How Francis Penashue saved my life, and his own

Francis Penashue, the Innu leader who overcame alcoholism and helped lead a sobriety movement in Sheshatshiu, was a remarkable, complicated man, writes Marie Wadden.

Innu leader, who died Thursday night on his own terms, rose above a crippling alcoholism

Francis Penashue died Thursday evening in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. (Marie Wadden/CBC)

I didn't think I would ever like Francis Penashue. 

In the early 1980s, his son Peter boarded at my home while he attended high school in St. John's.

Peter, now the former MP from Sheshatshiu, Labrador, was deeply scarred by his father's alcoholism. Francis became violent when he drank, and often tangled with other drunks.  A friend once remarked that Francis's face bore the imprint of someone else's fist.

Domestic violence has scarred people close to me, so I was quick to dislike Francis, and believed his wife and children would be better off without him.

Then things turned dramatically around. Francis Penashue not only helped save my life, he also taught me you should never give up on people. 

A few years after his son graduated, I was invited to spend time with the family in their tent, on the land.

He was a different man there. He and his wife, Elizabeth, whose Innu name is Tshaukuesh, were an impressive team. The tent was comfortable, with its floor of spruce boughs, tin woodstove and delicious array of "country food," most of it provided by Francis. There was even a pet beaver to amuse the children.

A medical emergency

A few years later I invited myself along to their camp in the Mealy Mountains. I was working in Sheshatshiu. My asthma had been acting up, and I thought the fresh air would help.

There, far from any hospital or medical help, I suffered a life-threatening asthma attack. My breathing passages were so inflamed, a doctor later said, there was only space "as wide as the eye of a needle" for oxygen to get through.

While Tshaukuesh held me and prayed, Francis called for help. I don't know what was happening on the other end of the line, but I remember Francis kneeling beside his two-way radio for hours, speaking in his language and broken English. It was the late Eighties, and Innu had alienated many in Happy Valley-Goose Bay with their protests against a proposed NATO bomber base in Labrador.

In a moment of desperation, when an airlift seemed hopeless, I panicked.  My head was light from lack of oxygen. It's embarrassing now, but I was serious then. I asked him to shoot me with the rifle beside him. He never let me live this down.

In time I was airlifted to hospital.

"I'd be just getting out of prison about now," Francis liked to say whenever he saw me afterwards. Pointing to my children, he'd add: "And they wouldn't be here either."

Knowing he had not been able to breathe on his own for weeks now, due to Lou Gehrig's disease, touches me deeply. 

Jekyll and Hyde

Without Francis Penashue, I wouldn't have written two books that helped define my journalistic career. Books that didn't present him in the most positive light.

In the first book, I likened him to Jekyll and Hyde because of the dichotomy he shared with so many aboriginal hunters who were heroes on the land, but home wreckers on the reserve.  What led to his alcoholism? While he didn't attend a federal residential school, the Mount Cashel orphanage in St. John's, where he lived for a time after his mother died, was just as bad.

In the second book, I documented his recovery from alcoholism at Windsor's Brentwood Recovery Centre. It takes a brave man to bare his soul in public; a gracious man to not interfere in a journalist's search for knowledge, even if it exposes him to embarrassment.

I believe Francis Penashue's example led to an important sobriety movement in his community.

He rose above all his difficulties to become a loving father, grandfather and husband.

A dear memory

I'll hold dearest this memory. It was October 2005. Francis is seated in a box seat at the Arts and Culture Centre, the one usually reserved for the lieutenant governor. Many of his nine children are seated near him.

They are watching the pomp and circumstance of a university graduation ceremony on the stage below. Tshaukuesh is on stage in her caribou skin moccasins, her head covered by a distinctive Innu beret. She's also wearing a cap and gown, to receive her honorary degree from Memorial University for environmental activism. 

She looks up at her husband, sees his pleasure, acknowledging that she wouldn't have stood there without his help.

Francis Penashue died Thursday evening with his family around him, and thanks to the Lake Melville medical centre, hooked up on life support, inside a tent, infused with the scent of spruce boughs and wood smoke.

He takes with him the skill and physical strength required to live outdoors in Labrador's harsh environment. 

Innu knowledge.

He was a good man and he will be missed. 

Marie Wadden is a network producer with CBC Radio in St. John's. She is the author of the books Nitassinan: the Innu Struggle to Reclaim their Homeland, and Where the Pavement Ends: Canada's Aboriginal Recovery Movement and the Urgent Need for Reconciliation.