Canadian Indians prepare ambush for Cabot voyagers sails into row with Canadian Indians

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The Independent Online
A voyage re-tracing John Cabot's 15th-century journey to Newfoundland is set to sail into a storm of controversy when it reaches Canada today. Protesters from the Innu nation, a tribe of North American Indians, will be waiting on the quayside, intending to spoil the celebrations, due to be attended by the Queen, who is visiting Canada this week.

They are angry that an event which led to the deaths of thousands of Indians from Western diseases should be regarded as cause for a jamboree. They are also furious that low-level flying exercises by the Royal Air Force are driving away caribou herds on which they have relied for food and clothing. The voyage by the replica of Cabot's ship, the Matthew, began in Bristol seven weeks ago and has also attracted criticism for its all-male crew. David Alan-Williams, the skipper, denied being prejudiced.

"The few (women) who applied just didn't work out," he said. Now the 80ft, three-masted vessel, which cost pounds 1.5m of Cornish millionaire Mike Slade's money to build, faces further outcry. Katie Rich, leader of the 16,000 Innu who live in eastern Quebec and Labrador, said the protest was being held because the Indians did not believe Cabot actually discovered anything. "When Cabot `discovered' Newfoundland all he had to do was plant a flag and say `This is crown land'. But there were people here already: the Indian people across Canada. The indigenous people have died from cholera, smallpox and starvation and yet ... Newfoundland wants to celebrate that. We feel there is nothing to celebrate."

Ms Rich said continued use of Goose Bay base by the RAF and other air forces was causing great damage. "The elders say there is a change in the migration routes of the caribou and to the conditions of the animals ... The Newfoundland government wants countries to practise low-level flying in our territory but we have never been asked if we would allow them to do that." The RAF makes around 1,000 sorties a year from Goose Bay and regards it as an important facility.

The Indian protests will disappoint the Duke of Edinburgh, who has taken a close interest in the Matthew's progress across the Atlantic.

"I wish her master and crew Godspeed and a safe passage," he said as it left Bristol.

When Cabot arrived in Newfoundland, the Innu were already a thriving trading people, who lived in tepees and hunted with bows and arrows. Attempts to assimilate them into European society, first by missionaries and later by federal governments, proved disastrous.

Richard Garside, of the Survival International organisation, said: "The colonisation of their land has left them with a society and culture on the verge of total collapse. Alcoholism and abuse are rife and they have perhaps the worst suicide rate in North America."

Despite the Innu protests, the Matthew's 18-strong crew of experienced sailors will receive a rapturous reception from other well-wishers, with 120 ships expected to join the vessel as it sails into the harbour at Bonavista, on the east coast of Newfoundland.

Cabot was the first European recorded to set foot in North America, arriving in 1497, five years after Columbus reached the Caribbean. To mark the occasion, the Matthew's crew are expected to don calico shirts, padded waistcoats and caps for the last leg of their voyage. At least one crew- member, however, is aware of the Innu concerns. He has agreed to carry a message of sympathy to the Indians from supporters in the West Country. One of its authors, Mary Hazelwood, of the Bristol-based group Our Common Future, said Indian cultures taught the West valuable lessons about sustainable lifestyles. The letter ends: "We cannot redress the wrongs of the past but we can try to bring about a better future for those that have given so much of value to us."