By Peter Jackson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The fourth day of inquiry into the experiences of Innu in child protection heard from a woman who needed no introduction.
Teacher, author and environmentalist Tshaukuesh (Elizabeth) Penashue of Sheshatshiu is a respected elder who has long been a powerful voice for her people.
She’s been interviewed numerous times, has published her diaries in a book titled “Nitinikiau Innusi: I Keep the Land Alive,” and has even had a play written about her.
She has honorary degrees from Memorial University and, more recently, Queens University in Kingston, Ont.
On Thursday, Feb. 16., Penashue took the stand to once again talk about her treasured culture and traditions, and how the arrival of colonizers stole it.
“Innu never question what will be needed, because it was always there for them in the land,” she said.
That included everything from food and medicine to spiritual guidance and comfort, she said.
“Now that is all lost. It was taken away from them. The government took that away.”
Penashue painted an idyllic portrayal of Innu life before settlers arrived.
“I am not the only who misses our way of life, being Innu,” she said through translator Annie Nuna. “I know there are still some elders in our communities who miss it, too, who miss seeing, hearing children that are well and healthy within their families.
And this is what I really miss so much today.”
She drew a stark contrast between traditional life on the land and the sedentary existence they were forced to accept upon colonization.
“I remember when my father used to come with the animals that he had hunted, I was very happy because I saw food that he brought to us. He brought home food to feed us in that camp where we were,” she said.
“A tent is erected and there is work to put it up. A stove is put in the middle. My father had the fire going all night because I guess he was afraid that we would get cold.”
Today, she said, the peace and contentment of sleeping together in a tent has been replaced, and sleep is often shattered by a child or grandchild knocking on the bedroom door in the middle of the night.
With settlement came family breakdown and alcohol abuse, she said.
Penashue could not hold back tears as she described an incident she witnessed of a young child being taking away by a social worker.
“When the child was taken, immediately the child wanted to go back home, go back to his family, asking for his or her mother,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
She said the person who took the child did nothing to establish what the situation was in the home or how many people lived there.
“I couldn’t help myself crying. I cried all the way home thinking of that child. When I got home, I had a friend over and we called the Social Services,” she said.
“I thought they would give me good news, but they would not answer some of the questions I gave them,’ she said. “I was only told the child was doing good and still in care.”
Mary Jane Edmonds of Natuashish provided some lighthearted moments toward the end of the day by getting everyone to try a child’s game, making a mammoth out of a piece of string. She offered a monetary award to anyone who could.
Despite her patient demonstration, only three succeeded.
Edmonds said the game illustrates something beyond simple entertainment.
There are no elephants or mammoths in Labrador, she said, so how did it become part of their consciousness?
It is where legend and history intersect.
“We don’t know what happened in the past. We weren’t there, but we heard stories. And that doesn’t mean they were all telling lies,” she said.
“The stories became our history. They were passed on generation after generation.”
Peter Jackson is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE TELEGRAM. The LJI is a federally funded program.