“I don’t blame those kids. It’s not their fault. It’s the government’s fault.”
— Simeon Tshakapesh, 1993
In 1993, a young police officer named Simeon Tshakapesh shot a videotape that shocked the world. A handful of Innu children in the community of Davis Inlet were getting high on gas fumes and cavorting in front of the camera. They said they wanted to die.
The nation was alarmed. Authorities were called to action. A few of the children and their families were transported to Alberta for detoxification. But little changed.
The Mushuau Innu — once a nomadic tribe — pleaded to be moved to a new community, away from the squalor of their current island home. They’d already moved twice since 1948.
By 2001, the troubles of Davis Inlet were making national headlines again. This time, 35 children from Davis and nearby Sheshatshiu were sent to the old Grace Hospital site in St. John’s for treatment.
Ironically, around the same time, the federal government received heat from then Innu Nation president Peter Penashue on a separate matter.
Penashue was slamming the feds for temporarily taking over the finances of the two indebted communities. He called the move to third-party management “heavy-handed.”
By Christmas 2002, the residents of Davis Inlet were about to realize their dream of a new life in a new location. As the new year approached, dozens of families packed their belongings and travelled across the ice and snow to Natuashish, a community built at a cost of more than $150 million.
Within a year, the gas sniffing had resumed. Parents continued to drink. The band council voted for an alcohol ban in 2008, but it made little difference. Many residents simply turned to bootleggers.
Simeon Tshakapesh, who was band chief during the relocation, reclaimed the post in 2010. But he seems to be a reluctant leader. As recently as last month, Tshakapesh said he’s weary of the infighting and doesn’t plan to run in the next election.
However, the chief is determined to keep the child welfare issue on the front burner. He’s raised alarms several times, and met with Premier Kathy Dunderdale this week. The premier said the province is doing what it can, and Tshakapesh is now threatening to drum up protest rallies.
There is only one solution to the problems of Natuashish. It is the same solution that would occur in any other situation in this country: the children should be removed from their surroundings. And they should remain in foster care until it’s safe to return.
But that will never happen unless Mr. Tshakapesh and his fellow leaders abandon their incessant rekindling of native exclusivism and agree to work within the Canadian system.
Throwing a few extra million dollars at it hasn’t worked. It will never work.
Ideology be damned, children come first.