Vol 38 No 5
November 3, 2005
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November 24, 2005
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Oration honouring Tshaukuish (Elizabeth) Penashue
We are honoured tonight to have as our guest Tshaukuish Penashue of the Innu Nation, who is recognized nationally and internationally for her visionary service to indigenous rights, to healthy communities, and to caring for the earth.
Tshaukuish, if in the 1960s the people of Quebec and this province had recognized Nitassinan as your homeland for centuries; had endorsed your aboriginal right to hunt and cut wood there; had enshrined the right of Innu children to be educated in Innu-aimun in an inclusive system that honoured their heritage while preparing them for today’s world; had permitted you to keep responsibility for justice, addressing delinquency as you always had through healing circles, rehabilitating offenders within communities with family support; had understood your life in Nutshimit, your relationship with the land, your commitment to protecting it; today you could enjoy control over your homeland, your institutions, and your way of life; the names of rivers and lakes could be those your people gave them; the resources of Nitassinan could be yours to develop or not, at a pace and in ways decided by you; and your society could have retained the old system of government in which women and men were equally responsible; and today, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, in addition to CFAR, happy acronym for our Centre for Aboriginal Research, this university could have established the NOCO Innuvation Centre, where students would question supremacist thinking, examine Innu governance, engage the ethics as well as the economics of industrial development, study Innu music, education and healing, and prepare themselves physically and spiritually for an Innu immersion course in Nitassinan.
In such a project, Tshaukuish would surely lead and teach as courageously as she does now. Even without the stability of an Innu-created community, facing distress and confusion especially among the young, she pours herself into education in the bush so that young people rediscover the discipline and pride of survival by reciprocity with the land. No large classes, no PowerPoint delivering bullets, no multiple choice questions. To make camp; tend the fire; kill, clean and cook the caribou, above all sharing it with those who weren’t so lucky today, and respecting the remains: these are the tests.
And for adults, Innu and non-Innu, the graduate course, a strenuous 25-day trek in deep snow and forest. Course requirements: humility, fitness, reverence for the earth. Assignments: bring no junk, keep warm, eat up your porcupine, clean up behind you, and above all love thy neighbour because if you quarrel or whine, your teacher may walk on without you. If you survive, you pass. Not about nostalgia, this rigorous journey keeps Innu present on the land and supports the revitalization of Innu energies and values.
For political witness always peaceful is her life. The first of her winter walks for the women of Sheshatshiu in the 1980s took them to the NATO bombing range at Minai-nipi and a vigil for a pure lake now spoiled by dead bombs. And at the prospect of low-level flying by NATO over Innu hunting grounds, she conquered fear and knocked on doors, inviting her people to join in opposing the violation. For occupying the runway at Goose Bay, Tshaukuish and her friends went three times to jail, but they won public recognition and
travelled by invitation across Canada, telling this story of Innu resistance and agency. Tshaukuish has since organized a women’s centre in Sheshatshiu, and a yearly group expedition by canoe, in tandem with her husband Francis, on the Mishta Shipu, that great river we appropriated to provide hydro power, flooding without notice the land where the father of Tshaukuish trapped and hunted. Her canoe trip mourns the damage of that first development and protests the planning of a second.
Of Voisey’s Bay, Tshaukuish has said: “Emish is a beautiful place, with marshes, clean rivers, trees and mountains ... special places where the caribou, porcupine, beaver and geese like to live ... I know what a mess mining will make at Emish, how much dirt and ... pollution that will make my people sick.” That Inco has pledged to prove her wrong, and to restore the site, signals the power of her dignified advocacy for her people and her homeland.
We have still much to learn, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, from our neighbours. By the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, let us celebrate the integrity and mighty spirit of a woman who stands up to bullies, and who lives and teaches survival and renewal: Tshaukuish (Elizabeth) Penashue.