Newfoundland and Labrador's advocate for children and youth is warning that kids sniffing gas in Natuashish will die without intervention by government and community leaders.
"What is it going to take to ensure the safety of children and youth in Natuashish?" Carol Chafe said Wednesday.
"Now is the time; the time to respond to this crisis before a critical injury or death of a child occurs as a result of solvent abuse."
Chafe said gas-sniffing among children in the Labrador Innu community "continues to progress at a critical rate."
Meeting with premier a dud, chief says
Natuashish Chief Simeon Tshakapesh arrived at Confederation Building on Wednesday afternoon for a meeting with the premier to discuss the situation.
According to Premier Kathy Dunderdale, the hour-long meeting with Tshakapesh was productive. She said the department of Child, Youth and Family Services would continue to work closely with the Natuashish band council.
However, Tshakapesh said it's been nothing but talk with provincial politicians.
"We've been going around in circles, and all this is planning, planning, planning, planning. How much planning do we do before we lose the lives of aboriginal kids?" he said.
"I didn't agree with that, but I also agreed that I will work with these people. But I said, 'If I don't see anything next week, I'll be up here again and it won't be small — it will be a bigger group next time."
According to Tshakapesh, the issue is being tossed around between departments and no one is taking responsibility.
Tshakapesh and the band council in Natuashish have been at odds over a number of issues. The chief has said it's caused him to decide not to seek re-election.
Community members appear unable to come to an agreement about what needs to be done.
Prote Poker, Grand Chief of the Innu Nation and the former chief of Natuashish, said the problem has been getting worse since he lost the election for chief of Natuashish to Tshakapesh in 2010.
"A few years ago, I think it was in 2010, the gas-sniffing issue in Natuashish was almost non-existent," he said.
"There was some gas sniffers in Natuashish, and a lot of those were adults — I think three or four adults at the time. But since then it has picked up again, and there is more kids sniffing gas."
"The approach that we took at the time was we focused on the parents, we worked with the parents, we got programs in the community," Poker said.
"One of the programs we brought in was called the Journey Program, and it's a self-help program that's very simple to do in Natuashish. We had also a training program in Natuashish to train people to be counsellors as well. And before my term [as chief] was up, those programs weren't completed … and when I left, the program was scrapped. The trainers that I had in place were not welcome in the community and, in fact, they were banned from coming into the community."
Poker was in Halifax on Wednesday for a roundtable meeting with the Innu Nation — a meeting he said Tshakapesh was invited to, and should have attended, rather than holding a one-man protest at Confederation Building.
Community problem, deputy chief says
Natuashish Deputy Chief Mary-Jane Edmonds said she doesn't think Tshakapesh is approaching things the right way.
"I think Simeon Tshakapesh has his own agenda. He's looking for money and more money and more money, but more money is not going to solve the problem. It's up to us Innu people of the community of Natuashish to work this out on our own," she said.
"We cannot blame the government, we cannot blame social services, we cannot blame RCMP because we have to solve this on our own."
According to Edmonds, parents are a big part of the problem.
"It's not just the kids that are sniffing in Natuashish. It's also adults, it's also parents that are sniffing gas, and because we have drugs and alcohol that has been sold at a very high price in the community at $500 a bottle, a lot of people that are addicted to alcohol and drugs cannot afford at those prices, so they go [to the] next best thing that's free to feed their addiction, which is gasoline."
Edmonds said parents should be watching over their children more closely.
Nonetheless, she said there's still hope for the community.
"There's people here that do care about the children. I think now it's up to us to work on this issue, and I think it needs to start at an influential level at the band council."
Edmonds said bringing in more government workers wouldn't be effective. She said it's time for the oft-divided community to work together to resolve the situation before it gets any worse.