It’s a subject people generally try to avoid in day-to-day conversation, which is understandable. It’s a touchy issue that usually leads to fierce arguments about what constitutes a racist action or remark.
The Big Land has very unique racial divides. Despite a population of
27,000, there are three distinct aboriginal groups — Inuit, Innu and NunatuKavut. Then there are the “settlers,” those who are Labradorians but don’t have official ties to the aboriginal groups.
These divisions are not just in name only. Depending on which group you belong to there are different levels of funding and benefits.
The Innu and Inuit both have significant land claims agreements in Labrador, while NunatuKavut is still fighting its battle.
On the political and financial level, it seems there are more differences than similarities, and that can create jealousy and hostility.
Then there are the issues that come with different languages, different history and different cultures.
There are frequent calls for Labradorians to unite on mutual issues, especially when there’s a sense that the provincial government isn’t giving Labrador its fair share. But unity amongst all Labradorians has proven harder to achieve than it should.
That being I said, I firmly believe that most Labradorians are culturally sensitive. But, in a small population, it only takes a few ignorant or racist people to have a negative impact in our communities.
Once in a while, there are incidents in Labrador that force us to confront racism.
On Oct. 14, a video began circulating quickly on Facebook, depicting one man and two women having a boil-up at Gull Island. The two women pass a white plastic bag to each other, apparently pretending to sniff gasoline.
At point in the video, a female voice clearly says, “Joan is having a sniff,” followed by the words “sniffing gas.”
Respected Innu elder Elizabeth Penashue is referenced at one point.
It didn’t take long for people in the social and mainstream media to condemn the video’s contents, and rightfully so.
In Labrador, gas sniffing has become a horrible problem associated with Innu youth. The video outraged many, especially in the Innu community, and the issue of racism was brought to the forefront of the conversation.
I’m not writing this to say whether or not the 90-second video displays racism or not. Without a doubt it is extremely insensitive and the adults involved in making it should feel embarrassed it exists.
Instead, I’m writing about my experience with racial divide in Labrador and what I feel are possible solutions.
I grew up in North West River, just a single kilometre and a bridge away from the Innu community of Sheshatshiu.
With such a short distance separating us, one would think that I would have had many social interactions with the Innu during my childhood. This was not the case.
As children, my friends and I in North West River often had a hard time connecting with our Innu counterparts.
The fact that they spoke a different language and looked different than us made getting to know them quite difficult.
Fistfights and rock throwing were not uncommon near the bridge.
In the summertime, I would never leave my bike unattended when a large group of Innu kids were around, for fear of it being stolen or damaged.
It wasn’t that my friends and me were racist children; we just had so few interactions with our neighbours from across the river that we didn’t know how to treat them and they, in turn, didn’t know how to treat us.
That one kilometre may as well have been 1,000.
When I was 14, the gas-sniffing epidemic in Sheshatshiu and Davis Inlet was put on display for the world to gasp at. It seemed like images of children huffing on bags of gas were on the news every evening,
But those of us in North West River didn’t need CBC or NTV to show us what was happening. Once glance across the river and we could see police lights, and hear children yelling and screaming.
I vividly recall one night my friends and I were walking down the road in North West River and a group of gas sniffers, anywhere between 12 and 20, were 50 feet away from us. Despite the distance between us, the smell of gas was so strong; it made me gag when it entered my nostrils.
If those sights, sounds and smells were shocking to me, I can’t imagine what the Innu people experienced first-hand.
Remembering those horrific times, it’s understandable that people were saddened and disgusted by the video mocking gas sniffing.
For the first half of my life, I was ignorant to the Innu way of life, their culture and their social problems. But when I was 16, my ignorance changed to admiration.
That year I began playing organized hockey in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. At that time, minor hockey had a good mix of kids from North West River, Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Sheshatshiu.
After having great Innu hockey players and great Innu people as teammates, I finally understood that there are more similarities between us than there are differences.
I began seeing my Innu peers as unbelievably natural athletes and very intelligent. It is awe-inspiring how so many Innu have mastered both the Innu and English languages.
I recently picked up the brand new English-Innu dictionary. The Innu language looked incredibly complicated and I cannot imagine trying to become fluent in it.
After that year, I began seeing more and more Innu friends at sporting events, like ball hockey and volleyball. I still consider them admirable friends to this day.
As I became an adult, I learned how hospitable the Innu people are. Whenever I needed a ride hitchhiking, a pickup truck from Sheshatshiu was quick to offer me a lift.
When I was broke at a bar, they were often to first to buy me a beer.
When I started my professional career in journalism, people from Natuashish and Sheshatshiu have always taken the time of day to compliment me on my stories, raising my confidence and self-esteem.
I wish I had the opportunity to be teammates with my wonderful Innu peers at a younger age, and that the fistfights and rock throwing had never happened.
It’s clear that being teammates in sports can lead to being teammates in life.
I have seen many Facebook statuses since the infamous video was shown, asking how we can further break down racial barriers in Labrador. My advice: make sure youth from different communities and different races interact with each other at a young age.
Whether it’s through sport, art or just fun and games, sharing activities and common goals are the best ways to show our similarities, and respect our differences.