Canada

The Innu elder testified during an inquiry that colonization severed her people’s connection to the land

Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue testified at the inquest Friday into the treatment of Innu children in care.  (Katrina Clarke - photo credit)

Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue testified at the inquest Friday into the treatment of Innu children in care. (Katrina Clarke – photo credit)

An elder who testifies when examining Innu children in care says that colonization has harmed the Innu way of life and that its effects can be seen in the deteriorating health of their community.

Tshaukuesh Elizabeth Penashue testified on Friday – the fifth day of investigating Innu treatment, experiences and outcomes at the Sheshatshiu child protection system – that the Innu used to have everything walnutan Innu word meaning “in the country”.

“Innu ate animals fresh every day,” she said. But diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and kidney problems are common, and she blames the influence of the government and priests, who have disrupted the Innu’s connection to their traditional way of life.

She recalls witnessing the colonization attempts firsthand as a child, when a priest suggested Penashue’s father that he stop hunting into the countryside so his children could go to school.

Change after moving to Sheshatshiu

Penashue said things got worse for her people after they were transferred to Sheshatshiu. Before that, hunting and living on the land kept her people happy and healthy, she said, with no problems with alcohol, drugs, or suicide.

But after they were resettled, they lost their connection to the land and their traditional way of life, causing significant suffering within the community, she said.

“We lost everything, our food, our animals,” Penashue said. “So many, so many children died young. Mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers and [fathers]. That’s very sad.”

Each spring, Penashue takes several indigenous children to the countryside. She testified that when she talks to the children, she sometimes realizes how different things were when she was a child and how much of their culture has been lost.

A child once asked her, “What do we do when you see animals?” She replied, “We’re going to try to kill it to eat it” – an answer that was obvious to her since childhood but was no longer obvious to the children of the community.

“It’s a big change for kids,” Penashue said.

Penashue said it’s important to introduce the younger generation to the Innu language, culture and hunting techniques, and she hopes someone will carry on her tradition after she’s gone.

“I want to teach the kids before I’m gone [about] our people [and] our culture,” Penashue said. “When I’m gone, I wish someone would do what I do to teach the kids.”

The inquest was briefly postponed this week due to a sudden death in Sheshatshiu. New dates for the hearings will be announced later this week.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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