Substance abuse is 'problem No. 1' in aboriginal North

Dr. Stanley Vollant know more than most about the pain behind the gas-sniffing tragedy in Natuashish, Labrador. An aboriginal surgeon, he has been trekking through the region trying to bring inspiration to troubled youth.

Dr. Stanley Vollant's 'Innu path' is both a personal 4,000-km trek and a mentoring process for troubled youth

The Innu town of Natuashish in Labrador, where the former residents of Davis Inlet resettled beginning in 2002. (CBC)

Stanley Vollant knows more than most people about the pain that lies behind the gas-sniffing tragedy in Natuashish, Labrador. 

Quebec's first aboriginal surgeon, Vollant grew up in poverty on a reserve near Baie Comeau, didn't speak English or French until he was 14 and experienced racism when he first moved to the city.

Now, at 48, he's an oncologist and the First Nations coordinator at the faculty of medicine at Université de Montreal. And for the past two years he has also been trekking part-time throughout Quebec and Labrador, talking to First Nations kids about their hopes and dreams, and how to forge a life out of the often challenging circumstances of their daily life.

He calls this proposed 4,000-kilometre journey Innu meshkenu — the "Innu path" — and it is aimed at mentoring young people in their own communities.

To date, he has walked, skied, and snowshoed along the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River and is now headed north from Goose Bay to Sheshatshiu in Labrador.

He writes a daily blog about his journey, which he dictates via satellite telephone to an assistant, Ginette Tremblay, a teacher based in Chicoutimi. She relayed to him these questions from CBC News about the crisis in Natuashish.

CBC News: When you hear the news coming out of Natuashish about so many kids caught up in gas sniffing, what are your thoughts on what is behind this problem?

Dr. Stanley Vollant, an Innu oncologist, has been trekking through northern Quebec and Labrador on breaks from his job at the University of Montreal, trying to provide inspiration and guidance to local communities. (Photo courtesty J-Charles Fortin / Projet Innu Meshkenu)

Vollant: I was not surprised to hear the news, particularly because they had these same problems in the 1990s when they decided to relocate from Davis Inlet [to escape solvent abuse], and then again a few years ago.

It's a symptom of a much bigger problem than just gas sniffing. It's about community health. There's a need to involve everybody — youth, adults, leaders and elders — and come up with a community response. It's not just about money and help from the outside.

What's the scale of substance abuse right now among aboriginal youth in remote regions of Quebec and Labrador?

The scale is big. It's seen as problem number one.

There was a summit last year of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador to talk about it.

People from political, social, police sectors were there. They wanted a multi-disciplinary approach to the problem. They wanted to develop a preventive approach.

We need strong leadership from our leaders and everyone at the same table. We need the provinces and the federal government to help us fund programs that are culturally adapted to our youth. Without those funds we can't do anything.

What are you seeing specifically in terms of substance abuse among young people in the region?

Substance abuse has several faces across the province and across Canada. It can be the abuse of speed or amphetamines. In some communities it can be marijuana and hashish. Close to towns, it can be cocaine.

In remote areas, it's gas sniffing.

Increasingly, we are seeing very young kids, some as young as eight or nine years old, who have substance abuse problems. This is a very alarming symptom of the problems among our youth.

Have you had direct contact with children who have been intoxicated or on drugs?

An Innu youth sniffs gas to get high in front of CBC cameras last month in the town of Natuashish.

I have had encounters with kids of very young ages who were intoxicated. They look lost, lost in their identity, lost in their minds. It is so sad to see this kind of despair in their eyes.

Are you able to get through to them?

It is very difficult because they are in another state of mind, and they aren't open to those messages. What is most important is prevention — to tell the kids taking drugs that it isn't cool and they shouldn't do what others are doing.

If you are doing it because you are living a nightmare, then the nightmare will be worse. You must find other ways to cope. Sport can be a good way to cope with personal problems. But they have to be warned of the long-term effects of the drugs or the substance, and teach them other ways to cope.

Is the gas-sniffing problem linked to extreme poverty or something else?

It's a legacy of the residential school era. The adults who went through that system were traumatized by it. This happened 50 years ago but the adults were abused mentally, physically, spiritually and often sexually.

Those people still have the stigma of that trauma, and they have passed it down to the other generations. We call it a trans-generational trauma.

We need to look at this problem as a whole, and the community has to find ways to cope.

Your trek on Quebec's North Shore is aimed at empowering young people and transmitting a passion for healthy living. What are these kids saying about their lives and their hopes?

What I am hearing from the kids is that they need a healthy environment. They need to be loved, to be cared for, good education, good housing, access to healthy food and places to play.

There is a lack of these things in all aboriginal communities.

The Human Rights Commission is looking at a charge that Canada underfunds aboriginal kids on reserves. Do you agree based on what you are seeing?

It is true that the federal government is underfunding aboriginal kids on reserves. I'll give you an example. They get half the educational funding that kids get who live off reserve.

Other programs are underfunded, too. Drug prevention programs and housing programs. How can you educate a child when they live in a house with 12 other people, often three or four kids in the same room?

It's important to give them proper housing and proper access to healthy food. Otherwise you don't raise healthy kids who will avoid drugs and alcohol.

This phenomenon of gas sniffing on reserves goes back to the 1970s, and there have been many well-intentioned ideas about how to help these kids. What, in your view, is the best solution?

What works best is a community approach. All people of the community should be involved: adults, educators, elders. It's not a problem of the youth. It's a symptom of the broader malaise in the society.

A healthy community has healthy kids that stay away from drugs, who don't need drugs to cope with everyday living.  We should help the adults from their trauma of the residential schools and the trans-generational trauma. It will take strong leadership and healthy mentoring from other First Nation communities.

It will take years to improve conditions in Natuashish. If we look for short-term solutions, the abuse will re-emerge in a few years. We should not just put a bandage on the problem, but examine the deeper roots.


Jennifer Clibbon is a radio producer with CBC Syndication. She began living and working in Russia as a freelance journalist in 1985 and was the news producer in the CBC's Moscow bureau from 2000 to 2003.