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Davis Inlet: 'A well-intentioned bumbling'

"We are a lost people." That description by an Innu chief seemed fitting when a shocking video of six gas-sniffing teens, screaming they wanted to die, was broadcast to the world. The once-nomadic Innu of Labrador have struggled under a haze of isolation, poverty and addiction ever since their 1967 settlement. A second relocation, this time from the shantytown of Davis Inlet to the new community of Natuashish, offered much promise, but it was just the beginning of a long healing process.

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The problems of addiction, poverty and isolation plaguing the Innu community of Davis Inlet, Labrador, didn't happen overnight. They can be traced back to 1967 when the Innu gave up the remnants of their nomadic culture to settle in half-built houses on the northeast coast of Labrador. In the beginning, the Innu were hopeful about the move, Georg Henriksen tells the CBC's Michael Enright. Henriksen is a Norwegian anthropologist who lived with the Innu at the time of the relocation.

But the Innu had difficulties adjusting from their traditional nomadic way of life in the mainland to a settled existence on the island. Government handouts, isolation, boredom and lack of jobs led to alcoholism, something that didn't exist prior to the relocation, according to Henriksen. Their simple wooden framed houses lacked basic amenities such as running water, sewage and electricity. Since the houses couldn't be moved like tents when they get dirty, the community quickly deteriorated into a slum. 
Innu means "people" or "humans" in the language of Innueimun.

• The Mushuau Innu - "barren land people" - were a nomadic group who hunted caribou in Labrador and northern Quebec for thousands of years. In the late 1960s, the Innu completed their settlement on the northeast coast of Labrador in the communities of Davis Inlet and nearby Sheshatshiu.

• The Innu were one of the first North American native peoples to encounter European explorers. They remained less well known than other aboriginal groups because the Innu spent most of the year in the deep interior of Quebec and Labrador. It was only due to the fur trade that the nomadic Innu began visiting trading posts for brief periods. The Innu were one of the last Canadian native people to settle into permanent communities.

• The Innu completed their relocation to Davis Inlet in 1967. The provincial government and missionary Roman Catholic priests convinced the Innu to give up their nomadic culture and relocate.

• The island of Davis Inlet was chosen because it had room to grow and had easy access to water.

• The Innu referred to Davis Inlet as Utshimassits, the "place of the boss."

• The caribou herds supplied the Innu with clothing, tent covers, tools and food. The caribou also nourished the Innu spiritually, playing an important role in their culture.
Medium: Radio
Program: As It Happens
Broadcast Date: Feb. 1, 1993
Guest(s): Georg Henriksen
Host: Michael Enright, Alan Maitland
Duration: 8:11

Last updated: November 6, 2014

Page consulted on November 6, 2014

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