Money won’t solve gas-sniffing problem

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A headline in this newspaper Tuesday was one of the most shocking I had ever seen: “We want to die — nobody’s listening to us.”

The headline appeared on page one above the fold with a startling picture of a boy passed out on the hood of a vehicle. The picture came from Natuashish and was sent to a reporter at The Labradorian.

The tragedy of young people destroying their lives by sniffing gas in Natuashish was given glaring prominence, and the headline should be a call to action for all of us.

According to the news report, children as young as seven years old are wandering the roads every day in a near-comatose state after  inhaling gasoline fumes to get high.

The dangers associated with this activity are obvious, as are the long-term consequences. An entire generation of young people could well be lost to this scourge.

Mushuau Innu Chief Simeon Tshakapesh is demanding that we — the province of Newfoundland and Labrador — do something about it, and he’s right.

“It’s really frustrating when you look at aboriginal kids suffering like this,” he says.

While I appreciate his call to arms, actually doing something about it and making a difference is not going to be easy.

Natuashish replaced Davis Inlet, a native community made famous by media coverage of the gas-sniffing problems that existed there over two decades ago. The federal government decided, in concert with the Innu, to move the community to a more hospitable part of Labrador, and in 2002, Natuashish was born.

At a cost of over $150 million and seven years’ work, the new town was provided with modern amenities — 175 new homes, a water and sewer system, streets, service roads, a wharf, an airstrip, school, band council office, fire hall, police station, community garage and a nursing station.

Now here we are, 20 years after those first stories of gas-sniffing were reported, facing the very same problem. Tshakapesh doesn’t sugar coat it. He says he finds, on average, 15 kids sniffing gasoline every night and they are causing other problems.

Klaus Muller, the community’s mental health therapist, says there is widespread vandalism, with graffiti everywhere, and kids have even tried to set the store on fire.

Muller and Tshakapesh agree that parenting, or the lack of it, is at the root of the problem.

“Parents have to start doing something. On top of that they also need help being parents,” Tshakapesh says.  

He’s right again. How the Innu and the province tackle that issue will determine if they have any success.

We’ve shown that removing kids from their own environment for treatment, only to return them later, leads to complete failure. We also know that shiny new homes and community centres won’t solve the problem either. The issue in Natuashish is addiction, and it has to be cured among the adult population before we can really save the young. All the efforts up to now have been futile, and that picture and headline from Tuesday’s paper proves it.

Tshakapesh wants the government to throw more money at the problem. He wants $60,000 a month to move kids from their homes to a place they have built on the Quebec border called Border Beacon.  Muller says they could operate the centre and treat 10 kids at a time if they had that kind of financial support.

Fair enough. If they need that kind of financial help, let’s provide it. But do they need it?

Natuashish is one of the richest little towns in the country, with local revenues totaling millions every year. Thanks to the benefit agreements they have signed, the huge money they get from Voisey’s Bay, as well as funds flowing from the province and the federal government, Natuashish should be the envy of just about every municipality in the province.

But money is not the problem here. Until Innu leaders come together to address the issue, things will not change.

 

Randy Simms is a political commentator and broadcaster. He can be reached at rsimms@nf.sympatico.ca

Twitter: @RandyRsimms

Organizations: The Labradorian

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Davis Inlet, Quebec

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