The band's spending is out of control;
there are no checks and balances and the council is not held accountable
for payments to friends and family members
in the brand new $152-million village.
INUIT HELL IN HAND BASKET
The band's troubles with booze and gas huffing have grown worse
because of an ineffective band council & rampant bootlegging...
To hell in a $152 million hand basket
Prospects dim for replacement village for Davis Inlet
Brian Hutchinson, National Post, November 01, 2003
NATUASHISH, Labrador - The boy stumbled from a small stand of spruce and lurched toward me, his mouth open, his front teeth stained a rotten brown. In one hand he clutched an orange plastic bag, sagging with the weight of gasoline. "Whaasshyernaaaame?" he slurred. Wobbling, he put the bag to his lips and inhaled. I winced and asked him to stop; he huffed again and grinned. Saliva dribbled down his chin. The boy's name is Justin. He is 14 and has been inhaling gasoline fumes for the past seven years. He does not attend school; instead, he wanders around Natuashish, stoned.
The Innu elders of this community shook their heads sorrowfully when I mentioned his name. He showed up as I was snapping photographs of an abandoned house on the edge of this brand new, $152-million village. Natuashish is the result of a long-standing federal promise to rescue the Mushuau Innu from their notorious shanty in nearby Davis Inlet, where they had been settled, with disastrous results, in the late 1960s.
From the air, flying in from Goose Bay, the new village of Natuashish appears peaceful and prosperous, rather like a small urban subdivision but placed in a spectacularly remote setting of rock and trees and water. On the ground, the impression quickly changes. When I last visited, 10 months ago, the Mushuau Innu were just moving in, and Natuashish still held promise. Developed by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), with input from the Mushuau, the village offered the Innu 133 furnished houses, a fully equipped and staffed $13-million school, a modern health centre, an airport, a concrete wharf, a firehall, a well-stocked store and more. INAC billed it as a panacea to the Mushuau's woes, a place where their "healing process" could finally take root, and where the band's longstanding, multi-generational problems with alcohol, drug abuse and domestic violence could be at last tackled effectively.
The effort is being wasted. Prominent Mushuau members say the band's troubles with booze and gas huffing have grown worse, in part because of an ineffective band council, rampant bootlegging and increased accessibility to the outside world. The problems run deeper, of course. They are rooted in depression and aimlessness, the loss of traditional culture and in dependence upon white culture. Despair turns to anger, and then to unfettered rage. Vandalism is prolific. On the eve of my return visit last week, two trucks belonging to the local RCMP detachment were attacked, their tires slashed, their windshields smashed. The vandals were brazen; the vehicles were sitting on the RCMP depot parking lot. A week prior, the square clapboard house that RCMP officers inhabit was decorated with angry graffiti: F--- Pigs. The school is also covered in scrawls, its metal doors scratched with phrases like F--- the Free World, Bitch. Three large windows over the gymnasium are broken. It is Davis Inlet, all over again. Two houses that belong to the Mushuau have been reduced to empty shells, their interiors destroyed in separate episodes of unfathomable fury. Wooden furniture, shipped new from St. John's a year ago, lies scattered in pieces on the ground outside among shards of glass. Windows are boarded with plywood, a measure taken to prevent gas sniffers from squatting inside the abandoned homes.
Much worse, however, is the sight of abandoned and stupefied children such as Justin. Why, I asked, did he huff gasoline? "I like to get high," he said, and rubbed his stomach. "It makes me feel good, in here." And his parents? He grinned and took another hit from his orange plastic bag.
"I am so sick of this, I can hardly talk about it any more," says Mary Jane Piwas, a daycare worker and mother of five children. We sat at a desk inside the community health centre while she struggled to make sense of the tragedy that was Davis Inlet, and which now ensnares Natuashish. Some sort of change is needed, but the community's adults are divided on where to start, she said. Alcohol is a key problem; it is used by band politicians to buy votes, she alleges, and as a source of income to members of the band council and to others. Natuashish is a bootlegger's dream; a bottle that sells for $20 in a government store in Goose Bay fetches $100 in Natuashish. The planes that come in several times a day are often loaded with whisky and rum.
The band's spending is out of control; there are no checks and balances and the council is not held accountable for payments to friends and family members, Ms. Piwas says. Last June, she drew up a petition demanding that the Mushuau chief, Simeon Tshakapesh, resign from council. She collected signatures from 63% of Natuashish's adult population, and delivered them to the band office. "The chief did not respond. When I dropped by the council office, I was told he was busy and would not be able to see me. My neighbour sells drugs," complains Ms. Piwas. "I speak out, and it falls on deaf ears. This is a lawless community."
The Mushuau band does not yet have federal reserve status, which means it is essentially self-regulating and follows its own rules of conduct. "We are concerned about the problems at Natuashish, but solutions need to come from the Innu," says Timothea Gibb, an INAC spokeswoman.
There is, of course, an RCMP presence in Natuashish, just as there was in Davis Inlet, but the officers who work in the community on rotating shifts seem at a complete loss to prevent crime. One officer told me that she and her colleagues are too busy responding to cases of domestic violence and other alcohol-related events to keep their own equipment from being destroyed. "We can't sit up and watch our stuff 24 hours a day," explains Corporal Amy Mitchell. [The vandalism] happens quite frequently. There is nothing we can do." The latest attack on the two RCMP trucks resulted in the arrest of two adults. They were charged with causing property damage over $5,000.
Construction workers are furious that their work is being destroyed. Vandals set upon Natuashish last December, the day the Mushuau moved from Davis Inlet. Hundreds of doors and windows have had to be replaced. Some contractors have threatened lawsuits against the band council. Dave Williams, co-owner of Mechano Construction Ltd., a company that performed electrical work on Natuashish, claims that his equipment has been vandalized "on a daily basis ....We're owed hundreds of thousands of dollars." Other construction workers say that such claims are exaggerated. But no one denies that working in Natuashish can be hazardous. Three weeks ago, a man operating a piece of heavy equipment was swarmed by children throwing rocks; he suffered a cut on his forehead that required three stitches. Construction workers come here knowing that while conditions are brutal, they can make a pile of cash in a very short time. According to one veteran worker, there is little risk of going unpaid. The band council is very good about paying its bills, he says. "You go to the band office and they give you your cash. It's like a drug deal." A handful of Newfoundlanders have been working here, more or less full-time, since 1998, when work on Natuashish first began. They tend to be more tolerant of the Mushuau. They have seen everything and have learned to laugh off the bad stuff. They are the first to say that the place is not all bad. "You just have to learn to avoid the bad drunks," says one of the construction camp cooks. "They'll come after you, but then they'll sober up and they'll always apologize a couple of days later." The workers never tire of talking about the Innu. Most conversations end with a sigh and a shake of the head. One young worker I spoke to suggested that the community's problems could be solved if the army were called in and Natuashish were turned into a boot camp. The gulf between the workers and the Innu is vast. The workers clearly envy the Innu's new houses. It seems to them a profound injustice that the new town and the $152-million spent on it have solved nothing.
No one denies this. Cajetan Rich, director of the Mushuau's relocation committee, told me 10 months ago that the drinking and gas sniffing would move with the community from Davis Inlet to Natuashish. When I caught up with him again last week, he admitted that the situation had deteriorated more than he had ever anticipated. Mr. Rich, 49, has been sober for years. He commands respect among elders for his work within the community. He is considered a logical person to replace Chief Tshakapesh when the band holds a scheduled election next spring. "No way will I run," says Mr. Rich, a heavy-set man with a mild demeanour. "I don't want to pass the bottle around any more. I ran the last time, two years ago. It was a clean campaign. I didn't give away booze. I lost, and that was it. Never again."
Mr. Rich has another strategy. "I want to go into the school and talk to the kids," he says. "It's the only way to begin the healing. The others, the people already lost in booze and gas sniffing, they have to pull themselves out of their addiction. But if we can keep the children from getting into trouble in the first place, then there might be some hope."
My own experiences with the children let me believe him. One day, I came across some small girls in the school playground. They were swinging from monkey bars and screeching with delight. "What's your name?" they shouted, the standard child's greeting in Natuashish. "Take my picture, take my picture." They were adorable, happy, brilliant.
Earlier, I had met up with an older trio: 21, 19 and 16 years old. I found the three of them hanging around the old construction camp, watching television. I was surprised to find them there, as a funeral was being held for a 19-year-old Innu man who had wandered into the woods and had, presumably, been devoured by a bear; all that was found of him were his bones.
The three asked me if I had any marijuana. They weren't bad kids; they were just bored. "There is nothing to do here," complained the eldest. We crowded on the back of an all-terrain vehicle and headed back to town. For a while, we roared up and down the streets of Natuashish. Then they dropped me off and continued on their quest for dope. I ran into one of them later, and asked if he had found what he was after. He nodded.
Money is not in short supply. The local store is well stocked, its shelves lined with rows and rows of goods. A massive new recreation centre is being built; it will house a skating rink, a swimming pool and tennis courts. How is it, then, that this new community has brought no relief from the past? It is simple, says Mary Jane Piwas. "We have forgotten how to be Innu. The politics here don't work. The law doesn't work. Nothing works. There is still a small shred of hope for Natuashish, but the way things are going, with all our problems and blame being shifted to other people, to white people, the RCMP and the government, then it all becomes hopeless."
It made me think again of my encounter with Justin, the 14-year-old gas sniffer. I wondered if he would remember anything of our brief conversation. I had told him that sniffing gasoline would rot his brain. "Huh, huh, huh," he gasped. When I left him, he was standing behind the abandoned blue house, holding his plastic bag to his face. I glanced back several times, half hoping to see him following me. He had fallen from sight. I considered turning around, to check if he had collapsed. Instead, I kept walking.
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