Gas Sniffing in Labrador

At 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, the makeshift clapboard detox centre in the isolated Labrador community of Sheshatshiu is already well into its heartbreaking rhythm.

Gas Sniffing in Labrador

At 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, the makeshift clapboard detox centre in the isolated Labrador community of Sheshatshiu is already well into its heartbreaking rhythm. Inside the building, most of the 14 children who arrived the night before, rambling and reeking of fumes from the gasoline they had inhaled, still sleep on the floor. The four Innu adults manning the centre already look weary and discouraged, even though their shift is just two hours old. Who can blame them? Six teenagers, the youngest 14, stand in front of the building, dark eyes visible over the plastic sacks that they press to their mouths and noses. When someone approaches, the youths make no attempt to run or hide. They just inhale from their gasoline-filled pouches, making them expand and contract like ragged balloons, staring back at friend or stranger with the same empty gaze.

Sheshatshiu is a community in crisis. On Nov. 15, Paul Rich, the band chief, pleaded with the Newfoundland and Labrador government to step in and take 39 gasoline-addicted children, some as young as eight years old, away from their parents so they could get help. Last week, a provincial court authorized social services workers to remove 19 of the hardest cases for treatment. Several of them had disappeared by the time a bus pulled into the detox centre's parking lot on the night of Nov. 21. The 12 who remained - descendants of a nomadic people who had roamed the Labrador Barrens for thousands of years - climbed onboard, having been told they were going to a pizza party in Goose Bay, about 30 km away. Instead, they were bound for a barracks on the air base there, where counsellors would begin the wrenching process of helping them beat their gasoline-sniffing addiction. How long the process would take - or whether it would even be successful - is anyone's guess. "There was just no other way," said Peter Penashue, president of Labrador's 1,800-member Innu Nation, who wept as he watched the youths leave. "We have the will, but not the resources to help ourselves."

Without help, Penashue's people are marching towards self-annihilation. Sheshatshiu, population 1,200, is a nightmare of addiction, suicide and violent death. A year ago, the community became a worldwide symbol of the plight of aboriginal people when Survival International, a London-based human-rights group, issued a report comparing the decimation of Labrador's Innu to the systematic oppression of the Tibetans by China. According to the organization, Ottawa had issued the Innu a death sentence by forcing them to abandon their nomadic lives for permanent settlements where their traditional culture disappeared and a cycle of alcoholism, abuse and neglect began. The report concluded that the Innu of Davis Inlet, 200 km north of Sheshatshiu, had the highest annual suicide rate in the world: 178 per 100,000 people. And the depth of the problem was driven home when Innu leader Jean-Pierre Ashini, who had flown from Sheshatshiu to London to take part in the media conference marking the release of the report, received word that his 15-year-old son, Andrew Rich, had swallowed a vial of pills and then killed himself with a gunshot to the head. "Things have just gotten worse since then," says Chief Paul Rich, who has lost both parents and two of his brothers to alcohol-related deaths. "It is like our world is falling apart."

A visitor to Sheshatshiu does not have to go far for proof. Since Andrew Rich was buried in the cemetery just across the road from the detox centre, 10 new crosses have appeared to mark the graves of the victims of drugs, alcohol and despair. The latest deaths were among the most horrible: last April, 10-year-old Charles Rich, a very distant relation to Andrew, died in a house fire while sniffing gas; on Oct. 27, two grandparents perished along with their three grandchildren in an alcohol-related house fire. Death by natural causes is a rare thing in a community where it is estimated that well over half of adults are alcoholics, and domestic violence is widespread. Or where half of all teenagers drink, sniff gas, take illegal drugs or have thought about committing suicide, according to a survey by a public-health nurse. "These kids have no one to turn to," declares Paul Pone, 23, a father of two who himself attempted suicide eight years ago in despair over his miserable home life and the sexual abuse he says he suffered as a child from one of his teachers. "The parents are drinking, they are out playing bingo. Even if the kids wanted to go home, no one is there for them."

No matter what the community does, nothing seems to make a real difference. After a rash of teen suicides in the summer of 1999, the band council banned alcohol and drugs from the community - then had to halt the initiative after several residents threatened to sue the council for violating their human rights. Even the year-old Charles J. Andrew Youth Restoration Centre, which opened last May to provide long-term help, has been unable to slow the dramatic increase in solvent abuse. Penashue maintains his community needs to be unshackled to solve its own problems: the Innu were not given status under the federal Indian Act when Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation in 1949, which means they cannot make their own bylaws or administer their own social services. And they are still waiting for the implementation of a Nov. 24, 1999, agreement between Ottawa, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Innu, which called for the transfer of education programs and community policing services to the natives.

Rich says he had no choice but to call on the provincial government to help his community's youth. But breaking the grip of addiction is going to be agonizingly hard, even with the young people under guard in a compound away from the community. "Solvent addicts in detox tend to be very hyper and compulsive," explains Linda Boudreau, director of Poundmaker's Adolescent Treatment Centre, which treats aboriginal addiction in St. Paul, Alta. "They will do anything to get the substance." And she points out that even after treatment, the chances of someone staying clean in a community where addiction is widespread remain slim.

That worries Raphael Gregoire, a volunteer at the detox centre, whose two daughters, ages 10 and 11 and both gasoline addicts, were also sent to Goose Bay for treatment a day after the bus took the 12 youths away. The 51-year-old Sheshatshiu resident has spent time in Davis Inlet, where it is estimated that 60 of the community's 169 youths are currently chronic gas sniffers - and where band leaders last week issued their own call for government help. Gregoire remembers how some of those young people in Davis Inlet were also sent away for treatment - and how quickly they slid back into the old habit after returning to their community. Now, he wonders whether the same fate awaits his own children when they come back to Sheshatshiu. "You can't treat the symptoms without treating the disease," he said one night last week as he waited at the detox centre. Then he excused himself. His shift had started. Soon, he knew, the children would begin to come.

Maclean's December 4, 2000