Innu Nation elects new leaders amid addiction worries

Members of Labrador's Innu Nation have elected a sobriety proponent as its grand chief, amid new concerns about chronic addictions and gas-sniffing youth.

New grand chief cites his own sobriety as a good sign for struggling Labrador reserve

Members of Labrador's Innu Nation have elected a sobriety proponent as its grand chief, amid concerns that chronic addictions and a resurgence in gas-sniffing are threatening the well-being of dozens.

Prote Poker, seen during a 2008 interview, has been elected grand chief of the Innu Nation. (CBC)

Prote Poker defeated Simon Pokue to become grand chief, according to results released early Wednesday. Poker received 644 votes in Tuesday's election, compared to 545 for Pokue.

Poker is a former chief in Natuashish, and was instrumental in a move to have the northern coastal community declared dry. Nonetheless, some candidates used smuggled booze to lure voter support.

Given that Natuashish's struggles with addiction have been chronicled in the national media for years, Poker said his victory is a good sign.

"The positive thing that happened in this election, I think, [is that] we were elected because we campaigned for sober leadership, without using any alcohol or drugs," Poker told CBC News Wednesday.

"I think that's a big change in the result of the elections."

Poker said that because some candidates distributed alcohol during the campaign, leading some parents to become drunk and not take care of their children.

In turn, Poker said, kids have again turned to sniffing gas. Those scenes of gas-sniffing adolescents have sparked new concerns about the future of Natuashish, which was completed in 2002 to accommodate the former residents of Davis Inlet, an impoverished island community that gained worldwide notoriety in 1993 when similar images were first broadcast.

Poker had said he and his running mate, Jeremy Andrew — who was elected deputy grand chief — had been aware that other candidates were using alcohol to lure support, but would not name candidates who were.

Apart from administering social services in its communities and representing the Innu on issues like development of natural resources, the Innu Nation will have to address chronic social problems.

Jim Nui, a recreation co-ordinator at the reserve's sports complex, said while year-round activities are available, something is clearly missing.

"Parents say things like, 'Go to the gym, go to the arena to play hockey.' But if you go to the arena when kids start playing hockey, you won't see the parents. That's the way parents are here in Natuashish," Nui said.

Virginia Collins, a youth co-ordinator in Natuashish, said she has struggled with both drinking and parenting.

She is hopeful that Natuashish can turn things around, and remembers how optimistic things seemed soon after the move from Davis Inlet.

"Hardly anybody was sniffing here. Something changed with our community," she said. "I'm not saying it has nothing to do with the parents. It does."

Relocation has not worked: critic

Liberal MHA Yvonne Jones, the party's Labrador affairs critic, said the relocation from Davis Inlet clearly has not solved the addictions problem that sparked the federal government to spend more than $150 million to build the town.

"We've moved the problem," she said. "We haven't fixed it, and that's the sad and unfortunate place that we find ourself right now."

Jones said the election of new leadership provides an opportunity for the government to tackle problems with a new vigour.

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said gas-sniffing teenagers need help, and the community's remote location should not be a hindrance.

"Whether they live in the heart of St. John's or they live in the remote aboriginal community, [they] are the responsibility of the province, and we should all be concerned," Michael said.