Next week Tshaukuesh (Elizabeth) Penashue will embark on her annual three-week trek into the Labrador wilderness for the last time.
The respected Innu elder and indigenous rights activist has also requested permission from provincial energy crown corporation Nalcor to visit Muskrat Falls, a place she says the Innu have hunted for thousands of years. On Tuesday CBC Radio Labrador reported Nalcor had denied Penashue’s request.
Last spring Penashue was set to make her last three-week trip through nutshimit (the country), but her husband Francis fell ill and the couple’s annual journey was cancelled. Francis, a former chief of Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation and Tshaukuesh’s husband of 50 years, succumbed to his illness in September, spending his final hours in a tent outside the hospital in Happy Valley-Goose Bay surrounded by his family.
“Every time when I do something – canoe trip, and walk – he always support me,” Penashue recalled during a recent phone interview with The Independent. “I was leader but he was always behind to help me a lot.”
Penashue says this year her son Jack will help with the walk, and that Feb. 17 will mark her final departure into nutshimit as part of the annual tradition.
“I want to say goodbye. This is my last walk and I want to see last time,” she said. “Me and my husband when we walk, he never walk,” she continued, remembering her walks with Francis. “I walk with the people, but he helped me (and) support me lots. He took all my stuff on the skidoo: tent, the stove, food, everything.”
Though the walk will take Penashue, her son and others into the Mealy Mountains to Enipeshakimau (Pants Lake), the visit to Muskrat Falls was a top priority. Another of her sons, former Innu leader and Conservative Labrador MP Peter Penashue, was a key player in the project moving forward, but Tshaukuesh has steadfastly opposed the controversial megadam for several years because it will flood and destroy Innu ancestral lands. Last November Nalcor reported that over 40,000 Innu artifacts dating back 2,000 to 3,500 years had been excavated at the site.
“I really, really want to talk about Muskrat Falls (for a) long time, but I had a lot of problems,” Penashue told The Independent. “My husband passed away; I was so sad, thinking ‘what are we gonna do?’ I never, never thought I would be old lady and old man, and one of them are gonna be gone. And then I try (to) stay young, my husband then passed away. I still miss (him) a lot.
“Then I said I feel a little bit better, and I better say something about Muskrat Falls,” she continued. “And then I better go in the bush, in the country, maybe (be) more happy, more strong.”
Penashue said before her husband passed away he was “very worried” about the fate of Muskrat Falls. “He was very worried because Francis, when he was young, this river, Churchill River, always we went in the bush in the country, sometimes we went together, Francis’ parents and my parents, to this river.”
Mista-Shipu to the Innu and Grand River to the Inuit, Inuit-Metis and settlers who identify as Labradorians, Labrador’s biggest river was renamed Hamilton River in 1821, after former Newfoundland Governor Sir Charles Hamilton. Then, in 1965, again without the consent of locals, Joey Smallwood renamed the river after British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
In Sept. 2012 Lake Melville MHA and Progressive Conservative backbencher Keith Russell told CBC that local resistance to the project was misguided. “[Y]ou have people talking about Mother Earth and sacred waters and, you know, spirits flowing through these rivers. And that’s all well and good,” he said. “But people have to understand too that there is a need for this development.” Russell also dismissed claims the trail leading to Muskrat Falls is sacred ground as “mumbo jumbo,” though he later apologized for his remarks.
The people, thousands and thousands of years they hunt in Churchill River. Now … I’m so sad, it hurts. It just broke my heart. – Elizabeth Penashue
The Nunatsiavut government has expressed concern that increased methylmercury levels in the water will poison the fish, seals and other marine animals the Inuit living in the Lake Melville settlement area downstream from Muskrat Falls depend on as a form of sustenance.
Members of the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) have also vehemently opposed the project. A total of 10 people, including NCC President and former Labrador MP Todd Russell and several elders, have been arrested for breaking an injunction during various acts of civil disobedience opposing the damming of Muskrat Falls. They have yet to be charged, but their next court appearance is scheduled for Feb. 17, the same day Penashue will set out on her walk.
Penashue doesn’t talk about the differences of opinion within her family or community, or the politics of Muskrat Falls. To the 69-year-old, who was born in the country near Churchill Falls, the most important thing is preserving nutshimit, of which Muskrat Falls is a significant part for the Innu, Inuit and Inuit-Metis. Like most of the world’s indigenous populations, the Innu’s unhindered access and connection to the land and water are fundamental to the preservation of their culture.
“It’s very important; there’s a lot of stories (of Muskrat Falls),” Penashue explained. “I remember when I was young, maybe nine or 10 years old, I was very, very happy when my parents go in the country, hunting. And everybody happy, the children very happy, and when my dad go hunting brought some caribou meat, porcupine, beaver, all kinds of stuff, and I was very, very happy and I helped my mom when she cleaned the animals.
“The people, thousands and thousands of years they hunt in Churchill River. Now, just broke my heart when I see in the paper. … I’m so sad, it hurts. It just broke my heart. And when I see the (news)paper in the post office and I open (it), very sad what happened.”
To find out how you can join Penashue on her final three-week walk through nutshimit, or to donate money or supplies to the effort, visit her blog at elizabethpenashue.blogspot.ca
In 2009 filmmaker Andrew Mudge joined Penashue on her walk. The result is the short documentary ‘Meshkanu’: