CBC In Depth
The Innu of Labrador: From Davis Inlet to Natuashish
CBC News Online | Updated February 14, 2005

It started out with hopes for a new beginning. After years of living in squalor and struggling with social problems, the 680 residents of Davis Inlet started packing up in December 2002 to head for a new settlement that had been built for them. The plans for Natuashish began to be hatched in the late 1990s, after news reports detailed how unbearable life was in the Innu community. Crammed living spaces. No running water. Buckets for toilets. No reliable heating. There was little to keep people occupied. Alcoholism was rampant and many of the children of Davis Inlet were addicted to sniffing gasoline. The community suffered from one of the highest suicide rates in the world.

The town of Davis Inlet had been established in 1967 after government officials decided the nomadic Innu should have the opportunity to settle down. They were promised comfortable homes with indoor plumbing.

Those promises were never kept. Instead, the residents of Davis Inlet found themselves slipping out of touch with their traditional way of life - and they had difficulty adapting to a new way of life. Rates of alcoholism increased.

In 1993, details of the conditions in Davis Inlet made headlines across the country - and around the world - after a tribal police officer released a videotape showing six Innu children getting high by sniffing gasoline. They shouted that they wanted to die.

Within two years, the federal government agreed to move the residents of Davis Inlet so services and facilities could be improved.

To build Natuashish from the ground up, the federal government spent about $200 million to carve out a new community in the bush 15 kilometres away on the Labrador mainland, and to build and furnish modern split-level bungalows for the Innu to live in.

It was an attempt to rebuild lives, to give the Innu a foundation that had been missing for so long in Davis Inlet. The move began in December 2002 and was completed within seven months.

From the shantytown to the new neighbourhoods of Natuashish. Like the houses themselves, it was brand new for the Innu, clean, running water, cozy, warm homes.

But the houses were still home to the same old problems that crossed over with the people from Davis Inlet.

The nearly $200 million spent on building the town and providing all its comforts is not the end of the money. There's more, many tens of millions of dollars are still pouring in. That's because on the new streets of Natuashish, life is heading down a sad, familiar old road.

Documents obtained by CBC News reveal what Ottawa has known all along about what little effect its millions of dollars is having.

Over the past three years, Ottawa has spent $70 million to solve the social problems of Natuashish and one other small Innu town. It's called the Labrador Innu Healing Strategy, and recently the federal cabinet has approved millions more for the program.

A report by I.E.R., an Ottawa-based consulting company, warns that if the healing strategy does not change, it will fail. The report says despite the millions of dollars, there is virtually no progress and the level of frustration that the Innu have experienced does not bode well for the healing program.

When the authors of the report tried to follow the money, the federal government's records were so poor there was no way of doing a cost-benefit analysis of the Labrador Innu Healing Strategy.

Natuashish still struggles with the hangovers of old Davis Inlet. In a town flooded with booze, bootleggers have no trouble finding customers for their $300 bottles of liquor. The tens of millions of dollars committed under the healing strategy has put very little on the ground here.

There are only two social workers trying to cope with a staggering caseload. And, according to a report on child, youth and family services in Natuashish, the social work system is in a crisis that's about to tip over into disaster. The report warns a severe lack of resources is contributing to children being at substantial risk and their personal safety, health and well-being cannot be assured. That from the people legally bound to protect those children.

Wayne Hammonds has been close to the Innu for years. He was there a decade ago when the move to Natuashish was first proposed.

"We've got to sort of walk with them and help them to understand how they can care for some of the issues in the community in a way that makes sense for them and they would get meaningful change, as opposed to 'this is what you're going to get and this is how it's going to be done.' It's forcing issues and forcing treatment programs and forcing interventions on the community that, for all intents and purposes, many of them consider meaningless," Hammonds says.

Out at the end of the trail is where the federal government spends some of its money. Treatment programs are run in a tent in the woods. There's no detox facility, not even a place to hold alcohol treatment sessions.

Most troubling is the long-pledged but never built safe house. In a survey, 80 per cent of women in the town reported physical violence at home. Many reported that their children had also been abused. The safe house would be a sanctuary for children wanting to hide out from parents staggering through a drinking binge.

"A safe house where a woman can go if there was assault took place in Natuashish and that person can go to that safe house, and she will be safe or he will be safe or the kids, they can be safe if the parents are out drinking. Then the kids can be taken to the safe house where they can overnight and they can be looked after. Those are the things that we really need," says Simeon Tshakapesh a former chief of the community band council who is now a treatment counsellor.

No safe house means Health Commission workers are taking abused women into their homes and putting themselves in danger. Kathleen Benuen is director of the Health Commission in Natuashish.

"Right now there's no safe house in the community. Usually the front-line workers volunteer their house as a safe place, but that causes stress for the front-line worker. Sometimes they will end up in their relatives' homes. It's not an ideal place to be. Like, there is no protection there from the abusive person, and you always worry about your own family that's staying there. So you have to be careful about your own self and the safety of your children, as well."

But when Kathleen Benuen looks around Natuashish for the help the Health Commission needs, she wonders where it is.

"You start crying for help, and there's not enough resources in our community to really dig through those roots. I think we need a lot more professionals, like a psychologist, social workers, counsellors that are qualified in doing ... dealing with solvent abuse. We need those people," she says.

Ottawa just approved $12 million to build 40 new homes. In that, there's still no money for a safe house. The band council has no plan to ban alcohol and dry out the town. The drinking and all the social chaos that comes with it is not about to stop. So the hope that was built up with Natuashish is crumbling, and the opportunity afforded by tens of millions of dollars may be about to be squandered.

With files from Peter Gullage.


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