A lesson books cannot teach – ICAS student travels to Labrador to enrich her understanding of the Innu Nation

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

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North West River, NL

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

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My friend and I meeting Eliabeth Penashue in Shetshashiu, Newfoundland and Labrador

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.”

Affected land

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.

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DANGER: Do not enter Hazard Area

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.

#makemuskratright movement in Labrador

Cur15823397_10154125783631615_5452110650916839342_nrently 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.

15826208_10154125784011615_8069626549336156541_nThe 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.

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Confession of a Canadian ‘’white girl’’: Bridging the gap between us-them mentalities towards Indigenous peoples

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.

Janie Pepin