The passing of a good man

Michael Johansen
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It was a brilliantly sunny, late winter day in Nain. The Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) was hosting negotiators from the Innu Nation for a round of talks on how to share the lands over which both peoples hold inherent rights.
At one point in those sessions, everybody must have gotten tired of being cooped up behind closed doors, and they all took a break. Several of them - Daniel Ashini included - gathered at the top of the high steps to the LIA headquarters for a quick smoke.
They relaxed, leaning together against the railing, sharing jokes and laughing. When Daniel saw me approaching, he smiled and greeted me like an old friend.
Daniel Ashini was a good man, and you could see it in his smile. It was a smile that showed his openness, his friendliness, his wit and his great good humour. It was a smile that was always slightly askew and a little gap-toothed, but beautiful nonetheless.
His smile - always genuine - must have served him well as the Innu Nation's chief negotiator.
For many years, he was the official voice of the Innu, not only to the Labrador Inuit, but also to the governments in St. John's and Ottawa.
It was Daniel Ashini, as much as anyone, who made the provincial and federal politicians respect what the Innu had to say.
When Daniel spoke, you knew he meant what he said. When Daniel acted, it was not for himself; it was for his people, his community. Anyone who met him learned to respect him and when he smiled, you learned to like him very much.
In private, with his friends and family, Daniel was no doubt the same man he showed in public, a man of conviction and integrity, who spoke his mind and stood by his word.
That made him the best and rarest kind of politician: one who truly held nothing back, hid nothing of himself, good or bad.
Labrador Innu politics can be a rough game, but Daniel never shirked from playing it. He also never shirked from playing any position he found himself in, including (when malchance intervened) the role of opposition. In his life - his bare 50 years - Daniel Ashini did not always have reason to smile.
Not all his efforts succeeded and he was increasingly beset by health problems that literally took months, or even years, away from his life.
He won office several times - taking leadership as chief of the Sheshatshiu band council and president of the Innu Nation - but he did not prevail in all of his battles.
However, even in deep distress and anger - in one moment when he was tasting the bitterness of an election loss and sought someone or something to blame - he never forgot to treat others, even an opponent, with respect.
One could stand toe to toe with him, surrounded by hostile people yelling for violence, and see only hardness in his eyes and accusations in his voice - but one knew not to be afraid.
When another man might have lost control, he kept his, remaining open to calm and reason, choosing peace over conflict.
Daniel Ashini was no angel, but he was a good man. The smile always returned.
Although there was, no doubt, more Daniel Ashini could have done, given more time, there's no doubt, either, that he did much with the time he had.
In and out of official position - as chief, or president, or even earlier as a student speaking out against the injustices his people had to endure, and as a protester on the runways of Goose Bay - he worked for the betterment of his community, and in so many ways.
Many of them won't be fully known for years, so it can only have been a joy to him and a comfort to all who knew him that he was able to share in one grand achievement just before he passed away: the goal of seeing the Innu once again take charge of educating their own young.
His last public appearance was in Sheshatshiu's new school - perhaps the beautiful building has finally found a name.
Daniel Ashini was a good man. He will be missed.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Labrador Inuit Association

Geographic location: Labrador, Nain, St. John's Ottawa Goose Bay

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