Your latest novel narrates the fall and rebirth of a young Innu, Elie, banished from his clan for murder. Where did the idea for this character come from?
I encountered a large number of homeless people during my reporting, many of them indigenous: they represent less than 2% of Quebecers but 13% of the homeless. And the ratios are even more distressing in the prison population: half of the women imprisoned are indigenous, and 30% of the men. This population, victims of mistreatment in residential schools, was cut off from their roots, and often suffered numerous abuses. Released at 16, deconstructed, these natives in turn gave birth to children, bearers of these intergenerational wounds. One day, I met a homeless man named Raymond on the street. His community had banished him for murder. In fact, his brother was the murderer, but the idea of a character arriving in a big city without reference was born in my mind.
Your character, Elie, finds refuge in Cabot Square, in Montreal. Does this place exist?
Yes. In the city center, indigenous people built shelters. Mary and Tracy, the Nappatuk twins from my novel, exist. And I have witnessed incredible solidarity actions. One day I saw a group of kukum (grandmothers) in a van, who unpacked stocks of food. Another time, people from Pessamit, an Innu reserve north of the St. Lawrence, brought warm clothes for the winter. Many of my friends volunteer. Solidarity is an indigenous value. We do not leave people without food or shelter.
“Many of us live on the streets, but there are older paths,” Jeannot says in this novel. Which?
Bringing native people back into nature, in contact with living things, was my idea. Then I discovered a documentary on the subject! Four natives – including Raymond – had thus made a return to their roots. It was very strong, deeper and more intelligent than anything I had written… I rewrote my chapter. These practices are emerging more and more, even if they remain marginal. This is changing a little, people are starting to get away from alcohol, to train…
This scandal of children taken from their parents and educated in boarding schools where their roots are denied is quite recent…
Yes, the last residential schools closed at the end of the last century! This is shaking up all of Canadian society today. The first boarding school in Quebec dates from 1936, and there were until 1990, 1996 in Canada. The goal was to “remove every Indian” from the child, a policy established by the authorities with the support of the Church. 600,000 children suffered this, there were many deaths. We found graves and collective cemeteries. The psychological damage is immense.
Today, are the rights of indigenous peoples in Quebec respected?
The right to land, no! Dams were built on their territories, without their authorization. This produces green electricity for the inhabitants of Montreal, but ravages the lands of the indigenous people who lose their places of fishing, hunting and living. This has been the case since the beginning of industrialization. At first, settler farms coexisted peacefully with native peoples. When the French arrived in the St. Lawrence Valley, the Indians retreated, leaving them room. But numerous loggers, clearcutting and dams have destroyed their territories. And it continues.
What to do?
Indigenous people should be able to benefit from the exploitation of their territories. Today, they no longer give in and fight, sometimes successfully. Screams (community of northern Quebec, Editor’s note) won a case over a proposed huge hydroelectric dam in James Bay. They received the equivalent of a billion dollars and manage the dam themselves. The problem lies in endless growth: in my Innu grandmother’s time, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were forest caribou everywhere. Today, across the entire Innu territory, there are fifty-three. Before being called Siméon (the natives all took French names), my family was called “Atuk” which means forest caribou. I am therefore very sensitive to the disappearance of this mammal. Likewise, forests burn endlessly: when a fire endangers a hamlet populated by white people, everyone knows it. When it comes to 15,000 indigenous people, information is more difficult to find…
Do you fight against these injustices with your books?
Literature allows me to speak to people, on a human level, without preaching or blaming. To discover the richness of ancestral cultures, to show that the homeless are people who can get by, like in my novel. I was thanked, moreover, in the community, for having shown heroes who succeeded in inventing a future for themselves.
Indigenous Peoples Past and Present
Difficult to pronounce, the title of Michel Jean’s new novel is the Mohawk name of Montreal – the city was in fact built on Mohawk territory. The story is that of Elie, a young homeless Innu who will succeed in inventing a future for himself. Three novels by the author of Innu origin are also powerful. With Kukum the author’s great-grandmother, an Irish woman in love with an Innu, we hunt bustards and tan moose skins. Maikan tells the story of three children sent 1,000 kilometers from home to a boarding school. And Atuk is an exchange between Michel Jean and his grandmother Jeannette. Of rare sensitivity.