Laid low by junk food and Jesus

May 2, 2003

Colin Samson reports on the native Innu of Labrador and their battle to reclaim independence and dignity.

We watched helpless from the shore as our motor-powered canoe floated off into Utshisk-nipi. This was my first visit to what the Innu call nutshimit, or "the country", deep in the interior of sub-Arctic Labrador, and we were in trouble. My two companions and I were 90 miles from the nearest village in an area usually accessible only by plane. Now the canoe, loaded with our tent, hunting supplies and food, had simply drifted into the lake. The calm, hoarse voice of the Innu elder, Dominic Pokue, and his jovial banter with his fellow hunter, Daniel Ashini, eased my panic a bit. Soon, we were ingeniously employed making a raft from old tent supports, which we used to ford several rivers. After 36 hours without food and only the most rudimentary shelter, we recovered the canoe.

Throughout the ordeal, humour and warmth prevailed. No one was blamed.

Dominic ventured that in addition to the current and the wind, the boat may have been moved by katheimeithethu, trickster-like beings that transform into tiny creatures to play tricks on the Innu. "Why would they do this?" I asked. "In order to make us see that we are dependent on the animals, the waters and the trees, and not the other way around," Dominic replied.

The Innu, distinct from the circumpolar Inuit, are the northernmost Algonquin-speaking peoples of North America. They have occupied this area for 7,500 years, and their history, skills, cosmology and language give meaning to this landscape of labyrinthine forests and snaking rivers, and the tundra beyond. Their understanding of the complex relationships between humans, animals, waters, trees and the natural environment is highly developed. European languages are poverty stricken by comparison when trying to describe the land, while western science is limited in understanding the subtle relationships between humans and animals perceived by this people. Whereas the Innu religion binds people and the natural environment, Christianity, as Dominic told me, "does not make any sense here".

Yet this knowledge, and the way of life on which it is based, has been systematically dismantled. Generations of missionaries and fur traders started an aggressive assimilation project, but only recently has it met with any success. Britain's handing-over of Newfoundland, of which Labrador is a part, to the Canadian confederation in 1949 marked the turning point.

The newly formed Newfoundland government, under premier "Joey" Smallwood, moved quickly to clear the land of "Indians" to make way for natural resource extraction. Smallwood famously called Labrador "the one lucky break that nature gave to Newfoundlanders".

Soon after joining Canada, the authorities decided to dam Mista-shipu, the wide river in the heart of Innu hunting territory. The resulting hydro-electric power project reduced the grandest and most spectacular waterfall in North America, Patshetshunau, to a trickle. The massive flooded area - the third largest artificial lake in the world - was named Smallwood Reservoir, while Patshetshunau was renamed Churchill Falls and Mista-shipu the Churchill River.

The late 1960s are remembered by older Innu hunters as a sad time because their lands and ecosystems began to be altered out of all recognition and European place names were written over theirs. It coincided with the Newfoundland government pursuing a policy to sedentarise the nomadic Innu.

While there was no disguising the desire for natural resources, another agenda also loomed. This was the "civilisation" of the Innu, a project pushed by the missionaries encamped at the fur-trading posts.

A few years ago, while driving along the Churchill road in his truck, Greg Penashue told me about his school years under the Oblate Catholic order.

"The priests, who were our teachers, used to say that our beliefs were devil worship. There would be drums, bones and other things hanging in the tents, and when the priest came in he would tell our parents that these objects were bad, sick, and should be thrown away." The Innu were scolded and sometimes beaten for taking their children into the country when, as the priests argued, they should have been in school. One woman told me that some were dragged from their tents by their hair to get them to the church in time for mass.

As the priests were inculcating what Greg called a "psychology of fear", the Newfoundland authorities were doing their utmost to secure control over the Innu by creating an infrastructure for village life. This call to end their nomadic life was justified by appeals to cultural evolution and social Darwinism. In a 1957 memorandum, Walter Rockwood, the director of the Division of Northern Labrador Affairs, remarked: "The only course now open, for there can be no turning back, is to fit him (the indigenous people of Labrador) as soon as may be to take his full place as a citizen in our society."

Half a century on, we can now assess the consequences of fitting the Innu "to take his full place in our society". Almost every other Native American community subjected to similar social engineering has experienced a similar fate. The residents of the two Innu villages of Sheshatshiu and Utshimassits suffered an abrupt decline in fortune. They endured highly undignified living conditions, in desperately overcrowded shacks with no running water or sanitation. Many descended into heavy drinking. People began getting ill at earlier ages. Hitherto unknown diseases such as chronic heart disease, cancer and diabetes accompanied the shift from a rich diet of hunted, fished and gathered food to one dominated almost entirely by the junk food stocked by the village stores. In the 1990s, petrol sniffing was epidemic, while child sexual abuse, initiated by priests in the 1960s, became widespread and led to inter-communal animosities. On top of that, the villages recorded some of the highest suicide rates in the world.

When they were nomadic hunters, the Innu had full employment - now about 80 per cent are unemployed. Many of those with jobs work in the institutions that Canada has funded to abate the rampant misery created by the sedentarisation policy itself - the alcohol clinics, counselling facilities, homes for troublesome youth, women's shelters and general-health clinics. The Innu were once a healthy, vibrant and self-reliant people, successfully living in one of the most demanding landscapes on the planet. Their collapse has been dramatic.

The Innu's struggle to rescue their land and something of their dignity must necessarily engage with Canada. It was the government that imposed its law on them, mandated that their children attend schools and punished them for hunting caribou - which was integral to their way of life. The state has also approved the sale or lease of their lands for hydroelectric power generation, mining, logging and low-level flight training.

Yet there is not one shred of paper that the federal government can produce to demonstrate its sovereignty over either Labrador or the Innu, who were never part of the treaty process and have not formally ceded their land.

They are now negotiating for some self-determination. But even as talks have progressed, land that is part of the Innu Nation "claim" has been sold to developers. Regardless, the final aim of the state's land-claims policy is to extinguish aboriginal titles in exchange for limited self-government, hunting and fishing rights in defined territories, and cash compensation.

In 1999, the United Nation's human-rights committee condemned Canada for "extinguishing" aboriginal people's rights and described the situation as "the most pressing issue facing Canadians". Earlier this year, at a press conference in London, Matthew Coon Come, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, reminded us that Britain was not blameless. Rather than seeking to protect the peoples it once colonised, the UK government, he claimed, "led the charge internationally to impede the recognition of indigenous rights in Canada and Australia".

Is there hope for the Innu? The federal government funds made available are a fraction of the wealth extracted from their lands and nearly all goes to forms of damage limitation. A few months ago, the people of Utshimassits were moved to a purpose-built village, Natuashish, on the mainland. While they were happy to experience sanitation, running water and effective heating for the first time, the building programme has not been completed in time. Families are already doubling up.

Recent psychological and epidemiological research indicates that knowledge of traditional culture is a bulwark against the self-destructive tendencies so common in indigenous communities across Canada. Community initiatives have helped Innu youth caught in cycles of depression and desperation to find value in the hunting life. They have been taught the history of their people, the geography of their lands and the skills needed to live in the country. These young people are now among the healthiest and strongest individuals in the communities.

There is, of course, a tension between the preservation of the traditional Innu way of life and surviving in mainstream Canadian society. While acknowledging that they want some of the opportunities available to others in Canada, they also want to retain control over their lands to ensure cultural continuity. Canadian politicians have proven singularly incapable of helping people such as the Innu negotiate this balance. The state has continued to implement largely colonial and racist policies that have done little to instil any hope within native communities. As Chief Coon Come said in London: "It's a form of insanity to do the same thing over and over and expect different results."

Colin Samson is director of American studies and senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Essex. His forthcoming book, A Way of Life that Does Not Exist: Canada and the Extinguishment of the Innu, is published by Verso (£16.00).

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