‘A fresh, angry voice’ examines Labrador’s suicide epidemic

Published on July 12, 2014

Skin for Skin: Death and Life
for Inuit and Innu
By Gerald M. Sider
Duke University Press
$24.95; 312 pages

If I never have to go to another funeral for a child who has committed suicide, it will be too soon. I don’t know how a parent can survive such intolerable pain, and I don’t understand why our government doesn’t declare the epidemic of suicide we are suffering in Labrador to be a disaster and take emergency measures.

Gerald Sider’s “Skin for Skin: Death and Life for Inuit and Innu” takes this emergency seriously and although he doesn’t know how to stop it, Sider at least believes he understands why it is happening, which is more than most people in government can say.

Although it is published by an academic press, “Skin for Skin” is a volume that everyone who interacts with the native communities in this province should read, including the Innu and Inuit themselves if possible.

The voice is passionate, intense, and very personal, bordering on aggressively confrontational at times.

However anyone who can remain objective when children are dying has nothing to say that will be of any use, and there are times when anger is the only reasonable response.

Sider traces the roots of the epidemic of suicide among native youth back to colonial times when the fur trade was active, and shows how the Hudson’s Bay Co. and Moravian policies of underpaying and under-supplying Innu and Inuit led to famines, dependency and ultimately self-destruction.

The book is not based on field work or “participant observation,” but is grounded in intense library and archive research and conversations with others who have done field work, such as Carol Brice-Bennett and Peter Armitage.

I was particularly struck by how much information Sider extracted from the papers of Father Edward O’Brien, known in Labrador as Father Whitehead.

There is a tendency today to dismiss anything written by missionaries, and a lot of important data is ignored as a result.

Sider begins his consideration of the suicide epidemic with a summary of the history of colonialism in Labrador, first by France and England and later by Newfoundland.

I have read a fair bit of Labrador anthropology and history, but had not really understood that the Innu, like the Beothuks, were driven away from the coast by fishermen, whalers and traders, as well as violent confrontations with Inuit, so that they retreated to the interior, where inadequate food supplies and endemic disease decimated them almost into extinction.

It was also helpful to be reminded that the Labrador Inuit, who had long resided on the coast below the treeline, where they hunted small whales, lived very different lives from the Inuit of Boothia or Baffin.

Native people are frequently accused of not caring for their children. One of Sider’s basic arguments is that they do care, but they care, if anything, too much.

To live in what the Labrador youth call “concentration villages,” with dirt roads, inadequate housing, poor nutrition and a failing education system, and to feel you can do nothing about it, creates anger.

To have to face the needs of your family day after day, without the means to meet those needs, creates anger. The anger is likely to overflow onto those whose very existence is an affront to the caregivers.

It’s Sider’s contention that native people in Labrador have suffered so much in the last two centuries, but particularly since the 1930s, that they are experiencing a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

I am reminded that when I first came to Labrador about 20 years ago, young people in Nain used to refer to their home as “Viet Nain.”

Clearly they felt they were living in a war zone, with the body count rising daily. Those Viet Nainers are now the parents of the children who are dying.

Sider accepts the generally held belief that it was Innu protest that helped stop low-level flying in Labrador, but it was the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989-90, followed by the introduction of drones, that brought an end to the flights.

Nevertheless, Sider raises the possibility that “people do not have to actually take control of their lives to give themselves a healing, or partially healing, dignity.”

Protests do not have to succeed to be successful, as the protests themselves make people feel powerful.

Sider also suggests that empowering aboriginal people might be good for the colonizers in the long run.

If aboriginal rights had been recognized when Newfoundland was negotiating the Upper Churchill deal with Hydro-Québec, the entire benefits of the development could not have gone to Quebec. Instead, “in diminishing native people, (the Newfoundland government) diminished themselves even more.”

There are, inevitably in such a wide-ranging and complex work, errors.

Sider seems to have mixed up Dr. Helge (not Helga) Kleivan with his widow, Dr. Inge Kleivan. St. Anthony’s medical facility was not “a small cottage hospital” in 1977 and, prior to 1949, Newfoundland did not refuse to recognize native people in Labrador “since they could vote,” as nobody in Newfoundland or Labra­dor could vote for a legislature under Commission of Government.

Sedna is not just an Alaskan myth; she is known throughout the circumpolar world under a variety of names and guises, with versions of the story varying even within small communities.

The Innu who were flooded out by the Smallwood reservoir didn’t live in small cabins, but were semi-nomadic hunters who did a little trapping on the side.

These are relatively minor errors in a much larger and generally accurate picture.

I cannot pretend that I understood and retained all of Sider’s arguments in “Skin for Skin.” He has a lot to say about a great many things, some of them over my head, but I did welcome a fresh, angry voice from someone who, like me, thinks it is intolerable that so many children are taking their own lives in Labrador.

Robin McGrath is a writer living in Goose Bay, Labrador. Her most recent book is “The Birchy Maid.” Her column returns Aug. 9.