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For great-grandmother, annual canoe trip about future of Innu community
HAPPY VALLEY-GOOSE BAY, N.L. –As he paddled down the Churchill River (Mista Shipu) for 10 days with his grandfather this past summer, 13-year old Mario Gregoire came to understand the fundamental importance of the river to his Innu community.
He saw an otter and a black bear on this canoe trip, made new friends and learned more about his Innu roots and culture through setting up tents, making camp fires, cooking caribou meat and negotiating rapids.
“It was my best summer ever,” said Mario. This was the first year that Mario participated in this annual canoe trip organized by his aunt, Elizabeth (Tshaukuish) Penashue , 67, an Innu elder from Sheshatshiu, about 20 kilometres north of Happy Valley Goose Bay.
Penashue, a mother of nine children, 43 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren, is deeply concerned about the future of her community and culture which she believes is closely linked to the well-being of the environment.
She organizes the canoe trip and a three-week snowshoe walk in spring to increase awareness of how important it is to protect the land and water from pollution and to pass on knowledge of Innu culture, traditional survival skills and food. Her husband, Francis, helps lead these trips and they invite others to join them
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) assists Penashue with these activities and generally assists her with anything written in English, which includes her website, email, letter writing, and editorials.
“We support Elizabeth because MCC has developed a long-standing relationship with her. The initiatives come from within her community and they are in line with our values of caring for creation and working to repair the broken relationships between broader Canadian society and Aboriginal peoples," says Jennifer Saner-Harvey, MCC co-representative for Newfoundland and Labrador.
Penashue has led the canoe trip for years and every year she is saddened by the health advisory sign on the river warning people to limit the number of fish they eat.
“The river looks beautiful but the water levels are dropping and there is a lot of mercury in the water,” she explained. “I don’t want to drink dirty water—I want to drink clean water. The same holds true for the fish and animals. They don’t want to drink dirty water.”
The pollution, she said, is being caused by the huge hydroelectric plant on the upper Churchill River in Labrador—a project that flooded Innu hunting grounds, burial grounds and other sacred sites.
She fears that the proposed Lower Churchill hydroelectric development project will create even more environmental damage with minimal long-term benefits for people. “It will leave a big mess—it will leave a lot of damage,” she said. “I wish the government had more heart to think about the people.”
Her son, Peter Penashue, is making history in Canada as the first Innu from Labrador to be elected to parliament and be appointed to a cabinet post. Although Penashue is proud of her son’s accomplishments, she does not endorse his support for more development on the Mista Shipu.
At the same time, she recognizes that everyone has a “path” to follow—the action people take to express their values and beliefs. She explained: “My path and his path are different. I think my path is important but his path is important too.”
As development continues to threaten the traditional way of life, Penashue recognizes the urgency of sharing her stories of being born in a tent, growing up on the land and passing on traditional knowledge and skills to the younger generation.
This was the first year that Penashue’s grandchildren accompanied her on the first part of the 10-day canoe trip. The children were ages six and 10. “I have been thinking for many years that I want to take young children so this summer I took two of my grandchildren,” she said. “I wanted to show them the river,” she said.
Other youth participants in the 2011 canoe trip included Gavin Evans of Makkovik, N.L., a role model in the 2009 National Aboriginal Role Model program, and seven youth from other provinces participating in the Katimavik program, a Canadian service program for youth.
This was the third summer that Mario’s grandfather, George Gregoire, canoed the river. “I want to tell people how important it is to protect the land and river,” he said. “The reason I took Mario on this trip was to let him know that the river is his friend.”
Gladys Terichow is a writer with MCC Canada