On November 23, 2000 the Chief of the Innu community of Davis Inlet in Labrador, Canada, called for a massive airlift of fifty children to be taken to a detox center in Toronto to deal with an epidemic of gasoline and solvent sniffing. This follows a desperate appeal from the nearby community of Sheshashiut last week for help in dealing with the same problem in their community. In that case over a dozen children have been removed from the community and taken to a secure facility in a nearby military base at Goose Bay. Local leaders have described a situation in which school age children, some as young as nine or ten years old, wander the streets of the village in a stupor clutching a bag of gasoline in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. Children openly sniff gas with no fear of reprimand or repercussion and a heavy sense of desperation sits on a community that has been plagued with youth suicide, deaths by fire and exposure, epidemic rates of FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome) and infant mortality, chronic unemployment, and the harmful effects of the militarization of their lands by NATO which uses the Innu territory as a bombing and flight training range.
The Innu (formerly known as the Naskapi) have lived a traditional life supported by hunting caribou, fishing and other resource based activities. With the advent of the fur trade the Innu became trappers which allowed them to continue their life on the land. Life for the Innu consisted of summers spent close to the coast of Labrador when fish and seafood were plentiful and traders would arrive by boat and winters spent on the tundra and northern boreal forest following the reindeer herds In the 1950’s the Canadian government imposed a policy of settlement on the Innu and forcibly moved people to the coastal community of Davis Inlet. In doing so they removed them from their traditional sustenance, their economy, and their culture which was integrally tied to their way of life on the land. Once settled in Davis Inlet the Innu found they were at the mercy of welfare administrators, there was no employment, housing was inadequate, and schooling was based upon concepts entirely alien to them. The government of Canada in attempting to provide social services (health care, education, welfare) to the Innu sought to facilitate the administration of these by centralizing the Innu in one place and in their “kindness” destroyed a culture.
In the 1970’s and increasing in the 1980’s NATO countries such as Belgium, Germany and France entered into an arrangement with the Canadian government to use the traditional lands of the Innu as a flight practice and bombing range. Innu have reported that they have had close encounters with the dropping of dummy bombs near their camps; that they are suffering from the continued exposure to sonic booms generated by bombers; and that most importantly the reindeer herds, which they have traditionally depended upon, have been negatively affected with great numbers of still born calves etc.. The Innu have led a vigorous international campaign since the late 1980’s to halt the bombing in their lands and many Innu have been jailed for acts of civil disobedience in this campaign. They have had only limited success in this campaign and it is ongoing. Significantly the only way the Innu may have to address their current social reality is a return to their traditional culture, the foods provided by the land and the reindeer, and the knowledge of their territories and culture, which will instill meaning in the lives of their young people and purpose in the lives of their Elders who have the knowledge of how to live on the land. One thing that is certain is that continued residence in Davis Inlet is acquiescence to genocide. The Elders and leadership of the Innu have had to make the very painful decision to remove children from their community and from their families acknowledging that this is now the only way to save these children. The question beyond the immediate is what future they are saving the children to?
In dealing with the epidemic of solvent abuse among the Innu youth there must be a major paradigm shift from the view of this as a social problem to viewing it as a pathology. Gas sniffing and other forms of self-destruction are the consequence of a complex number of processes rooted in the removal of the Innu from their traditional lands and cultures. Having the children detoxified at a medical facility and counseled on an individual basis is an essential step. But, unless the causes of the disease are addressed they will return to Davis Inlet and they will either take up sniffing again or will turn to some other equally self-destructive practice. What these children are lacking is hope, a future, and any firm conception of who they are in the world. Addressing the problem through the manufacturing of opportunity through education, employment services, etc. will not address that lack of self-realization and the concomitant anomie that rides along with it. Cultural dislocation of this kind can only be addressed through cultural strategies and cultural revitalization and this can ultimately only be accomplished by returning the Innu to the land, by removing the intrusions on their lands and resources that prevent this, and by the development of just policies based upon recognition of the Innu as a self-determining nation with the right to fully determine their own destiny.
One of the most significant aspects of the story of the Innu children is that a Canadian public weary of stories of native youth suicides, poverty, desperation, alcohol and drug abuse rampant in some reserve communities, shrugs it’s shoulders in apathy. Images on the CBC, Canada’s national television network, of children sniffing gas for the camera are greeted with indifference and an attitude of helplessness. This is not surprising as Aboriginal people have been entirely removed from the national political landscape in the current federal election campaign and the only stories the media has of Aboriginal people are those showing communities in crisis. The lack of interest the Canadian government has shown in Aboriginal people is reflected nation-wide and the forums for dialogue on political arrangements of the 1980’s between Native people and Canada have now been supplanted with the implicit assumptions of a conquering army whose only responsibility for the conquered is that of pity and charity. While we may dispute the notion of conquest we cannot deny the ideology of it which has informed every Canadian government policy towards Aboriginal people from the passing of the Indian Act in the 1870’s to the Trudeau government’s White Paper of 1969 to current Indian Act revisions proposed by the Liberal government – all are founded upon the notion that Aboriginal people must be assimilated into the dominant (white) society by coercion if necessary. We are again seeing the victims of this kind of policy and they are our children.