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On Earth Day, Canada's native Innus march to save their land, identity

The Quebec government is opening up its northern region to mining and energy companies, sparking concern among the native Innu, who fear they will lose their ancestral lands.

By Lorraine MallinderContributor / April 22, 2012

On Earth Day, a group of native Innu women marched to protest Canada opening their lands for commercial exploitation. They worry that their traditional way of life is in danger.

Lorraine Mallinder/Special to the Christian Science Monitor

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St. Hilarion, Quebec

A group of women are hanging around on the side of a cracked highway, framed on either side by dense pine forest. They chatter loudly against the roar of passing trucks, drinking coffee and dragging on cigarettes. A few are texting Facebook updates on their smart phones. One carries a stick decorated with ribbons and eagle feathers.

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These women have just walked about 300 miles from Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam, an Innu reservation in the northern wastes of Quebec, Canada. They’re on their way to Montreal to join Earth Day protests against the Quebec government’s multibillion-dollar plans to open the north of the province to mining and energy companies.

At the beginning, there were only 14 women, but along the way they’ve picked up supporters, both male and female, from other reserves. Now, at the midway point, they are nearly 40 strong and, thanks to Facebook, growing.

“I would never have imagined we’d get this far,” says Elise Vollant, a former nursery school teacher who organized the march.

While more than two thirds of the affected area's native groups are open to the government’s plans, anticipating jobs and investments in healthcare, education, and infrastructure, the Innu have been more difficult to convince.  Five out of seven Innu communities in Quebec oppose the plans because they fear the environmental impact that exploitation of resources like iron ore, nickel, and diamonds might have on their ancestral lands.

Most of the estimated 18,000 Innu live in Quebec, where they are believed to have lived for 7,000 years. Traditionally a nomadic people, they were among the last aboriginal groups in North America to settle. Attempts to resettle them off their resource-rich lands in the 1960s, to reservations built for this purpose like Uashat Mak Mani-Utenem, were disastrous. Cut off from their traditional way of life, communities fell prey to crushing poverty and drug abuse. 

Much of the Innu's resistance to the mining projects stem from a sense of having been forgotten after the Iron Ore Company of Canada left the area in the early 1980s. The town of Schefferville was officially shut down and its facilities razed, leaving native employees, many of whom had relocated for jobs, to struggle in dismal living conditions. They are unmoved by the promise of jobs this time around.

A march to preserve identity

Talking to the marchers, it becomes clear much of the protest is about identity. Hunting is important to the Innu, who have managed to hold on to their customs despite attempts to resettle them in houses and to assimilate their children in church-run residential schools.

Today parents are trying to teach their children the old ways: how to fish salmon, hunt Canada geese and caribou, and gather medicinal plants from the forest.

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