Nfld. & Labrador·Analysis

Furlong | Trouble in Natuashish comes from the top

It's not difficult to see the depth of the problems in the Innu community of Natuashish, and it starts at the top, writes John Furlong.
A broken beer bottle in the sand in Sheshatshiu. (CBC)

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It's not difficult to see the depth of the problems in the Innu community of Natuashish, and it starts at the top. The in-fighting of its leadership in this latest crisis began even before some of the gas-sniffing children had come down from their last cheap, sickening, brain-destroying high.

Despite the $200 million wasted on the ill-conceived move from Davis Inlet to Natuashish ten years ago, the community is now even more mired in despair.

None of the addictions specialists who moved through that community obviously have ever heard of the foolishness of what's called "the geographical cure."

Moving people with addictions down the street and moving their problems with them does nothing toward bringing them toward a solution.

Did some brain in the federal government really think it would work? I could have assured them it wouldn't in 2002 and saved the taxpayers $200 million.

Children suffering the most

It's unfortunate because the children are the people who suffer. Not just because they are young — it's because they are the next generation who will repeat the cycle.

Innu Chief Simeon Tshakapesh said last week that he was shaken by this photo of his nephew, taken in Natuashish, with a bag of gas in his hand. (Courtesy of Simeon Tshakapesh)

Addiction, dysfunctional families, children having babies they can't take care of, domestic violence, sexual assaults, neglect, money that's being wasted, people making a living from their misery, and communities in crisis accountable to almost no one.

And to question anything that goes on prompts community leaders like Simeon Tshakapesh to cry "racism" and drive an even bigger stake into the heart of that apocalyptic landscape.

Try asking questions like, "Where has all their money gone?" "How much are Band Council members paid?" "How frequently are pay-outs made to each resident?" "How has the Canadian taxpayers’ money been spent?" See where that brings you!

Bonded in crisis

I was in Natuashish only once, but in Sheshatshiu — the other Innu community — many times.

Natuashish is isolated, but that's not the reason for its isolation. Sheshatshiu is only 32 kilometres down the road from Goose Bay, but it is just as isolated. 

And as I watched poorly dressed children out in sub-zero temperatures, I became a little more intolerant.- John Furlong writes

The two communities share a common bond: they are both in crisis. Sheshatshiu has been relatively quiet lately. A couple of kids at the Youth Treatment Center tried to burn the place down the other night, but other than that …

Sheshatshiu is hard to believe unless you see it.

Most houses have windows boarded up with weather-beaten plywood, replacing the broken glass, the first casualty in a drunken household argument or a community demonstration. There are broken and abandoned washers and dryers all over the place, scrapped skidoos, overturned vehicles, cars up on blocks, broken sofas, bags of uncollected and long-rotted garbage.

Verandas have been broken, doors are off hinges, newspapers and bed-sheets stand in whatever windows remain as yet unbroken.

There are scores of roaming dogs, some curled up on discarded sofa cushions or huddling against the foundation of a house. They look as menacing as their surroundings, as neglected as the rest of the place.

I had heard that Sheshatshiu was a sight to behold, but, my God, I thought, do people really live here?

Is this what we've done to a nomadic people by forcing them to settle down and live in shacks? Is this why they drink so much, hitch rides back and forth to Goose Bay to either go to bars or stock up on beer. (You can't buy alcohol in Sheshatshiu. Bring it in and drink it, yes. But not buy it there … only at inflated prices from bootleggers)

And as I watched poorly dressed children out in sub-zero temperatures, I became a little more intolerant.

Nothing wrong with adults living in this filth and neglect, but subjecting their children to it was a bit much. If this scene played out in Grand Falls, or parts of St. John's or in Corner Brook, the kids would be taken away from their parents immediately and possibly permanently.

But not here. "More complicated than that," we keep being told as the cycle keeps getting ready to repeat itself for another generation

Losing hope?

Maybe it is our fault for forcing our values on them. How could the once-proud Aboriginal population in Sheshatshiu on the banks of Lake Melville not appreciate their Kenmore Front-Load Steam Washers and Dryers? How ungrateful! 

And spare me the age-old lecture of healing has to come from within. They can't do it. They don't have the leadership.- John Furlong writes

Perhaps they have all lost hope. Perhaps that's why they present themselves the way they do. Expressionless, silent, brooding, uncommunicative. It comes across as menacing and arrogant, but it's just the way they are. It's not the way we are. It's just the way they are.

And because they are that way, they are barely tolerated by most of the white community in Goose Bay, disliked and mistrusted by many.

It doesn't help that some of the most visible of the Innu are the most problematic. In the summer time, you can see them stagger out, or being thrown out, of a couple of hotels in Goose Bay, fall asleep in the woods and awaken in the morning, and stumble out like zombies. The Walking Dead.

This is not the first time this mess has been addressed. I'm just the latest "white guy" to be astonished by the dysfunction.

And spare me the age-old lecture of healing has to come from within. They can't do it. They don't have the leadership.

All the money, all the promises, all the hope, all the faux empathy.

It's been all veneer. Nothing but veneer.

The community continues to exist. That's all it does. It doesn't live and breathe with its own rhythm like other communities. It just exists. Amid a collective arrogance that co-exists with a collective malaise.

That's too bad for the people, but it's much worse for the lost opportunity and coming pain of the next generation.

What can the government do? Well, here's what it can't do. More of what it has already tried.

There's another truism in addiction treatment.

It's called the definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

If nothing changes, then nothing changes.

What a shame.


John Furlong was a long-time journalist at CBC in St. John's. He was a producer of Here & Now, and hosted The Broadcast and Radio Noon. He died in 2014.