For three years, Naomi Fontaine taught French at the high school in Uashat, an Innu reserve very close to Sept-Îles. Her classes abounded with brilliant, captivating teenagers. They were inspiring models of resilience.
By Alexandra Duchaine
“My students faced seemingly insurmountable odds, difficulties which adults wouldn’t be able to get around. But they were tough, and they always found the tools to emerge even better than before,” Fontaine says.
Through her second novel Manikanetish, she hopes to put into words the courage and the strength of Uashat’s teens.
Staying in School
Fontaine’s goal in writing this novel is to raise the low level of self-esteem that Uashat’s new generation feels. She says that young Innus have a negative self-image because they constantly hear bad things about their community in the public domain. “So many young people drop out because they don’t know their own worth,” Fontaine says sadly.
Each year, Uashat’s grade school welcomes 120 new students. In Fontaine’s Secondary 5 French class, there were only 20 students on average.
“We have to ask ourselves why there’s such a high dropout rate,” Fontaine says. She would like to see a commission of inquiry into the matter. If you ask her what needs to be changed in order to keep kids in school, she would reply: everything.
À la québécoise
In the province’s native reserves, students are taught “à la Québécoise.”
“That’s a problem,” she argues, “because the Innu have a completely different view of existence.” They don’t see their lives in a linear way, in terms of steps leading to happiness. They aren’t aiming for a diploma above all, followed by marriage and a house, ending up with kids. They see life as a circle.
“Innus take life as it comes,” says Fontaine. “Having children at age 16 is possible; as for school, they can always come back later, that’s normal, that’s okay.” She believes that schools should adapt to the way that indigenous people think.
Add to all that the underfunding of First Nations schooling, and the teaching of French rather than Innu. “School should bring us our traditions, our language, our history, our way of being. If not, we’ll hit a wall,” Fontaine argues.
For the moment, Manikanetish is a standard-bearer for Innu culture and contributes, in its own way, to lessening the shock of hitting that wall.
In Uashat, a small lady used to take under her wing all the village’s abandoned children. She never had children herself, so she raised these kids as if they were her own. Orphans and babies would be left at the door, because there was no room inside the house. The kids would find love and comfort in their crowded house. The woman’s nickname was Manikanetish, or Little Margaret in English.
The high school, built on the reserve’s main road, was given this name. Naomi Fontaine’s novel is in one way similar to Little Margaret’s home: a refuge of tenderness for Uashat’s children.