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‘I’ll never stop sniffing gas’: Innu children struggle with addiction

The Story

The situation in the Labrador Innu communities has deteriorated to the point that on any given night as many as 50 kids, some as young as five, can be found in the woods sniffing gas in Davis Inlet and Sheshatshiu. This powerful CBC documentary tells the tragic story of 11-year-old Charles Rich who died after accidentally setting himself on fire. Unable to cope with the bleak reality of their lives, his siblings continue to sniff gas while the parents continue to drink. 

Medium: Television
Program: The National Magazine
Broadcast Date: Nov. 29, 2000
Reporter: Natalie Clancy
Duration: 15:50

Did You know?

• In November 2000, the Innu leaders took the extraordinary step and asked the Canadian government to take away their children. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador responded swiftly to the plea. Health authorities, armed with warrants eventually, removed about 50 gas-sniffers. About 20 were sent from Sheshatshiu to a makeshift detox facility in nearby Goose Bay in central Labrador. A few months later, another 30 or so were taken from Davis Inlet to a detox centre 1,000 kilometres away in St. John's.

• In December 2000, Health Canada, in conjunction with the Innu and the Newfoundland government, promised to initiate programs for entire families in Davis Inlet, along with a permanent treatment centre to be built in Labrador for Davis Inlet and Sheshatshiu. The programs were aimed at long-term solutions since many of the children who were sent away for treatment resumed sniffing gasoline once they returned to their community.

• In Sheshatshiu, half of the community's 300 children between the ages of 5 and 14 admitted to sniffing gas at some point. At least 20 per cent of the kids were regular sniffers. Half of the adults in the community are alcoholics and 28 per cent have attempted suicide. In Davis Inlet, 90 of the 150 Innu children were chronic gas sniffers. - New York Times, March 2001

• Initial effects of gas sniffing include hallucinations, euphoria, lethargy, loss of appetite, slurred speech and blurred vision, which can last several hours. These effects eventually lead to low energy, headaches, vomiting, mouth and nose sores, nosebleeds and throat and ear infections. Some of the more serious effects include permanent damage to the liver, kidneys, eyes, bone marrow, heart and blood vessels.

• The Labrador Innu were not considered status Indians until 2000. Unlike other First Nations across Canada, the Labrador Innu paid taxes and did not live on reserves. This was because there were no provisions made for native people when Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949. As a result the Davis Inlet and Sheshatshiu became orphaned communities, neglected by the government. Unlike status Indians, the Innu had no say over their education, health or social services. They couldn't pass a no-littering bylaw let alone ban gas sniffing.

• Chronic sniffing can also cause lead poisoning which can lead to convulsions, impaired mental function, neurological damage, kidney damage, anaemia, coma and even death.
• In November 2002, the 2,000 Labrador Innu in Davis Inlet and Sheshatshiu were finally recognized as bands and status Indians under the Indian Act.


Davis Inlet: Innu Community in Crisis more