Six Innu children addicted to petrol and alcohol tried to commit

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The Independent Online
IN THE remote settlement of Davis Inlet on the north coast of Canada, six children of the Innu tribe were found last week almost comatose in an unheated fish shed, with their faces jammed into plastic bags containing petrol-soaked rags. They were trying to kill themselves.

The children clawed, scratched and spat upon their would-be rescuers, demanding they be left to die in a solvent-induced delirium rather than continue their wretched lives in the desolate outpost.

The children, aged from 10 to 16, were eventually revived and flown to a Canadian military air base in Goose Bay. Soon all Canada knew of their plight. Their attempted suicide focused attention on the desperation of the Innu people and the Third World conditions at the settlement at Davis Inlet, where 500 Innu live on an island.

Most of the community is addicted to alcohol or petrol sniffing. One in four of the adults living there has attempted suicide in the last year alone, according to a tribal policeman. Some of them, with access to hunting guns, have succeeded.

Officials from the federal government in Ottawa and the Newfoundland provincial government have been sent to Davis Inlet this weekend to make an emergency report. The Canadian Minister of Health, Benoit Bouchard, has offered to fly about 20 of the addicted children to a treatment centre in the United States. But Innu leaders are arguing for a treatment facility to be established in Labrador, where the children can be looked after in their own language and within their own cultural traditions.

The six children who had attempted to kill themselves had made a suicide pact to commemorate the anniversary of death of six of their friends a year ago in a house fire. The children who burned to death had been abandoned by their parents who had gone out drinking. The investigation into that incident detailed the sordid conditions in Davis Inlet but it was ignored until last week, caught in a tangle of bureaucracy between the provincial and federal governments.

Bill Partridge, a former Halifax policeman who now works as an addiction counsellor, said that when he arrived in Davis Inlet two years ago, 95 per cent of the adults were alcoholics. Some of them have since kicked the habit but, he estimates, at any given time half of the adults are contemplating suicide.

The children frequently resort to petrol sniffing as an escape from the horrors of home poorly heated shacks, frequent beatings by their drunken parents, hunger and boredom.

One former petrol addict, who quit after his 16-year-old wife committed suicide, told reporters last week he began sniffing to forget about his parents' alcoholism. 'I was just so completely out of my mind, out of this world. It gave me peace of mind . . . I felt like I was just hanging there.'

Another youngster said she began sniffing because 'I didn't like to live in my house because it was so cold. There was no furnace . . . my parents used to drink a lot and when they were drunk they used to beat me.'

The young people hang around the local petrol station and steal petrol from the hoses or from snowmobiles and boats.

Davis Inlet has become a symbol for what has gone wrong with Canadian attempts to deal with native peoples. The Innu are an Indian people who were the original inhabitants of the Quebec/ Labrador peninsula. They used to subsist by hunting caribou that roam the area. They are not related to the Inuit (Eskimo) people who live further north, and who recently struck a historic land deal with the government in the North Western Territories.

The Innu in the Davis Inlet area were originally drawn to a Hudson Bay Company trading post, where they exchanged caribou and other pelts for guns and other goods. When that post was closed in the 1960s, they were moved into Davis Inlet and several other new communities created by the provincial government, in order to centralise health, education and other services. About 10,000 of them are scattered throughout the Labrador area.

In Davis Inlet, there are about 50 wooden shacks, with no running water, no sewerage and no electricity. For three months of the year, the residents cannot cross to the mainland to their traditional hunting grounds. Their only link during the winter is by small plane.

They have become almost totally dependent on welfare payments. Some of the Innu leaders are demanding their whole settlement be moved to the mainland, where there is plenty of fresh water and the possibility of damming a river to generate electricity.

Such a move would encourage more hunting and fishing to supplement welfare payments. Indeed, some agencies such as the British-based Survival International argue that the key to improving native life is a settlement of their land claims. Survival International has been supporting the Innu in their fight against the use of the Goose Bay airbase by the Royal Air Force and the Canadian Armed Forces as a training centre for bomber crews. The low-level flights are disrupting the caribou herds on which the Innu could depend.

In The Dispossessed a widely acclaimed book about Canadian native life, the author, Geoffrey York, writes that the common factor is that 'young addicts are poverty-stricken members of a community that has been overwhelmed by a more powerful outside culture . . . destroying the traditional economy and social harmony.

'Foreign institutions took control of their education, their justice system, their economy and their way of life.'

(Photograph omitted)