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Ilnu women, territoriality and resistance
Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
Des-terres-minées (Mined Lands) is a popular education and documentation project that wishes to open spaces for discussion and reflection in regards to the following themes: territories, extractivism, and impacts on women. More information can be found here.
In the spring of 2016, we had the opportunity to participate to a circle of discussion in Uashat Mak Maniotenam, with Ilnu women.
We then gathered our multiple notes, in order to write an article so that the inspiring words of these women are disseminated. We have alternated their words with historical data and information about the Innu projects and culture. The article was sent to them and many made positive feedback!
The article follows:
Let’s recall that Ilnus are the most populous of the first nations of so-called Québec, with a population of around 16,000 people in 9 communities.
Ilnus and land: culture and links of identity
The Ilnus have occupied the Nitassinan for millennia.
The animals question us: “Are you still Ilnu? Are you going to hunt us?”
The Québécois speak of the territory in a very different way. You speak of the land “as if just buying a chair.” Even if there is a will to protect the land, there is a self-destructive dynamic attached to the way in which the Québécois see it. For us, we don’t think solely about the present; we also need to think about the 7 future generations.
Although the communities formerly followed a semi-nomad way of life, the colonisation process has led most of the Ilnu to settle.
The individuality of an Ilnu is always in relation to the land. If we don’t have land, we will no longer be Ilnu. I am neither Canadian nor Québécois; I am Ilnu. And I refuse to have Canadian and Québec laws govern me.
Colonisation, notably through the imposition of the French language, has profoundly modified the usage of the Ilnu language - a vector of identity. In the reserves, many words and expressions are disappearing or being modified.
You should have heard my father when he spoke of the land - he would always have tears in his eyes. It was so moving. We haven’t lived on our land as our parents did. With settling, something has been lost.
I was raised in the woods until the age of 7. That’s my history, the values of my parents; all that is rich for me. I learnt my culture and to keep my language, and I will never renounce them. I get up for the land because it’s part of my identity, of my dignity. I am proud to be an Ilnu woman: I saw my mother make Moccasins, my big sister go to boarding school; my father continued to live by hunting.
When pillaged land goes hand in hand with imposed structures
The Ilnu living in the territory of ‘Québec’ have neither signed a treaty nor ceded their territories, aboriginal title, and ancestral rights by any other means.
We have never learned how to do a good negotiation; these things are always imposed upon us. We have always occupied second place. The oppression is perpetual.
The negotiations involve the renunciation of rights. We are in the process of renouncing our traditional practices; we are in the process of our own extinction by signing agreements with developers.
The agreements, as well as being unjust in their process and implementation, are often not respected.
I asked our leader how it so happened that he accepted it. The developers negotiate directly with the communities without going through the Québec government.
Nobody listens to us. The elites grease their pockets while our children are malnourished. The populations are not even consulted for exploration projects. We are never able to consult on these types of agreements. We aren’t kept up to date with anything. When I look at the Band Council, it hasn’t had all the financial compensation promised.
Among many others:
- The agreement signed for the construction of the Sainte-Marguerite 3 dam
- The agreement signed with Hydro-Québec for the Romaine hydro-electric dam
- The current treaty of the Petapan global territorial negotiation (with five Inuit communities)
The ecosystem, the animals; everything is disturbed. The climate has changed so much, we can no longer predict the weather. Moose used to be here in this region.
When I was small, animals were never seen in these surroundings. There are now more animals in Sept-Iles than before. Now we see many animals; they’re disturbed by what’s happening in the North.
In ‘Québec’, 80% of the hydroelectrical capacity comes from reservoirs and dams built on Cree and Ilnu land.
Cemeteries and sacred places have been disturbed to implement Sainte-Marguerite 3. After SM3, there has been an increase of suicides.
Shefferville, the red planet, has been a site of sprawling iron exploitation since 1954. In 2012, Tata Steel Minerals continued to clear out the ground with its direct shipping iron ore project (DSO).
What I see today in my community is really a disastrous scene because we are involved in the mines. When we go in the forest, it becomes a labyrinth; there are holes everywhere. All the destroyers have departed and we are left with the ruined land.
Dust; health; water contamination. Dynamiting produces radon. There is another mine attached to the city which is active. It affects our lakes; our water… It’s sad, there are many consequences; the dust is really red. Older people, children; this affects everybody. It’s a vicious circle – there is poverty even where there are natural resources.
Women, land, struggles
Since the Whites/Europeans stepped foot there, struggles have occurred to protect the Nitassinan, especially faced with extraction projects: the hydro-electric Saint-Marguerite 3 complex, the Romain dam and the adjoining infrastructures, the Plan North, the iron ore mines in Schefferville, the Arnaud mine; not to mention the daily struggle against the pursuit of colonisation which swallows not only the land, but the culture, the thought, the people…
Who can do it? The answer is women, by working together.
It’s normal that women rise in the community. The men should have been the fighters, but the roles have reversed. Presently, it’s the women who are the fighters. It’s the word with which I identify; it’s a word which gives me strength.
Men are always in power, and therefore it’s their needs that are responded to; not to those of women. The men in power saw the positive aspects in the projects whereas the women were worried about their children and family.
In 2012, the Band Council of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam organised referendums for the Hydro-Québec agreement with regards to the Romain project. On two occasions, the agreement was rejected. Hydro-Québec and the Band Council persisted. In the third referendum, the ‘yes’ won. Throughout the process, blockades were organised.
There were 2 visions during the blockade against Hydro-Québec [March 2012]
- A political vision to construct a greater balance of power against Hydro to obtain a better agreement, with better conditions.
- A vision with a real objective to protect the land.
The leader was in Montréal and waited for the blockade to end to sign the agreement. The vice-leader was at a tournament. The only elected representative physically present wanted to sign the agreement. The negotiators tried everything to gain more in the Hydro-Québec agreement. They utilised militant struggles.
They tormented us enormously – so why keep paying them? To them, we are less than nothing; therefore, I decided to stop paying hydro since last year.
Faced with different processes of resistance, the colonial state and companies increase the injunctions against and criminalisation of opponents.
But at that moment when you are imprisoned, a collective battle becomes individual. It’s a form of repression which de-collectivises our struggle. When they put you in prison, you have a criminal record for having protected the river of salmon during the blockade.
Cultural genocide, impacts on the communities
Colonisation doesn’t only leave its traces on the land, but on the inhabitants also. The first nations speak about post-colonial stress.
In 2014, the Royal Canadian Mountain Police revealed that they possessed documents of 1186 cases of missing or assassinated first nation women within 30 years. According to the militants, the real number of victims could be as many as 3,000.
According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), 38% of first nation children live under the poverty threshold. The proportion of children living in poverty is even higher in the reserves, where it reaches 60%. The levels of violence and drug usage in the reserves are also higher than the national average, while the levels of employment and schooling are the lowest. Among first nation youth, the suicide rate is between 5 and 7 times higher than among non-first nations of the same age. Post-colonial stress: painful realities reduced to mere depressing figures.
The stakes are many and it’s difficult to advance. We are still in poverty; our children are malnourished. We are kept in survival mode; the only employer is the Band Council.
I asked my father why there were suicides. Before the settling, there were few. Today, there are many rapes. The youth is perishing.
It hurts when I see the youth, there is a certain lack when it comes to their history, their culture; they are unwell. Our youth are lost, they no longer know where to go, they walk with their head down.
Some of our children don’t speak ilnu.
How do we wake up people who no longer dream; who are experiencing an identity crisis?
When we’re in the forest, we waste nothing; today, everything is exploited.
My roots are the land. Solid roots make solid people.
The land, our identity, our children, our ancestors, our history
I believe in my generation and the next one.
When defending something, it’s necessary to understand what’s being defended. My dream is such: we should do secondary schooling in the woods, for six months a year, for example… Work one part of the year, then bring the family into the woods. This would allow to keep the link between the two parts.
We must never discourage each other, because I know that our land is here. It’s our identity, our children, our ancestors, our history.
The forest will always be there, we just need to go and look for it.