Editorial note: Elizabeth Penashue is an Innu elder and a long-time campaigner against NATO low-level practice flights over Labrador/ Nitassinan. We are publishing this open letter to make readers aware of the Innu people's continuing struggle for a traditional existence in harmony with nature.
Innu people used the Churchill River area a lot in my mother and father's time. The people were hunting all kinds of animals: beaver, porcupine, otter, mink, marten and cariboo. We did this for many years. I remember when the people left to go in the bush in September. People always said what a good place this area was to hunt in. Well, that's the area that would be flooded if the Lower Churchill is dammed. There are lots of marshes and small tributaries, nice little mountains, lots of trees and lots of animals there. In my childhood we would stay in that area with other families for a couple of months. We'd set traps to get marten, otter and beaver. I'm very concerned. If the government builds another dam what is going to happen to that river and that area where the people were hunting? I don't want everything flooded.
Every time I go on my canoe trip down the river I see our old camps, some of them very old indeed. When I see signs of how we used to use this area, I stop collecting boughs for our tent floor and wonder "How long ago was this camp made? Maybe this was my father's camp or some other person that I know?" And then I look at what will be destroyed and I almost cry. Sometimes I bring a piece of tree that I find, once used to mark a trap, and bring it to show my husband who can tell how long ago it was cut. That's what makes me very sad inside my heart -- to think of how many years we used that land and how it once fed us. If the dam is constructed, everything like this will be under the water and I won't be able to show my grandchildren where we used to camp. We find old stoves, old traps ...so much evidence of the way we have lived on this land for thousands of years.
I'd like to be able to go back there with my grandchildren and if that area is all flooded I will no longer be able and so much of our history will be erased. It will make me very sad. As well, I'm very concerned with what's going to happen to the river itself. I've been canoeing on that river most of my life and have led a trip down the river for the past 10 years. Every time I go on a canoe trip it's not just for fun:I have a purpose. I'm doing something very important. I want to protect the river for my people and my children. Some people -- both English and Innu -- just take the plane for fun and they go out fishing but my trip is not the same. It's very important that I make this trip by canoe even though it is also very dangerous. I don't know how to swim but even though there is a risk I don't want to give up the canoe trip because I feel it's making an important statement. I'm going to keep up this work even if not many people come with me. My husband will come and my children or grandchildren. I feel I must do this.
If I could talk to Premier Danny Williams in person, I wonder if I could make him understand what I am saying? There's a Cree saying: "Only when the last tree is cut, when the last river is dammed, and when the last fish has been caught, will we realize that we can't eat money." Yes, jobs are important and it's important to make businesses but not if it causes too much damage to the land and to the rivers and the animals. Animals can't drink dirty water; they will die. We need clean water too and clean food. the best food is the wild meat that we can get around here in Labrador. We should not detroy it because to do so will make us sick.
Sometimes I hear the animals talking. I know animals can't talk but my spiritual upbringing brings me in touch with animal spirits and I hear them telling me of the danger. The flooding will kill many animals and productive land. We need to keep this area clean and not polluted, to keep the trees and rivers for the use of people here in Labrador instead of making electricity that people far away will use. That's what I think and I hope that other poople who agree with me will get involved to try to stop the bad decision from being made.
Tshaukuesh (Elizabeth Penashue, Sheshatshit)