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Davis Inlet 1903.jpg
Innu traders outside the Hudson's Bay Company trading post in Davis Inlet, Newfoundland and Labrador, 1903
Total population
27,755[1] (2016 census)
Regions with significant populations
Innu, Naskapi, English, French
Christianity, other
Related ethnic groups
Cree, Algonquin people, Naskapi, Atikamekw

The Innu (or Montagnais) are the Indigenous inhabitants of an area in Canada they refer to as Nitassinan ("Our Land"), which comprises most of the northeastern portion of the present-day province of Quebec and some eastern portions of Labrador.

Their ancestors were known to have lived on these lands for several thousand years as hunter-gatherers. They used portable tents made of animal skins. Their subsistence activities were historically centred on hunting and trapping caribou, moose, deer, and small game.

Their language, Innu or Ilnu (popularly known since the French colonial era as Montagnais),[2] is spoken throughout Nitassinan, with certain dialect differences. It is part of the Cree language group, and is unrelated to neighboring Inuit languages.

In 1999, Survival International published a study of the Innu communities of Labrador. It assessed the adverse effects of the Canadian government's relocating the people far from their ancestral lands and preventing them from practising their ancient way of life.[3]

Montagnais, Naskapi or Innu

Lands traditionally inhabited by the Innu. Naskapi land is shown in yellow and Montagnais land in red

The people are frequently classified into two groups: the Neenoilno, often called by Europeans as Montagnais (French for "mountain people", English pronunciation: /ˌmɔːntənˈj/),[4] or Innu proper (Nehilaw and Ilniw - "people"), who live along the north shore of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, in Quebec; and the less numerous Naskapi (Innu and Iyiyiw), who live farther north. The Innu recognize several distinctions (e.g. Mushuau Innuat, Maskuanu, Uashau Innuat) based on different regional affiliations and speakers of various dialects of the Innu language.

Innu communities of Quebec and Labrador and the two Naskapi communities (Kawawachikamach and Natuashish)

The word Naskapi was first recorded by French colonists in the 17th century and was subsequently applied to distant Innu groups beyond the reach of missionary influence. It was particularly applied to those people living in the lands that bordered Ungava Bay and the northern Labrador coast, near the Inuit communities of northern Quebec and northern Labrador. It is here that the term came to be used for the Naskapi First Nation.

The Naskapi are traditionally nomadic peoples, in contrast with the more sedentary Montagnais, who establish settled territories. Mushuau Innuat (plural), while related to the Naskapi, split off from the tribe in the 1900s. They were subject to a government relocation program at Davis Inlet. Some of the families of the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach have close relatives in the Cree village of Whapmagoostui, on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay.

Since 1990, the Montagnais people have generally chosen to be officially referred to as the Innu, which means human being in Innu-aimun, while the Naskapi have continued to use the word Naskapi.


Reindeer hunting in Labrador

The Norsemen referred to the Innu as skrælingjar in Greenlandic Norse. They referred to Nitassinan as Markland.

The Innu were historically allied with neighbouring Atikamekw, Maliseet and Algonquin against their enemies, the Algonquian-speaking Mi'kmaq and Iroquois nations. During the Beaver Wars (1640–1701), the Iroquois repeatedly invaded their territories from areas near the Great Lakes, enslaving women and young warriors, and plundering their hunting grounds in search of more furs. Since these raids were made by the Iroquois with unprecedented brutality, the Innu themselves adopted the torment, torture, and cruelty of their enemies. The Naskapi, on the other hand, were usually in conflicts with the southward advancing Inuit in the east.[citation needed]

Roman Catholic procession of First Nations people in the Labrador peninsula

Samuel de Champlain befriended members of this group who insisted that he help them in their conflict with the Iroquois, who were ranging north from their traditional territory around the Great Lakes in present-day New York and Pennsylvania. On July 29, 1609, at Ticonderoga or Crown Point, New York, (historians are not sure which of these two places), Champlain and his party encountered a group of Iroquois, likely Mohawk, who were the easternmost tribe of the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. A battle began the next day. Two hundred Iroquois advanced on Champlain's position as a native guide pointed out the three Iroquois chiefs to the French. Champlain fired his arquebus and legend says he killed two of them with one shot before one of his men killed the third. The Iroquois then supposedly turned and fled. This was to set the tone for French-Iroquois relations for the next 100 years.

The Innu of Labrador and those living on the north shore of the Gulf of Saint-Lawrence in the Canadian Shield region have never officially surrendered their territory to Canada by way of treaty or other agreement. As European-Canadians began widespread forest and mining operations at the turn of the 20th century, the Innu became increasingly settled in coastal communities and in the interior of Quebec. The Canadian and provincial governments, the Catholic, Moravian, and Anglican churches, all encouraged the Innu to settle in more permanent, majority-style communities, in the belief that their lives would improve with this adaptation. This coercive assimilation caused a decline in the Innu people's traditional activities (hunting, trapping, fishing). Because of these social disruptions and the systemic disadvantages faced by Indigenous peoples, community life in the permanent settlements often became associated with high levels of substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicide.

Davis Inlet, Labrador

In 1999, Survival International published a study of the Innu communities of Labrador. It assessed the adverse effects of the Canadian government's relocating the people far from their ancestral lands and preventing them from practising their ancient way of life.[3] Survival International considered these policies to violate international law in human rights, drawing parallels with the treatment of Tibetans by the People's Republic of China. According to the study, from 1990–1997, the Innu community of Davis Inlet had a suicide rate more than twelve times the Canadian average, and well over three times the rate often observed in isolated northern villages.[3]

By 2000, the Innu island community of Davis Inlet asked the Canadian government to assist with a local addiction public health crisis. At their request, the community was relocated to a nearby mainland site, now known as Natuashish. At the same time, the Canadian government created the Natuashish and Sheshatshiu band councils under the Indian Act.

Kawawachikamach, Quebec

The Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach, of Quebec, signed a comprehensive land claims settlement, the Northeastern Quebec Agreement; they did so in 1978. As a consequence, the Naskapi of Kawawachikamach are no longer subject to certain provisions of the Indian Act. All the Innu communities of Quebec are still subject to the Act.

New York Power Authority controversy

The New York Power Authority's proposed contract in 2009 with the province of Quebec to buy power from its extensive hydroelectric dam facilities has generated controversy, because it was dependent on construction of a new dam complex and transmission lines that would have interfered with the traditional ways of the Innu.[5] According to the Sierra Club:

[t]he "New York Power Authority is in preliminary discussions and considering the liability of a new contract with Hydro Quebec," a Canadian supplier of hydroelectricity.

— Legislative Gazette[5]

The Innu community, the Sierra Club, and the National Lawyers Guild are fighting to prevent this proposed contract, which would have to be approved by New York's Governor, under his regulatory authority.[5] The problem is that construction of required electric transmission lines would hinder the Innu's hunting-gathering-fishing lifestyle:[how?]

Chief Georges-Ernest Gregoire of the Innu community in Eastern Quebec urged the governor not to proceed with a plan to buy hydroelectric power from Canada, saying the dam complex that would be built would affect the traditional way of life for his people.

— Legislative Gazette (caption for a photo of Chief Gregoire)[5]

Chief Gregoire's comments at a press conference in Albany, New York were translated, but whether from French or Innu-aimun is not clear.[5]

Natuashish and Sheshatshiu, Newfoundland and Labrador

Although Innu have been only in Sheshatshiu since fur trading posts were established by the Hudson's Bay Company in Northwest River in the mid-1700s and only in Davis Inlet/Natuashish since the Moravians set up along the Inuit Coast in 1771, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams struck a deal on September 26, 2008, with Labrador's Innu to permit construction of a hydroelectric megaproject to proceed on the proposed Lower Churchill site. They also negotiated compensation for another project on the Upper Churchill, where large tracts of Actual traditional Innu hunting lands were flooded.


"Buckle up your children" sign in Innu-aimun language, in the Pointe-Parent reserve near Natasquan, Quebec.

Traditional crafts

Traditional Innu craft is demonstrated in the Innu tea doll. These children's toys originally served a dual purpose for nomadic Innu tribes. When travelling vast distances over challenging terrain, the people left nothing behind. They believed that "Crow" would take it away. Everyone, including young children, helped to transport essential goods. Innu women made intricate dolls from caribou hides and scraps of cloth. They filled the dolls with tea and gave them to young girls to carry on long journeys. The girls could play with the dolls while also carrying important goods. Every able-bodied person carried something. Men generally carried the heavier bags and women would carry young children.

Traditional clothing, style and accessories

Men wore caribou pants and boots with a buckskin long shirt, all made by women. With the introduction of trade cloth from the French and English, people began replacing the buckskin shirts with ones made of cloth. Most still wore boots and pants made from caribou hide. Women wore long dresses of buckskin and moccasins. Contemporary Innu women have often replaced these with manufactured pants and jackets. Women traditionally wore their hair long or in two coils. Men wore theirs long.

Both genders wore necklaces made of bone and bead. Smoke pipes were used by both genders, marked for women as shorter. If a man killed a bear, it was a sign of joy and initiation into adulthood and the man would wear a necklace made from the bear's claws.


The houses of the Montagnais were cone shaped. The Naskapi made long, domed houses covered in caribou hides. These days the hearth is a metal stove in the centre of the house.

Traditional foods

Animals traditionally eaten included moose, caribou, porcupine, rabbits marten, woodchuck, squirrel; Canada geese, snow geese, brants, ducks, teal, loons, spruce grouse, woodcock, snipe, passenger pigeons, ptarmigan; whitefish, lake trout, salmon, Arctic char, seal (naskapi) pike, walleye, suckerfish (Catostomidae), sturgeon, catfish, lamprey, and smelt. Fish were eaten roasted or smoke-dried. Moose meat and several types of fish were also smoked. Bannock made from oats, introduced by the French in the 16th century, became a staple. Meat was eaten frozen, raw or roasted, and caribou was sometimes boiled in a stew. Pemmican was made with moose or caribou.

Plants traditionally eaten included raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, cherries, wild grapes, hazelnuts, crab apples, red martagon bulbs, Indian potato, and maple-tree sap for sweetening. Cornmeal was traded with Iroquois, Algonquin, and Abenaki First Nations peoples, and made into apon (cornbread), which sometimes also included oat or wheat flour when it became available. Pine-needle tea kept away infections and colds resulting from the harsh weather.


Traditionally, buckskin was a most important material used for clothing, boots, moccasins, house covers and storage. Women prepared the hides and many of the products made from it. They scraped the hides to remove all fur, then left them outside to freeze. The next step was to stretch the hide on a frame. They rubbed it with a mixture of animal brain and pine needle tea to soften it. The dampened hide was formed into a ball and left overnight. In the morning, it would be stretched again, then placed over a smoker to smoke and tan it. The hide was left overnight. The finished hide was called buckskin.



In traditional Innu communities, people walked or used snow shoes. While people still walk and use snow shoes where necessary for hunting or trapping, many Innu communities rely heavily on trucks, SUVs, and cars; in Northern Innu communities, people use snowmobiles for hunting and general transportation.

Innu communities

Labrador Communities

Although Sheshatshiu and Natuashish are home to most of the province's Innu people, some also live at Labrador City, Wabush, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, St. John's, and elsewhere.[6]

Labrador Innu organizations and land claims

The Innu people of Labrador formally organized the Naskapi Montagnais Innu Association in 1976 to protect their rights, lands, and way of life against industrialization and other outside forces. The organization changed its name to the Innu Nation in 1990 and functions today as the governing body of the Labrador Innu. The group has won recognition for its members as status Indians under Canada's Indian Act in 2002 and is currently involved in land claim and self-governance negotiations with the federal and provincial governments.[6]

In addition to the Innu Nation, residents at both Natuashish and Sheshatshiu elect Band Councils to represent community concerns. The chiefs of both councils sit on the Innu Nation's board of directors and the three groups work in cooperation with one another.

The Innu Nation's efforts to raise awareness about the environmental impacts of a mining project in Voisey's Bay were documented in Marjorie Beaucage's 1997 film Ntapueu ... i am telling the truth.[7]:342

Quebec Communities

Notable people

The best-known members of the Innu nation are Kashtin, a popular Canadian folk rock duo in the 1980s and 1990s, and one of the most commercially successful and well-known First Nations musical groups.[8] The band was formed in 1984 by Claude McKenzie and Florent Vollant, two Innu from the Maliotenam reserve in northern Quebec. Shauit and Geneviève McKenzie-Sioui are singer-songwriters performing in the Innu language.

The writer and activist An Antane-Kapesh published the first book in French written by a First Nations woman in 1976, titled Je suis une maudite sauvagesse.

Innu writers and poets include Joséphine Bacon, Natasha Kanapé Fontaine and Rita Mestokosho.

The first Innu ever elected to the House of Commons of Canada was Bernard Cleary, a Bloc Québécois MP first elected in the 2004 election.[9]

Two Innu politicians, Peter Penashue of the Conservative Party and Jonathan Genest-Jourdain of the New Democratic Party, were elected to the House of Commons in the 2011 election, following which Penashue, as a member of the governing party caucus, became the first Innu person ever appointed to the Cabinet of Canada.[10]


  1. ^ "Aboriginal Ancestry Responses (73), Single and Multiple Aboriginal Responses (4), Residence on or off reserve (3), Residence inside or outside Inuit Nunangat (7), Age (8A) and Sex (3) for the Population in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories, 2016 Census - 25% Sample Data". www12.statcan.gc.ca. Government of Canada. 2017-10-25. Retrieved 2017-11-23.
  2. ^ Innu-Aimun - the language of the Innu (Montagnais) Archived 2011-09-30 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ a b c Canada's Tibet: The Killing of the Innu, a report from Survival International (PDF file)
  4. ^ Rogers & Leacock (1981:169)
  5. ^ a b c d e Katrina Kieltyka, "Sierra Club fighting plan to buy Canadian power: Say hydroelectric dams would harm indigenous people," Legislative Gazette, March 16, 2009, p. 21, available at Legislative Gazette archives Archived 2009-03-25 at the Wayback Machine (.pdf file). Retrieved March 20, 2009.
  6. ^ a b Innu Rights and Government in Labrador
  7. ^ Bell, Lynne; Williamson, Janice (2002). "In the Hands of the People: A Conversation with Marjorie Beaucage". In Beard, William; White, Jerry (eds.). North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema Since 1980. University of Alberta. ISBN 9780888643902.
  8. ^ "Kashtin". Encyclopedia of Music in Canada > Pop Groups. Historica-Dominion. 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-03.
  9. ^ "Meet Canada's first Innu MP, the Bloc's Bernard Cleary". The Hill Times, November 8, 2004.
  10. ^ "Penashue appointed to federal cabinet". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. 2011-05-18. Retrieved 2011-05-18.