I see the past, both my own and that of the Innu people, in flashbacks; images like snapshots that flicker across my mind and are gone in an instant. A recurring mental picture I see is that of my people’s first contact with outsiders. I am standing there watching. Silently I observe the way this event altered the timeline and forever changed my people’s future.Lisez l’histoire de Candace Toma
I think and speak Innu Aimun, but English is what I am learning in school. The idea for my work came from my past and that of my family. I chose to write this story because it was a personal journey for me. I not only looked at what it means to be Innu now, but what it was like for my people to have experienced the tremendous changes that have occurred just in the lifetimes of our elders. Most of all, I wanted readers to appreciate this from a personal viewpoint. History is, after all, about people. I have not shared this with anyone until now.
The movement of people from one town to another sounds just like a bunch of facts when you read them in a book or newspaper. I wanted to show how painful it can be to be moved from your home and put in a strange place. Davis Inlet is on an island, separated from the rest of the world. The houses there were built close to the water and the people loved the view.
The houses in Davis were cheaply and quickly built, lacking many of necessities we now take for granted. Even though it doesn’t sound like much, it is a beautiful place and most of our people spent their childhood there. A small part of each one of us will always consider it home. For many, it was very hurtful to make the move and the abandoned town still calls to us.
Change is often necessary, but sometimes there is a high price to pay.
If you follow the timeline of my people it extends far into the past. The Innu have made Labrador their home for thousands of years. My teacher said, on flying over and seeing the land for the first time, “rough land – tough people”. That is the truth. Throughout our history, we have been hunters, nomads following the caribou herds; living on the land in harmony with nature. In the recent past, however, that has all changed.
I see the past, both my own and that of the Innu people, in flashbacks; images like snapshots that flicker across my mind and are gone in an instant. A recurring mental picture I see is that of my people’s first contact with outsiders. I am standing there watching. Silently I observe the way this event altered the timeline and forever changed my people’s future.
What happened? The past has passed by.
What is happening? Now is the future’s past.
What will happen? This is the past that has not yet been born in people’s minds.
The Past: I make my first journey to the past. My mind travels back to my grandfather’s time. Although we had traded with Europeans for centuries, during World War Two, the outside world began to intrude more and more into the lives of the Innu of Labrador.
As far back as I can remember everyone called my grandfather, William Katshinak, “Master”, including my Dad. However, in my vision, he is only nine or ten years old. He is with his family by the lake. They are living in a tent. There are some other families close by. The men have all gone hunting but William is too young to go. His mother is telling him to go fetch some water. He is dressed in traditional clothes made from caribou hide and he wears moccasins on his feet. He is fighting with his sister and his mother is losing patience. All of a sudden, they hear a strange noise. They have never heard anything like it. The noise is getting louder and louder.
There! Out over the water! A large flying…thing! It’s coming directly for the tent. William begins to run; his mother and sister are close behind. I feel their fright…their panic! They are soon running out of breath and their hearts are beating like drums! I know it’s an airplane but feeling what they feel, the story doesn’t seem as funny now.
The Present: I feel uncomfortable writing. It seems that no one understands. I think to myself: “Will people be able to read what I write and truly grasp what I’m trying to say?” I get frustrated and start to curse them for their lack of insight. I know this is foolish, but learning to write is a difficult process. Putting what’s in my head down on a piece of paper seems so…unusual. If you are reading this I hope my words are enough to help you understand. This is my story.
My name is Candace Toma. I am fourteen years old. I was born in 1996. It was May 3, to be exact. I am currently in Grade Eight and I am visually impaired. I have Stargardt’s disease but I don’t use any assistive technology like Braille. I guess you might say I’m stubborn. I love reading, but it is becoming increasingly difficult. Even though my eyesight may be failing, my vision remains whole. I see things as they have been, how they are and, also, how they could be.
I am Mushuau Innu and I live in a small, isolated town in Labrador called Natuashish. There are about seven hundred people living here year round. Our town is only nine years old; not too old, as towns go. This is a new settlement. It is a community that was built to replace our old one, Utshimassit (Davis Inlet) – a place that was left behind – a place full of memories.
The Past: I close my eyes. I travel down the timeline. My recollection of my early childhood is like a videotape being rewound. Stop! That’s it! There I am! I started school in Davis Inlet! I’m trying hard but the picture is fuzzy – the images come in bits and pieces. I can’t recollect exactly what it was like going to school there because I only did one term before the move.
I do remember that my teacher was oversized; loud and scary to a little person like me. It was hard getting used to school. I remember the teacher yelling a lot when the kids made mistakes. We never even got to officially graduate from kindergarten. There was no ceremony – we got lost in the confusion.
The Present: The school is a wreck now. The roof is caving in and the place is full of snow. The windows are long gone – desks, books, and papers lie everywhere. It reminds me of a horror movie set – all ready to film.
People in Natuashish still dream about Davis Inlet. They talk about it all the time. The way they look at the town there are many emotions that come back. They sigh, lower their eyes and mutter under their breath. I heard one woman whisper: “Ah, memories…good and bad.” Sometimes it must hurt to remember.
The Past: I am back in Davis! I can see my grandparent’s house! They lived by the water and there was a big tree close by. It seems so huge. I am only three or four years old. Through the window in their bedroom I can see a blue canoe and a grey boat with a motor. My Mom and I often walk along the water’s edge to her mother’s house. I can see it so clearly – the blue boat – the blue water – the blue sky. It is so beautiful it hurts my eyes.
I remember being on my uncle’s porch and suddenly running across the road. That’s when the four-wheeler hit me. Ouch! Some memories are best left alone.
My grandparents cried the day we left. My Dad urged them to keep going and to not look back. We waited in the middle of the ice for them. They were very sad. They said it would not be any better. It would be worse.
The Present: Our new town, Natuashish, is gorgeous. Back in Davis we never had toilets or bathtubs. Only white people had those comforts. Everyone needed them but few had them. Is that ugly, or what?
If I could change the past, I would. Life is life. You turn the page and go on.
My grandparents were right. Things did get worse. The problems followed us from Davis, hiding in all the excitement of a new beginning. A lot of people have died before their time. At first we thought it was just bad luck. I think it’s the change – the switch from one way of life to another.
Gas sniffing, alcohol, drugs and suicide are what the outside world thinks about when they read about Natuashish. The earlier images of kids huffing gas in Davis have caused the world to judge us. It is more convenient to stereotype than to seek the truth. We are human. We are no better or worse than anyone else. We have some problems. As we always do, The Innu will overcome and survive.
I returned to Utshimassit about two months ago and it scared me. It was eerie and lonely. The doors were all open, waiting for someone to come in. I felt trapped. I was dying to get out. I had this strange sensation that I was being watched.
The Future: I chuckle as I close the book. “You were being watched”, I say to myself, “by a ghost of the future.” I get up from my desk. The sunlight streams in my window. Outside, I hear children laughing and playing – the sounds of happiness. I open the door, go out and greet the day.