Literature | Canada

“With my poetry I return home”

The Innu poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine on her success and her struggles.

A portrait photo of the poet Natasha Kanapé Fontaine. She has half-length dark hair and is looking into the camera.

The poetess Natasha Kanapé Fountaine. Photo

Ms. Kanapé Fontaine, you are one of the few successful Innu poets in Quebec. Why is that?

Quebec has long been focused on asserting its own identity, with preserving its French culture and language. In the English-speaking part of Quebec, indigenous authors have been publishing for over forty years. No one there speaks of a "new" indigenous literature, as happens in Quebec.

Here, at first, there were only An Antane Kapesh and Rita Mestokosho. Maurizio Gatti contributed to their visibility in 2004 with his anthology of indigenous literature. Starting in the 1990s, publications by Joséphine Bacon, Naomi Fontaine and myself joined the list. There are both historical and social causes behind the fact that we are still such a small number.

I give workshops, as do Naomi and Joséphine Bacon. But that is just not enough to encourage and train all the interested young people who want to write professionally. There are not enough publishers who publish inexperienced indigenous authors, especially those who only speak a little French. French is only the second language in some communities and young people hardly speak it.

Do you see yourself as a pioneer, raising your voice for the indigenous people in public?

I cannot say that about myself. I am constantly asking myself what I need or what society needs from me. When I become artistically active, I consider what form it should take, whether interdisciplinary, as a text, a play or an image. I am aware that I am one of the first of us to have a large public presence and also a media reach. I try to use this.

Being active in various fields of work has made it possible for me to live from my art. This would not have been possible if I had only been an author or poet. My timing was good. I gained experience with the Pan-Canadian protest movement Idle No More and realised that sharing my life in public and exchanges with the audience are both part of my creative process. I like to discuss how indigenous groups live together and the relationship between them.

In your poem "La resèrve" ("The Reserve") from the volume "Bleuets et abricots" you write that our sons and daughters will rise from the reservoirs and will summon the spirits from the legends. Do your origins drive your poetry?

In general, for me it is probably rather the land of my ancestors, a place that remains out of reach to me. I dream of returning to my homeland. I currently live in the city. With my poetry I return home.

You grew up in the Innu community of Pessamit in the north of Quebec...

In the early 1990s, only a few people lived there. I remember how quiet and peaceful life was. There were no serious social and economic problems at that time. My father had a job, nothing big, but he earned his living. My mother had friends and her family. We spent a lot of time with the family, I was with all my grandparents. They were hunters and liked to eat game, so they went hunting. They were peaceful years. My grandparents took me to the forest, to the lake, to fish. We ate together and spent time together. I enjoyed that very much.

What language did you speak as a child?

When I was little, at home we spoke Innu, at school it was French. And that's why at some point I spoke French at home as well. I lost my mother tongue for a long time, but as an adult I started to speak Innu again through many visits to Pessamit.

What topic is particularly close to your heart?

The country. In my current stage show, I talk about rediscovering my physical connection to the country. I train a martial art that helps me to establish a connection between body and mind. One day I would like to travel the country as a nomad like my ancestors. Realising this dream is very important to me. As an author, my reflections led me to understand that it is crucial for us young people to become familiar with the old ways of life and to establish a connection to the ancestors. In this way we can bring our identity into alignment.

In 2012, the protest movement Idle No More was founded as a reaction to packages of laws from the government of the time, which were intended to abolish the protection of forests and water bodies. Many citizens joined the peaceful demonstrations for indigenous rights, the protection of the environment and indigenous culture. Where is Idle No More today?

It is a movement that has deeply influenced my generation. We became a mouthpiece for many young women. The movement has become a literary and artistic current, you can feel its influence in the media and literature. Idle No More may no longer exist on the streets, but every time there are social and

The women are not letting up although their rights are being trampled on

political debates, when people demonstrate, they use the experience they have gained during these protests. The protests were powerful experiences, which continue to linger with us today.

What do we still have to fight for?

The struggle to recognise that racism is structural is still very much alive. The place of women in communities and cities also requires constant debate. I am thinking especially of the Indian Act, a racist, discriminatory law that tramples on women's rights. But the women do not let up. We are also still fighting for the recognition of indigenous literature, even though indigenous authors travel a lot within Canada and talk about their cultures and books. At present, their media presence is sizable. It remains to be seen how this develops.

They are also internationally successful as poets and artists. What experiences have you had in Europe?

When I travel to Europe, I no longer have to start with a lecture on Canadian history to justify indigenous literature. People now know about it. I can deal with current issues and share my thoughts with them.

Does it bother you to be asked again and again about indigenous issues?

It depends where I am going. I choose places and events that invite me as an author, as a woman, as a person, and only then because I am Innu. When I introduce myself, I do so as an Innu. This is important to me because of the historical context. When I accept an inquiry, it is because I know that I am perceived as an independent person and not because I am an Innu.

Interview by Jennifer Dummer
Translated by Jess Smee