Out on the Land Archives - Peter Sibbald's Blog About Photography and Filmmaking

Of Redemption: Remembering Francis Penashue

Penashue Camp, Lake Minnipi, 1996. Francis Penashue lolls on the floor of his tent playing with his grandchildren while his wife Tshaukuesh (Elizabeth) Penashue prepares a meal of fresh duck and bannock on their home-made wood stove. The Penashues spend several months a year in the bush reclaiming their traditional Innu culture and passing it on to their children and grand-children.

It must have been about this time of the year, 24 years ago, when I met Francis Penashue, although I don’t actually remember our first encounter. I lived briefly with his family—in fact Francis’s father Matthew and partner and their grandson baby George Nuna—in the Mealy Mountains in the interior of Labrador, a place the Innu call Nitassinan, “Our Homeland”. I was intending to stay for only a few days, but became weather-bound for an additional week. It was 10 days that I can only regard as a privilege and that would tie me emotionally to that place and those people, affording me a perspective on the relationship between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, and change my life.

Actually I don’t remember Francis in that 1989 camp per se but, I can still have nightmares about the Francis of that era, for he terrified me. Perhaps Francis was not in the camp at that time because he could not escape the poison that held him in its grip in the village. In those days, and for years before and some after, alcohol was his demon and he raged against it and the circumstances that drew him back to it again and again. No one was too young or too strong to escape his wrath, least of all his little kids or his wife, Tshaukuesh, and certainly no young white man with a camera and a big city attitude. I must have embodied everything he hated. For Francis was part of that lost generation of children wrenched from their families and beaten into submission in the residential schools, though in Francis’s case it was not technically a residential school, but the now notorious Mount Cashel orphanage on the island of Newfoundland. “Kill the Indian in the child” was Canada’s official policy in those years.

In the years that followed our first meeting, Francis beat back those demons into some form of recovery. I would stay again with his family in bush camps, but those times, he would be there, the dedicated father, adoring grandfather, sharing with family the traditional knowledge of how to live off the land, knowledge that he had acquired in his earliest years from his elders in the bush camps he was born and raised in. Francis’s sons became hunters and many of their children still know how to live off of and in harmony with the land. For that, Francis must have started to recover pride. Francis and Tshaukuesh’s tent became the heart of those bush encampments. By this time, the little children were no longer afraid of Francis, and there was a constant coming and going of little feet through the tent flap, both to savour Tshaukuesh’s partridge stew and to fill the balsam bow infused air with giggles.

In those latter years I knew him, we didn’t talk much, and he never spoke of the cruelty my kind must have inflicted on his child self, nor what of that he passed on to others. And after having my language forced upon him, why would he have wanted to use it to share such pain with me? Thereafter, Francis chose to speak mostly Innuemun as far as I know. That he rose above such deserved hate of my kind to condescend to sharing not only my company but the presence of my camera was huge for me personally. And so, like his children and grandchildren I learned by watching.

That was 1996, and I think Francis then was still struggling with remorse. I would like to think that—as later pictures and stories would indicate—Francis found some redemption in the role that he earned as elder and, along with Tshaukuesh, leaders of their people. It was a valiant thing he did—no mean feat of sobriety and wholeness in a social milieu then still highly compromised by multigenerational alcoholism. Many of his generation could not win that battle and succumbed to accidents, poisoning, suicide… indeed are succumbing still as are many their children and grandchildren. But Francis was evidence that the government, a succession of my governments—those groups of democratically elected Canadians who cynical legislation, with the blunt force of violence and with the careless failure to protect the people in its charge from mercury, carcinogens and other toxins into their food, water and air…  Canadian governments that are still trying to deprive the First Peoples of their rights, autonomy and  land—that they could not, cannot, “kill the Indian in the child”.

Earlier this morning CBC Radio journalist and producer Marie Wadden, who has written books about Francis Penashue’s journey, wrote of his final one, that it was Lou Gehrig’s disease that put an end to his life. Release from the tyranny of that disease is, I  guess, some sort of blessing. Last evening Francis was removed from the hospital and brought out to spend his final minutes laying in the fragrance of spruce bows of a white canvas tent, cozy with wood fire—home—surrounded by a circle of 200 loving family and friends. To me, that is evidence enough of his redemption, and that redemption is possible, proof to all of us of the importance of sticking to our moral compasses, of keeping trying. One can only hope to have the strength and bravery to do such work, and when our times come, to be so lucky.

To Tshaukuesh, Peter, Max, Bart, Jack, Gervais, Robert, Freddie, Angela and Kanani, and your children and grandchildren, I am so sorry for your loss.



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Classic Documentary -Fourteen Dollars a day, Twenty-six dollars an acre

How things have changed for the farmer… or have they?

“The best way to keep a gang happy is to set a good table. It’s mainly women and girls who work the table gang, a few boys, but the work is so hard that they’re paid as much as the primers in the field.”

The beautiful work of Terence Macartney-Filgate Shared via the NFB


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Following the Money in The 905

Recently the independent, non-partisan community organization Vote Toronto published a study by York University professor, Robert MacDermid, “Funding City Politics”, citing the very strong connection between elected politicians and the development industry: nearly 70% of political campaign contributions to the winning politicians come from development related corporations, their friends and families.

And what if you’re a candidate who wants to slow down development and make it more ecologically sustainable?

“You’ve got a tough row to hoe:, says MacDermid.

More from CBC Ontario Today

©CBC, 2009

Vote Toronto offers a comprehensive set of recommended Electoral Reforms


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Dewatering for The Big Pipe

Stouffville, Ontario. Dewatering
Approximately 43°56’57.22″N   79°15’7.87″W, facing East, circa October 2, 2005

From my series: Elegy for a Stolen Land

As part of the extension of York Region’s $350 million mega-project known as the “Big Pipe”,  a large sewer trunk passes through land along the 9th Line in front of this 19th century farm house. The land is dewatered so that workers can get deep into the ground, at or below the water table, to install the pipe.

This trunk of the pipe, to accommodate growth in Stouffville’s secondary plan, is to move sewage to the Duffin Creek Water Pollution Control Plant near Lake Ontario. Rates of dewatering range from 5,000 – 30,000 litres per minute, and the project stretches well up into the Oak Ridge’s Moraine, the natural aquatic battery for all lands southward to Lake Ontario.

On January 3, 2004 The Toronto Star’s Leslie Ferenc reported in an article entitled Close -up: The Big Pipe, that opponents, from the province’s environment commissioner right on down to farmers and individual farm owners, argue—and officials readily admit—that dewatering process has proven to empty aquifers, parch resident’s wells, bleed streams and fields dry, destroy fish and wildlife habitats, and draw effluent away from failing septic tanks into the wider water table. Proponents argue that they will be able to set things right later by implementing mitigating measures.

Such mitigating measures are planned on the assumption that such measures may yet be invented and successfully implemented.

This and other of The Star’s stories about the Big Pipe are no longer freely available on the internet, but you can find a copy of this one here. Environmental Defence and Lake Ontario WaterKeeper have archived some of that coverage. Otherwise they can be sourced through The Star’s paid archive service.

… Comin up next, “Following the money…”


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Sensational Singles



Markham, Ontario. Real Estate Billboards.
Approx.  43°54’7.53″N  79°14’27.90″W, Facing south, circa May 5, 2005

From my series: Elegy for a Stolen Land

Before Europeans arrived, these lands were rich in freshwater and wildlife, and home to successive waves of first peoples who saw themselves and the land as one.

Later, due to a combination of soil quality, water availability and growing season—determined by latitude and proximity to the moderating influence of Lake Ontario—settlers turned these lands into productive class 1 farmland that would feed the city it surrounded for more than a century.

On the former pioneer family farm of John Raymer, real estate billboards promote the sale of roughly 2,500 homes on the lands of such former pioneer farmer neighbours as James and Adam Clendenen, and John Reesor. According to official documents filed in 2005: “the GTA/905 Regions of York, Halton, Peel and Durham have been and will continue to be the fastest growing regions in Ontario, collectively growing at twice the provincial rate of growth by adding more than 90,000 new residents each year.”

In a time of increasing global economic uncertainty and wildly unstable fuel prices, those and the other new residents of the past half century inhabit a new land crop of bricks and mortar, and are meanwhile ever more dependent on food imports from the USA, Latin America and Asia.


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Statement (Short): Elegy for a Stolen Land

Forced by food shortages to emigrate, six generations ago my Scottish ancestors settled in Southern Ontario, a rich, natural environment that for millennia, and until not long before, had been homeland to successive waves of First Peoples.

When moving home after years in cities to raise a seventh generation in that same place I’d been raised, the sheer rapaciousness of human activity in Ontario’s countryside – the naked erasures of heritage, and our diminishing capacity for a secure local food supply– got me thinking about changes in the meaning of land.

How does one document shifting occupation? What is the distance from “earth mother” to “real estate”, and what evidence remains of aboriginal cosmologies or European animistic traditions, and colonial history? What are the implications for power over the cultural interpretation of land-human relationships imposed by such terms as “land use”? Which ways of thinking and being in relation to land are most suitable to sustaining life?


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Exhibition: An Open Opening Invitiation


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