Nfld. & Labrador

'They killed my son': Innu leader calls for child services inquiry following son's suicide

Intervention by Child, Youth and Family Services led to the suicide of Thunderheart Tshakapesh, his father says.

Boy was removed from Natuashish home two years ago and returned recently

Simeon Tshakapesh, far right, is mourning the loss of his son, Thunderheart Napeu. The father believes his son's death was a result of being removed from home two years ago (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Thunderheart Tshakapesh loved to play music for his friends.

It was his own sound, growing and developing much like the 16-year-old boy plucking the strings.

Behind the Facebook videos of him laughing, singing and strumming, changes were happening fast.

"Thunderheart got involved with solvent abuse two years ago," said his father, Simeon Tshakapesh, deputy grand chief of the Innu Nation.

 "We voluntarily asked Child, Youth and Family Services to assist us to find an addiction program for him ... Later on, it went off the rails."

A long way from home

Thunderheart was sent to a youth treatment centre in Grand Falls-Windsor, 860 kilometres from his home in Natuashish.

He also spent time at a rehab centre in Regina — more than 3,000 kilometres from home.

The teen began running away from the homes, losing touch with his family and getting in trouble with the law.

From the time he was a baby, Thunderheart Tshakapesh had an interest in music. He was planning to record an album this summer. (Thunderheart Tshakapesh/Facebook)

When he returned to Natuashish after his 16th birthday, nothing was the same.

Last month, he took his own life.

"He was on the way to the music world," his father said, tears streaming down his face. "That was his dream, my son. But that dream [was] killed by the system.

"They killed my son."

Stop sending kids away, father says

Simeon Tshakapesh believes intervention by Newfoundland and Labrador government agencies led to the suicide of his son.

"My son went into the care of the then Child, Youth and Family Services of the NL government two years ago and it has ended with him taking his own life," he said.

"[CYFS] failed my son just as it is failing many other Indigenous youth."

The boy was one of two Natuashish youth to die by suicide last month.

Two others were injured in house fires, at least one of which came at an abandoned home known for gas sniffing, Tshakapesh told Canadian Press on May 15.

In the same interview, he mentioned his son's struggle with solvent abuse.

Thunderheart Napeu Tshakapesh was an avid guitar player. He took his life in May. (Thunderheart Napeu Tshakapesh/Facebook)

A week later, the boy was dead.

Any meaningful treatment for our children and young people must involve a return to their culture and roots.- Simeon Tshakapesh

Tshakapesh is now left to think about how efforts fell short of saving his son, he said, and what can be done to change the situation for other troubled youth.

In Natuashish, a community of 963 people, there are 60 children in care of provincial government agencies.

In some foster homes, he said the children are looked at as a source of income.

"Our kids are not revenue ... Our youth, our aboriginal, Indigenous youth, have been called mortgage payments. That's gotta end."

Tshakapesh believes a federal or provincial inquiry is the best way forward.

"I have my son's dead body, six feet under, buried in Natuashish today as we speak ... [he] is never gonna have a voice," Tshakapesh said. "I think it's time that an inquiry should be done.

"Child, Youth Family Services is not the answer for our people."

Rehab needed at home

Taking Innu children from their home separates them from the connection they have to their land, he said. The kids end up without a sense of home, or a true sense of self.

The former Child, Youth and Family Services — now the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development — does not have authority over children after the age of 16.

Many, like Thunderheart, come home after their 16th birthday and struggle to settle back into their home community — some have even forgotten their language, Tshakapesh said.

Simeon Tshakapesh, left, says his son returned from the care of Child, Youth and Family Services with psychological and physical damage. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

He believes it is time to stop spending money on removing children from Labrador and instead focus on treating them at home, with their families and elders involved.

"Any meaningful treatment for our children and young people must involve a return to their culture and roots as Innu of Labrador."

Sherry Gambin Walsh, minister of children, seniors and social development, said her department is committed to finding innovative ways to work with Indigenous communities.

Most recently, the department has worked with Innu leadership and the Aboriginal Sport and Recreation Leadership Circle to develop youth programming.

The department also operates a youth drop-in centre, providing children with a place to go.

In a statement, Gambin-Walsh said the best interest of Indigenous children and youth is of "paramount interest" for the provincial government.

"We work collaboratively with the Innu Leadership and federal government on serious issues such as solvent abuse that negatively impact this vulnerable group in our society."


Ryan Cooke is a journalist in St. John's.