NATUASHISH, N.L.—Around 20 kilometres into a remote part of the Labradorian interior blanketed by semi-frozen marshland, a dozen Innu women and teens are charging through thick brush in the dark, nearing the end of a 12-plus-hour trek.
Just then, walk leader Nympha Byrne makes a misstep. She sinks into the icy marsh waters up to her waist.
Chenille Rich, 16, the only other walker within eyeshot, jumps into action and pulls Byrne out. She tugs off her boots, peels off her socks and starts a fire.
“She saved my life,” Byrne says later, warm in a cabin surrounded by teens who’d by then walked 27 kilometres.
For Chenille, and the other young women, this walk is a chance to prove something to themselves, says Mary Jane Edmonds, the walk organizer and a community leader. It’s a chance for them to learn how to survive and thrive in both places they call home.
Those places are Natuashish, a reserve home to around 1,000 people where young people are comfortable and can thrive, but where they sometimes feel isolated, get caught up in gossip or start drinking or taking drugs; and on the land, their traditional Innu home, where Edmonds teaches them the strength and independence that come with connection to land and Innu culture.
As Edmonds says, “the land is our culture.”
The Innu women and girls are following in the footsteps of their ancestors, who lived mostly nomadically on land in Labrador and Quebec, a region referred to as “Nitassinan,” following caribou herds, hunting, gathering berries and living in tents.
But in the 1960s, encouraged by church leaders and the province, the Innu moved onto permanent settlements in Davis Inlet, an island off the coast of Labrador, and Sheshatshiu, a 30-minute drive north of Goose Bay, now home to around 1,500 people. That move caused a break from life in nutshimit — as the Innu call time spent in the country — and a disconnection from land and culture, say Innu leaders today.
Now Edmonds, community leaders and a determined team of educators at the school board are trying to help students reconnect.
I am in Natuashish — the community Davis Inlet residents relocated to in 2002 — participating in the walk and getting to know local leaders and teachers as I explore the Innu model of education in Labrador. This is the first leg of a project that later takes me to Melbourne, Australia, to look at a different model of education for Indigenous students – one that takes them away from home communities and attempts to integrate them into Melbourne society, still keeping culture at the core of education. As different countries grapple with how to approach Indigenous education, I’m looking at the two models to share insight into what works — and what doesn’t.
In Labrador, Mamu Tshishkutamashtau Innu Education, an Innu-run school board just a decade old, focuses on preserving Innu culture, language and values that form the foundation of Innu youths’ identity while also teaching western education that will help open doors for students in the future.
“When community had asked for running their own school, they wanted more Innu in the school system,” says Kanani Davis, the school board’s director of administration and professional services, reflecting back to years prior when the province ran the two schools in Natuashish and Sheshatshiu. “They wanted to see more Innu culture, more language taught, make it more Innu-friendly, basically.”
That’s what the new board gave them. Davis says it’s paying off.
Before 2009, when the province was still in charge, years went by when no students graduated from high school, Davis says. In just one decade, the board now boasts around 100 graduates, she says.
The schools still follow the Newfoundland and Labrador curriculum, but today, there’s an emphasis on Innu teachings, Innu language and land-based education. Kids in primary-school grades read books teaching them how to interact with dogs, which freely roam the two communities. Innu classroom assistants work closely with students, holding up flashcards and asking students to repeat words like mitten, feather and rabbit in Innu-aimun, the Innu language.
Elders are invited to share knowledge with students in tents near the schools, and children aren’t marked “absent” when they leave school to spend time out in the country with their families.
A new Innu Studies high school course, approved by the province and now taught in Sheshatshiu, is also bringing more cultural lessons into the classroom and answer students’ questions about “what it is to be Innu,” says teacher Krista Button.
That course “shows the kids you are important. Your culture is important,” says Button, a member of Nunatukavut, formerly known as Métis, who grew up across the river from Sheshatshiu and holds a master’s in curriculum teaching and learning studies with a focus on Indigenous education. “If you don’t know who you are, how are you supposed to find your place in the world?”
The hope is these initiatives affirm a deeper sense of pride in being Innu and reverse the flow of concerning trends, including loss of cultural knowledge and language, say school leaders.
The path is not straightforward.
At the entranceway to Mushuau Innu Natuashish School, students and staff are greeted by a photo of two twin girls, Mary Jane Rich and Madeline Rich, hanging underneath a skylight. The girls died in a 1992 house fire in nearby Davis Inlet, where the community previously lived before it was relocated to Natuashish in 2002 by the federal government in an effort to stamp out problems including alcohol abuse, drug use and solvent sniffing. The twins died alongside their three siblings and another child, all under the age of 9, while their parents were out drinking.
It’s a reminder of the past, but at the school today, teachers and staff are focused on the present.
They boast about their beauty queen — Chenille, the walk rescuer — heading to a competition in El Salvador, their girls’ volleyball team soon to compete in a regional tournament, their primary school students who hold an intimate knowledge of the land, their hockey stars playing out-of-province and their graduates who are becoming community leaders.
Leaders such as Natuashish Chief John Nui see student success as intrinsically tied to their knowledge of language and culture.
“Once you lose your language, you’re losing a very big part of your identity,” says Nui.
He sees multi-generational outposts in nutshimit as crucial for maintaining connection with culture, tradition — and elders.
Elder Elizabeth Penashue, who now lives in Sheshatshiu but grew up in nutshimit, helps facilitate that connection through her walks into the bush.
“When the kids go nutshimit, big change,” she says, sitting in her home wearing her hair pulled back in her signature red headscarf. “They talk nice … they never talk about money, drugs or alcohol.”
On Penashue’s walks, kids talk about the animals they’ll hunt, the boughs they’ll pick and the fires they’ll make, she says. They’re busy all day — never bored, as many complain they are on reserve.
But once children leave nutshimit, problems return, Penashue says.
Many in the community worry about the future for kids who spend less and less time on the land.
Today, Innu kids are “wanting to be a white person, maybe,” says Dawn Marie Rich, a Grade 4 Innu classroom assistant in Natuashish.
Rich says kids today are reluctant to eat traditional Innu food like caribou meat, partridge and bannock, all foods they call “gross,” while they prefer to eat white bread, chocolate bars and hot dogs. They want cleanliness in homes and they want English cartoons on TV, she says.
Back in Davis Inlet, Rich grew up in a three-bedroom home with more than 20 people and no running water. She ate more wild meats, she spent months on the land each year and she relied more on her community at large, she says. She doesn’t wish to go back to how things were in Davis — a place with poor infrastructure where social problems were rife — but she knows culture and language were stronger in the past.
“It’s fading out, the culture that we have,” she says of life in Natuashish. “That’s the saddest part.”
Her own 3-year-old daughter doesn’t like speaking Innu.
“When we try to say speak in our language, she cries.”
Some younger students make it clear they prefer English, even though for most, Innu-aimun is their first language.
“No, please don’t, please no!” shouted a Grade 2 student in Natuashish when her instructor started to speak Innu-aimun. “We don’t remember how to do Innu no more.”
Rich’s mother, Katie Rich, the Natuashish school’s director of education and a former chief of Davis Inlet, estimates around 5 per cent of students don’t speak Innu, compared with roughly 2 per cent five years ago. She calls it an “alarming” trend.
But she empathizes. As she sees it, her students have to work twice as hard as the average non-Indigenous Canadian kid. They need to learn Innu language and culture as well as the English language and a western curriculum, she says.
And they have additional responsibilities or challenges that lead to missing school or dropping out: some start working to support their families, some are expected to care for their siblings or some have kids themselves. Some lose interest in school or start using alcohol, drugs or sniffing gas. Others go away on the land with their families to hunt in the spring and fall — sent with homework when they do.
She acknowledges the community hit “rock bottom” when the six children — including Mary Jane Rich and Madeline Rich — were killed in the Davis Inlet fire. They community has since worked hard to move forward, addressing addiction issues and housing shortages and mental and emotional health, Rich says.
That is part of the past, she says. Her focus now is on “making our school the best school.”
She touches her hand to her heart and gets misty-eyed as she says she wants her students to become doctors, teachers, psychologists. She posts salaries that come with these positions on Facebook, hoping to inspire youngsters to aim high.
“Sorry,” she says, her hand still on her chest. “It hits me right there … Our kids are the best. And will be the best.”
Still, the schools face an uphill battle to offer the standards of education that non-Indigenous kids in Canada receive.
Elena Andrew, Sheshatshiu’s community director of education, leans back in her office chair and rattles off a list of the school board’s challenges: difficulty recruiting dedicated teachers, limited federal funding that has to cover expenses such as the $400 one-way flights from Goose Bay to Natuashish, overworked guidance counsellors and the need for more resource teachers.
Indeed, reports show government funding for on-reserve First Nations students pales in comparison to what non-Indigenous students receive.
According to Don Drummond’s 2013 report, “The Debate on First Nations Education Funding: Mind the Gap,” First Nations schools on reserve get around 30 per cent less federal funding than other schools receive in provincial funding. In January, the federal government announced it is implementing a new approach to on-reserve education, which it says will give schools more predictable base funding, a shift away from previous proposal-based funding. First Nations leaders welcomed the move but stressed more still needs to be done to achieve equality in education.
Andrew added that First Nations communities have the burden of intergenerational trauma due to residential school experiences. Teachers have to work extra hard to encourage some kids to come to class, she says.
“Most parents have not had a good experience in school,” Andrew says. “So if you haven’t had a good experience at school … you may have issues with school and teachers and administration.”
Another reality: no Innu teachers at either school. Davis is the only Innu person with a Bachelor of Education in either community, she says.
The school board is striving to change that. It has covered the cost for two Sheshatshiu staff and five Natuashish staff to attend a classroom assistant training certificate program at Nipissing University in Ontario in the summer, with the immediate goal of enhancing their teaching abilities and the long-term hope that they will go on to pursue a bachelor of education degree, Davis says. She is also in talks with Memorial University of Newfoundland to set up a program allowing Innu people to obtain a teaching certificate by taking courses in Goose Bay.
Andrew’s long-term goal? Both schools fully staffed by Innu people.
“You’d have people who know the kids, who know the language, who know the culture, who know the history of the community,” she says. “Kids would be seeing themselves in teachers. Right now, the teachers are awesome, they’re great, but nobody sees themselves in any of these teachers.”
While teachers and school leaders want students to obtain diplomas and degrees, they also grapple with the trade-off that is required for students to earn those achievements; time in school takes away from time in nutshimit.
People like Kanani Davis, the school board director, miss the days when they would spend a total of six months in the bush. With school and work, families can now only dedicate a few weeks a year to nutshimit, she says, noting the schools give students one or two weeks off in the spring to head out on the land.
It’s clear nutshimit is where many students feel happiest. In Natuashish, students’ eyes light up when talking about setting snares, cleaning partridge and sleeping in tents.
Back on the women’s walk, moonlit water and a beach appear. Then a two-storey cabin on the shore.
The women and girls let out cheers when the key turns in the cabin’s lock, then pile into the cabin, spreading sore limbs on mattresses, plugging phones into chargers and trading stories of past walks. “Which was your hardest?” they ask each other.
All walks are hard, says Edmonds. They’re supposed to be.
“They can do anything if they do this walk,” she says days later, reclining on a couch in Natuashish, her body sore and voice weak from the walk.
“In life, in real life, they can do anything they want and succeed.”
A few weeks later, several of the girls who were on the walk won a regional volleyball tournament. Edmonds took to Facebook to congratulate them.
“The kids today… have adapted with the evolution and the environment. They have stepped up and are going to be the change in our Innu communities,” she wrote. “I’m so proud. I could cry.”
Katrina Clarke is a multimedia journalist based in Fredericton who received the 2018 Gordon Sinclair Roving Reporter Bursary. She reported on two Innu communities in Labrador and to a boarding school for Indigenous students in Melbourne, Australia. The two-part project focused on education in Indigenous communities and education outside Indigenous communities, in a city centre.The Gordon Sinclair Roving Reporter Bursary is awarded annually to an early career journalist and funds a reporting project focused on an underreported issue in Canada or abroad. Follow Katrina on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.Next week: Part 2: Melbourne