It’s a quiet afternoon in September and Gregory Rich’s boat is cutting clean through an ocean that is as flat as glass. A flock of Canada geese take formation overhead as the beauty of northern Labrador unfolds before him.
Rich guides his motorboat into an abandoned community that in the 1990s became synonymous with Canada’s shameful history of its treatment of Indigenous people.
With familiar ease, Rich, 54, is navigating his way from the dock in Natuashish — one of two Innu communities in Labrador, and the only one on the northern coast — to his old home.
“This is Davis Inlet. This is my birthplace,” Rich says, as the boat slows and the last remaining houses begin to come into focus.
Straight ahead: the place where he started a family, then lost it.
“A lot of good and bad memories here,” he says. “We had no running water, we had no heat, we had to haul the wood in the winter time.”
Rich was born in Davis Inlet in 1968, just one year after the Mushuau Innu were enticed to the remote island by provincial government promises of a better life. The promises proved to be false; substandard housing, elimination of traditional hunting routes and abject poverty awaited the new inhabitants.
Rich grew up on the island community, married and started a family.
And then came an unfathomable tragedy.
“The house fire … it’s on the hills there,” he says, pointing to an area of the former community that is now overgrown.
On Valentine’s Day in 1992, Rich’s five children and another child died in a house fire. Rich and his wife were not home.
It was a devastating moment in the history of the Mushuau Innu, and there would be others. That tragedy, alongside repeated images captured of children sniffing gas as they tried to escape the pain around them, catapulted the once-ignored community of Davis Inlet into the international spotlight.
That level of attention would propel the federal government to try to solve problems. The most significant action would be paying for a new community — Natuashish, where the Mushuau Innu have lived for two decades.
“[In the first] couple of years I couldn’t come here. I couldn’t go to where my house used to stand, and I finally did after two years. That’s when I began my journey to healing,” Rich said.
“I’ve been sober for close to 20 years now.”
Rich is the former grand chief of the Innu Nation, an organization which brings together the two Innu communities of Labrador — the Mushuau Innu First Nation and the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation, in central Labrador.
Even with his great loss, Rich’s feelings toward Davis Inlet are not straightforward. Neither are opinions in the community about what should become of the settlement now that the federal government is decommissioning it.
The Mushuau Innu Relocation Agreement was finalized in 1996 between the federal government and the band council. It promised to address the health and societal crises gripping the community. To start, it would relocate the Innu away from Davis Inlet, this time, to a location of their choosing.
It also promised to decommission Davis Inlet.
Asked why it has taken 30 years to move forward on decommissioning, the federal government would only say it is a complex, multi-year project.
Now decades later, homes still stand — some charred and burned from vandalism. Graffiti scarred walls and curled linoleum flooring greet visitors to this deserted community.
Rich can remember who owned each house and where the elders would sit while waiting for church to start. He smiles as he remembers the good times in his old home, in spite of the hurt.
Gregory’s older brother Hank Rich remains quiet as the boat slowly picks up speed from Davis Inlet and heads to his old home.
“That’s old, old Davis Inlet,” says Rich, pointing to where the old cemetery used to be, now growing back into the earth.
The older Rich brother was born a five-minute boat ride away from Iluikoyak Island, in what’s known as Old Davis Inlet. He lived his first six years in a tent, when the Innu were still semi-nomadic and followed the George River caribou herd.
The only remaining sign of life is a two-storey white building across the bay from Old Davis Inlet.
“That’s the Hudson’s Bay [Company] trading post,” Hank Rich says.
Rich said he remembers when the provincial government — with help from the local Roman Catholic priest — encouraged the Innu to move from their home to a new Davis Inlet.
Bureaucrats promised that homes would be equipped with running water and heat — but neither utility materialized, Rich said.
Instead, the Mushuau Innu were relocated to an island without access to the barrens and caribou.
It took away life’s purpose.
20 years of Natuashish
The consequences of that ill-fated decision by the provincial government — and the federal government’s years-long refusal to recognize the Innu as a First Nation — caught international attention.
By 1993, only five homes had running water — and they were set aside for outsiders like the priest, teachers, police and nurses.
Residents of the community fetched water daily at a pump within town. Without a proper sewage system, honey buckets were used to catch waste.
The health of the people who lived there was declining and addiction was rampant.
The Innu were fighting for their lives and sovereignty.
The federal government could no longer ignore the Mushuau Innu, and beginning in December 2002, Ottawa relocated them to a community of their choosing: Natuashish.
They’ve spent the past 20 years in the new community.
John Nui is wearing a polo shirt that contrasts his big rubber boots as he pulls his truck into the band council parking lot, kicking up a cloud of dust.
He’s busy and has a lot to do before heading to Halifax the next day for meetings.
Recently re-elected as chief of the Mushuau Innu First Nation, Nui would like to see a boardwalk built in Davis Inlet. He said it is vital for the younger generation to know where they came from.
But his focus is firmly on the future of his community — and ensuring history doesn’t repeat itself.
“I’m more concentrated on the good parts, you know, rather than dwelling on the negative kind of things. It doesn’t make any sense for me to dwell on the past,” Nui said.
“Life moves on, right?”
Old problems, new town
Sand connects the homes and the streets in Natuashish, one bleeding into another. Pickup trucks and ATVs leave clouds of dust on gravel roads as children — and dogs — run and play.
Parts of the community look worn and battered. Plywood covers many basement windows, and the siding is deteriorated from two decades of unrelenting winters.
But there are still remnants of that once-new, fresh suburbia in the middle of the Labrador barrens.
The homes original to the community still carry proud plaques over each front door with the names of the people who live there.
Over the last two decades, strides have been made in the community since it moved to Natuashish, Nui said. Homes have running water and heat. More than ever before, children are going to school and graduating.
But Nui said a lack of stable, secure housing is threatening to make history repeat itself, in part, because the federal government didn’t keep up with demand.
Nui said there are about 100 families on a waiting list for housing. Two rows of new three-bedroom bungalow homes were recently constructed, bringing the count of new homes built in the last two years to 45, but it merely made a dent in the demand for houses.
“It’s like we are still in [Davis Inlet] somewhere, not as bad but we are still addressing the needs we dealt with in Davis Inlet 20 years ago,” Nui said.
It is sad sometimes that they are still living this way. It doesn’t make sense. It is 2022, and we are still living like this, and it’s still bothering me.
Unlike the rest of Newfoundland and Labrador, the population of Natuashish is growing. Nui said there are between 30 and 40 new births per year in a community of just over 1,000 people.
Nui said the housing crunch has forced some residents to leave Natuashish and others to cram into already overcrowded houses, exacerbating social issues — substance abuse and domestic violence — that the community is also struggling to overcome.
“I know one single parent who has five grandchildren and children living in one place, in a three-bedroom house, with 13 kids,” Nui said.
“It is sad sometimes that they are still living this way. It doesn’t make sense. It is 2022, and we are still living like this, and it’s still bothering me.”
Crown-Indigenous Relations (CIR) Minister Marc Miller declined an interview.
In an emailed response to questions from CBC, a spokesperson from Indigenous Services Canada and CIR said funding for housing is based on population and the remoteness of the First Nation.
“ISC continues to work directly with the Mushuau [Innu] First Nation to support their priority housing initiatives and will continue to work with the First Nation on any proposals or community-led housing strategies in support of their community vision,” the statement said.
In the past five years, the department said it has provided more than $8 million for targeted housing projects, in addition to capital funding that the band council receives annually.
“It’s not a 20-year gap that we are trying to fix with the housing issue,” Nui said. “It’s all these things that were promised to our parents at the time [in 1967].”
The departments said the housing initially built accommodated the population of Natuashish at the time of construction, with room for growth.
“There are currently vacant lots available to build additional housing, and the water and wastewater facilities can also accommodate an increase in population,” said a spokesperson.
‘We have to fight for everything’
Relations between the Innu and Ottawa are beginning to improve, Nui said, but getting what the community needs is never easy.
“Almost every meeting that I attend I tell the bureaucrats that we have to fight [for] everything that we need, but I don’t think that should be the case,” he said.
“As the community expands, we’re going to need more electricity, we’re going to need more jobs, more people graduating. You know we need funding to send them out [to post-secondary] to run the community the way we want to.”
Funding for education is another complication.
Aaron and Nachelle Poker planned to send three of their daughters to university in St. John’s this fall. They had the apartment and vehicle lined up, all the registration forms submitted.
But, Aaron Poker said, the band council could only fund one daughter’s education — so none of them went.
“The plan didn’t go our way,” Aaron Poker said. “We could try again next year.”
For the Pokers it is another year of worrying for their daughters, ensuring that they remain on a path toward achievement.
Nachelle Poker, who mostly speaks Innu-aimun, said she is concerned for her girls because of alcohol in the community and the problems that come with it.
When they moved to Natuashish, Aaron Poker said he and others in the community had high hopes that social problems, exacerbated by widespread alcohol addiction, would wane in time.
“Nothing really, really changed. There are always new gas sniffers. There’s always new drinking on the go,” Poker shrugged.
“They always find a way to bring it in and know how to bring it in. They can’t catch them. We got to accept that now. Can’t really control it.”
Natuashish is a dry community. It has been since the band council asked residents to vote on a ban in 2008; the bylaw passed by just two votes. By 2010, a second vote kept the ban in place, this time with marginally more support.
As the community enters a new decade, it’s Aaron Poker’s hope that people get healthier and youth stay connected to their history, language and culture, including returning to Davis Inlet.
“I like going up there and looking at houses saying, ‘This is my house when I was young, and Nachelle’s place where we met,’” Aaron Poker said, smiling.
“Telling the kids, that’s the church and showing them where we went, the hill, the houses where we hang with our old friends. For me, they should leave it alone.”
What to do with Davis Inlet?
Cajetan Rich, a former chief, sat on the relocation committee in the late 1990s to prepare the Mushuau Innu for the changes ahead — big and small — in a new place. He said that included pointers on how to run a bath, a new experience for some who had never had access to running water.
He’s now on the committee that is working with Ottawa to decommission Davis Inlet. It is expected to be a seven-year process, but Rich said it could finish sooner. No cost has been made public as of yet.
“The idea is to get to the community part of the healing process and get the kids over there and educated [about] what happened in that community,” said Rich.
In summer 2021, the Canadian Human Rights Commission urged the federal government to appoint a project manager and provide adequate funding “to allow the site to be adapted by the Innu according to their own priorities and values,” within a year.
“I think there [were] several times, in fact, that [previous band councils] tried to make a proposal to the federal government, but they haven’t done anything,” he said.
The Department of Indigenous Services Canada said it will miss that deadline, but it has committed to getting the job done.
“The decommissioning of Davis Inlet is a complex, multi-year project that requires time-intensive work from both ISC and Mushuau Innu First Nation,” an emailed statement from the department said.
“At a minimum, this work will likely include environmental, geotechnical, structural and archaeological investigations, a design team tender and a decommissioning tender.”
A project manager is expected to be in place by the end of the year, who will work directly with the community, the department said.
Gregory Rich takes out his iPhone and snaps a few photos while he stands high on a rock that provides a birds-eye view of Davis Inlet.
“Watch for nails,” he warns. People have come back to dismantle some homes for wood. Overgrown willows have hidden much of what is left.
For those looking in before the relocation, Davis Inlet was a symbol of despair and federal government embarrassment.
But even for Rich, who suffered a tremendous tragedy, his feelings for this place are complicated, mixed with love, life and loss.
“Some people are traumatized here by things of the past, some really hate Davis Inlet but I love it. I love it here,” he said.
“Even though I suffered a great loss, I miss this place sometimes.”
This is the first in a two-part series on the decommissioning of Davis Inlet and the 20-year anniversary of Natuashish