‘We want to die — nobody’s listening to us’

Derek Montague
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Natuashish’s ongoing gas-sniffing problem getting worse: therapist

The picture is a harrowing glimpse into a decades-old problem that has plagued the community of Natuashish.
A young man is passed out in the driver’s seat of a truck; all the windows are broken into shards. And on the hood, unconscious with a bag of gas in his hand, is a young boy, no older than 12.

Mushuau Innu Chief Simeon Tsha-kapesh, who is hoping to once again shed public spotlight on this horrific, ongoing problem in the community, forwarded the picture to TC Media.

“It’s really frustrating when you look at aboriginal kids … seeing them suffer like this,” says Tshakapesh.

The pictures were taken this past weekend, but the problem has been growing all year long. The first time it made headlines in 2013 was in late March. In a span of two nights, groups of children were caught sniffing gas inside homes. In one case, seven youths were found sniffing gas while shotguns and ammunition were in the house.

When gas is inhaled, it can cause a feeling of intoxication, and it acts as a powerful hallucinogen.

Troubled youth sometimes use it as a way to escape from reality. But unlike other illegal drugs, gas is readily available and much more affordable.

The side effects of getting high on gas can be disastrous. Permanent brain damage, blood abnormalities, miscarriages and seizures are just a few of those.

The community has been struggling with gas-sniffing problems for decades — even back when the community lived in Davis Inlet.

Klaus Muller is the community’s mental health therapist, hired by the Mushuau Innu First Nation. He says that things have not gotten any better since March.

“It just gets worse and worse. … You get tired of saying that after a while,” says Muller.

“Right now … I have 28 children in the community who are chronic … I mean (sniffing gas) nightly.”

Muller says recently, he has seen a child as young as seven sniffing gas in the community, but usually the age range is nine to early teens.

The therapist sees the problem every night just by stepping out of his front door.

“They’re roaming the streets at night. … (I’ve seen) 16, 20 kids, all with gas bags, walking … going past the store,” says Muller.

“It’s not coy; I can’t figure out how anybody else could tell someone that they’re in trouble in any more dramatic a fashion than these kids are.”

Tshakapesh has spent many nights this past summer looking for kids who are sniffing gas, and trying to convince them to go home. He says that, on average, he will find at least 15 kids in a single night.

“I’m out there almost every night, driving kids back home,” says Tshakapesh.

‘Kids, they’ll listen to you. … They’re seeking attention, which they’re not getting in their homes, I guess.”

“They’ll jump into the back of the truck, and they’ll go home. … But you can’t keep doing that every night.”


Vandalism as a cry for help

But brain damage from the fumes isn't the only major concern when it comes to gas sniffing. According to Muller and Tshakapesh, fires are being lit on a nightly basis, often close to houses and other buildings. There’s also widespread vandalism taking place in the community.

“There’s graffiti everywhere, and they tried to set the store on fire, and they set fires all over the place. They’ve trashed like five trailers now,” says Muller.

“They wrote on one building: ‘We Want to Die — Nobody’s listening to us.’”

One of the biggest hurdles for the youth in overcoming their gas-sniffing problems, according to Tshakapesh and Muller, is widespread parenting issues in the community.

“We try to talk to the parents and they say, ‘It’s your job, Simeon. … You’re supposed to be looking after everyone in the community,’” says Tshakapesh.

“Parents have to start doing something. On top of that they also need help being parents; be taught how to parent.”

Muller believes that no amount of treatment will be effective if the kids are just going to return home to the same dysfunctional environment.

“For the past 20 years, the kids go out for treatment, do brilliantly out in treatment, come back home, and are gas sniffing that night because things haven’t changed at home,” says Muller.

Tshakapesh feels that the provincial and federal government have been ignoring the gas-sniffing problem in Natuashish for too long.

“If that happened anywhere else in Canada with non-aboriginal kids, I think Canada or the province … would step in and do something about it,” says Tshakapesh.

“But when it happens to aboriginal kids, they don’t care.”

Muller, however, believes that the provincial Child, Youth and Family Services Department (CYFS) is willing to work with the community on finding solutions to the issue. But there are certain logistical issues that are hindering any kind of action, such as where to put the children, if CYFS removes them from their homes.

“(CYFS) will say that they have no places for these children,” says Muller. “You apprehend the child, but there’s no place to stick them. And the Innu would like their kids to remain in Labrador.”


Border Beacon

Both Muller and Tshakapesh feel that the best possible solution for treating these troubled kids lies in a place called Border Beacon.

Border Beacon lies on the border of Quebec and Labrador. In recent years the Mushuau Innu Nation constructed five cabins and a communal lodge in the area. The purpose of Border Beacon is to take troubled people, such as alcoholics and drug addicts, out of Natuashish and into the wilderness where they can heal.

The lodging would provide enough room for the troubled youth, as well as the staff required for the program.

“If for nothing else, it would provide a place of safety … to be removed from the gas, in their own traditional, cultural setting. … We’d have some form healing going on,” says Muller.

Muller estimates that Border Beacon would cost approximately $60,000 dollars a month to operate for 10 children. And he says that option is cheaper than what it costs to send a single child outside of Labrador for treatment.

Muller made a written proposal regarding the use of Border Beacon, and emailed it to CYFS Minister Charlene Johnson on Sunday.

But, even if CYFS agrees to fund Border Beacon, there may be local obstacles to overcome. According to Muller, not everyone on the band council agrees with the idea.

“There is such a division in the band council that they’re missing the forest for the trees,” says Muller.

Earlier in September, The Mushuau Innu Nation had its annual general meeting. According to Muller, the gas-sniffing epidemic wasn’t on the agenda.

“We’ve got kids, every time they suck back on a gas bag, they’re diminished”

“(But) at the AGM, no one mentioned gas sniffing.”

Child, Youth and Family Services Minister Charlene Johnson was travelling at the time this story was written and was unavailable for comment.


The Labradorian

Organizations: Youth and Family Services Department, Family Services

Geographic location: Natuashish, Davis Inlet.Klaus Muller, Labrador Canada Quebec

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Recent comments

  • debbie swanson
    October 02, 2013 - 15:41

    The belief that better parenting wuold solve all this is rather absurd The kids are hitting the ages where it is time to cut strings and discover their own identity. Community needs to step up. It costs nothing to offer to take them on a hunting trip and make their kill and be able to share when they come home. It costs nothing to put up a monthly pot luck family dance in one of your buildings .Make sure there is music they like. Council could set up a monthly town hall meeting open to all to air their beefs and bouquets. Have businesses sponsor a competition of some sort every month, a business a month, 3 on 3 basketball or hockey no fees no special equipment just register your team. Adults too. There are so many things community can offer Those good feelings trickle down. Will it solve the problem? No but at least there are positive steps to create a positive atmosphere. Do you have addictions counsellors in the schools? The time for blaming and begging is over Our children are dying! Step up!!

  • the native girl
    October 02, 2013 - 09:29

    This is what the white man is left with after introducing chemicals to Indians and innu. Now pple want to start pointing fingers. They took all the rich lands trees fisheries and laughed while the Indian got drunk and high. Now the people don't know how to gain back some form of life cause the resources are either gone or no good.

  • tickler
    October 02, 2013 - 08:43

    Where is the parents ?? These children need parents to love them show them right from wrong. The parents of these children don't want them taken away... but to me the parents don't care. If they show they care these children wouldn't roam the streets all the time.Step up be a good parent put your children before yourself.

    • s0up
      October 02, 2013 - 22:58

      @Tickler: Aboriginal peoples in Canada suffered from cultural genocide through residential schools. A large number of Indigenous children were taken from the homes of their loving parents and raised by cold and abusive educators, priests, and nuns in boarding schools. This is one of the many underlying social causes to what you see here. The tone of your comment suggests placing blame or responsibility on the parents. This is not to say that there should be no responsibility placed on Aboriginal communities to address these challenges - a lot of hard work is being done and much more is needed - however it is far more complicated than "step up be a good parent".

  • Rehab
    October 02, 2013 - 08:11

    I am from Labrador, I've seen this for years. They say the government should step in like they would in any other province; your right, the kids should be removed from the homes by CPS and the parents should be charged, just like they do in any other province. These parents have no education on how to raise their children, by allowing them to continue this way, it isn't going to fix anything. They are not held accountable for ANYTHING, it's time for this to change. Hold parents accountable, educate them and throw them in rehabilitation

  • Mitchell Poundmaker
    October 02, 2013 - 02:39

    Foster homes, yeah right that has worked out great in the past. The whole system since the introduction of colonialism is folding in on itself. The masses are awakening and losing their fear of dependancy on these horrendous corporate governments. War is about to ensue and it won't be over countries and money but rather for the future safety and health of all children- the environment. Money is false control. Like everything is going to go mad without 'order and currency. You can't blame the people directly affected by the destruction of their animals, land, their birthright. The EFFECTS of Oil, Petro, Fracking, etc. etc. Assimilation has always been a calamity since colonization in memorial not only socially and spiritually, but now by the physical slow dying of our once sustainable planet. All at the hands of the system we fear to lose like infant children ridden of fear of the boogiman. Yet the insane and insidious plans of the Rothchilds, all the way down thru the ultra corporations, companies and ultimately the victims; the 99%. These once proud peoples have subconsciously always knew this.. And they won't be so pitiful when it's their connection to (what's left of) the wilderness; not if but WHEN this DISGUSTING, and destructive 500 year old society explodes and implodes.

  • Carolyn Hanlon
    October 01, 2013 - 16:28

    I agree with t. Take these poor children out of these dysfunctional homes immediately and have them put in care of good foster parents.

  • Concerned
    October 01, 2013 - 16:05

    I find the comments here disturbing. There is a ongoing problem in the community. There needs to be some kind of treatment offered on a community level. Sending children out with addictions for treatment and returning them to the community isn't going to solve anything. They are dealing with intergenerational trauma, post traumatic stress disorder, oppression and resettlement. Once the addictions and suicides started it was one traumatic experience after another. That's whats happening and once the cameras go away so does the government. Its like throwing a thimble of water on a fire, not much is going to happen.

  • pie in the sky
    October 01, 2013 - 15:38

    My heart aches for these children, can you imagine, facebook, twitter, internet, tv, going to college, planning their lives, watching kids in other places going & doing all the things kids do, then they look out the window & what do they see? isolation? poverty? no future? what do they see? a bag filled with escape maybe? This is the 21st century & it's time the children of Labrador were to take part in all the things our kids do, hunting & gathering lifestyles have been gone from modern society for a very long time, I'm sure the children living in those isolated communities know that & they're helpless to bring about change, so they escape the only way they can.

    • Marie M
      October 01, 2013 - 22:06

      Perhaps calling people's ways of life, such as hunting and gathering, obsolete is just as damaging. Have you ever thought about those kids reading your comments and seeing you say that they're not apart of modern society? How do you think that makes them feel. If you've ever been anywhere in Labrador then you'd realize hunting and gathering is still continuing to exist in, yes believe it or not, modern society! People love to hunt, people love to pick berries, people love to fish, and enjoy nature. Not everyone sees living in a smaller, remote community as a prison sentence as you seem to describe it. Labrador is a beautiful place with lots of amazing experiences to offer! Communities are very tight knit. People choose to stay in these communities, people choose to work in these communities, people love these communities. Some say they'd never think or would want to live any where else. Labrador isn't without it's problems and challenges, some of them unique to the area, but what place doesn't have struggles to contend with. I say we listen to the people in the community who know what's going on and knows the people best, they are better judges of what these children need than those of us who don't live there.

  • Willi Makit
    October 01, 2013 - 14:44

    I believe Muller has it right and the root of the problem is with a lack of parenting skills. Those poor children do not stand a chance if every time they are treated they are returned to the same dysfunctional homes. What's the answer? I don't know, but something must be done. Surely somewhere else has solved a similar problem. All I know is that the kids will not do it themselves and the parents can't or won't. What a horribly sad situation.

  • Herb Morrison
    October 01, 2013 - 11:22

    Once again, the images of gas-sniffing Innu children have found their way onto the front page of The Telegram. Yet again the cry for help has come from Mushuau Innu Chief Simeon Tshakapesh. The situation pertaining to the Innu of Labrador obviously needs to be addressed in an effective manner. I recall several years ago when; during one Summer in particular, when several Innu teen-agers living in Davis Inlet committed suicide within a period of three months. The fact that the problems related to gas-sniffing, and other issues; are once again front page news, indicates that there is a need to reassess the situation confronting the people of Natuashish. Having said this, I would suggest point out to readers the fact that the Innu people of Natuashish, are not the only group of people living either Newfoundland and Labrador, in particular, or in Canada, who have social issues which need to be appropriately addressed both by Government at all levels (Municipal, Federal, or Provincial) in particular; or by those of us who constitute the general Public. In this Province there are individuals and groups of people living on Social Assistance, people working at low-paying minimum wage jobs, and seniors living on a fixed income; who struggle to obtain what most would consider to be basic necessities of life. Adequate and affordable shelter, an adequate supply of food for the table, not to forget sufficient money to pay for electricity, clothing and personal care items are often beyond the reach of people right here in St. John’s, who must rely on either the various outreach organizations, set up to aid those in need, or the good will of individuals to obtain basic necessities of life, which many take for granted. In conclusion, the point, which I am attempting to make is that the Innu are not the only group of people in our Society who have needs which require affirmative action from Governments in particular and people in general to address the issue of deprivation which is becoming more prevalent within our Province where, all the while, the rich get richer. The lack of sufficient social conscience, on the part of society in general, is as much a contributing factor within the context of dealing with the social ills, as exemplified so graphically by the situation in Natuashish, as any other factors. As a society we need to stop the judgemental finger-pointing, which too often occurs in response to the existence of social deprivation, and instead extend a helping hand to all who are faced with social issues which impact negatively on their lives.

    • wavy
      October 01, 2013 - 15:17

      Very well said, sir. Sadly, you are correct. It reminds me of the old Bruce Hornsby tune "The Way it Is". The gap between third-world poverty and the super-rich only continues to widen. We have people in Western, industrial, WEALTHY countries living in cars or in squalor. And then there are the countries who can't pay their own bills because of economic collapse. Global suicide rates have skyrocketed amongst young people and males, who take their own lives in despair when they can't provide for their families. There are a great many people in great, great need for aid right now and apathy is everywhere. Despite being a born-optimist, I have to admit, the future looks bleak through my eyes. May I boldly suggest though, if enough of us are disgusted enough with what we see in our day-to-day lives and in our communities and with what we read in the news everyday, then RISE UP and VOTE OUT those making the decisions. But we don't. So, in a way, we get what we deserve, I guess. It a sadomasochistic relationship, we have with our so-called leaders. Nothing will ever change if all we ever do is accept status quo as "good enough". There needs to be a global change in attitude. Alas, most "well-off" people these days are preoccupied with their flat-screen TV, a run to COSTCO to put cheap gas in their truck and whenever the next version of the iphone is coming out. All symptoms of a bigger problem. And if that isn't the understatement of the year, what is?

  • Ian
    October 01, 2013 - 10:00

    Excuse me Mr. Tshakapesh, but we (the rest of Canada) did do something to help. That "something" was that we paid millions of dollars to move your community from Davis Inlet. At some point, the adults and PARENTS of Natuashish need to take some responsibility for solving these problems. that's not goingto happen is some of them continue to live their lives above the law and authority, hunting caribou to extinction, trying to smuggle booze into a dry community, and generally trying to find ways to personally profit at any opportunity when given power, or authority, or access to the public purse. I am sad for these kids, but you reap what you sow.

    • Lorraine
      October 01, 2013 - 12:01

      I agree with Ian, parents need to be held responsible and to be onboard in order to help with this issue. Though I don't believe this is going to happen. Government will still be pumping money into this issue 30 years from now.

    • Robin
      October 01, 2013 - 18:17

      I most certainly do not agree with Ian. I was happy when they moved Davis Inlet, but dreading that they wouldn't go about it the right way. I have to say Ian is right about one thing, PARENTS! Where the blazes do parents get off telling the chief or ANYONE,that THEY are responsible for their children?? I think it's really sad when you have to teach parents how to parent. If you WANT to be a parent, by golly, you will be a good one. It seems that our youth unfortunately suffers the bad repercussions of BAD parents. Do they have things and people they can go to set up in the community? An arcade or two, community sports, community centre with counsellors, maybe a positive roll model?

  • t
    October 01, 2013 - 09:24

    If my children were in this situation they would be taken from me. Why should it be any different because they are innu? If these parents aren't taking care of their children, then they don't deserve to have them, let alone have any say in if/where they go for treatment. Remove these kids permanently and place them with new parents who will see that they receive proper care and supervision. Negligant parents have far too many rights these days.

    • yep
      October 01, 2013 - 13:20

      well said, and very true!!!

  • wavy
    October 01, 2013 - 09:04

    It's really disheartening to see these problems persists, especially with young people, in Natuashish and, I'm sure, beyond. It's the usual toxic mixture of bullshit diplomacy, apathetic politics, oblivious demigods and puppetmasters pulling the strings with the kids caught in the middle; smoldering with anger, resentment and boredom, with no sense of hope, outlook, future, worth or self-esteem. The Maori people of New Zealand are revered with appreciation and respect for the significance of their culture, history and traditional ways. Why can't it be that way with Canada's aboriginal peoples? They are such a beautiful people and culture; they should be treasured. Yet, the state of aboriginal affairs in Canada is our nation's greatest shame. Surely this problem is not insurmountable. Surely we can sit and talk and listen.

    • newf59
      October 01, 2013 - 10:07

      Before we can help the children, we have to help the parents.The adults doesn't provide any type of care; physically or emotionally.Most parents have rules,bounderies and structure in their homes for our children. They seem to leave it up to the system to fix.The real truth is if it was a regular Canadian; they would take our kids. We are not doing the native people any favors by just allowing these things to happen. Get a job,look after your kids and do the best you can like the rest of us.

  • oh my
    October 01, 2013 - 07:52

    yes give them everything again like years ago, come to st.john's and let them stay for free and give them new T.Vs, clothes, taxis everywhere treat them like the Kings and queens, and then they go back and get new homes and everything and then go back to gas, and drinking ...oh my this place is so frigged up

    • jenn
      October 01, 2013 - 14:00

      I agree 100%

  • Filly
    October 01, 2013 - 07:37

    A lot of these parents aren't fit to have children. What are we goign to do? Move the community again? Send the kids to town for treatment again? This community needs to stop looking outwards for help/

  • Thomas
    October 01, 2013 - 07:26

    I have spent a lot of time in and around many Labrador communities through my work. I have met many good people, desperate people and people with no hope for the future. There is a sense of despair, self abuse, neglect with a cyclical pattern. The most stark image that has never left my mind was the toddler clothed in nothing but a dirty diaper playing in a sewer ditch while the mother sat on her porch drinking home brew. It is Canada's hidden shame. Parenting skills are the main issue. Many are unable to care for their children as they are struggling with their own demons. This is both a Federal and Provincial issue. It is Canada's hidden shame.

    • M
      October 01, 2013 - 10:14

      I don;t think it's hidden, but it is a shame. The Fed and Prov Govt's are not responsible for this issue. It's like fighting a fire with oil. This is a social issue and the leaders of the Nation have an obligation to their people to provide help. It's fine to get assistance from the Fed and Prov side, but the problem lies in the communities themselves and the lack of education and support from their own leaders. Tshakapesh spends more time whining about how the "white folk" don't care instead of trying to find actual solutions.

  • Barney Murphy
    October 01, 2013 - 07:03

    Why are the children being sent back to the dysfunctional homes after successful treatment? I know if they were my kids Social Services and the courts would have taken them and I would not get them back at all. So here in lies the problem - sending them back to the crime scene. I thought we were guilty of child abuse if we didn't report what we saw happening to a child but yet we knowingly do this to these kids? I mean 7 years old sniffing gas? Come on....get them away from that.

  • M
    October 01, 2013 - 06:40

    Ok...I am not trying to sound in any way ignorant or discriminating, but this problem has been going on for way too long and all Tshakapesh has said is that the government isn't listening because they don't care. Come again? The government stepped in years ago and took kids here to the old Grace Hospital for treatment only for most of them to go back home and start huffing again the minute they got there. I personally don't think this is the government's problem anymore. Tshakapesh himself said the kids need attention that they most likely don't get at home and then the parents say Tshakapesh is responsible for fixing it. When Tshakapesh moved everyone out of Davis Inlet to Natuashish, he had no real plan in place to start fixing the actual problems, he just moved the same problems to a new area. As their leader and their voice, I think Tshakapesh has an obligation to work with the community to solve this - Lord knows he's had plenty of time and been offered resources. CYFS also needs to make a plan to work with the Nation to repair these families from the core - removing these kids is not going to fix the issue - it's just going to rehabilitate the kids they remove without addressing the actual problems. It's a sad situation and I don't see it getting better any time soon because people on the outside looking in no longer have sympathy or empathy for the issue due to the fact that their Nation in and of itself is failing their people on so many levels.

  • Rocket Science
    October 01, 2013 - 06:06

    Border Beacon sounds good in THEORY --- once the kids are done there, they return to the SAME ENVIRONMENT. Just like years ago when they were brought to St. John's and then returned to same environment. St. John's wasn't treatment - it was a glorified shopping trip. How are kids accessing gas? Can that be controlled? Can parents be educated? Can supports be brought to community? Sad to say, but seems nothing's changed. It's only gotten worse. The real question is - WHY is this happening?

    • Rickey
      October 01, 2013 - 14:10

      Send in the Mormon Missionaries to help them quit their addictions! This will happen at no extra cost to the local government as the Mormon Missionaries services are free.

    • Observer
      October 01, 2013 - 14:46

      It's happening because they live in the middle of nowhere with absolutely nothing to do. It's a bold new world and these children are completely left out of it, living in slums with delinquent parents. The whole sorry, pathetic system is doomed to fail these kids. Move them all to somewhere that they can be engaged with life, with jobs, friends, interesting things to stimulate their minds. This is death or its equivalent.