Since the early 1990s there has been ongoing sporadic local — and later national and international concern — about the generally difficult socio-economic conditions in several Labrador communities, among them Davis Inlet (now Natuashish) and Sheshatshiu, specifically the widely publicized practice of solvent abuse by young Innu.
Sporadic crisis-oriented responses by responsible agencies were to send identified young Innu to “detoxification centres” in mainland Canada for weeks/months of treatment. The affected individuals came back to the same conditions of the families and communities, thus the cycle repeats itself.Past experienceIn 2000, the solvent abuse practice became a political focal point locally, then nationally and internationally, which also highlighted the longstanding associated malignant socio-economic issues. After protracted, turbulent, widely public negotiations, the federal, provincial and local Innu leadership agreed to a plan that was executed from Jan. 9 to April 23, 2001, wherein eventually 40 young Innu between the ages of 11-19 (19 males, 21 females) were taken from the community of Davis Inlet and housed at the hastily recommissioned, then 78-year-old Salvation Army Grace General Hospital in St. John’s, for an initial phase of detoxification and medical evaluationThe exercise involved medical professionals, social services workers, educators, psychologists and numerous lay workers, and cost about $6 million.To my knowledge this was the first extensive undertaking of its kind at one time in Canada.What did we (and I) learn?• This kind of exercise should not happen again in Canada for multiple reasons that can only be addressed fully by those who were involved.• The majority of the young Innu had an FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) type problem as part of their overall solvent issues, and chronic unfavourable personal and family lives. Those identified with FASD were explicitly identified to need help throughout their lives to a minor or major degree — but this was not addressed as a paramount issue as part of the so-called individualized treatment program. Subsequent very public sad and/or tragic events from the community attested to this failure. Many of the young Innu reportedly involved in the present solvent abuse are children of individuals who were in the Grace detoxification exercise.There are some good stories after the exercise but they are few and not well known.New methodsUnless there is a collective change of approaches, philosophies, visions, goals and willing hard work by all levels of government agencies, with local community leadership involved, the present concerns of solvent abuse by young Innu, which is really the tip of the iceberg of the community problems, will continue its cycles into the future. We have to act now for a better future for the young Innu and those to come.
Dr. Ted Rosales writes from St. John’s.