- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2001

Two communities of Innu, or aborigines, have been in the news a lot for several years, mostly because they protest NATO's low-altitude test flights over their villages in Sheshatshiu and Davis Inlet, situated along northeastern Quebec and just north of Newfoundland. Lately, though, the Innu have been in the news for another reason.

Their children sniff gasoline. They hold plastic bags tightly around their little faces and sniff gasoline. They sniff at day, and they sniff at night. Sometimes, when it's cold, they huddle in small bands and sniff. Sometimes they hold lighted cigarettes or lighted candles in one hand and a gas-fumed bag in another, knowing full well what the consequences may be. They know because they have seen children such as 11-year-old Charles burned to death or they have heard the story from someone else. Yet they just don't seem to care. Worse, they are addicted and cannot stop.

Paul Rich, chief of the Innu in Sheshatshiu, couldn't take it anymore, so last fall, he and other elders asked the provincial government of Newfoundland to take away about two dozen of their children.

"The safety of these children is the paramount issue. The ongoing situation is drastic, and we need to take drastic measures," Mr. Rich said in his request. "We insist that these children be taken into care immediately."

How often have you heard of such a thing? When have you ever heard of such a thing? Adults asking make that pleading for authorities to take their children.

About 40 children were placed in substance-abuse programs. Like heroin addicts trying to get the proverbial monkey off their backs, the Innu children tried to kick their gas-sniffing habit cold turkey. That means they vomited and ached just like hard-core junkies. The best their caretakers could do was give them warm shelter, food and plenty of fluids. Some did so well they will be placed in foster homes; others will return to Sheshatshiu.

The elders had few options but to send the children away so they could live. What else could they do? Many adult Innu are themselves alcoholics or abusive, or alcoholics and abusive. Many adults and children, too lose their minds from a home brew of molasses and raisins. They drink it until they pass out. No one is in denial, which is about the only good news.

The Innu, who are hunters and gatherers, say their real "problems" resulted from their dependence on the fur and caribou trade. The industry crashed along with the stock market in the Depression, and then the provincial government in Newfoundland imposed hunting restrictions. What's worse is a hydroelectric project that began in the 1970s and flooded hunting areas. A more recent promise of jobs from a proposed nickel mine diminished because of a dispute about environmental damage.

A letter the Innu leaders presented to Queen Elizabeth II during a 1997 visit summed up their latter-day despair. The letter said, in part: "The history of colonization here has been lamentable and has severely demoralized our people. They turn now to drink and self-destruction. We have the highest rate of suicide in North America. Children as young as 12 have taken their own life recently. We feel powerless to prevent the massive mining projects now planned and many of us are driven into discussing mere financial compensation, even though we know that the mines and hydroelectric dams will destroy our land and our culture and that money will not save us."

Indeed, of the 1,000 people who live in Sheshatshiu settlements, only 135 have jobs, and the average yearly income is about $11,400. Most adults ended their formal schooling at ninth grade, and maybe a dozen completed college. In the 1950s, the government decided to start building settlements for them, and the Roman Catholic Church built a church. The government built schools for them and provides social services. The Innu, however, see more bad than good in entitlements and welfare dependency.

They say they drink too much because, as country people, they don't know "how to drink." They say they abuse and fight one another because, as country people used to living off the land and in tents, they don't know to live together in houses. They say they kill themselves because they have no hope and no pride.

In Davis Inlet, though, the children are at greater risk. The elders there are not so keen on sending the children off. Also, they are afraid that if the children tell authorities they were abused or neglected, the elders might be arrested. So the Innu chief of Davis Inlet prefers to "negotiate," or plea bargain, with authorities.

So what do you do? What do you tell these people who have lived in the forests of Labrador and Quebec for 3,000 years and lived off the land and caribou for just as many? How do you wean them off subsistence and welfare and get them to understand how assimilation works? Or do you?

There is a natural resistance to change in any culture. Still, shame on the Canadian government for allowing children to stagger around day and night like the living dead.

Deborah Simmons is an editorial writer and columnist for The Washington Times. She can be reached by e-mail ([email protected])

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