Innu elder testifies at inquiry that colonization disrupted her people's connection to the land

Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue testifed Friday at the inquiry into the treatment of Innu children in care. (Katrina Clarke - image credit)
Innu Elder Elizabeth Penashue testifed Friday at the inquiry into the treatment of Innu children in care. (Katrina Clarke - image credit)

An elder testifying at the inquiry into Innu children in care says colonization has hurt the Innu way of life, and its impact have can be seen in the worsening health of her community.

Tshaukuesh Elizabeth Penashue testified Friday — the fifth day of the Inquiry into the Treatment, Experiences, and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System in Sheshatshiu — that the Innu used to have everything Nutshimit, an Innu word that means "on the land."

"Innu ate animals fresh every day," she said. But diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and kidney problems have become prevalent, and she blames the influence of the government and priests who disrupted the Innu's connection to their traditional way of life.

She remembers seeing the attempts of colonization first-hand as a child, when a priest suggested to Penashue's father that he stop going out on the land to hunt so his children would be able to go to school.

Change after moving to Sheshatshiu

Penashue said things got worse for her people after they were relocated to Sheshatshiu. Before then, hunting and living off the land made her people happy and healthy, she said, with no issues of alcohol, drugs or suicide.

But after being relocated, they lost their connection to the land and their traditional way of life, which caused significant suffering within the community, she testified.

"We lost everything, our food, our animals," said Penashue. "So many, so many children died young. Mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, and [fathers]. This is very sad."

Every spring Penashue takes several Indigenous children out onto the land. She testified that talking to the children sometimes makes her realize how different things were when she was a child and how much of their culture has been lost.

A child once asked her, "What will we do if you see animals?" She replied, "We will try to kill it to eat" — an answer that was obvious to her from her childhood but was no longer evident for the children of the community.

"It is a big change for children," said Penashue.

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

"I want to teach the children before I am gone [about] our people [and] our culture," said Penashue. "If I am gone, I wish that somebody will do the same thing I do to teach the children"

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

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