The tale of a river

Robin McGrath
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Editorial integrity unfettered by Nalcor funding

The Grand River Mista-shipu
Edited by Aimee Chaulk
Them Days Magazine Special Issue
$14.00; 192 pages

When word leaked out earlier this year that Them Days Inc. was planning a special book-length issue on the Mista-shipu (a.k.a. the Grand River, the Hamilton River and most recently the Churchill), people interested in or living in Labrador were pleased.

When it later emerged that the issue was to be funded by Nalcor Energy, some of the interest turned to distrust. Especially miffed were members of the Grand Riverkeepers, a pressure group opposed to the Lower Churchill development at Muskrat Falls.  

As a subscriber to Them Days and a member of the Grand Riverkeepers, I wasn’t quite sure what to think of the financial arrangement, but I had faith that Them Days editor Aimee Chaulk would find a way to walk the fine line between the two.

Nevertheless, when the special issue was finally released, I was pleased to see that there was no obvious bias in the text and Nalcor’s only presence was a two-line acknowledgement and a small logo.  

If this publication does nothing else, it should show the arts community that it is possible to take big bucks from big business without selling out your ideals and ethics.

Oral history

Them Days magazine, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is an oral history publication that aims to record the history and culture of Labrador in short, easily accessible articles and interviews. In the early days — Them Days is now 37 years old — the transcripts stooped to spelled pronunciation, but more recently the editorial board has modified that stand to retain dialect without stooping to the ubiquitous “dis, dat, deze and doze.”

“The Grand River Mista-shipu” comprises 50 pieces, collected from all sectors of society. Some of the names of contributors will be familiar to the general public, such as Supreme Court Justice William Goodridge and Dr. Elizabeth Penashue, while others are better known within Labrador such as John Blake and Horace Goudie.  

The volume opens with a brief summary of the archeological record by Scott Neilsen.  Neilsen has probably done more digs and more varied digs than any other archeologist in Labrador, partly because he is resident here and can extend his fieldwork beyond the usual six weeks a year, but also because he has made it his business to get to know the aboriginal people of the area and to draw on them for assistance. While they do, they learn archeology and Neilsen learns elements of their culture that give him insight into the material he finds.

Neilsen is the first of numerous commentators to remind readers that the Mista-shipu is not the same river it was 7,500 years ago, or even 75 years ago. During what archeologists call the Early Period of habitation, Muskrat Falls did not exist “because the land had sunk due to the weight of the glaciers and was inundated by water from Hamilton Inlet.”

More recently, as Joe Goudie realized when he went on the river with his brother Horace in 1989, “the water levels had dropped 14 feet” since Horace travelled it prior to hydro development.

Much of this special issue is dedicated to the lives of the trappers who used the river as a highway. The Height-of-Landers, who were the trapping elite of the 1930s, used to travel hundreds of miles upstream to their paths, poling, lining and hauling their supplies up past Churchill Falls, and then reversing the trip with their furs twice a season.

Many of the trappers were responsible for guiding and supporting the early geologists and explorers who mapped the backcountry, and later they helped build Goose air base, open up the IOC mines and construct Churchill Falls hydro. Without them and their knowledge of the river and the country around it, these enormous undertakings might never have been accomplished.

Myths and legends

Although they are touched on only lightly, there are hints throughout the articles and interviews with the old timers of some of the myths and legends that are part of the cultural landscape of Labrador.

The Travespine yetti, the spirit of Old Paagy (whose tune could provoke a free-for-all among the trappers), German submarine lore, and an aberrant lead goose — “a big old gander” — all get passing mention.

Some of these trappers were only 14 years old when they began traveling the river, so it is no surprise that after being alone in the bush for months at a time, they sometimes got a bit spooked.

Brian Michelin once came back to his tilt to find the frozen body of an Innu elder put inside for safe keeping. He hoisted her onto his fur platform for the duration of his stay and then replaced her in the cabin to await burial by her family when he left.

Both Harry Mitsuk and Vera Butt describe the overt racism that was practised in the early days of settlement of Happy Valley.  Harry is Inuit and Vera is Métis, but both recall that when their families moved to Goose Bay to get work on the base, a self-appointed committee forbade them to settle on the mainland but forced them out to Eskimo Island and John White’s Island, just offshore.

“We wasn’t allowed to build on this side, see, not Eskimos,” is how Harry put it. Vera recalls that when they first arrived, “when we went to set up the tent, Mr. Perrault said we couldn’t because Dad wasn’t working and there was no land we could put a tent on.”

Mitsuk and Butt were young enough to adjust to life on the tiny islands in the river, but it was hard for their fathers, who had to travel over rotten ice in the spring and fall to get to work at the base. When Harry was old enough to go looking for work on the Valley side, he fell through the ice and almost drowned.

The last page of “The Grand River Mista-shipu” consists of a fold-out map of the river with the prominent areas numbered and listed. I canoed the river some years ago with Elizabeth and Francis Pensahsue, but we had no maps nor any English names for the feeder rivers and landmarks.

It was fascinating to read this volume and put “akenashau” names and histories to the Innu places I was introduced to on that trip.

What finally comes through from this special issue on the Churchill River is the unease those most familiar with it have about the effect that Muskrat Falls will have on the ecosystem.

These are not hysterical voices of protest, they are thoughtful, nostalgic, knowledgeable, concerned men and women who have lived hard lives but who know the value of clean air and water and who hope to leave some undisturbed country to their grandchildren.

That’s not a lot of ask, considering how much they have given and lost.

Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is “The Birchy Maid.” Her column returns Nov. 2.

Organizations: Churchill, Nalcor Energy, Supreme Court Justice William Goodridge IOC

Geographic location: Labrador, Grand River, Hamilton River Hamilton Inlet Goose Bay Happy Valley Eskimo Island Churchill River

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