Innu protest the harmful effects of militarization
Elizabeth Penashue is an Innu woman who works unceasingly for peace in her homeland. Last March her efforts were turned to organizing a protest camp at the Minenipi Bombing Range in the interior of her people's hunting grounds. She says: "It is important to do something now, before everything is gone...for my kids and grandkids...If women don't fight, then all is lost. I have a house in Sheshatshit, but my real home is in the country, with the trees, the rivers, the animals and the medicines."
The decision to take part in the protest was not an easy choice to make. Spring and fall are important times of the year for hunting caribou which migrate through the region. Other Innu camps were being set up in areas where the herds were most likely to be found. The bombing range wasn't one of them.
>From the village of Sheshatshit (near Goose Bay, Labrador), and communities on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, 27 Innu of all ages came together to form the protest camp. Despite the great distances between their far-flung villages, these traditionally nomadic people hold all the lands in Nitassinan in common, including the enormous tracts which have been commandeered for military use.
Two supporters, Tom Green and I, were invited to take part in the protest camp. Tom had been employed for three years by the Innu Nation as an environmental researcher, and had spent some time in Innu hunting camps.
Not long after establishing our camp, about one mile outside of the bombing range, it became clear that both hunting and fishing in the area were very poor. Jets flew overhead several times a day. The Innu had no doubt about the connections between these two facts. There was better luck at other camps, where Innu hunted far away from the noisy "transit corridors," where the jets zoom into the bombing range. But the jets fly randomly throughout the two lowflying zones, which comprise 100,000 square miles of hunting territory. None of the camps could be guaranteed a peaceful place for themselves or the animals they sought.
Since food was scarce, and our conspicuous encampment was not deterring the jets from thundering directly above us, the Innu decided there was nothing to lose by relocating. We moved the main camp to another lake, where at least fish could be found. From there, half our number set out to make camp in a more strategic spot. To truly foil the war games, it was decided to interpose ourselves in the dead centre ofthe bombing range.
On ski-doos and snowshoes, seven adults and eight children trekked over ice-covered lakes and rivers. By mid-day, evidence that we had reached the outer edge was unmistakable. "No trespassing" signs, written in Innu -aimun and Inuktitut, were nailed to trees facing a 20-foot swath which had been cut through the forest. This swath formed a gigantic circle, eight miles in diameter, bordering the area. We were literally heading into the breach.
Within minutes of crossing the boundary, five German "phantom" jets made several passes overhead. Shortly after-wards, I saw the children playing on a wooden structure which had been made to look like a tank. It was nerve -wracking to see these kids amusing themselves on what was apparently a target for bombing practice.
As the sun was setting, we reached a hill in the hub of the bombing range. Across an open river stood a building and hydro towers, and we knew that an airstrip lay just beyond them. By the time we had a kettle boiling and began pitching our tent, a ski-doo approached across the river. A Canadian Armed Forces corporal attempted to shout a warning to us that we were trespassing. The Innu drowned out his words with a message of their own, spoken in Innu-aimun, that the land is theirs, and they would not take orders to leave. We settled in without further disturbance that night.
Warnings resumed the following morning in the form of helicopters. They circled over our camp, receded, and returned. With each reappearance they came closer. In the afternoon, (while the boys were out collecting bomb casings), a huge helicopter loomed threateningly overhead. A smaller one hovered in front of the tent, and the pilot peered inside at us. We showed no sign of our plan to move camp, and wondered if they would arrest us before we could do so. In any event, no jets were flying in the area, and the only war game taking place was the ineffectual one being played out over our heads.
When the third volley of helicopters moved out of sight we gathered our gear and left the area. It was our intention to return at a later date, so we left the tent standing as a reminder of Innu determination.
That evening, elsewhere in the bombing range, we camped under the stars. It had been a long and stressful day, and it was good to relax. The sounds of migrating ducks, rather than fighter jets, were most welcome by the hunters. I watched the northern lights until falling peacefully asleep by the fire.
We made our way back to the main camp late the following afternoon. Helicopters then surveyed the camp, presumably to see if the protesters had returned from the bombing range. They apparently couldn't spot us; the radio news that night reported that the military was continuing its search for us. Nonetheless, I counted 10 jet sorties in the night over our camp before sleep overtook me. The reprieve we had gained from these offensive incursions was over. But as war practices continue over Nitassinan, peaceful resistance by the Innu perseveres.
Public hearings to assess the effects of low-level military flight testing in Nitassinan have been boycotted by Innu organizations and peace and environment groups. Innu from seven communities in Quebec and Labrador came together when the hearings began, to obstruct the proceedings.
Surrounded by controversy, the initial hearing was held September 19, in Goose Bay. Defense workers and their supporters heavily outnumbered the 200 Innu, and exchanges between them became heated.
Daniel Ashini, Director of Innu Rights and Environment, told the panel, "We prepared a careful and exhaustive analysis of DND's research. We found it deficient. The panel has chosen not to permit us to cross-examine DND's technical experts, nor will it permit us to adequately translate the hearing proceedings so our people can understand what is being said. This is unacceptable to the Innu people. And make no mistake, we are here to disrupt your hearings. You panel members should be embarrassed to be sitting here, when you know that the process is a sham."
The panel, appointed by the Federal Environmental Assessment Review Office, lost a member over similar concerns in 1992. Paul Wilkinson resigned, citing close ties to DND and exclusion of Innu as characteristic of the process. He said former Environment Minister Jean Charest told the panel it could not recommend that low-level flying be stopped. Current minister Sheila Copps says the panel will be replaced if there is evidence of bias.
The schedule for the panel involved taking the hearings to many communities directly affected by its decision. However, the scene at the first hearing turned ugly; the Innu allowed themselves to be escorted out by RCMP when they feared violence from the military supporters. Some subsequent hearings were cancelled, such as in Davis Inlet, when Innu resistance was assured.
At press time, final hearings were scheduled for Goose Bay, Oct. 24-29. For information, call the International Campaign for the Innu and the Earth at (416) 531-6154.
Kari Reynolds is a Toronto supporter of the Innu.