At the core of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was the concept of Maîtres chez nous, or “masters in our own house” philosophy. It became a pillar in reshaping the province’s governance and self-determination within Canada.
Decades later, Gervais Malleck believes that undertaking is being mirrored in Innu communities.
“The Quiet Revolution, Quebec had one, and now I think we are going through this little revolution to find ways to progress,” said Malleck.
He is the director of economic development in Pakua Shipu — a small Innu community on Quebec’s Lower North Shore, roughly 1,000 kilometres north-east of Quebec City.
Rows of colourful homes sit by side in the town which is only accessible by boat or air.
A few dogs roam the streets that are mostly deserted in the middle of summer, as most families have left town to avoid the swarms of black flies, and visit family.
Meanwhile a young black bear calmly walks across the road, disappearing into the dense forest at the edge of town.
“Those are the surprises you get on the Lower North Shore,” said Malleck, stopping his pick-up truck to get a glimpse of the animal.
The preservation of that wilderness is central to the new vision Pakua Shipu has for itself.
Renewable energies, sustainable tourism and regional collaboration are at the core of the new vision, Malleck said.
“We have to get out of this cycle of dependence,” he said.
With a big personality that matches his imposing stature, Malleck’s enthusiasm and optimism for his adopted home is contagious. He is originally from the neighbouring town of La Romaine.
While he acknowledges that the effects of colonialism still run deep, he believes the younger generation, who were spared much of the trauma of the residential school system, is ready to take on the monumental task.
“When you are the one building up, leading your community, that’s when you realize that beautiful things can happen.”
Enticing youth to stay
Malleck is working with the local band council to create new industries, which will procure high-end jobs for the community of 237 people.
For example, a new ecocentre set to open this fall will not only improve waste management, it will also be a think tank to study the impact of climate change on the region’s rivers and wildlife.
Tapping into the knowledge and traditions of elders is essential to this transformation, Malleck said. But ultimately it will be up to the younger generation to follow through.
One-third of the population in Pakua Shipu is under 14 years old. Across the river, in the English community of Saint-Augustin, only 10 per cent of residents fall under that age category.
Once Innu students reach Grade 9, they have to travel several hundred kilometres away to complete their high school education.
That means families have to rent apartments in cities like Sept-Îles or Quebec City, to allow their children to continue with their studies.
What could be a sign of exodus and decline is, on the contrary, proof the community is ready to make sacrifices to set the building blocks of tomorrow, according to Malleck.
“When I see parents getting involved in their children’s education, it’s hope they are giving them.”
Coming back home
He said bringing those graduates back to work at home is essential to build a resilient community.
One of its stellar students is Gaston Mestenapeo.
He is one of the first to take part in a new program reserved for Indigenous students at the Faculty of Law at Université de Sherbrooke in the Eastern Townships.
After studying far from home for years, Mestenapeo returned for the summer to work as a sports instructor with youth.
He said he felt the need to return to Pakua Shipu to reconnect with Innu culture.
“It allows me to go back to my roots, and show kids what their culture is all about,” said Mestenapeo.
One of the region’s growing industries is tourism.
The Bella Desgagnés cargo ship, that supplies the region’s isolated communities, is also bringing more travellers to the coast.
Communities along the way are trying to find ways to transform those two-hour stops into longer stays.
“What can we do to retain them? We have to develop products that are authentic, Indigenous — that’s what we want to learn how to do,” said Malleck.
The neighbouring community of La Romaine also took notice of this potential boost to the local economy.
A large Shaputuan tent, rich with the smell of pine needles, is a short walk away from the wharf.
Locals sell their handmade crafts to visitors while homemade bannock and jellies are spread out — all elements of Innu culture the town is hoping to showcase.
“We want people to go back home with an understanding of our way of life, our culture,” said Edmond Mestenapeo, the development officer for tourism and economy in La Romaine.
This is the first year visitors get to visit the Shaputuan, and the first time they are welcomed by a tour guide, who takes them around town in a small yellow bus.
Seven guides, who received professional training, were employed for the summer thanks to the initiative, which is backed by the regional Innu development committee.
Mestenapeo hopes people who taste the local delicacies, and hear locals speaking their native tongue, will be enough to convince them to spread the word.
“We are proud of our language, proud of being a welcoming people — that’s the point of all this.”