Gas sniffing plague continues

Jenny McCarthy
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Natuashish boys receive severe burns; solvent abuse common: RCMP

An unidentified youth openly sniffs gas in this November 2000 photo. Parents and RCMP are trying to combat the ongoing gas-sniffing problem in Natuashish. — File photo by The Canadian Press

A 13-year-old boy received severe burns when his legs caught fire while he inhaled gasoline from a plastic bag in Natuashish June 6. The previous week, an 11-year-old boy received burns over his legs while he sniffed gasoline.

Natuashish RCMP Sgt. Faron Harnum said police responded to the calls and made sure the boys received medical treatment. The 13-year-old is still in hospital in Happy Valley-Goose Bay being treated for his burns. Sgt. Harnum said inhaling gas is not illegal, but the local RCMP does its best to try to curb it.

“We do respond to such requests and we ensure the act is stopped.”

Harnum said they refer the children for medical attention and parents to child welfare (Child Youth and Family Services).

The children who inhale gasoline are known to gather in wooded areas to “sniff,” and Harnum said they have lately been setting small fires to bushes, moss and parts of trees.

He said it isn’t common for the RCMP to receive calls about kids getting burned, but it is common to get calls about gas sniffing. He said local officers do their best to help the community with the problem.

“For the most part, it’s a medical thing, an addiction. It’s also a parenting thing and when it comes to parenting, it takes a community to raise a child.”

Harnum said the community professionals, of which the RCMP is a part, as well as parents need to step up to help.

Solvent abuse in the community is not a new issue. Images of children sniffing gasoline in the late 1990s made international news and, despite lulls, the problem still exists. Youth with addictions were treated outside of the community and sent back, some to continue using and some not. In recent years, parents and community members have taken much of the job of healing into their own hands.

Rose Poker is one of the parents of a solvent-abusing child. She can’t physically get around to search for her 13-year-old son when he’s missing. Like other kids who sniff, sometimes he disappears for days.

Poker is still using crutches after a serious car accident last year, so the single mother sends out her eldest daughter to search. Like others out searching for their kids, she comes home empty handed.

“The kids hide each other,” she said.

Poker’s son went out of province for treatment last year and had his six-month program extended by three months.

When he returned, Poker said he was fine for a while but he recently disappeared for a few days and she found out he was sniffing. But it isn’t only her own son she’s concerned about. She said people know the kids who abuse solvents and she’s starting to see new and younger faces hanging around.

“I’m afraid that they don’t know that they are killing themselves slowly.”

The effects of inhaling propane and gasoline are quick and intense. They include a distorted perception of space and time, emotional disturbances and hallucinations.   More severe effects are hypoxia, pneumonia, cardiac failure or cardiac arrest. Suffocation is also a concern for closed in areas. Long term inhaling of gasoline may cause degenerative diseases of the nervous system as well as permanent limb spasms, brain damage, muscle weakness and a loss of smell or hearing.

For the most part, the children syphon the gasoline from vehicles, or steal propane.

Virginia Collins also has a 13-year-old son with an inhalant addiction. He also spent some time out of the community in treatment last year, after which he stayed away from gas sniffing for some time. He started again a few weeks ago.

“I think the problem is that they come back to doing nothing in the community,” she said.

Collins said she wants to stop it before she has to see him sniffing every night again.

“People say you’re not doing enough for your kids and I feel like I’ve done everything.”

She said she can’t keep her son locked up in the house and even if she tried he would eventually find a way out.

Rose and Virginia felt there was more that could be done in the community. From their own experiences, they could see outside treatment may have worked temporarily, but was not solving the problem.  

“We do need parents to step in and get motivated. They don’t need others to bring their kids home.”

They saw part of the problem as a lack of things to do in the community for many children.

Natuashish recently had an $8 million recreation centre built in the community, but Collins said it’s geared towards kids who enjoy sports, and many don’t. Those kids don’t have anywhere to go and that is why they end up in the wooded areas around the communities sniffing gas.

‘I’m desperate’

The two mothers organized a community meeting with other parents and interested parties on June 6 (coincidentally the same day the second boy was burned). They have also approached the band council to request funding for a youth centre for the young people.

“I remember when I was in my teens, even though we had terrible living conditions, we still had a place to go, there was an arcade and weekly dances. There’s nothing like that for the kids here,” Collins said.

“I’m desperate.”

Since the meeting, together with more than a dozen other parents and community members, Rose said they have taken it upon themselves to try to keep the kids away from solvents.

“We are planning to do things with kids every day, like taking them on boil-ups, playing games and having dances every Friday for them. In the meantime, we will be working on other programs for them.”

Rose and Virginia will be doing talk shows on the local radio station every Thursday to encourage more parents and people to get involve with stopping the abuse.

Natuashish Chief Simeon Tshakapesh said there is a lot being done and many people in the community interested in doing what they can to help the kids. He said the community has a lot of recreation programs in place for this summer. He agreed to turn a complex near the new recreation centre into a youth centre and said they would take care of putting games and activities in place for the children. He said they also have a golf range planned for the community.

Tshakapesh said the local addictions team is in the process of creating a solvent abuse program for youth. He couldn’t say when the programs would start.

“The centre is there and Border Beacon is all ready to go.”

Tshakapesh said a community group is also in the process of organizing a trip into the country for the youth engaged in sniffing.

“We’ve been doing a lot in the past couple of years for the kids. Now all they have to do is take the kids and treat them.”

Rose said she is considering leaving the community next year if her son doesn’t improve. She is hoping it won’t come to that, but said the well-being of her family comes first.


Organizations: RCMP, Child Youth and Family Services

Geographic location: Happy Valley, Goose Bay, Virginia

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page



Recent comments

  • Patrick Guilfoyle
    June 12, 2012 - 11:07

    I was a teacher at Nukum Mani Shan All Grades School from 1994-1995. Although I have been in South Korea since 1996 and am settled down here, I always remember my stay in Davis Inlet with a sense of fondness and sadness. I will always remember the kindness of the teacher assistants, the Mennonite missionaries, the staff at the community store, the school custodian, colleagues, and of course my students. It saddens me to see that not much has changed. I wish I could go back there again and try and help the children.

  • Hill Billie
    June 12, 2012 - 09:59

    So Sad, the problem is that these parents are about as mature as their 13 year old gas-sniffing children and are also substance abusers. It's time to get all First Nations people off the reserve i.e. Ghetto and integrated into Canadian society. If we can give them a purpose as well as some responsibility then they can change their lives for the better. As the old saying goes, idle hands are the devils workshop.

    • Politically incorrect
      June 12, 2012 - 11:33

      For the past hundred years the official policy has been to forcibly integrate them into our supposedly superior "Canadian society." Your “solution” reeks of the same arrogance and inherent racism.

    • Sadly Misunderstood
      June 27, 2012 - 08:55

      Your comment saddens me more than the issues faced in Natuashish as it appears that you are unaware of the history faced by First Nations People. Our sense of "Purpose" and "Identity" was ripped away from us by act of assimilation and colonization to which we are still struggling to overcome. As for your terming of reserves to "Ghetto", there are still some organizations and companies that see our ghetto as resourceful as they are still trying to take what we have!

  • Mohammed
    June 12, 2012 - 08:57

    The root causes of their problems have nothing to do with access to facilities or programs. The root problems are the home lives of these children, in households where alcoholism and violence are routine. For a 13 year old boy to disappear for days is indicative of the lack of parental responsibility. When a child goes home and the parents do not have the capacity to care properly for the child, or even remember the child's name, then you have the root of the problem. However, government's solutions are equally responsible for the crisis: throwing money at these people to shut them up is wrong. Finally, there are many communities with populations greater than That of Natuishish that have no problems with youth addiction. Time for aboriginal and provincial governments to intervene and impose harsh changes on this community before kids start inhaling and dying.

  • David
    June 12, 2012 - 08:50

    There is not enough money on the face of the Earth to prevent people from doing what they simply insist on doing. In many instances, the more money and attention paid to a social problem simply relieves any last vestiges of personal choice and responsibility from individuals, making the situation even worse. Despite the politicians' desire to hide and bury and deflect such social failures with walls of taxpayer money, it is clearly and unequivocally is not a solution. But what is absolutely clear is that it is a waste of money.

  • SO SAD
    June 12, 2012 - 08:34

    If the recreation center cost an enormous eight million dollars for such a small community, it must have all the up-to-date facilities such as basketball, ball hockey, volleyball, etc., so just why aren't most of the children and teenagers showing any interest? Surely, there must be a few adults who have the time to motivate these children to get involved in sports. Even outdoor sports in the Summer, like soccer, rugby, lacrosse, etc. Lacrosse can be played indoors also. These activities are a great means of exercise as well. Is their room in the center for a pool table, a couple of dart boards; just use anything that will grasp their interest. The outside the community programs, which also cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, obviously are not the answer because they go back home and eventually start all over again destroying their brains and bodies. My heavens, some of the kids are as young as thirteen. At that young age, there must be some degree of parental discipline. And what about respect for the authority of the RCMP, teachers, clergy, adults, etc. Someone got to get control now bebore it's "too late" and will be carried on to the next generation because the toddlers and younger children see this on a regular basis and will think it is part of their culture and lifestyle.