Lorraine Mallinder/Special to the Christian Science Monitor
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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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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