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.”
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.
This picture was forwarded to TC Media by Klaus Muller and Simeon Tshakapesh. The bag in the young boy’s hand contains gasoline, according to the two men. Tshakapesh says that he knows the child personally. — Submitted photo