Elizabeth Penashue doesn’t immediately strike you as a fighter. A sentimental, gentle grandmother of 41 and Innu elder; now, doesn’t that just give you an image of cookies and warm blankets? Elizabeth has been organizing canoe and snowshoe trips over the last 16 years in an enormous effort to protect the Churchill Falls and surrounding areas of Nitassinan. Hydro, mining and military development on Elizabeth’s land has been a treacherous ordeal for the Innu and Elizabeth spends her life in a constant struggle to protect her land and culture.
Elizabeth Penashue and her husband Francis
Most Native communities in Canada and elsewhere have experienced shocking change since colonial times. The Innu are no exception. Having been relocated several times and been transformed from a nomadic Nation through crippling dependency on non-Innu goods and services, the culture and land are fragments of what they once were. Elizabeth has been fighting to maintain what is left in an attempt to foster deeper roots for generations to come and engage the youth and non-Innu.
I had the pleasure of participating in an 8 day canoe trip with Elizabeth and 22 other Innu and non-Innu (including a 6-month old baby) at the end of August this year. I had tears in my eyes when the plane flew over Labrador on my way back to Montreal. After camping and canoeing with Innu from Sheshatshiu, I was reluctant to leave the expansive spruce and moss forests, rivers, lakes and starry skies for the bustle and concrete of the city.
Canoe trip group shot
During this trip, I felt like many of the small stresses of life fell off me like a sweater. Having the simple pleasure of going to bed when tired and waking once you’ve slept enough has enormous rejuvinative properties and this is one small subtle loss for the once nomadic Innu. When the weather permitted, a traditional Innu home was erected. Made of canvas, logs and spruce boughs and warmed by a metal stove and dozens of sleeping bodies, we were re-connected with the importance of community, story and joke telling. It might have been all of the beans that we were eating, but we were with a rather flatulent group. Matshishkapeu (mitch-ka-poo), or “Fart Man” was quite vocal and brought much laughter and covering of noses as he passed on his messages of wanting an apple, chainsaw, or desire to talk with Moses, as interpreted by Elizabeth. I think I fit in quite well as my column title might suggest.
Living somewhat like a traditional Innu for 8 days, I couldn’t help but cross the forbidden scientific barrier and become emotionally involved with Elizabeth’s cause. In a closing talk with the group, Elizabeth told us that the river, rocks, trees and animals talk to her. They say to her “I’m dying Elizabeth, don’t give up what you’re doing”.
Canoeing with the Innu
Outside of life in the bush, Elizabeth is constantly reminded of the problems faced by her community, largely alcoholism and drug abuse, of which she herself is a recovered addict. She has used her decades of sobriety is raising awareness about the problems of development on her land. When she travels to give speeches, her message is clear: the government has no heart, they do not care that this land belongs to the Innu, they only care about money.
I automatically struggle with this kind of message because I’m not Innu. I haven’t lived through sex, alcohol or drug abuse, I haven’t witnessed the forests/my home around me die, the animals dissappear. I haven’t been told to only catch one or three fish per week because of mercury poisoning, I haven’t experienced high suicide rates in my home. I simply could not comprehend what Elizabeth has lived through so we use our education to justify that hydroelectric development is better than using coal (although the mercury released by dams has just as high of an ecological footprint and impact on climate change) and that it creates jobs (for white people).
Hydro warning sign about Mercury poisoning and fishing limits
Emotional and spiritual connectedness are not legal bases for protecting an expanse of land that has enormous developmental potential. Nevermind that it helped myself and countless others realize the devestation and loss experienced by the Innu, or that is reminded me of my love of the outdoors and that nature is the one place where everyone can just be themselves without the pressure of media, billboards and peer pressure.
Elizabeth’s struggle is an important one. Her life’s work has gained support in Canada and Europe, but will it be enough to convince Danny Williams and her own son, Peter Penashue, to preserve the land for future generations? You can help by sending these two gentlemen a letter telling them the importance of preserving natural places that native communities depend upon for their livelihood.
* Photos by Mel Lefebvre