We were taught that the French came to colonize and civilize the indigenous people and make their lives better.
It was my first lesson on the Aboriginal people of Canada, but also my last. During my four years in high school, I was taught nothing about Aboriginal culture (unless racist jokes and discussions that went against indigenous movements count?). The educational system failed to inform me about the General Allotment Act, the Indian Reorganization Act, the Indian Act, the assimilation experiments on concentration camp, Dear Island, the 60’s Scoop, the Trail of Tears, the long-term effects of residential schools, treaty violations and so much more. Why weren’t those in the curriculum? Why weren’t those discussed in classrooms?
It’s in the course Introduction to Aboriginal Studies at the University of Ottawa that I got a glimpse of the history, misconceptions and stereotypes of Indigenous peoples, not only in Canada but all around the world. My first boyfriend and his family are aboriginal and I was able to learn more about who they are as a community and their beautiful way of life. My perception on Aboriginal peoples has changed drastically. If it hadn’t been for that little 3 credit bonus point, easy elective, last minute decision class…and the luck I had to be part of an aboriginal family through my boyfriend at the time, I still would live with the false ideologies and perceptions towards Indigenous peoples, and this is what I find truly concerning. There remains a large number of Canadians who are misinformed and I wonder how they are going to know the truth. I think of all those who do not have the opportunities I had, and how they will remain ignorant. Not necessarily their fault, but due to the lack of information and awareness in our Canadian societies.
I don’t blame my parents or my teachers for my lack of knowledge about our true history because I am aware that they learned it the same way I did. They, like any other Canadian, didn’t have the opportunity to learn about the true history of our country. That’s somewhat the problem isn’t it? We have generations and generations of false information about our history. And we seem to think that history is part of the past but that’s false. Our history is transmitted in the stories we share about the past to future generations. Over the years, we have placed the Indigenous peoples under a microscope, similarly the same way a scientist would do with an insect. The one who observes has the power to define. Then, we learn about our history and realities based on these definitions and interpretations that are most often false.
I now feel privileged to be learning about different Aboriginal cultures in Canada. I’m learning a lot about their defeats and sufferings, the challenges they have faced and the ones they are still facing today. Even with their difficult past, it’s amazing to see how they have been able to overcome the burdens placed on them and how they continue to defy their challenges. Sadly, the healing and rehabilitation process of these lost cultures won’t be possible if not all Canadians are mindful and aware of what went on and what is still going on today.
No one here should feel colonial guilt for what our ancestors have done and the mess and despair they have caused. We are not responsible for their actions, however, we are fully responsible for today and the course of this country. I think that together as a community, with the support of Government initiatives, educational institutions and organizations, we can properly educate our country about our history. Together, we can raise awareness and eliminate false ideas about Aboriginal peoples. Society’s fixed and most often discriminatory opinions towards Aboriginals people can be eliminated if everyone is given the opportunity to learn the facts – an opportunity I wasn’t given until the age of 19.
I know I’m just a ‘’white girl’’ talking about large matters that I have so much left to learn about. I might not fully understand what it means to be Aboriginal in our world today, but I’m trying. These courses, readings and discussions with Aboriginal individuals have helped me understand that whether someone is First Nations, Métis, Inuit or non-status, we are all united as one. I hope we walk into the future together and continue on this path towards mutual respect and reconciliation. There is still so much for all of us to learn.