Simeon Tshakapesh
Children as young as 7 are addicted to sniffing solvents such as gasoline on the remote Natuashish First Nation in Labrador, Canada.

Innu Leader Ties Churchill Hydropower Project Shutdown to Action on Youth Solvent Addiction

Martha Troian

It starts with gasoline, readily available to children on this remote, fly-in-only Innu nation powered largely by generators.

Kids as young as seven sniff that and other solvents out of small plastic bags. Addicted, many eventually commit suicide in a scourge that has been well-documented, but remains unaddressed, according to the chief of one Innu community.

The decades-old problem has become just too much for Natuashish First Nation Chief Simeon Tshakapesh. It is two weeks to the day since he issued an ultimatum to provincial officials in Newfoundland & Labrador: If something is not done about the chronic solvent abuse plaguing his people’s children, he will shut down the road leading to the multibillion dollar hydroelectric Lower Churchill project.

“I've seen a lot of suicides in kids, I’ve seen kids being burned, kids starting fires and damaging homes,” Tshakapesh told Indian Country Today Media Network. “I am not putting up with this. I am not going to tolerate this any more.”

On October 3 the chief of the small Innu community gave Premier Kathy Dunderdale two weeks to improve child protection services—or face the consequences.

“I gave them the ultimatum that they’re going have to do something," he said. "I want to see something on the ground in Natuashish.”

If help does not arrive, he said, he will shut down the Lower Churchill Project, a hydroelectric generating facility currently being constructed in central Labrador.

A remote fly-in community, Natuashish has approximately 1,040 members. Half of the population are youth. Although it’s an alcohol-free community, Natuashish has struggled with solvent abuse for more than 20 years. The problems are well known, as articles describing children as young as seven years old sniffing gasoline from small plastic bags shocked many across the nation not too long ago. Tshakepesh said it's too easy for youth to get solvents like gasoline.

“We operate under the trucks, skidoos, outdoor motors and we also have generators,” Tshakapesh said. “We don’t have big garages [that] the average Canadian has.”

The provincial government has so far responded to the chief’s demands by deploying additional social workers to the community, albeit on a rotational basis. Natuashish has just one permanent social worker and two community support workers. But it may not be enough, and as the chief's deadline looms, there's uncertainty about whether anything else is going to happen. Shortly after Tshakapesh delivered his ultimatum, the provincial government underwent a cabinet shuffle. Paul Davis replaced Charlene Johnson as new minister of Child, Youth and Family Services.

It’s the sort of political uncertainty behind the lack of equitable child protection services for Innu children compared to non-indigenous children in the province, let alone the country, Tshakapesh said. There has been no collaboration between the federal and provincial governments for the past 50 years, he added.

“How many years do we have to fight to get the services, how many kids have to die before these governments listen to Aboriginal people?” Tshakapesh said.

Last year the department of Child, Youth and Family Services signed three memorandums of understanding with members of Nunatsiavut, the regional government, and the leaders of Sheshatshiu Innu and Mushuau Innu First Nations. The agreements set out goals to improve services for Innu and Inuit children and youth, including the creation of a planning circle comprising provincial and indigenous organizations.

The planning circle is meant to improve service delivery within the communities by collaborating and sharing information among support agencies. But it only meets four times a year. Tshakapesh said this simply isn't enough.

“How long do the planning circles have to take place while the kids are dying outside?” he said. “Why do we have to wait to get these kids into a safe environment?”

For years the answer seemed to be just simply removing children and youth from the community and sending them south for treatment. Such a remedy did not work so well for Antonia Rich, from Natuashish. Now 30, she remembers spending time at a treatment center in Ontario as a teenager. There, she told Indian Country Today Media Network in a recent interview, she was not only forbidden to speak her Innu language but also was sexually assaulted by a worker.

“He was touching us while we were swimming,” said Rich, and recounted her reasons for beginning to sniff gasoline as a girl. “My parents were drinking, and we didn’t have any food back then, there was nowhere to go.”

Now a mother of five, Rich said she finally stopped abusing solvents after finding out she was expecting her first child. At a recent public meeting, parents, elders and community members told Tshakapesh that kids should no longer be removed from the community. Parents would like to see more child protection services, but within their own territory, and programs that incorporate Innu elders, culture and traditions.

“They want us to take the kids into the bush,” said Tshakapesh. “They want us to teach them a way of Innu life.”

For many, loss of cultural continuity and forced relocation—the most recent one taking place in 2002, from Davis Inlet to Natuashish—had a severe impact on the Innu.

"We want to make this right," said Tshakapesh.

Tshakapesh’s threatened move—blocking a road leading to the construction site of the Lower Churchill Project—could potentially cost the project a lot of money and land the chief in trouble with the law. It's a risk he said he's willing to take.

"These kids are our future,” he said. “If we don't deal with this now, ten years from now there's no Innu Nation in Labrador."