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(January 25, 2001, Gazette)

A way of life that does not exist

Dr. Colin SamsonPhoto by Chris Hammond

Dr. Colin Samson

By Deborah Inkpen

The international spotlight has recently been focused on the Innu of Labrador and their difficulties. A visiting Essex sociologist hopes to help understand why a once healthy, independent people has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and why Innu children have turned to gasoline sniffing.

Dr. Colin Samson, the first recipient of the ISER Strategic Grant Program, has been at Memorial this past fall researching material for his latest manuscript. The book, titled A Way of Life That does Not Exist: Ethnocide and the Innu, makes reference to Father Frank Peters, a priest who visited Davis Inlet and wrote the statement, “a way of life that does not exist” in an unpublished paper in 1972. Father Peters was reflecting on how the school children were being prepared for a “limited future that was neither Innu nor Canadian.”

Dr. Samson is hoping his reseach will keep that spotlight on the Innu and their treatment by the Canadian authorities. In 1999, Dr. Samson co-authored a report released by Survival International, a pressure group advocating for the rights of tribal peoples. The report, titled Canada’s Tibet: The Killing of the Innu, said the Canadian government’s policy of moving the Innu into villages, away from their traditional nomadic hunting way of life, resulted in the Innu having one of the highest rates of suicide and alcohol and solvent abuse in the world.

“The Innu’s well-being and cultural identity depends on their continuing links to their land, which they call Nitassinan,” said Dr. Samson. “The Innu were nomadic hunters on the Labrador peninsula until they were settled by the Canadian government 30 years ago. Since then, they have been transformed from independent, self reliant and healthy nomadic people to troubled, sedentary village dwellers.”

Some of Dr. Samson’s research was aided by historical documents, explorers and anthropological accounts, and archival sources found at the Centre for Newfoundland Studies. As well, Dr. Samson used Innu testimony to trace the pre-settlement social life and conditions to compare post-settlement life. Dr. Samson’s research entailed a detailed investigation of the sociology of Innu-Canadian contact, focusing specifically on the social institutions that have been set up to regulate the Innu in the villages – principally the Canadian state, land developers, health services, schools and legal system. His research also examined the positive strategies and resistances of the Innu.

“Canadian and Newfoundland authorities know little about the Innu way of life and, specifically the ‘two worlds’ they inhabit; the life in the settlements which has been enforced on them and that led by hunting families in the interior of the Labrador-Quebec peninsula,” He said. “Mega-projects like Churchill Falls and Voisey’s Bay are being developed on land that the Innu rightly claim is theirs.

“Why does INCO have more right to land than people whose ancestors have been there for possibly 7,000 years? The Innu have never signed away their land and yet the Canadian government refuses to suspend massive development projects that will destroy large parts of the Innu’s territory. Part of my job is to expose the incredible dishonesty and duplicity that is involved in these projects. These two pieces of land are under negotiation through the Comprehensive Land Claims system, while they are at the same time being sold off. This demoralizes the community and they feel they are constantly being duped. It takes a toll on the people.”

Whether there is any hope for the Innu people, Dr. Samson remains positive. He believes the international attention will force the Canadian government to rethink how they deal with the Innu. He also believes that the Innu are a strong, articulate people who will not give up their link to their land easily.

Dr. Samson has returned to England to fine-tune his manuscript over the next few months. He remains in close contact with the Innu both as an advisor on education matters to the Sheshatshiu Innu Band Council and a voluntary international observer for the Mushuau Innu Band Council. He is also a board member of the Tshikapisk Foundation, a group of Innu hunters formed to think of more creative ways to help their children suffering from solvent-abuse. Dr. Samson and the Tshikapisk members believe that exposure to the land and a traditional way of life is one type of preventive medicine that will help reduce the incidence of gas sniffing and other problems in the future.

Dr. Samson is director of the U.S. Studies program at the Department of Sociology, University of Essex, and teaches in the areas of American studies, Native American studies and the sociology of health and illness.

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