How laughter, ceremony helped Quebec Innu share painful memories
Seldom-told stories of Quebec’s colonial past recounted at MMIWG hearings in November
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.
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.
Families from Unamen Shipu, Natashquan and Uashat are expected to speak on 3rd day of <a href="https://twitter.com/MMIWG?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@MMIWG</a> inquiry <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/MMIWG?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#MMIWG</a> <a href="https://t.co/zO71O234TD">pic.twitter.com/zO71O234TD</a>—@JuliaBPage
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.
The teens from Kitigan Zibi-Anishinabeg First Nation, near Ottawa, were 16 and 17.
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.
"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.
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.
"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."
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."