Nitassinan: Our Land, Our Struggle

For centuries, the Innu people of Labrador, Quebec have lived with dignity on their land, Nitassinan. Yet, since the 1950s when the Europeans began to move into Nitassinan, the Innu people have seen their land and culture erode. Elizabeth Penashue and Rose Gregoire, two Innu women, have been witnesses to the breakdown of their people and land. This is their statement reaffirming their will and resolve to struggle for their rights and identity as a distinct people in their own land.

By Elizabeth Penashue and Rose Gregoire | 1989-08-01 12:00:00

I have watched my people begin to fall apart. When I was a young girl, my family lived all year in tents travelling across our country, Nitassinan. The life of the Innu, as nomads and hunters is not an easy one, but we never felt hopeless or that we had lost control of our lives or that we did not know who we were. We always knew Nitassinan, our country, was our home and belonged to us, the Innu People of the Labrador-Quebec peninsula.

Although the Innu life is sometimes hard, no one tried to tell us that Nitassinan was not our country. No one tried to stop us hunting or put us in prison for killing caribou or peacefully walking on our own land. We were free people. All of the Innu had a purpose and responsibility in their lives. None of our people ever tried to kill themselves; there was no violence in Innu families; our children were all properly cared for, brought up and educated as Innu; and they knew and were proud of who and what they were.

In the 1950s Europeans began to move into Nitassinan in large numbers. They built a railroad and a mining town, Schefferville. At the same time, a foreign government moved into Nitassinan. They tried to stop the Innu from moving and began to build the first houses to keep us in one place.

In a few short years, we have been completely robbed of our land and freedom. We have seen control of our country, the land that gave us birth as people thousands of years ago, taken from us. Now we are treated as though we are invisible. We are a hunting people. To keep us in one place, in a village, they have tried to separate us from everything that gives our life as a people meaning; it has also meant that we have been changed in only a few years from one of the most self-reliant, independent peoples in the world to one of the most dependent.

The organizations that play by the European rules of the game, are supposed to help us, but they were introduced among us in the 1970s to try and control us by making it impossible for us to fight back. If we did something they didn't like, they threatened to cut off money and sometimes did so. Even here, in expressing our anger and resistance, we were dependent.

Organizations such as the Band Councils were imposed upon us. They are not Innu and do not work in the way our society works. In Innu society all people, men and women, are involved in deciding things, but in these foreign institutions which have been placed on our lives, it seems to become only the men. So in our new resistance it has been almost easier for Innu women to fight back because we were never really part of that system which has been imposed on us, and which was paid for and controlled by our foreign rulers.

Our fight for our people is not a fight just for women, but for all our People. It is not a women's issue, but an Innu issue and we have welcomed any Innu person who will fight alongside us to create a free and healthy world for our children and grandchildren.

I have seen our children robbed of everything that makes us Innu in a school system which makes them look down on their own people and culture. Our people have been deeply wounded by what has happened in the past 25 years. The one thing that has stopped our total breakdown as a people has been the months we still live away from villages in our tents in the country. For the families who now have houses in Sheshatshit we find ourselves right alongside what Canada wants to make into a NATO base. Even without a base, each year military activities grow there and the number of low-level flights increases. There is now a bombing range. Most of these activities take place over or near lakes where the Innu go in the spring and fall. We have been shoved to the edge of a cliff in the last 25 years. Now they want to push us over it.

Nitassinan is our land. We never gave it to them. How can they come in and take it and treat us as if we were not human beings, as if we were invisible? There is only one Nitassinan and one Innu people. Canada says that there is Quebec and Labrador, that there are the Montagnais of Quebec and the Innu of Labrador. They use their organizations to break down our people and our land to fit into their political system. And Canada says there are two different native groups fighting over the same land. This is a lie.

I know what I am and what my people are. We are Innu. The people that the Europeans call Montagnais or Naskapi are Innu people and we have one land that stretches from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to the Atlantic, Nitassinan. We are fighting for our land and our identity as a distinct hunting people. We are not going to jail, becoming separated from our children just to get rich land claims. Our fight is not about land claims which is only another thing being used against us to get us to surrender what we will never, ever give up - our ownership of Nitassinan and our identity as Innu.

Statement by the Sheshatshit delegation to a family violence workshop.

In the 40 years that the military has been in Goose Bay, the Innu's culture has collapsed. The use of our lands by others, without our being consulted, has caused stress in our family relationships and links to our family violence. The Innu did not welcome foreign domination. It happened against their will. Now we are just starting to fight back because we realize that only we can and should decide our fate.

Military development as a means will lead to our destruction by social ills: prostitution, disease, overcrowding. Military men are violating our women in other ways: deserted pregnant women, disgraced women who are labelled by their own community members, children growing up who will never know their fathers, women abandoning their culture by marrying men of another culture. Young women frequent military bars, becoming hopeless alcoholics. Their frustration shows up as anger against their own family members or their children.

We have passively allowed agencies to establish themselves in our communities, believing that they would benefit us, but they have added to our problems. We must take over the agencies that control us. We have been masters of this land for over 9000 years. A once proud and independent people have become slaves in their own land.

Our elders have advised us to fight for our land. We will do this by keeping up our protests against military development. To quote a person who exemplifies our quest for life, Lilla Watson, an Australian aboriginal woman, "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together."

Innu Tour of Maritimes

At press time, plans were afoot for a tour of the Maritimes by a delegation of Innu, to stir public support for their people's fight against setting up a NATO training base on tribal land in Labrador. Tour Plan Coordinator Tony Law of Pictou County Project Ploughshares reports that a tentative 11-day schedule (dates not firmed out) include stops in Sydney, New Glasgow, Charlottetown, Halifax-Dartmouth, Lunenburg, Wolfville, and Saint John.

Funding of air fares and honoraria for three Innu participants has been promised by several peace groups - a substantial portion by the United Church Peacekeeping Fund. Project North is preparing strategies for support groups to use in getting the Innu's message to the widest possible audience. Contact Tony Law, R.R. 2, Scotsburn, N.S. B0K 1R0 (902/ 485-8192

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1989

Peace Magazine Aug-Sep 1989, page 14. Some rights reserved.

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