A clash of cultures

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I have recently read a polarizing posting on the CBC by John Furlong (“Trouble in Natuashish comes from the top,” posted Oct. 6) and it has motivated me to speak out. The article is a great disappointment to me and I describe it as polarizing because I submit that its likely consequence is simply to further divide the two cultures and exacerbate the problem.

Before proceeding further I would first like to introduce myself. I am a senior criminal lawyer who has been and still am representing the Innu of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish. My acquired knowledge of the Innu culture is good (for a white man) but my knowledge of the Mushuau Innu (Natuashish) is more in depth than my knowledge of the Sheshatshiu Innu, as I live in the community of Natuashish with my spouse and have done so for the past three and a half years. My spouse is a nurse practitioner and employed by Labrador Grenfell Health in Natuashish. I have represented the Innu from both communities in court since January 2006. I was also band manager for the Mushuau Innu from March 2010 until July 2012.

I speak of two cultures as I submit that the reality that we are dealing with two different cultures is being lost. This is especially true when the problem is continually described by one of the cultures using only the norms of the judging culture with little real knowledge of the culture being judged.

One anecdotal example of this problem is a story told to me by a Supreme Court justice when he was sitting in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. He was sentencing a young Innu male and during the sentencing he noticed that the young man never did look directly at him even

when the judge directed his remarks toward the young man and demanded his attention. The judge took that to indicate that the young man lacked respect for the law and the court, only to have it pointed out to him later by an Innu elder that not looking the judge straight in the eye was actually a sign of respect in the Innu culture.


Failing to understand

We can never understand the behaviour of the Innu if we do not bring knowledge and understanding of the Innu culture into our reasoning. Archeologists have established that the Innu were living on the land in Labrador 3,000 years before Christ was born. Their culture was essentially based on a great respect for the animals, especially the caribou. All their beliefs (often described as myths by our culture) were based on mutual respect of the animals that allowed themselves to be killed so that the Innu could survive and the Innu responsibility to always treat the animals with respect.

The Innu developed a strong culture and this is evidenced by the fact that it survived and served them well until our provincial government adopted policies which encouraged the Innu to settle in one place. The realities and needs of their culture were entirely different from those of a modern day culture. What is important in their culture is not important in ours and what is important in our culture is not important in theirs. The important things in their culture were those that allowed them to survive and prosper in the harsh environment out on the land in Labrador with the prospect of starvation ever present. The important things in our culture have allowed us to survive and prosper in a very different world.

It took thousands of years to develop the Western civilization in which we live today from the days when our ancestors were also hunter-gatherers. During that time hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wars were fought which involved the deaths and suffering of countless numbers of people, the coming and going of many different religions and the development of many different ways of governance. Why do we think that the Innu can make this journey in a matter of some 60 or 70 years when it took our culture thousands of years and many hard lessons had to be learned along the way?

In January 2011 (with temperatures in the minus 30s and 40s), my wife and I had occasion to travel on snowmobile from Natuashish to Border Beacon (180 kilometres one way) and back via snowmobile with only the Mushuau Innu as our guide and adviser. It was a three-day trip. After we left Natuashish we stopped at an Innu tent set up out on the land. What struck us very markedly was how all the Innu appeared so happy and at ease, and the sullenness that we saw in them all the time in the community had simply disappeared. We, indeed, noticed this phenomenon until we once again returned to the community of Natuashish where we observed the sullenness return almost immediately. While out on the land, we were in their home and it showed.

While out on the land, travelling to and from Border Beacon, my wife’s and my safety and well-being were in the hands of the Innu. As such, we found them to be very different in their behaviour toward us when they were the ones with the expertise and not us. In our ordinary dealings with them as nurse practitioner and lawyer, we were the ones with the expertise. Again, we were in their home and it showed.


Losing their ways

It must always be remembered that all humans require dignity and, as such, we seek it in the feedback received from our day-to-day activities. The old Innu way supplied the Innu with all the dignity they required. When the Innu were no longer free to live the old way they lost nearly all of their sources of self-respect or human dignity. The reality of Davis Inlet before the move to Natuashish made it all but impossible to maintain any human dignity. The houses were extremely overcrowded and had no running water and no heating. The situation was so dire that the federal government entered into a relocation agreement with the Mushuau Innu to establish a new community.

So, essentially, all the present problems of the Innu are of our making, however well-intentioned our society may have been. None of the present problems existed when they lived the old way. These problems, however, only affect the Innu and are not felt in our society. For that reason we now have a situation where only the Innu can solve the problem because only they understand and are aware of the full extent of the problem with which they live every day.

Today’s problems, as evidenced by the present gas-sniffing crisis, have no easy or quick solutions. While short-term solutions have their place and can be necessary, it is my respectful opinion that the Innu will only be able to deal with these problems when more of the Innu can better understand the ways of our society and its culture.

To that end, I submit that the long-term solution to their problems lies in the Innu youth. My suggestion to all the Innu people, the band councils, the Innu Nation and our governments, is that they should make heroes of the Innu youth who graduate high school and go on to further post-secondary education.

They would be heroes because it is only through their gaining of knowledge of the white man’s ways, whilst also being taught all the knowledge and skill of their own culture by Innu elders, that the social problems will be solved and the Innu culture can survive. They would become the saviours of the Innu culture.


Garrett O’Brien writes from Natuashish.

Organizations: CBC, Labrador Grenfell Health, Supreme Court

Geographic location: Natuashish, Happy Valley, Goose Bay Labrador Davis Inlet

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Recent comments

  • Cashin Delaney
    October 19, 2013 - 07:15

    What are white man's ways? Does the color of your body determine your ways? I have relatively white skin, but my ways are very different than the leaders of our country in the privy council, the judiciary and our legislative bodies who have direct responsibility to work with Innu leadership in good faith. This letter starts a better conversation than Jackson's last column that defended the CBC, however, it may perpetuate the "myth", or belief, that there is a such thing as white culture, or white ways. I suppose Mr. O'Brien is referring to the Crown of England, and the problems the natives of Wales, Scotland and Ireland faced in their education into British-Roman governance methods, or as we now call it, colonial white man's ways. History is another key to producing Innu heroes. I'd cry tears of joy to hear young Innu recount history of not only Labrador, but of all natives who fought for land, reprieve, and dignity.