The Innu people of Labrador have a very proud history. For over 6,000 years the Innu were a nomadic people and were exceptional hunters and fishers. Now they are mere shadows of the proud people they once were, and their heritage is drowned in major social problems like high suicide rates, substance abuse and domestic abuse. The federal government and Innu councils have been attempting to fix the problems but their efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Could this be because the solutions do not address the real causes of the problems?
When the Europeans settled in Labrador, they established trading posts and introduced the Innu to the fur trade. While this created a new economic role for the Innu, it also made them less and less self-sufficient and by the 1950’s it was decided by the Canadian government as well as the Catholic Church that the Innu must give up their nomadic, traditional ways, and settle into communities permanently(1). Some were moved to a small island in Davis Inlet, and others settled into the community of Sheshatshiu. The Innu now relied on money to survive and many were on government assistance.
The Catholic Church built schools in both communities. These schools were used to promote the sedentary lifestyle. In Sheshatshiu many parents were coerced into sending their children to these schools by threats of their government assistance being cut off(2). The Innu children endured physically, sexually, and emotional abuse at the hands of the priests and nuns who ran the community schools(3). Though these schools were built much later, the abuse experienced by the Innu people are similar to that experienced by other Aboriginal people all over Canada in the Residential Schools.
While living conditions in both communities were far from adequate by Canadian standards, the Innu of Davis Inlet were living in squalor. They were promised housing with sewage, running water and heating, but in reality they were built wooden shacks with no sewage or water, and unsafe heating. There was only one water pump for the whole community.
For years the Innu of Davis Inlet were virtually forgotten until the 1990’s, when the deplorable living conditions and severe social problems caused a national scandal. By 1992, nearly all the adults in Davis Inlet were relying on government assistance and a large proportion were substance abusers. Tragedy then struck the small community when six young children, who were left home alone while their parents were out drinking, perished in a house fire while the town watched but could not do anything to save them. Almost a year later, 6 children unable to deal with the anniversary of their friends’ tragic deaths, were found huddle almost unconscious in an unheated shack in the woods, inhaling gasoline, screaming they wanted to die. Videos of this rocked the nation and the government was forced to intervene. The Innu endorsed a proposal to relocate. By 2003, the residents on Davis Inlet were moved to the newly built community of Natuashish. The residents of Sheshatshiu also received new housing and facilities.
The Innu are now living mainly in the communities of Natuashish and Sheshatshiu, but the prominent social problems did not vanish with the building of these new communities. Substance abuse is still a major problem. Alcoholism affects many adults and children, and the inhalant abuse is still ongoing. The suicide rates are 13 times higher than the Canadian average(4). Many adults use alcohol to numb the pain from the haunting memories of community schools, and the loss of their heritage. From this, we see domestic abuse, and children using substances such as gasoline, to numb themselves from the pain. It is a cycle of hurt.
The federal government and the Innu people have expressed their commitment to finding a solution to these ongoing social problems. Treatment facilities have been established and money given to support community health initiatives. Healing efforts need to continue for the Innu people, and it is important for the whole community to be involved. The substance and domestic abuse have deep rooted causes within Innu society, and it seems that it will take more than treatment centres and money to heal them all. Years of assimilation and abuse from the government and Catholic Church have had effects over generations and it is important now to consider this when actively searching for solutions.
– Kristie Fulton
1. Survival For Tribal Peoples. “Innu”. accessed March 14, 2013 www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/innu
2. Samson, Colin. “Teaching Lies: The Innu Experience of Schooling” Journal of Canadian Studies 16. (2000/2001). pp 94
3. Teaching Lies. (2000/2001). pp 93
4. Mazower, Jonathan., Wilson, James. and Samson, Colin. Canada’s Tibet: Killing of The Innu. UK: Clement and Foster. 1999. pp 6