Interview Date: June 28, 2006
Bio: Elizabeth Penashue, an Innu elder, was born in Labrador and has spent much of her life defending the Innu way of life. Her activism on behalf of her people include standing up for hunting rights in Montreal, the occupation of a Dutch F-18’s at the Goose Bay airport in 1993, and subsequent peaceful occupation of the Dutch and British consulates in Toronto in 1998, all of which put her behind bars. Her efforts have brought attention to the Innu people's fight for their land rights with the Federal Government. Elizabeth was awarded the Woman of Achievement Award in 2002, and more recently, an honorary doctor of laws degree from Memorial University in 2005. Her motivations stem from her passion to do the right thing for the environment and in turn the Innu people.
Interviewer: So, Elizabeth, what’s your full name?
Elizabeth: Elizabeth Penashue, and my nickname Tshaukuesh
Elizabeth: Yeah, my nickname. That, my father - he give me that name. I don’t know what it is. I tried to find out too late. I should asked my father before he died – why did you give me this name! (chuckles)
Interviewer: And what work were you doing in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Elizabeth: Okay. First off, I was very concerned what’s going to happen – my people and the children and land and animals – and I was writing on the paper or thinking “What should I do, what should we do”; and then we tried to get together the women. The women worked together and then we decided to do something about it, first stop low-level flying. First I went in Labrador City to Wabush to speak. After people heard me speak, then I got invited to other places and then many, many, many places.
Interviewer: Why did you choose those particular activities? Why did you choose the air base first?
Elizabeth: First I didn’t understand. I thought just men were strong. They’ve got their own jobs – like politics. I thought just men go to meetings and speak. I thought just men were strong. Then when I spoke and do something for the all the women together, then I know and I understand women feel strong. I think women are stronger than men, you know what I’m saying? I just was doing. I felt in my heart I got to do something. I got to do this because I can see that women are so strong. Almost every day I can see what women are doing. When I went in there, the airport runway, it was just women first. So I put my tent outside. First women put a tent. Now I’m thinking that’s my own. That’s Innu land. This belongs to Innu land, and I wasn' scared; I didn’t afraid nothing. This is our land and then we put a tent and then just about evening - just about six o’clock – I never forget that – just before six o’clock and then military police, RCMP, came and then he took me in jail. I just couldn’t believe it when he took me.
I have a small grandson – I think just maybe four or three years old at that time. And I took in my arms my grandson and then when they took me to jail, then I felt I’m very strong. I’m thinking I’m not going to stay here all the time. I’m going to speak because I am not doing something bad. I’m doing this to help my people, to help the children, to protect the land, to protect the animals, and that’s what happened. I don’t know how many times I went in jail with women. One time I stayed in jail - nine women in jail – one room was very small. We slept on the floor. And then sometimes I just took a piece of paper and my pen and wrote – why – why we stay here? I didn’t do anything bad. I just want to protect the land, animals and my people and the children.
Always we try to get together meetings. First I went to jail, then I went into court, then I went back home. After when I come home in Sheshatshiu, I called the women again and said we should have a meeting again. Then we went to get together and next morning we went – same thing – we went in right to the airport, and we went in jail again. Yeah. Almost every day I can see the women are strong – that’s why I started doing something.
Interviewer: That’s so good.
Elizabeth: Maybe I give you a good (answer) to you questions or maybe wrong – I don’t know. But talk slow when you talk to me because when I was young, I never went to school, you know. That’s why I don’t speak English very much. Always I stayed in the bush in the country when I was young. I didn’t mind; I was very, very happy. I learned a little bit just (when) I was working in the hospital before I was married. That’s where I learned English a bit, and I try to learn more every day when I listen to radio, when I talk to my children.
Interviewer: English is a hard language.
Elizabeth: Yeah. That’s what the white people say when they try to speak in Innu-Aimun. Some words I find very easy, some words very long words.
Interviewer: How did your work affect your personal life, your family, and your friends?
Elizabeth: You mean what they think what I’m doing?
Elizabeth: Okay. I think they supported me what I’m doing – my parents and my cousins and my people – because a couple of years ago there’s a lot of people that came to my meetings. First I found meetings very, very hard, but I never gave up. I just keep trying, keep trying. Sometimes there were just few women, and then I didn’t give up. Always we try and then it’s getting so more women came to my meetings. I think there was a lot of women to support me, and my cousins and my parents.
Interviewer: How did your work improve other women’s lives?
Elizabeth: Do you mean for Sheshatshiu women?
Interviewer: I’d say in your community.
Elizabeth: Okay. I hope I give you good answer. It was very, very hard work. Sometimes I put my tent just behind my house and then I try to make nice my tent. I clean my tent and then I cook. I make some Innu donuts, make some tea, get ready for the women to come. I want to make the women happy. I want to make the women to come to my next meeting. And then sometimes I used my own money. I never asked someone like government to give me some money and I used my own money and then I worked many, many years – what do you call when you work with no money. You just work. Nobody pay you. Volunteer. That’s what I did many, many years.
And I never worry about money. I’m worried about my people. I just think – sometimes I pray – I just pray - I wish more women get together, get to understand what’s going to happen. If the women do nothing, what’s going to happen? The land, animals, the children, people – what’s going to happen? I wish I could get enough…just a little bit to buy food like flour, sugar, milk, teabags like that – enough to let the women have a cup of tea in my tent.
I invited the women to come in my tent and sometimes it was a good meeting. More women came to my tent. The women get together, work together.
Interviewer: Did you do things that women normally did not do? You led a group of women and usually it was men who were in charge of politics and being involved. Did you find yourself doing more things that men used to do?
Elizabeth: Oh yes. I find it not the same after I start do something for the women. People would say, “Look at the women for what she’s doing; look at how strong the women are. Like I told you, I felt before that men were very strong or this is men’s job. But I don’t think that anymore. Women can do what she want to do. When I know it belongs to me. Like if I go in Toronto or St. John’s and then if I want to do something, it’s not our land. Our land is Labrador and sometimes the people here don’t understand. “Why don’t you move?” she said. “Why don’t you move to other places because too much go wrong in Labrador. If you’re concerned about what happens, why don’t you move to another place?”
But I said no. We are not going to move. Until I die, we will be here. I’m from Labrador. My dad and my mom – she from Quebec then came to Labrador and then stay in Labrador many, many years until she die. Now myself and the other people – my sisters, my brothers, and the other people are going to be here all our life. We’re not going or will not ever move to another place. I only move when I go in the bush in the country when I go hunting in the spring, when I go on a canoe trip, and then we come back again. No, we not going to ever, ever move. We stay here. Innu people stay in their own land thousand, thousand, thousand years.
We hunted many, many years – Innu people – we didn’t use the government money before. I remember when I was young, my dad, my mom and same with the other people…I never heard my dad say, you know, I’m going to make a piece of paper to send to the government. I want the money; we won’t go in the bush. You know, I never heard that when I was young. I heard my father say, “We’re going to try to find some food and then we’re going to go in the bush.” There was the Hudson Bay store a long time ago. My dad went to see the manager and said, “Could I charge the food? I’ll pay you back when I come home from the bush.” That manager said, “Yes, okay.” Then he charge food like flour, sugar, milk and then he get ready the people and went in the bush for a couple months. Some people stayed four months, three months and get animals like beaver, otter, mink, muskrat. When he got a lot, he came back to Labrador.
But this woman send the children stay in the bush. Sometime I went with my father when he talked to the manager and then I was very, very happy when I heard the manager say, “Yes, I will give you the food.” Then I was thinking, “Oh, we’re going to go in the bush in the country again.”
I think I was going to talk a little bit about when the people go in the bush, you know. All the people were very, very happy. I know it’s not only me – all the children were very happy. I never complained to my mom and my dad. I never told my mom I wanted to go to school. I think both are a very important –school and Innu culture. I explain many times to my children, “Don’t get lost. You Innu. Innu culture so important.” That’s why I take the children in the bush in the country every spring, even when I go on my canoe trip. I explain in the bush what it was like when I was young. A long time ago, we didn’t have no houses, no school. We had a hospital – but we didn’t use it very much. The babies were born in the bush in the country. When something happened, the people got sick, we just get Innu medicine. It was a good life.
Interviewer: What had the biggest impact on you or what is your favourite memory?
Elizabeth: Okay, when I was young?
Interviewer: In the 70’s and 80’s when you were becoming active and when you were young.
Elizabeth: I think my favourite was when we stayed in the bush in the country. I was very happy when my mom teach me everything. Like when my father go hunting and my mother she’s going to stay in the tent. They going to clean up; they going to work; they going to clean caribou skin; they going to go hunting. I feel very, very happy to go in there. Sometimes she said, Tshaukuesh, you got to go with me. We’re going to go fishing today, a little bit, to try to get some fish and your dad is gone hunting. And then we went with my mom to get some fish. One time I watched my mom when we went on the ice to go fishing. My mom, she tried to make a hole in the ice and she worked so hard, so hard. I tried to help her. I was young. I looked at my mom in the face. It was all sweat – she worked so hard. She put the hooks in the ice and then next morning she checked the hook and then we got some fish sometimes.
And when my father come home from hunting – that my favourite too. When my father come home in evening, I’d be thinking if my father got anything…if he got some meat. Then when I’d see my father, there’s a little bit of blood on his moccasins or on his coat or pants. I’d think my father’s got a little bit of blood, he must have something. After my father take off the coat, he get ready. We have a cup a tea, and then he said, “I killed a caribou.” And then my mom said, “How many did you kill?” Sometimes three, sometimes four, five.
And another thing that was my favourite: when my dad would come home at night and my mom said, “We should cut some wood. Maybe your dad’s going to bring porcupine. We don’t have to make the fire yet. Just put the sticks outside to get it ready. And then when my father come home, sometime he brought porcupine. Then I watch my mom clean porcupine. I never go inside the tent before my mom finished cleaning the porcupine. I watch her and I help her. I was very, very happy in many things in the bush in the country with my parents and what they did.
I was laughing. I was very happy. Sometimes I jumped under the snow. Sometimes I went up the tree. I wanted to see my father, when he come from the ice. Soon I see something on the ice moving, and then I call my mom. I say, “Dad is come home.” And then my mom she makes some food.
Interviewer: That’s wonderful. And what are your fondest memories during the 70’s and the 80’s with the women you were with?
Elizabeth: I remember I told you about what we did about low-level flying. Yeah, we fight the government. Women always having meetings. Women went into jobs. Women speak many, many places. We went to Halifax, Toronto, Wabush and many places and then I went to England twice. I went with my son and his wife, and two of my grandchildren. Some people ask me, “Elizabeth, why when you speak you’re not nervous? You’re not shy?” I say, “No, not anymore! First when I started I was a bit nervous, but not anymore.
I think about how my mom was a strong woman. I want to be like my mom. And if I give up, if I do not do what my mom she did, what’s going to happen to my people? What’s going to happen to the land and animals? Who’s going to say something? Every time when I do something, I tell my children and my grandchildren, “I hope one of you…one of my 35 grandchildren…are going to do the same thing what I am doing.”
I explain many times when I walk in the bush in the country, when I go on a canoe trip, “So many years I’m doing what I’m doing and I still today don’t want to give up. I still feel I’m not too old. I’m still young enough to do something.”
Now you don’t hear anymore the women’s voices. I said to myself , “We should get together again… We should sit down at a table, have a cup of tea, talk about what we should do.” I say, “Look at what happened a couple of years ago; we should think about it. We should go back there.”
“What should I say here to make you understand? It’s like me when I go in the bush in the country, I say sometimes I’m going to leave some stuff here because we’re going to come back again…I feel today I left something so important; I got to get it back. I got to get my hands to pick to pick that up. I should say, “Women, do you remember we left something so important? We got to sit down and talk about it. It’s so important.”
I’m very, very concerned about what’s going to happen. If we do not get it, what will be left? What’s going to happen to our people, the land, and animals? Animals are important. You heard me when I talked about animals in St. John’s?
Elizabeth: Yes. That’s how I feel. And I never, never tell lies when I speak. I speak in my heart every time when I speak. Sometimes I feel I want to cry and sometimes I feel so bad for what’s going to happen if I do not do something about it.
Interviewer: How would you say life has changed for women since the 1970’s and 80’s?
Elizabeth: So many things have changed in Sheshatshiu…so many things. Like I remember women… she didn’t worry about so much the other thing. She’s like two meshkinau. Meshkinau means just like a road – just like you take your snowshoes and then you walk onto the snow. And today it’s like we still will want good meshkinau.
Too many things change. We got to do something to save our culture and the land and animals. So many things change. Like me, when I was young, I never saw many women with a car, and I never saw the women with a big job. Many things change, but we got to do something for the women. Like support each other, because there’s so many things to be concerned about: our land, the animals, rivers, the people, the children… Yeah, like me, I never in my life saw alcohol when I was young and drugs…never.
Interviewer: What still needs to be done in your community for women.
Elizabeth: Right now?
Elizabeth: Always I try to get together to have a meeting. I’m going to put a tent out again – same thing what I did last year. Always we put my tent on the road and then we stay there all summer. It’s so important to work together. If the women not work together, it’s going to be too late. It’s very important to get together in the tent. I find it very different in the house. Like an office – I find very different. When I go in my tent I feel so relaxed. We sit down in a circle, the women. A circle happened before Christmas. I marked in my paper that 14 women came in my tent before Christmas. I wish I had all the time like that – more coming to talk about working together. We got to try to get together and then talk about what should we do. Working together is so important.