Kayle Towsley and Marina Chirchikova of the Indigenous Solidarity Collective discussed the ongoing struggle of the Innu people of the Natassinan, a territory located in Labrador and eastern Quebec, at a workshop Monday at QPIRG Concordia. The Innu have never signed a treaty ceding their lands to the Canadian government, though white settlement, mining companies, and the Canadian air force – which frequently conducts low-level flying exercises in the area – have gradually encroached upon much of their land.
Towsley and Chirchikova focused much of their presentation on the work of Innu elder and activist Elizabeth Penashue, who is currently resisting the construction of the Lower Churchill Dam. In the sixties, the construction of a similar dam – the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project – tremendously diminished the flow of the Churchill River, altered caribou migration patterns, and dramatically increased the levels of mercury found in the river’s fish.
Towsley said the government has coerced the Innu into living in small, sedentary communities in order “to exploit the resources that were found in Natassinan territory.”
Towsley cited the establishment of large-scale mining operations in the sixties, an ongoing process that has only accelerated since the mid-nineties when one of the world’s largest nickel reserves was found in the area.
“The process the government uses to allow settlers to establish mining sites in Natassinan really explains their relationship with the Innu,” said Towsley, adding that tracts of Crown land there can be obtained by prospectors simply by placing a pin on a map, filling out some forms, and paying a refundable $240 deposit.
In the past, said Chirchikova, Innu activists have resorted to such nonviolent strategies of protest as occupying foreign embassies, staging a lock-in at a local school, roadblocks, and forming human blockades on the Canadian air force’s runways.
“I think it’s important for us, as settlers, to approach this from the perspective of solidarity and not charity,” Chirchikova said.