Casualties of Aboriginal displacement in Canada: children at risk among the Innu of Labrador.

Author:Denov, Myriam


The concept of displacement has long been associated with individuals within poor and developing nations, living under conditions of conflict and civil unrest. Conversely, little research attention has been paid to displacement among Aboriginal peoples within the context of wealthy and developed nations such as Canada. This paper explores the consequences of internal displacement for the Innu Nation of Labrador. In particular, it examines how Innu children have become at risk for gasoline sniffing and suicide. The paper concludes by assessing the extent to which the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and Canada's Indian Act have been effective in protecting the rights of Innu children. The questionable impact of state responses highlights the need for more effective strategies in order to protect the rights of Innu children.

[Aboriginal people] are suffused by a free-floating hostility, the outcome perhaps of the combined effects of territorial disruption, overcrowding and social change ... This diffuse hostility has no specific object and appears to be turned inwards in the form of self-destructiveness. (1) Introduction

The concept of displacement has, for the most part, been largely associated with refugees and individuals living under situations of civil unrest, political violence, and armed conflict, particularly within poor and developing nations. (2) In contrast, few authors have used the concept to explain the forced migration and cultural invasion that have occurred among many Aboriginal populations within wealthy, developed nations such as Canada.

The United Nations Development Program has consistently ranked Canada as one of the best countries in the world in which to live based on the criteria of life expectancy, adult literacy, school enrolment, and economic prosperity. (3) Given Canada's high standard of living and relatively low level of internal conflict, few would immediately refer to Canadian citizens as typical examples of victims of forced displacement, discrimination, or extreme poverty. However, Canada's history of colonization and displacement of its Aboriginal populations tells a story of centuries of domination, discrimination, and assimilation. As a result of the Canadian government's policies involving the forced migration and massive relocations of Aboriginal communities, the concept of displacement is used in this paper to characterize the history and experiences of one Canadian Aboriginal nation. The Innu Nation of Labrador, a traditionally nomadic people who have roamed Nitassinan (Eastern Quebec and Labrador) for over two thousand years, provides a powerful example of an Aboriginal people who have been long-standing victims of cultural invasion and forced displacement within the Canadian context. The history of the Innu reveals two instances of forced internal displacement by the Canadian government and the consequent devastating social, psychological, and economic effects on their communities.

The objective of this paper is to explore the long-term impact of displacement on the Innu people of Labrador. First, the paper examines the community's loss of culture and identity as a result of displacement and forced migration. Second, it explores the community's increasing engagement in self-destructive behaviours such as substance abuse and suicide as consequences of displacement. Third, the paper describes the impact of displacement on those most vulnerable and at risk within the community: Innu children. In particular, the paper examines the relationship between the displacement of the Labrador Innu and current health concerns, including an epidemic of gasoline sniffing and suicide among Innu children. Finally, the paper assesses the extent to which the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and Canada's Act have been effective in protecting the rights of Innu children.

A Brief History of the Innu of Labrador

Approximately sixteen thousand Innu (formerly known as Montagnais or Naskapi) currently inhabit Nitassinan. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Innu have lived in Nitassinan for at least two thousand years, and some scholars believe that they descended from the first human inhabitants of eastern Canada who moved into this region approximately eight thousand years ago at the end of the last ice age. (4) The Innu Nation of Labrador comprises approximately fifteen hundred people living in two communities, Sheshatshiu to the south and Utshimassits (Davis Inlet) to the north. Central to the Innu way of life are the herds of caribou that migrate through Nitassinan in the spring and autumn with food, hides for clothing and tents, and bones and antlers for tools or weapons; the caribou remain a central motif of their culture.

By the Second World War virtually all the Innu were, to some extent, involved in the fur trade and were increasingly under the influence of not only the traders, but also the missionaries, government officials, and other non-native people whom they met at the trading posts. The Innu began to spend more time in their coastal settlements. When furs, which provided income, became scarce, poverty and starvation were not uncommon. Government relief was thus provided to the Innu through the Hudson's Bay Company representative or the priest. As time went on, the Innu became increasingly dependent on the church as the intermediary between them and non-Innu who were trying to direct their lives. (5) Moreover, the priest, who had regular contact with the Innu, held tremendous power and moral authority. The priest is said to have played a pivotal role in encouraging sedentarization among the Innu and the abandonment of their traditional way of life as nomadic hunters. As one Sheshatshiu woman explained:

The priest would come to visit us where we were camped. ... my mother says that the priest got really angry because there was no one living in the community. The Innu people were afraid of the priest. He controlled them and told them what to do. The Innu would still be living in the country if it wasn't for the priest. (6) At the time of Newfoundland's entry into Confederation in 1949, Innu settlements had long been established in both Sheshatshiu and Davis Inlet. However, these settlements were largely seasonal in nature -- families lived in tents and not all of the inhabitants stayed in the settlements year-round. The priests and government representatives continued to pressure the Innu into remaining in permanent settlements. The financial dependency of the Innu on both the church and the Canadian government left them vulnerable to pressure from the government when it finally decided that the Innu must be settled in permanent communities.

According to Samson, Wilson, and Mazower, (7) the Canadian government set out to achieve two objectives by forcing the Innu to remain in settlements year-round. First, it sought to clear the Innu from their land to allow it to be opened to non-native "development." Second, they intended to prepare the Innu for their new circumstances in settlements with a program of "economic rehabilitation." There was a pervasive belief among government officials that hunting caribou was not "real work" (8) and that the Aboriginal people needed to be integrated into some sort of economic activity. As a result of these government strategies and initiatives, a series of forced migrations and displacements of the Innu of Labrador began in 1948, which has had dire long-term consequences for them.

  1. The Displacement and Forced Migration of the Innu of Davis Inlet

    Varied definitions exist regarding the concept of displacement, including internal displacement, forced evictions, and population transfers. Stavropoulou (9) argues that there is little difference among these terms; they all refer to arbitrary, coerced movement of persons, irrespective of their number and irrespective of the extent of the state's involvement in the process. Clearly, the situation of the Innu would fall within the purview of internal displacement. (10) Having been forced to migrate on two separate occasions, the Innu have suffered physical and cultural upheaval at the hands of the state. While the reasons proffered for these moves were couched in humanitarian terms, there was little, if any, consultation regarding the process and cultural traditions were ignored. Consequently, this forced internal displacement has resulted in a significant erosion of traditional lifestyles, which have been replaced with sedentarization. This in turn has had disastrous consequences for the community. (11)

    1. Forced Migration I - 1948

      In 1948, the Innu were moved from Davis Inlet to Nutak, two hundred fifty miles to the north. This move was undertaken without any real consultation with the Innu, and without their consent. To this day, the Innu today still do not understand the rationale for this move. (12) As Samson, Wilson, and Mazower (13) note:

      There is no single, unambiguous Innu understanding of sedentarization and what it meant: their perception of what happened is embodied, as always, in a series of widely differing accounts reflecting the varied and often chaotic experiences of individuals and families. What is clear however, is that the government made almost no attempt to explain the situation to all the Innu or to obtain their formal consent to settlement. Although the move was said to be for humanitarian reasons and intended to provide the Innu with greater employment and economic prosperity, there is no evidence that these needs could not already be met in Davis Inlet, or that any government efforts were made to determine the conditions that the Innu would face in Nutak. McRae notes that the relocation of the Innu to Nutak had the more sinister goal of assimilation. (14) The policy of the Commission of Government was to "make white men" of the Indians and Eskimos. The provincial government saw not only sedentarization itself...

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