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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.

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“Without nature, what will become of us?” asks Paquerette Mollon, a mother of four. “The older I get, the more I want to live like my parents. They were nomads. They lived in the forest.  I want to live like they lived, in nature.”  Resettlement and assimilation brought alcohol, drugs, and violence to the community, she says. “That’s when all our problems started.”

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Ms. Vollant and several other women were arrested last month for participating in a five-day blockade of a $6.5 billion hydroelectric project, one of a series of similar protests that have been mounted in the past two years. They fear the Hydro Quebec project, which will power the area's mining operations, could flood their hunting grounds.

After her release, Vollant took to Facebook to express her frustration. “I said all Innu had to work together as one people,” she says.

The comment prompted a reaction much bigger than she expected, with messages of support from as far afield as Poland and Japan. The idea of a protest march to Montreal eventually took form. “At one point I was going to pack it all in, but I began to feel a new strength inside,” she says. Buoyed by the support received online, she started organizing ways to fund the march.

At 15, high school student and mother to a 10-month-old, Jade Simon-Jourdain is one of the youngest walkers. “I’m doing this for my baby,” she says.

When she finishes school she wants to become a police investigator or maybe a construction worker. Like the others, she is skeptical about the jobs that the mining companies promise to bring, although she is keen to improve her lot. So many in her community live a hand-to-mouth existence, with barely anything left over after paying rent and bills, and she believes their predicament can be explained by a lack of self-esteem. "Lots of people I know could have done more with their lives," she says.

Suicide rates among the Innu are thought to be among the highest in the world. In 2000, a report released by British human rights group Survival International found Innu communities had 178 suicides per 100,000 people between 1990 and 1998 – at least 12 times the Canadian average.

'Our land is the last thing we have left'

The marchers work as a tag team, taking it in turns to walk stretches of five kilometres at a time. Those who are off-duty drive cars and pick-ups laden with pans, food, and mattresses, arranging accommodation for the nights ahead by phone.

They are exhausted after 10 days on the road, but morale is high – until they learn that their accommodation in a community center has fallen through. The only alternative is a chicken coop offered by a farmer just down the road, and jokes about eating chicken for supper and eggs for breakfast soon wear thin.

They end up in a tiny room in an industrial barn. The chickens, it turns out, are downstairs. Still, with barely enough room to swing a cat, some threaten to decamp to a motel room for the night. One of the marchers lightens the mood. “Even if it’s small, at least we’re all together. I’ll sleep standing up,” he quips, sending a ripple of laughter through the room. Everyone stays.

After a bowl of pasta, it’s time to turn in. Vollant runs through a checklist of the marchers, ticking off names with a pen. Montreal is still a good 400 km (250 miles) off, but there’s definitely no going back now.

“Our land is the last thing we have left,” she says. “It’s our identity.”

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