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‘The river so beautiful’

Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue poses with the youngest member of the canoe trip’s team, 16-year-old Rachel Snelgrove..
Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue poses with the youngest member of the canoe trip’s team, 16-year-old Rachel Snelgrove..

Innu elder and environmental activist Elizabeth Penashue says she will continue to do her yearly canoe trips down the Churchill River, just like she did during a week-long trip in August.

The canoe trips are not easy. This year Penashue travelled 250 kilometres from Churchill Falls to Gull Island with two dozen others, both Innu and non-Innu. To succeed on such a long, vigorous, trip requires strength and teamwork.

“I could see the boys’ so strong,” said Penashue, complimenting some of the young men who joined her on the trip. “They help me put the tent (up), get some wood, get some water, and help me when I get the bows for inside the tent. We work together.

“And white people, we were canoeing together. … Everybody worked together and helped each other. I was very happy.”

For Penashue, the Churchill River is important in many ways. For thousands of years, the Innu people have used the river for transportation and sustenance. Penashue’s canoe trips are emotional and spiritual and even political.

“I should continue canoeing every summer, because it’s very, very, important for the Innu.”

“Every time I go canoeing on the river, I can see the river so beautiful,” said Penashue. “And I’m think a lot about everything.”

One of the things she thinks about is the effect dams have, and will have, on the Churchill River.

Penashue, born in 1944, saw the dramatic changes to the river that took place after the Upper Churchill hydro project went ahead in the early 1970s. It became a different river, she said, from what she remembered as a child.

“It’s not the same when I was a young,” said Penashue. “When I was young, it was always the same every summer, always the same river.

“I find a lot of change every time. Every summer when I go on canoe trip, there’s a lot of change, that’s what I find.”

Now, with the Muskrat Falls project well underway, Penashue worries, again, about the effects another dam will have on the environment. One of her concerns is whether or not mercury levels will harm fish and other animals.

“And it’s not just fish. All kinds of animals belong to the water, like beaver, muskrat, otter,” Penashue said.

“I was very sad that … the government make another dam.”

Penashue has always felt a strong, emotional, connection to the land and the animals. Although she doesn’t think animals can vocally speak to her, the Innu elder said she often feels as though animals are communicating with her. She said it’s her responsibility to tell other people about the concerns of the animals, since they can’t speak out loud for themselves.

“Animals don’t talk, but I can feel just like they talk to me,” explained Penashue. “As if they say ‘Elizabeth keep doing what you’re doing. You support us, because I’m in the woods … I eat everything off the ground.’ ”

“I feel so sad, I cry sometimes when I think about it, because I can see and hear everything.”

Even though the Muskrat Falls project began well over two years ago, Penashue still hopes that it can be stopped, somehow, someway.

“I don’t want to give up even (though) the government started work making another dam at Muskrat Falls. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, because this is our river. Thousands and thousands of years, Innu hunted there …”

The long canoe trip was also an emotional experience for Penashue on a personal level. For more than 10 years, Penashue did her annual canoe trips with her beloved husband Francis, who died in September 2013.

Before heading out to Churchill Falls for the start of her trip, Penashue wondered if she will be able to do the trip without her husband by her side.

“I was thinking about my husband a lot when I was leaving Sheshatshiu,” Penashue said. “Who’s going to help me? Who’s going to support me like my husband?

“I thought I’m not going to make it because my husband was always with me, always.”

Even during her trip, she saw many reminders of her husband.

“I miss him a lot. Sometimes I cry when I am canoeing,” Penashue said. “When we have nice weather, I can see where we would camp. I can see where we would stop, have a break and make fire.”

The canoe trip was also special for those who joined Penashue down the river. 

Paul Snelgrove and his 16-year old daughter Rachel, from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, were two of those on the trek.

Snelgrove thought travelling down the Churchill River with respected Labrador elders like Elizabeth Penashue and Joe Goudie would be a worthwhile experience for one week out of their summer.

“Well it’s a part of Labrador and Labrador’s history,” Snelgrove said. “So I thought it would be a good trip to learn about Labrador. And taking a trip with Joe Goudie is a history lesson itself.

“I also think it was good for her, for the two of us, to spend time together. And we bonded more and did stuff together, which is important.”

Snelgrove also enjoyed learning new things from his Innu companions, who have a wealth of knowledge about living and travelling on the land.

“It’s good to spend time with the Innu, to get a respect for people who live in Labrador, but you may not have the chance to spend much time with day-to-day,” he said.

derek.montague@thelabradorian.ca

The canoe trips are not easy. This year Penashue travelled 250 kilometres from Churchill Falls to Gull Island with two dozen others, both Innu and non-Innu. To succeed on such a long, vigorous, trip requires strength and teamwork.

“I could see the boys’ so strong,” said Penashue, complimenting some of the young men who joined her on the trip. “They help me put the tent (up), get some wood, get some water, and help me when I get the bows for inside the tent. We work together.

“And white people, we were canoeing together. … Everybody worked together and helped each other. I was very happy.”

For Penashue, the Churchill River is important in many ways. For thousands of years, the Innu people have used the river for transportation and sustenance. Penashue’s canoe trips are emotional and spiritual and even political.

“I should continue canoeing every summer, because it’s very, very, important for the Innu.”

“Every time I go canoeing on the river, I can see the river so beautiful,” said Penashue. “And I’m think a lot about everything.”

One of the things she thinks about is the effect dams have, and will have, on the Churchill River.

Penashue, born in 1944, saw the dramatic changes to the river that took place after the Upper Churchill hydro project went ahead in the early 1970s. It became a different river, she said, from what she remembered as a child.

“It’s not the same when I was a young,” said Penashue. “When I was young, it was always the same every summer, always the same river.

“I find a lot of change every time. Every summer when I go on canoe trip, there’s a lot of change, that’s what I find.”

Now, with the Muskrat Falls project well underway, Penashue worries, again, about the effects another dam will have on the environment. One of her concerns is whether or not mercury levels will harm fish and other animals.

“And it’s not just fish. All kinds of animals belong to the water, like beaver, muskrat, otter,” Penashue said.

“I was very sad that … the government make another dam.”

Penashue has always felt a strong, emotional, connection to the land and the animals. Although she doesn’t think animals can vocally speak to her, the Innu elder said she often feels as though animals are communicating with her. She said it’s her responsibility to tell other people about the concerns of the animals, since they can’t speak out loud for themselves.

“Animals don’t talk, but I can feel just like they talk to me,” explained Penashue. “As if they say ‘Elizabeth keep doing what you’re doing. You support us, because I’m in the woods … I eat everything off the ground.’ ”

“I feel so sad, I cry sometimes when I think about it, because I can see and hear everything.”

Even though the Muskrat Falls project began well over two years ago, Penashue still hopes that it can be stopped, somehow, someway.

“I don’t want to give up even (though) the government started work making another dam at Muskrat Falls. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, because this is our river. Thousands and thousands of years, Innu hunted there …”

The long canoe trip was also an emotional experience for Penashue on a personal level. For more than 10 years, Penashue did her annual canoe trips with her beloved husband Francis, who died in September 2013.

Before heading out to Churchill Falls for the start of her trip, Penashue wondered if she will be able to do the trip without her husband by her side.

“I was thinking about my husband a lot when I was leaving Sheshatshiu,” Penashue said. “Who’s going to help me? Who’s going to support me like my husband?

“I thought I’m not going to make it because my husband was always with me, always.”

Even during her trip, she saw many reminders of her husband.

“I miss him a lot. Sometimes I cry when I am canoeing,” Penashue said. “When we have nice weather, I can see where we would camp. I can see where we would stop, have a break and make fire.”

The canoe trip was also special for those who joined Penashue down the river. 

Paul Snelgrove and his 16-year old daughter Rachel, from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, were two of those on the trek.

Snelgrove thought travelling down the Churchill River with respected Labrador elders like Elizabeth Penashue and Joe Goudie would be a worthwhile experience for one week out of their summer.

“Well it’s a part of Labrador and Labrador’s history,” Snelgrove said. “So I thought it would be a good trip to learn about Labrador. And taking a trip with Joe Goudie is a history lesson itself.

“I also think it was good for her, for the two of us, to spend time together. And we bonded more and did stuff together, which is important.”

Snelgrove also enjoyed learning new things from his Innu companions, who have a wealth of knowledge about living and travelling on the land.

“It’s good to spend time with the Innu, to get a respect for people who live in Labrador, but you may not have the chance to spend much time with day-to-day,” he said.

derek.montague@thelabradorian.ca

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