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Child Welfare (1-5)

Colonial governments continue to destroy Innu land and traditional culture, says longtime activist and elder

February 17, 2023

Innu are treated badly by police, nurses, and doctors, says Innu elder

Innu elder Tshaukuesh Elizabeth Penashue in Shetshatshiu, Labrador, at the Inquiry into the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

CBC News: Mistreatment of Innu people by colonial governments continues today, said an elder and activist who has fought for decades to protect the Innu’s traditional culture and land in Labrador.

“I will start on how we have been treated by the white man, and the treatment is still ongoing today,” said Tshaukuesh (Elizabeth) Penashue, on Thursday when she began her testimony at an inquiry examining how Innu children and families have been affected by the child protection system.

When I’m gone, who’s going to teach the children? The government takes away everything.- Tshaukuesh Elizabeth Penashue

“You may have seen or heard on the news regarding the children that were found in the burial sites at residential school. Heard about an Innu woman in Quebec who was mistreated in the hospital in Quebec by this nurse or doctors. We are very saddened by this treatment from the police, nurses, and doctors who have treated [people] badly. Losing lives. It hurts me to see this, to witness the mistreatment, because I have kids too and grandchildren and that hurts when I think about it.” 

Child taken

Penashue also testified about seeing an Innu child taken from their family. “Social workers are not doing their jobs because I have witnessed a child being taken away from their family. The social worker who took the child didn’t get enough information about the family. That also hurts me to have witnessed it because of the wrong that the social worker did to that family. When that child was taken, immediately they wanted to go back home to their family. They said they wanted to go back to their mother.”

Penashue also spoke about Innu life before it was influenced by colonial governments. “Before the government broke our land, we had everything, everything. Water was clean, trees, rivers, animals, berries, medicine…. Why did the government come here to break our land?” she asked, speaking in English and fighting back tears.

“When I’m gone, who’s going to teach the children? The government takes away everything.” Then testifying in Innu-aimun and translated into English, she said:

“Ever since the government has destroyed our land, where are we going to teach our next generation? Our children, the youth. There has been so much damage done. Dammed our rivers. Destroyed the land. When I do my walks on the land I take the youth with me to teach them about our way of life on the land … the land is where we have survived for thousands and thousands of years,” said Penashue.

Nearly all of the electricity generated at Churchill Falls is sold under contract to Hydro-Québec. That contract expires on Aug. 31, 2041. (Nalcor Energy)

Penashue, 78, was born near Churchill Falls, Labrador, and moved with her community to Sheshatshiu in the 1960s. Land the Innu lived on, including traditional burial grounds, are now underwater in the area flooded to create a reservoir for the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project. “I am not the only one who misses our way of life being Innu. I know there are still some elders in our communities who miss it too. Who miss seeing and hearing children who are well and healthy within their families.”

Book describes protests

In 2019, Penashue published a bookNitinikiau Innusi: I Keep the Land Alive, about her work to protect the Innu’s land and traditional culture. The book, which began as a diary written in Innu-aimun, describes her experiences protesting NATO’s low-level flights and bomb testing on Innu land in the 1980s and 1990s. Those protests resulted in her and nine other women being arrested and jailed.

Elizabeth Penashue has long been an advocate for the Innu people. (CBC )

She has also protested the development of the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine and the Muskrat Falls hydro-electric project on the lower Churchill River. Penashue began testifying at the inquiry on Thursday and continued Friday.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Mark Quinn is a videojournalist with CBC’s bureau in St. John’s.