Montreal·In Depth

How laughter, ceremony helped Quebec Innu share painful memories

When hearings into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls took place in Mani-Utenam, Que., in November, commissioners heard how generations of Innu and other First Nations had their lives shattered by colonialist policies.

Seldom-told stories of Quebec’s colonial past recounted at MMIWG hearings in November

Innu elders Louis-Georges Fontaine and Jeannette Vollant made sure the hearings reflected the spirituality and sense of humour of the Innu people. (Julia Page/CBC)

Louis-Georges Fontaine and Jeannette Vollant have worked side by side for more than five decades, hosting community bingos, carnivals and forums for fellow members of the Innu Nation of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam on Quebec's North Shore.

In November 2017, the duo's spirited banter eased the way for the devastating testimonials recounted inside Mani-Utenam's community centre.

More than sixty Indigenous families from across Quebec travelled to the Innu community just east of Sept-Îles, 650 kilometres northeast of Quebec City, for a week of hearings organized by the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) — its first stop in Quebec.

Melanie Morrison, left, and Laurie Odjick, centre, were invited by the inquiry to accompany families and issue recommendations to commissioners, including Michèle Audette, right. (Julia Page/CBC)

Each day, Fontaine and Vollant addressed the large crowd in Innu and French, adding a few light-hearted jokes — a shield against the heartbreak and sorrow that filled the room.

"We are a people who like to laugh. We like to kid around. My father used to say, 'If you're not worth teasing, you're not worth much,'" Vollant explained.

The 71-year-old said she'd used humour to pierce the emotional burden of her own struggles.

"When I started my healing process, I would only cry, cry, cry. I was choking. I couldn't speak."

Many of the witnesses also used a humorous approach to deliver painful chapters of their lives to the rest of the country.

"It's part of the process. We are spiritual people, but spiritual people also have a good sense of humour. We laugh a lot, despite all this suffering. It helps," Fontaine said.

Community at heart of reconciliation

While the puns and jokes were cathartic but at times crude, the ceremonies which accompanied each family's presentation were steeped in grace and respect.

As women circled the room to bless people in sage-smudging rituals, empty paper bags labelled tears were placed nearby on plastic chairs. 

On the final day of the hearings, the bags filled with the witnesses' heartache were burned in a sacred fire outside.

As witnesses approached the sharing circle, sometimes accompanied by dozens of loved ones, singers performed a soothing Innu chant. A chair was left empty for their missing family member.

Laurie Odjick said this attention to detail was crucial to the success of the hearings.

"People who are sharing … those are wounds that are open. But I do believe in ceremony — to engage in ceremony and prayer, and as a community, just stand together with this," said Odjick.

Odjick's daughter Maisy disappeared in 2008, along with Maisy's best friend, Shannon Alexander.

The teens from Kitigan Zibi-Anishinabeg First Nation, near Ottawa, were 16 and 17.

The inquiry invited Odjick as an observer to issue recommendations on how it should co-ordinate support for families and improve communication with participants.
Every tear shed during the hearings was symbolically burned on the fifth day in a sacred fire. The ashes of the fire were then taken to Thunder Bay, Ont., the next stop of the MMIWG inquiry. (Julia Page/CBC)

Despite the trauma and deeply buried pain the hearings stirred up for those who testified, Odjick said just being able to speak the truth is an important step of the healing process.

"Nobody will ever be able to understand what you're going through. But being heard and people showing they cared, that means a lot to a family," Odjick said of the people who lined up after every testimony to hug the witnesses and their families.

Babies seized from homes

While Odijck appreciated the peacefulness that emanated from these rituals, she said more needs to be done to support Indigenous people who have lived through trauma.

Viviane Michele agreed the experiences recounted by witnesses, from discrimination to child sexual abuse to domestic violence, were hard to bear.
Laurie Odjick, 3rd from left, has not seen her daughter Maisy since 2008. She joined in song with commissioners Michèle Audette, far left, Marion Buller, right, and Qajaq Robinson, 2nd from right, in Mani-Utenam, Que., on Nov. 28, 2017. (Julia Page/CBC)

"It was blatantly obvious how colonial forces and abuse of power were exercised, taking children away, sending them to health institutions and never returning the bodies," said Michele, the president of the Quebec Native Women's Association.

Many elders pleaded for answers to the doubts that have haunted them for decades.

Families from Pakua Shipu, 550 kilometres east of Sept-Îles on Quebec's Lower North Shore, explained how medical staff sent their babies away on airplanes to be treated in hospital, never to return.

At least eight children were said to have disappeared from the small Innu community in the 1970s.

Agnès Poker said she never found out what happened to her two children after they were flown out of her community in the 1970s. 'I speak to the babies I lost. I’d like to see where my babies are buried.' (CBC)
"These families are still wondering, 'Is my child really dead?'" said Michele.

During the same period, the pain of these losses and the burden of the unanswered questions about what happened also weighed down on other First Nations in Quebec.

'Defining moments' for Quebec's Innu 

The toll these disappearances took on their communities was immense.

That's why Jean-Charles Piétacho, the Innu chief of Ekuanitshit, hopes the parallel Quebec inquiry into relations with its Indigenous peoples will reconsider its time frame, which only goes back 15 years.
The Echaquan family, pictured here, learned after an investigation by Radio-Canada's Enquête that their daughter Lauréanna was buried in a field when she suddenly died after being hospitalized in Joliette, Que. (Submitted by Echaquan family)

"I think people opened their hearts to let out their pain, their suffering in front of an audience, and I hope this will help pursue reconciliation," Piétacho reflected recently.

The forced relocation of some Innu communities is also a piece of Quebec history about which Piétacho said more Quebecers should know.

"We're in Canada. In Quebec. People were moved from their natural land to administrative areas, decided by others," Piétacho said.

The MMIWG commissioners heard about the forced displacement which divided communities because some leaders refused to leave their traditional territory or returned to it after the relocation.

"We should honour the courage of these people," Piétacho said. "Despite the church, despite the government, they made the decision to leave."

 "This story has been forgotten for too long and is so defining for the Innu."

Steps toward healing

The repercussions of the conditions imposed on Quebec's Indigenous peoples are still felt today — from fear of public institutions to domestic violence, to drug and alcohol abuse.

As the inquiry continues its cross-Canada tour with scheduled stops in Yellowknife, N.W.T., and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, in 2018, Fontaine hopes commissioners will put in place the recommendations made by his people.

He said one is particularly important to him. 

"We need to help men to be able to achieve the inquiry's vision," Fontaine said, because men "are often the ones responsible for these acts of violence."

Alexis Joveneau was an Oblate priest who spent decades living among the Innu. The subject of a 1977 NFB documentary, he was long considered 'a god,' according to the testimony of a witness at the MMIWG inquiry. Several women have testified he sexually abused them as children and teens. Joveneau died in 1992. (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

For Vollant, the rampant drug abuse that is now decimating a new generation of Innu should be addressed by finding ways for young people to reconnect with the land.

"To be in connection with the earth, the trees, water, the earth's elements … that is the best way to heal."

About the Author

Julia Page


Julia Page is a radio and online journalist with CBC News, based in Quebec City.