This is the second part of our series on Uashat and Maliotenam, sister Innu communities near Sept-Îles where five people took their lives in the span of nine months last year. Despite great pain, residents invited three Montreal Gazette journalists last December. They wanted to share their struggles, but also the reasons they’re hopeful for the future. We continue this week with some of their stories.
BEYOND GRIEF: AN INNU COMMUNITY’S STORIES
Part 2: A history of violence
This article contains material about suicide that may be disturbing to some readers.
UASHAT — On the morning of Nadeige Guanish’s funeral, Sylvie Jourdain waited outside the church in her pickup truck.
She couldn’t bring herself to walk inside and stand over the 18-year-old’s casket. Nadeige was just four years older than Jourdain’s daughter Shanet.
Many girls in the Innu territory say they looked up to Nadeige. She had piercing brown eyes and a warm smile. They say her face stood out in a crowd. She was generous, funny and resilient. And now she was gone.
When Shanet heard the news, she cried for three days.
By the time Nadeige’s funeral came around, Jourdain felt weak, sick even, but she made the effort for her daughter. It was important for Jourdain to let Shanet grieve.
So she warmed up her truck, drove to the entrance of the chapel in Maliotenam and let her daughter out. It was the fifth time in nine months the community was holding a memorial service for someone who had committed suicide.
But there was another reason that November morning was so hard for Jourdain: The weight of the past was unbearable.
As Jourdain waited for her daughter in the church parking lot, she thought of her own family’s painful history.
Jourdain, 47, lost her brother to suicide in 1995.
“The church was crowded that day, too. When he died, the church was full of young men. There was no room. You know where the priest stands? There were people standing there, about 30 of them. They all had a rose in their hand.”
Her brother’s name was Guy, but people in town knew him as “Ti-Guy-Doo.” Guy had overcome a slight speech impediment he’d developed after a childhood accident, and was jokingly referred to among Jourdain’s family as the favourite child.
When he died, Guy’s friends carried his casket from his grandmother’s house to the chapel. Jourdain says her brother had been going through a rough patch with his partner and he had spent nights sleeping on her couch, away from his only child. He was 25 years old.
The family’s malaise goes back at least one generation.
As a toddler, Jourdain’s mother contracted tuberculosis and spent two years in quarantine in a hospital near Rimouski. Then she was forced to attend a Catholic residential school in Sept-Îles.
By the time the system was finished with Jourdain’s mother, she could scarcely speak the Innu language. The words that once connected a child to her ancestors sounded foreign.
She was barely 14 when she gave birth to her daughter. By then, she’d started drinking. Child-protection services put the child up for adoption in a Quebec City orphanage.
It would be years before Jourdain was reunited with her brothers, in the care of her grandmother. When Jourdain had children and a home of her own, she took in her brothers. Guy was only two years her junior, but she became like a mother to him.
When he died, she spent days in bed, wanting to die.
“I fell,” she says. “It shattered me.” Her children had to care for themselves.
In Uashat and Maliotenam, from 1952 to 1967, every school-age child was sent to residential school.
These government-run schools were designed to “kill the Indian in the child” by separating them from their culture, language and their families. The children were also subjected to systematic abuse.
An estimated 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit youth were forced to attend these institutions between 1870 and 1996, when the last residential school closed.
Local spiritual leader Jacques “Tapi” McKenzie still rages at the memory of a priest grabbing him by the scruff of his neck to shave his head. McKenzie says he remembers his classmates wetting their beds at night. He did, too. They were afraid to walk into the bathrooms at the edge of their dormitory. Sometimes, he says, priests lurked in the stalls.
Students were called savages, stripped of the survival skills that had sustained them for millennia and returned to their homes with a creeping sense of self-loathing.
Few of them knew what it meant to be loved. But they all understood a great deal about violence.
Some parents resisted the residential school system — at great cost, though.
Uashat resident Lise Jourdain (no relation to Sylvie) says the RCMP arrested and jailed her mother because she tried to hide her son rather than surrender him to the Catholic Church.
“She knew what went on in those dormitories,” Lise Jourdain said. “She tried to protect her child and they put her in a jail cell. Think about that for a minute.”
Yet, most aboriginal communities don’t experience suicide clusters.
Christopher Lalonde, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria, has a theory about why suicide rates are higher in some aboriginal communities than others.
He and his colleagues studied 200 aboriginal communities in British Columbia in the mid-2000s to try to determine whether this colonial violence has had an effect on the number of youth suicides. And they found a pattern.
“Some communities have been better able to resist the forces of colonialism than others, and the ones that have done that are faring better … in terms of youth suicide,” Lalonde said. “So, what we were looking for were indicators over the amount of control the communities have over their own cultural and political destiny.
“Things like, ‘Does the community control the education of the young people in the community? Do they control police and fire services in their community? What about controlling the provision of health services? Is there widespread retention of an indigenous language? Do they assume control of child-welfare services?’”
The more times a community could answer “yes” to one of these questions, the lower its suicide rate. The correlation was almost perfect, Lalonde said, and it suggests a strong link between colonialism and health.
But the situation in Uashat and Maliotenam doesn’t fit neatly into Lalonde’s findings. The band council oversees education, police and health services on the reserve. Some elders complain that the Innu youth are corrupting their indigenous language by adding elements of French to it, but most young people can still speak Innu.
An unusually high percentage of the territory’s children wind up in the provincially run child welfare system, but the government works closely with Uashat’s social services department on this file.
Psychologist Normand d’Aragon gives suicide prevention workshops in Uashat and other Innu communities. He sees history as an important factor in Uashat’s cycle of violence.
“Suicide is very much about not knowing where you come from,” he says. “You end up carrying something that happened in previous generations. It could not be healed, then it starts travelling from one generation to another with guilt and shame but very often with inequity of power.
“The power of the transmission of trauma, even when it’s secret — with no words — that recipe of loss without healing, is part of many suicides.”
Seen from above, Maliotenam seems less like a village than a colony carved into the dense forest.
Two roads branch off from the Esso station on Route 138 and form a series of loops that lead to the centre of town. Rows of perfectly spaced houses line each street. They converge on a chapel with a red roof and grey aluminum siding.
The words “Mani Utenam” hang to the right of a stained glass crucifix. It means “Mary’s City” in the Innu language, a tribute to the Virgin Mary. Catholicism may have been forced upon this place, but many have since found comfort in the message of love and forgiveness preached by Christ.
Just a few hundred metres beyond the church, the Moisie River gushes its icy contents into the Gulf of St-Lawrence. It’s called Mishtashipu (“Great River”), and it sustained life on the territory long before the first European settlers arrived in North America.
Even as the Indian Act was forcibly settling nomadic peoples across Canada at the turn of the 20th century, many Innu maintained a degree of independence — fishing in the summer, trapping beaver in the fall and tracking caribou during the long winter months. The Moisie was crucial to that way of life.
Maliotenam is where the Great River meets the sea, where North Atlantic salmon come to spawn in the summer and where generations of Innu children learned to spearfish. But it is also a gateway to the interior.
The Moisie slithers through canyons and into mountain ranges before settling on the Labrador highlands nearly 500 kilometres north. It’s an exhausting climb that cuts across blackfly-infested forests for days.
But eventually, the pines grow sparse, and forests dominated by wolves and black bear give way to grasslands. The caribou herds roam here. It is where a people once spent most of the year tracking, hunting and harvesting the animal.
Even in its modern incarnation — with railways and iron mines bisecting much of the landscape — southern Labrador is an area of unimaginable beauty. Surviving here requires a profound connection to the land.
That connection was severed when the federal government created Maliotenam in 1949.
By the late 1940s, as a postwar economic boom inflated the price of construction materials, Sept-Îles’ iron ore deposits had attracted prospectors from across Canada. To make way for railroads, ports and mining shafts, which would soon cut into the territory, the federal government hatched a plan to displace the Innu (but keep Sept-Îles non-aboriginal residents in place).
The government enlisted the church to strong-arm families into leaving Sept-Îles for Maliotenam — a village created 20 kilometres to the east. To convince people to move, elders say, priests suddenly refused to baptize children or bury the dead in Sept-Îles. Others were threatened with excommunication if they didn’t agree to be expropriated.
And while many did move, dozens of Innu families stood firm and held on to their homes at the centre of Sept-Îles. Evidence of their resistance lives on in the city’s checkerboard geography — some neighbourhoods belong to the Uashat First Nation while others are part of Sept-Îles.
The creation of Maliotenam displaced Innu families from Labrador and northern Quebec, where the Iron Ore Company of Canada built railroads, ports and dug shafts into the ground. The company also recruited Innu from Uashat to act as guides in the wilderness, and those men settled in communities hundreds of kilometres from their families.
For thousands of years, the Innu thrived on the land, moving with the seasons and adapting. Now, in the space of a few years, they were boxed into 14 communities in Quebec and Labrador.
“It was like an experiment,” said Colin Samson, a University of Essex sociology professor who has written two books on the Innu. “There’s no template for doing what the Canadian government did. What they did was take a group of people who were living a relatively successful life as migratory hunters in one of the most demanding terrains on the planet and require them to live in shacks in villages.
“There are links between these acts of dispossession and the suicides, the alcohol, the abuse.”
Local folksinger Florent Vollant says being in Maliotenam is like living a form of exile.
“My home is in Labrador” said Vollant, a Juno Award-winning songwriter. “Our home, it’s inland. From the moment we were torn from the land, they tore our pride from us, our dignity, our liberty, our humanity, our spirituality. They moved us, my family and I, so that some people could make some money.”
“My grandmother, she could survive in the elements, in the extreme cold,” he continued. “If there was a hole in the family (teepee), she knew how to fix it. She knew exactly what to do. But when she moved into a house and the wallpaper would start to come apart, she was lost; she had tears in her eyes.”
In Germaine McKenzie’s living room, a picture of her grandmother hangs above the couch. It’s printed on grainy film stock and some of the sepia tones have faded, but it is a striking image. She’s sitting in the middle of a field, wearing a plaid dress and a shawl, looking beyond the camera.
McKenzie says she draws strength from that photo.
“(My grandmother) was what you might call a midwife. She helped women give birth out in the wilderness … She used to make snowshoes out of caribou rawhide. She was incredibly strong,” says McKenzie, a 61-year-old social worker who lives in Uashat. “With each suicide, I always ask my grandmother, ‘You who have lived 90 years, give me the strength to continue, the courage, and the joie de vivre, too.’ I dream of her often.”
Coercing the Innu to settle on reserves and in cities also subjected them to incredible acts of racism.
Raynald Malec says his grandfather had to eat at a different table than the non-aboriginal sailors when he worked on a cargo ship during the 1960s.
“They even had a different set of dishes for him on the ship,” says Malec, now the chief of police in Uashat. “There was no mixing of the races.”
“When we got to Sept-Îles, my dad tried to rent an apartment and it was always, ‘No. The place just got rented.’’
Things have improved between Sept-Îles’ population and its indigenous residents, but certain tensions remain. When Uashat’s band council announced plans in 2010 to build a new neighbourhood within Sept-Îles, non-indigenous residents complained that living next to Innu families would drive down their property values.
Rosalie Jérome lost track of time after her daughter died in 2013.
“I didn’t live anymore,” says Jérome, sitting by the window in her office. “I don’t remember anything from that year. I don’t remember what happened, what I told people after I lost (Anne-Pier).”
Jérome’s husband killed himself in a jail cell about 20 years ago. She had called 911 after he beat her.
“A lot of people put that on me,” says Jérome. “They said, ‘It’s your fault he killed himself.’ Sometimes I thought, ‘Maybe they’re right.’”
In the days after her husband died, no one came by to visit Jérome. Her children were left in the care of friends and Jérome spent her days alone.
This was before the community learned how to talk about suicide, when it was still taboo to speak openly about feelings and grief.
When Jérome’s brother committed suicide years later, elders in the community told her not to cry, that she needed to be strong for her family.
“That’s what I did,” she says. She comforted her sister-in-law, who would kill herself on Valentine’s Day the next year, in the closet of her bedroom. Her 14-year-old son found the body two days later.
In her grief, Jérome could always turn to Anne-Pier. She was the kind of daughter who’d bring over soup when Jérome had a cold, or wait with her in the hospital when she fell ill.
But Anne-Pier had her own demons; she had been sexually assaulted as a teenager.
“It was hard for me to help her, to believe her, because I also lived through a lot of abuse as a child,” Jérome says. “I come from an alcoholic family. They drank a lot at home. Her pain brought me back to my own pain, and I wasn’t able to support her.”
In the final days of her life, Anne-Pier made the three-hour trip upriver to Pessamit in hopes of reconciling with her boyfriend. Though she’d struggled with addiction for years, Anne-Pier had been sober for months.
But the couple argued, which drove Anne-Pier back to drinking and drugs. By the time she started hitchhiking back to Uashat, Anne-Pier had been taking speed, and likely hadn’t slept in days.
At some point on her way home, Anne-Pier veered off course, wandered into the woods along Route 138, tied a rope to a low-hanging branch and strangled herself.
Police would later tell Jérome there was no sign of a struggle, that she was so tired and numb, it was as though she fell asleep in the noose. She was 24 years old.
After years of sobriety, Jérome relapsed four times in nine months, when the latest rash of suicides overtook Uashat and Maliotenam.
And when Nadeige Guanish died, Jérôme decided she could no longer go on.
“It was like my daughter killed herself again,” she said. “When I look at Nadeige, I see Anne-Pier.”
So, the week after Nadeige’s funeral, Jérome put together her own suicide plan. She would use a rope, and head into the forest, to a place where no one could stop her.
Just as she was ready to go through with it, Jérome thought about her 10-year-old grandson.
“I thought, ‘If I kill myself, he’ll say, ‘My aunt committed suicide. Granny committed suicide.’ That idea will burrow itself into his head and later maybe he’ll do it, too,’’ she says. “That’s what brought me back. I picked up the phone and called 1-866-APPELLE, and I asked for help.”
Jérome is back in therapy. She has reached out to her sons and she’s starting to feel like a mother again.
“It’s a rare kind of pain to lose your child,” she says. “It’s like dying … You learn to live with that pain; you accept that it will always be there. I pray, I talk about it and when it gets bad, I cry. I don’t suppress it anymore.”
Suicide affects many people; there is no need to feel alone. If you feel distressed, please reach out. Someone is waiting to help you. Suicide Action hotline: Across Quebec: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553); in Montreal: 514-723-4000. For 24-hour suicide prevention crisis centres across the country, go to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.