25, 2001, Gazette)
A way of life
that does not exist
Dr. Colin Samson
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unpublished paper in 1972.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 Canadas Tibet: The Killing of the Innu,
said the Canadian governments 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 Innus 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
Some of Dr. Samsons research was aided by historical documents,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. Samsons
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 Voiseys 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 Innus 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.