Sask. reserve grapples with propane abuse

An elder at a northern Saskatchewan reserve is raising the alarm about propane sniffing following the death last month of a teenage girl.

An elder at a northern Saskatchewan reserve is raising the alarm about propane sniffing following the death last month of a teenage girl.

Rene Jobb, who works as a security guard in Southend, said he hopes the reserve never again has to deal with a similar tragedy. 

One night three weeks ago, a 14-year-old girl was among a group of teens who were seen huddling around an outdoor propane tank near the band office, breathing in fumes from a release valve.

The girl collapsed and died at the scene.

A week and a half earlier, another girl, involved in a similar incident in Southend, burned her face after the propane ignited.

Jobb said his job requires him to drive around the reserve at night and he has often seen children sniffing propane. "It's scary. Very scary."

The community has had a hard time talking about the problem, but that needs to change, Jobb said.

"We don't need to hide it," he said. "We are the people that are suffering and I guess the government needs to hear those things."

The number of teens sniffing propane seems to have dropped after the death, but it's been a problem in Southend for years.

Debra Dell, the co-ordinator for the Youth Solvent Addiction Committee, a national network of youth solvent addiction centres, said solvent abuse happens in communities all over the country, not just northern Saskatchewan.

Young people use the substances to become intoxicated, often before they reach their teens. Many substances can be used, but with propane, there is often easy access, she said.

The most important weapon against inhalant abuse is for communities and families to talk about it, she said.

"A lot of people believe if you talk about it you're going to make it happen, and that's proven not to be the case," she said. "[Talk] with kids about it early enough that they know that certain chemicals were never meant to be in your body."

Southend, which had a population of 910 in the 2006 census, is about 600 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.