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NATO's Invasion: Air Combat Training and its Impact on the Innu

I discover immediately that the CBS "Journal" team has already spent a considerable amount of time in Goose Bay talking with frontiersmen - local business leaders, government and military personnel. I'm sitting on an upturned lard pail in the community of Sheshatshit, Labrador, behind the house of Innu hunter Sebastian Penunsi, and fielding all kinds of tricky questions from the Journal team. "The Innu are described as glorified campers; they load up on junk food and canned meat when they go to the country and rest on their 'butts' all day. What do you say to that? Are not the Innu simply opportunists; exploiting this military issue in order to advance their land claims Why are the Innu here so radical? There are those who say that Innu opposition to the low-level flights is the result of the interference of outsiders and a few white advisors who have their own agendas to put forward. What do you say to that? People in Goose Bay are concerned that the Innu and the peace groups that support them in Europe will do to the local economy what Greenpeace did to the New Foundland seal hunt. Are their fears realistic? I leave the interview with a sense of gloom and foreboding, grieving inwardly over the amount of time spent in the interview discussing the narrow-minded opinions of Goose Bay proponents of military expansion and not the looming destruction of one of North America's few remaining hunting and gathering peoples. I worry about the future of the Innu campaign against the military invasion of their territory as I become more aware of how well orchestrated the pro-military public relations efforts are becoming.

The Innu, otherwise known as Montagnais-Naskapi Indians, constitute an indigenous nation of about 9,600 people who live in a number of communities in eastern Québec and Labrador. Many Innu continue to pursue an a age-old hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering way of life. In the fall and spring each year, Innu families leave their government-built communities and travel far into the interior of the Québec-Labrador peninsula where knowledge of hunting, trapping, fishing, hide preparation, cooking methods and traditional religious beliefs can be most effectively transmitted to younger generations., Unfortunately, the survival of Innu culture is now seriously in doubt due to the expanding military air combat training activities in the peninsula and plans to establish an $800 million NATO Tactical Fighter and Weapons Training Center in Goose Bay, Labrador.

The main problem for the Innu at this time is low-level flight training based in Goose Bay by the West German Luftwaffe using primarily Phantom II and Tornado aircraft and the British Royal Air Force using Tornados. According to both Innu and Settler (Inuit/White descent) reports, the aircraft fly so low that their exhaust makes waves on the surface of lakes and river, ripples the canvas on tents and sways trees. West German Phantom IIs, either singly, in tandem, or as many as four in low-level formation, fly as low as 100 feet, passing through valleys and over lakes where Innu camps are located. On occasion, the pilots have spotted Innu encampments or hunting parties, and have purposely changed direction to fly over them. Pilots have also engaged in "hot dogging", standing the aircraft on end over a camp or hunting party, kicking in the afterburners, and shooting straight up into the air above the heads of the Innu.

The Innu say that the extremely loud and unexpected noise generated by low-flying aircraft is extremely traumatic, especially for the young and the elderly. They report that on occasion their children have jumped out of canoes and into the water and have run into the forest to seek refuge from the jets. Other children have left their camps and run into the forest, and their parents have experienced some difficulty finding them afterward. Many Innu men feel that they cannot leave their hunting camps to check more distant traplines because they are worried about the adverse reaction of their children to the overflights. Innu report that after an overflight they experience a ringing in their ears which may last up to one hour.

The country where the Innu live and hunt is extremely quiet, except for the occasional chain saw or gunshot, limited camp noise of children playing and adults conversing, and chopping wood. Away from the camps it is so quiet you can hear yourself breathe, and even the sound of the canoe paddles flicking the water seems like a lot of noise. The sudden arrival of a noisy jet is obviously a horrendous contrast to the tranquility and solitude normally present. Apparently, during the fall of 1983, a number of Innu children from La Romaine on the Québec North Shore had to return to the community because of their fear of the aircraft. Some Innu have said that they will never again go out in the country for the fall as long as the low-level flights continue, because the loud, unexpected noise is just too traumatic for them and their children.

Innu claims that the extremely loud and unexpected noise generated by low-flying jets severely traumatizes their children and discourages the from going into the country are not exaggerations as Goose Bay from tiresome would claim. Rural peoples in Scotland, Wales, England and West Germany have been complaining for years about the serious public health problems posed by noisy low-flying military jets.

Civilians in rural Europe exposed to the above-pain threshold noise from the military aircraft have been told that the jet noise is the "sound of freedom" or the "price of peace." Nevertheless, in West Germany at least, growing public opposition is motivating the government to export its unwanted domestic problem to the skies above Innu bush camps and hunting parties.

Rural residents of Nevada, including Shoshone Indians, also experience severe problems resulting from air combat training operations, and have mobilized politically to counter the growing threat to their health and peace of mind. In Nevada supersonic flying at both low and high altitudes produces frequent "carpet sonic booms" and even more intense "focus and superfocus booms" which crack the walls and foundations in houses and blow out car windshields. In recognition of the seriousness of the health problem posed by air combat training, the U.S. Navy has offered $10.2 million in compensation the ranching people of Dixie Valley, Nevada, who must evacuate land that will be rendered uninhabitable due to the frequency of the sonic booms that will occur (Citizen Alert, Nevada, personal communication).

Many medical professionals and researchers who are familiar with the literature on the effects of jet noise and sonic booms have concluded that military training operations such as those experienced by the Innu constitute a serious public health problem. According to Dr. Richard Bargen, an MD living in Nevada who has studied the health effects of low-level and supersonic jet noise, "people cannot overcome the 'startle effect' induced by extremely loud and unexpected noise - they never habituate to this kind of adverse stimulus." The Conseil Attikamek-Montagnais (CAM), which represents Innu based in the province of Québec, has recently made public a preliminary report on the serious health impacts of subsonic military jet noise on the Innu community of La Romaine. The report presents information obtained from the USAF Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio concerning the noise levels produced by military jets at low altitude. For example, the noise produced by the Phantom II F-4, one of the aircraft used by the West German Air Force in Québec and Labrador, is 134.8 dBA at 200 ft 140.8 dBA a 100 ft, and 146.5 dBA at 50 ft. The pair threshold for most people is somewhere between 110 and 130 dBA and permanent damage to the inner ear can occur as a result of exposure to noise in excess of 140 dBA for more than five milliseconds.

Significantly the CAM report concludes that low-level jet noise and sonic booms are incompatible with the hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering activities of the Innu. In Innu culture, given the great importance of harvesting various wildlife species, an increasingly stressful and threatening environment as a result of jet noise and sonic booms, associated with a decrease in the quality and abundance of wildlife, will be translated into a negative social impact for the community of La Romaine. Negative economic impact, resulting from military expansion, includes a decrease in revenues from the sale of furs and a decrease in the contribution of quality bush foods in the diet of La Romaine Innu. The increasing jet noise and sonic booms will also result in a decreasing interest to practice their subsistence hunting way of life in the interior of the territory. Denied access to the country, the Innu will have more and more trouble passing on to their children all the important skills and knowledge that have been their heritage for thousands of years.

The CAM report identifies a number of long-term consequences:

* transfer to hunting activities into parts of the territory that are flown over less frequently, resulting in the concentration of more and more Innu on an increasingly small territory.

* overexploitation of the wildlife resources in this small territory;

* increasing conflict with non-Innu over the exploitation of the wildlife resources in the vicinity of the community;

* increased sendentarization;

* increased competition for minimal available employment in the community

When seen in the context of other planned developments in the region, such as the building of dams on major rivers on the lower North Shore of Québec and on the lower Churchill River, the Trans-Labrador highway, mine construction, and the designation of public parks or wilderness conservation area, the survival of the Innu hunting way of life appears seriously in doubt. Social problems such as alcohol abuse and family violence are just some of the consequences of denying the Innu access to the country and the resultant "cultural collapse."

The Innu are particularly concerned now about plans to establish a massive NATO Tactical Fighter Weapons Training Center in Goose Bay. Frequent air combat exercises are likely to be held using large numbers of aircraft that undertake practice bombing runs, offensive air support rescue operations, rapid deployment exercises, helicopter and tank attacks, etc. Up to four bombing range complexes could be built in the interior of the Innu hunting grounds in Québec-Labrador and the "full use of conventional weapons" would be used on them (including 50-lb. bombs, "submunitions," etc.).

All of this does not bode well for the future of the Innu people. Extensive air combat training in the skies of eastern Québec and Labrador may very well make the region unfit for human habitation. The wildlife upon which the Innu depend also may be threatened by these developments. There is already evidence to show that many wildlife species including caribou, migratory waterfowl, furbearers and raptors could react adversely to the loud and unexpected noise. For example, female mink raised in captivity eat their young when exposed to extremely loud and unexpected noise. The question here is whether female mink and other furbearers such as fox and marten react the same way in the wilds of Québec-Labrador.

Federal and provincial government studies of the environmental and human impact of the present and proposed air combat training operations in the peninsula will not be complete until after NATO makes a final decision about where to build its training facility. The Canadian government says it would not accept the base until impact assessment are finished. However, the fact that it is investing a great deal of money and energy in attempting to convince NATO to choose Goose Bay over Konya, Turkey, suggests that it has already committed itself to the idea of having the base in Goose Bay even if negative impacts are identified in the environmental impact assessments.

Unfortunately, many of the frontiersmen in Goose Bay do not seem to be aware of the potentially harmful side effects of military expansion in the region. The promise of increased business revenues and jobs in an area that is economically severely depressed, and a heavy dose of racism toward the Innu, have blinded them to what a military future has in store for them. The net effect of this has been to seriously polarize much of the population, with business interests, immigrant Newfoundlanders and settlers lining up on one side of the issue and the Innu and their non-Labradorian supporters on the other. The Innu are branded as radicals and extremists for their desperate attempts to protect their health and culture.

The outcome of the conflict over the military expansion is primarily a question of how successful the Innu will be in their efforts both to stimulate public awareness about their problem in Canada and Europe and to transform this awareness into some kind of substantive pressure on the Canadian government and its NATO allies.

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