Marjolaine at Goerges River, after a 185-mile canoeing trip
“People of the North” is a series of interviews created in partnership with Arctic in Context and Kesserwan Arteau, a legal and consulting firm that works with indigenous communities. Every six weeks, Kesserwan Arteau founders Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan will publish an interview with leaders, innovators, and community members in an effort to highlight the Arctic’s diversity from the perspectives of those who live there.
By Karina Kesserwan
Marjolaine McKenzie lives in the Innu community of Matimekush, in northern Quebec, just over a mile from the Labrador border. Matimekush and another small Innu community, Lac-John, are completely surrounded by the town of Schefferville. The Naskapi community of Kawawachikamach is less than 10 miles away. Marjolaine, a young grandmother, works at the local health center. We spoke about her passion for her culture, the land of her ancestors, and the well-being of her community.
Kesserwan Arteau: Tell us about the place where you live.
Marjolaine McKenzie: My community isn’t very large. In the 1970s, nearly 5,000 people lived here in the town of Schefferville; many workers and their families moved to the region for the IOC mining company. The mine closed in the early 1980s and left little behind. But the Innu, who were here long before, remained. Today there are around 200 people living in Schefferville and 550 Innu in Matimekush.
Nitassinan is what the Innu call our territory. It has thousands of lakes, the mountains are not very high, we are close to the tundra, and the forest is filled with black spruce.
Without a road, the only ways to get here from southern Quebec are by train from Sept-Îles or by plane. The plane is considered a luxury by many, so locals opt for the train. The Tshiuetin Rail Transportation, which handles trips between Sept-Îles and Schefferville, was the first railway to be entirely owned by Indigenous people (co-owned by the Innu from Uashat mak Mani-Utenam near Sept-Îles, the Innu from Matimekush/Lac-John, and the Naskapi from Kawawachicamach). The train operates once or twice a week and the trip takes between 14 and 16 hours.
Like in most Northern remote areas, we have a Northern general and grocery store. Food here is very expensive and not always fresh. When people travel to Sept-Îles, they often come back with groceries to have fresher food and, especially, to save money. There are two hotels, three restaurants, a guest house, a convenience store, and an arena. We have pretty much everything we need except for a hospital, but there are medevacs available for emergencies. The people here are very entrepreneurial, so a number of businesses are locally owned.
KA: What is your favorite thing about your North?
MM: Winter is my favorite season. It makes me happy. I love to snowshoe; it is a passion I’ve had for a few years. What I like about it is the proximity to nature: discovering new places, climbing a new mountain, or taking a path that I have never explored.
Even though nature might seem to remain the same, it always ends up surprising you. It changes throughout the day: The sky can be incredible at sunrise and magical in a very different way at sunset. I also love walking at night. In winter, the night is less dark because the stars illuminate the white snow.
KA: Who lives in your North?
MM: The area is home to Innu and Naskapi people. Most Naskapi speak English as a second language, while most Innu speak French. A lot of people speak the four languages fluently; I find it amazing in such a small population.
There are also Quebecers who live here, as well as people of different nationalities, from Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, China, Congo, Central African Republic, and more. One of our nurses, who is from Madagascar, has been working with us for 15 years now. We have a wonderful cultural diversity.
What is striking to me is the strong spirit of solidarity. For example, when someone is sick, people organize radiothons and bingo nights to help the family. When families are sent to the city for health treatment, they have no real income. So, the community comes together to help.
The spirit of solidarity goes beyond what happens in our community. For example, after the Quebec City mosque attack, a hundred people gathered on the lake and formed a heart, illuminated by flashlights, to show their support for the Muslim community. (Around 10 people of Muslim faith live and work in Schefferville.)
Illuminated heart on the lake.
KA: Tell us a bit about yourself.
MM: I was born in Schefferville in 1980. At that time, the mine was still open, so there was still a hospital here. That is where I was born. Today, the health center does follow-ups with pregnant women up until a month before their due date, but then they have to leave the community to give birth in a hospital in a city. Most go to Sept-Îles.
My mother is Innu and my father was Innu and Naskapi. I inherited both cultures. A year after my birth, my father went missing in the forest. Despite this tragedy, the memory of my childhood remains pleasant, especially spending part of the winter at Lake Arjay with my family: my grandfather Léon Mckenzie and my grandmother Leonshkeu, my uncles, their wives, and my cousins.
A few years later, my mother decided to move to Quebec City with a man who later became my father. He is Wendat, and I spent a lot of my life with my new family in Wendake, in the suburbs of Quebec City. After I completed my studies, I came back to live in Schefferville. I studied project organization and planning. Today, I am a community worker at the health center. Along with my colleagues, I organize activities that aim to improve the well-being of the community. I love my job; it contributes to my own well-being.
KA: What is your family life like?
MM: I have two daughters: Ashley is 11 years old and Rosalie is 18. They are very different. My eldest was raised in Wendake, and she remains very close to her Wendat and Innu culture. She is currently working for the First Nations Youth Network to organize youth events and will start college in January. I am very proud of her.
My younger daughter, Ashley, loves ski-doo rides, camping, and fishing. She has spent much more time living in Matimekush and has great difficulty imagining life anywhere else.
Ashley and her cousin Milah
I became a grandmother at the age of 35, and my grandson, Joey-Samuel Mestokosho, is now 2 years old. Joey’s father is Innu; his father is from Natashkuan and his mother is from Pakua Shipi. It is important to say this because these two Innu communities are located in remote areas, just like mine, and I wish to see him travel to the territories of his Innu grandparents later in life. Joey currently lives in Quebec with his mother and Wendat family. His Wendat grandfather has vast knowledge of the history of his ancestors.
KA: What projects are you proud of?
MM: I have been back here for eight years now and the successes that stand out the most are those related to health and community activities. In February and March 2015, a group of 21 Innu, Naskapi, and Inuit walked from Schefferville to Kuujuak, in Inuit territory, with Dr. Stanley Vollant, the first Indigenous surgeon trained in Québec. His project, “Innu Meshkenu,” which means “the path of the Innu” or “the path of all humans,” was meant to inspire young people to fulfill their dreams. The walk lasted 25 days and covered more than 300 miles. It was my first expedition experience, and I felt myself switch into “survival mode” several times during the trip. What struck me the most was the intensity of human relations in survival situations.
Marjolaine on the Innu Meshkenu walk
Then, in August 2016, I did a canoe expedition, Mushuau Shipu (the Innu name for Georges River), with Danielle Descent, the captain of the trip, Aaron Einish, our guide, and five young people. The goal of the expedition was to walk the path of the ancestors while living as much as possible from the land, such as by hunting and fishing. It was far simpler logistically than the Innu Meshkenu walk because there were only eight participants, but physically it was more difficult. During the walk, we had a team of people helping us set up camp. In this expedition, we had to do everything ourselves—there was no team to prepare our camp, chop our logs, and cook our meals. Fortunately, we were well organized and had brave, young people. Every day was a journey. We crossed nearly 40 rapids and made several portages before reaching our destination at the mouth of the Georges River. I cherish beautiful memories of this adventure.
My experiences on the canoe expedition and the Innu Meshkenu walk taught me that one needs to be mentally and physically strong in order to go out into the forest. Today, I never neglect my preparations before entering the forest with a group. A few weeks before, I do more exercises, decrease the portions when I eat, and hydrate a lot more.
KA: How do you see the importance of international relations around the North?
MM: I think it is important to have exchanges with other Indigenous nations, both locally and internationally. These experiences allow us to expand our vision and share our culture with others. We have participated in such an exchange with the Nahautls nation from Mexico. First, they visited us here, and then we went to Santa Ana to meet with them. The Nahautls were surprised to learn that the Innu still spoke our language fluently and that hunting and fishing traditions were still very present. Few people in the Nahautls nation still speak their language today. The trip helped us realize just how much we have managed to retain our culture at Matimekush Lac-John—and feel tremendous pride because of this.
Meeting between Nahautls and Innu in Mexico
KA: What is a challenge your North is facing, and what solutions do you see?
MM: Environment-related development. We’ve discovered a lot of exploration done by mining companies—there are abandoned sites all over the place. We feel that we need protection from the pollution of the big cities, but perhaps this causes us to pay less attention to the protection of our own territory.
I think one of the solutions is to bring more people on forest expeditions. If they become closer to nature, then they can appropriate it, create jobs in the field of eco-tourism, and encourage more people to work in wildlife protection and snowshoe, canoe, or ski-doo expeditions.
KA: What are your hopes and fears for the future?
MM: One of my fears is the creation of a road. Living in a remote area is an advantage when it comes to maintaining traditions, culture, and language. The arrival of a road could quickly disturb this rich cultural wealth. It is more important than ever to preserve our know-how and transmit it to the next generations.
KA: What would you like the world to know?
MM: Cities are full of distractions that desensitize us to the environment. The healing effects of the territory are still underestimated.
People here love to meet visitors and share their culture, their territory, and their way of life. It’s an invitation to the world.
Multicultural group on a fishing initiation
This interview was translated from French by Karina Kesserwan.
Jean François Arteau was born in Quebec and has spent over 20 years working with the Inuit, including seven years in the Arctic town of Kuujuaq.
Karina Kesserwan was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She has been working with Indigenous peoples for the past 10 years.
[Photos courtesy of Marjolaine McKenzie]