Innu people hunt for lost self-esteem: James Roberts reports on the destructive effects of a drive to turn the nomads of the frozen north into modern Canadians

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The Independent Online
FACED with the dilemma of whether to put his trust in Katipenimitak, the caribou spirit, or the Canadian government, John Poker is in a strong position to make an informed judgement.

For 25 years he has lived in Davis Inlet, one of a number of settlements - there is another in Labrador and a handful in Quebec - created by Canada since the 1960s for the Innu people. The idea was to turn nomadic hunters into modern Canadians. Mr Poker, 70, would tell you that Katipenimitak will deliver more than Ottawa, no matter how much obeisance is paid to the people in suits.

But for many of the Innu the issues are not so clear-cut. The single most cataclysmic effect of the settlement programme was to create an almost impassable gulf between the generations. Older Innu were robbed of the respect of their children. The children were given what was - by the time it reached Davis Inlet - an impoverished culture masquerading as a sophisticated one. The new world ran through their fingers like the welfare dollars that held the Innu families in subservience.

Among the children, petrol- sniffing has reached epidemic proportions, as has alcoholism among their fathers and mothers. Attempted suicides are commonplace. John Poker's brother, sister- in-law and four of their children died in an alcohol-related boating accident in 1977. Alcohol also played a part in the deaths in 1983 of his daughter and son-in-law.

He talks with astonishment and bitterness of a world turned upside down. One of the most sacred aspects of Innu ritual is the playing of the drum before the hunt. When John Poker played his drum at Davis Inlet the children laughed at him. He has not played it since.

John Poker blames the young leaders for the situation. This makes for a tricky relationship with his nephew, Prote, who is one of those leaders.

Visiting London with his wife and daughter last week, Prote spoke of his early contempt for John's generation: 'I always looked down on my people, my elders. . . . I felt they don't know what they're talking about.' Prote would tell his uncle that it was not possible to go backwards. John Poker would reply that those who had only lived in settlements needed help from those who had seen much more.

Prote did indeed need help. Until two years ago - unable to come to terms with the drowning of his parents and brothers and sisters - he tried to distance himself from his desperation by means of alcohol. Through counselling, he has embarked on a process of emotional healing and has overcome his dependence on alcohol.

He directs his anger towards the Church - which he blames for denigrating Innu rituals as evil and for discouraging grieving for the dead - and towards the government. Last December the Innu drove out a judge from Davis Inlet who had been giving three-year sentences to young people caught petrol-sniffing. Prote insists that punishment of this ferocity runs sharply counter to Innu ways.

Driving out the judge was a political victory, but it was also an act of self-affirmation: 'I was really happy. I felt like crying because of joy . . . We were powerful. We could do things.'

The return of confidence is also rooted in a new-found regard for the wisdom of his ancestors. Now, Prote campaigns for the Innus' right to run their own schools, have their own police force and to make their own laws. Most importantly, he wants the Innu to have rights to the land on which their hunting culture is based. These rights would sometimes be shared with the seal-hunting Inuit.

Unfortunately, Nato stands in the way. Operating from Goose Bay, it uses Labrador for low-level flying practice. According to Survival International, British, Dutch and German air forces conduct more than 8,000 flights a year here. These do little for the quality of Innu life, and make the caribou far harder to catch. According to Terry Blocksidge at the Canadian High Commission in London, a preliminary agreement has been reached between Innu and federal government representatives that 'sets in train' settlement of a comprehensive land claim and self- government aspirations of the Innu. There are also plans to move the people of Davis Inlet to Sango Bay on the mainland.

However, it could be some time before John Poker once again has the confidence to play his drum, secure in the knowledge that the children will not laugh.

(Photographs and map omitted)