The Only Way

Mark Leier

  • Canada’s Tibet: The Killing of the Innu by Colin Samson and James Wilson et al
    Survival International, 51 pp, £5.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 7567 0419 7
  • Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo by Kenn Harper
    Profile, 277 pp, £9.99, August 2000, ISBN 1 86197 252 0

A series of sixty-second commercials shown on Canadian television tell us that Canadians invented basketball and Superman and that Winnie the Pooh is based on the mascot of a Canadian regiment sent to fight for Britain in the First World War. One of these Heritage Minutes is about the Hunkpapa Teton Sioux leader, Sitting Bull. After the defeat of General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, he and five thousand other Sioux fled from the US Army to Canada. They were met by a few Mounties, who welcomed them and gave them sanctuary. The cosy myth of a benevolent Canada continues to shape attitudes about native people and contemporary government policy, and Survival International’s report on its treatment of the Innu – comparing it with that of China in Tibet – has met with some anger. The authors are quick to make clear that Canada has not imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of Innu over the last forty years, but they point out that the difference in strategy is not as important as we usually assume.

The Innu live in the northern and eastern regions of the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula. Distinct from the Inuit, or Eskimo, the Innu speak a variant of the Algonquian language. About twenty thousand live in the area they call Nitassinan, where for centuries they depended on hunting caribou. The Innu were relatively few in number, but because their society was organised around the movements of the migratory caribou, they traversed – and controlled – a vast inland territory. They have long traded with other indigenous people and with Europeans, and have adapted their culture to incorporate other technologies and methods. Because the land wasn’t hospitable to non-natives and because the resources it contained were more easily available elsewhere, the Innu were largely left alone by Europeans.

In the late 1920s, reductions in the caribou herds drew the Innu to coastal settlements and forced them to rely more heavily on the fur trade. The shrinking of their traditional hunting patterns also weakened their claim to the territory. When Newfoundland-Labrador gave up its colonial status and became a province of Canada in 1949, full-scale exploration, investment and industrial development came to Nitassinan. Forced settlement and low-level flying by Nato planes on training missions have made it nearly impossible for the Innu to hunt the caribou. The disruption of the hunt, like the destruction of the buffalo on the Canadian and US prairies in the 19th century, has destroyed the basis of the Innu way of life and forced them into dependence and poverty. Missionaries and educators have eroded their culture and traditions. Alcoholism, poverty, sexual abuse and violence are endemic. The infant mortality rate is three to five times higher than for the Canadian population as a whole; more Innu die before their fifth birthday than after their sixtieth. The suicide rate, 13 times higher than in the rest of Canada, is calculated by Survival International to be the highest in the world.

The response of the Canadian Government to the Survival International report was to point out that it gives millions of dollars to the Innu, and to argue that since other native groups had considerably reduced their suicide rates as a result of appropriate programmes and services, some of the blame had to rest with the Innu themselves. The response typified that of many white Canadians. The deaths, the alienation, the despair were lamentable, but were hardly deliberate policy. The plight of the Innu was the result of their inability to adapt to the new world.

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