Skip to comments.An Epidemic of Gas Sniffing Decimates Arctic Indian Tribe
Posted on 07/22/2002 2:37:34 PM PDT by vannrox
March 4, 2001
An Epidemic of Gas Sniffing Decimates Arctic Indian Tribe
By MARY ROGAN Photographs by ARLENE GOTTFRIED
ate last fall, in a remote village in the north of Labrador, native leaders took the extraordinary step of asking the government to take their children away. "The safety of these children is the paramount issue," explained Paul Rich, Innu tribal chief, in a statement to the provincial government requesting the removal of nearly two dozen of the village's children. "The ongoing situation is drastic, and we need to take drastic measures," the plea continued. "We insist that these children be taken into care immediately."
The children, residents of the village of Sheshatshiu, where 1,200 of the 2,000 members of Labrador's Innu Nation live, are addicted to sniffing gasoline. On most days before Rich's plea, they would stagger along the desolate gravel roads, beginning at dusk, sniffing gas from garbage bags and making their way to a camp deep in the woods outside of town. There, in groups as large as 40 or 50, they'd sniff gas until dawn. As the light broke through the trees, they'd shuffle through subzero temperatures toward home or the detox center in town, where they'd sleep off the effects of the gas. Some would vomit or pass out, and according to local health workers, several had become brain-damaged from the gas. In the past year, one 11-year-old boy died after setting himself on fire, and half a dozen others were severely burned after accidentally going up in flames.
The Innu trace their problems with poverty and substance abuse to government relocations that forced them to give up their nomadic way of life. They also attribute their current state to the chronic physical and sexual abuse their children suffered when they were forced to attend Christian residential schools from the 1950's through the 1970's. Today, more than half the 300 children in Sheshatshiu between the ages of 5 and 14 have sniffed gasoline, and at least 20 percent are regular users. It is a community where half of the adults are addicted to alcohol, 42 percent have thought actively about killing themselves and 28 percent have attempted suicide.
In Davis Inlet, the other Innu community in Labrador, more than 200 miles north of Sheshatshiu, the statistics are even grimmer. Ninety of the 154 Innu children there are chronic gas sniffers, and children as young as 6 have sniffed gas at least once. The London-based human rights group Survival International calls the Innu, whose suicide rate is 13 times as high as that of the rest of Canada, "the most suicide-ridden people in the world."
The provincial government of Newfoundland, which governs Labrador, responded swiftly to Rich's request. Three days after the plea, on Nov. 20, government social workers were flown in to Sheshatshiu to assess the gas-addicted kids. With help from Innu community workers, social workers went door to door talking to parents about the plan to take their children from them and assuring them they would be taken to a place where they would be cared for. "Most of the parents understood what was happening and agreed with our decision," explained Paul Rich. "There were a few who didn't. But there was nothing else we could do. If the parents can't take care of these kids, we can't leave them in the cold to sniff and die." On Nov. 21, anxious parents huddled in the dark outside the town's alcohol-treatment center, waiting for a bus that would take 21 of the most seriously addicted children to a military base in Goose Bay, 25 miles down the road. Inside, the children were distracted with treats of soda and chips and the promise of pizza once they got to Goose Bay. Peter Penashue, the president of the Innu Nation, was there, talking with parents and telling them that everything was going to be O.K. "I looked at the kids and thought, We've come a long way in 50 years to fall this far," he would tell me later. "The sadness overwhelmed me."
When the bus arrived around 7 p.m., the children were taken out one at a time so that they wouldn't run off. As it pulled away, they smiled and waved out the windows like Fresh Air Fund kids leaving the city for a summer in the Catskills.
In Goose Bay, they were held in a barracks where half a dozen social workers cared for them. But beyond helping the children detoxify, the government has made it clear it has no long-term solution for them if they return to their ravaged community. Marilyn McCormack, the provincial director for Child, Youth and Family Services, says that in her 23 years as a social worker, the plight of the children of Sheshatshiu is among the worst she has ever seen.
At first, the children were agitated and nauseated coming off the gas, and social workers could do little beyond providing the basics for them: food, clothing, lots of juice to satisfy the intense thirst that was a symptom of their detoxing. When they began to talk, what they said was hair-raising. They described beatings and sexual abuse at the hands of their relatives. They talked about wondering each day whether they would get dinner at night, about seeing their parents get drunk and beat each other, about witnessing suicides and friends setting themselves on fire. They spoke in monotones, and it's this deadness that McCormack found especially horrifying. "My children couldn't survive what these children have survived," she said. "I don't know if I could survive. And yet they have so little expectation that anything will change."
Of the 21 children taken from Sheshatshiu in late November, 19 are still in the care of the government, and they are expected to be moved into foster homes or alternate living arrangements. Two of them have returned to Sheshatshiu.
n Davis Inlet, the transfer of gas-addicted children to the authorities has been considerably more difficult. Unlike Paul Rich in Sheshatshiu, Simeon Tshakapesh, the chief in Davis Inlet, has insisted on negotiating with the government before handing over the children. Tshakapesh has been accused by individuals in the government and in the Innu community of holding the children hostage to larger Innu demands -- requesting more money for Innu social services and demanding that treatment programs be run by Innu counselors who will emphasize native culture. One government official who insisted on anonymity said that the Innu in Davis Inlet also requested a guarantee that if doctors discovered the children had been sexually abused, no charges would be brought against the parents.
The degradation of the lives in Davis Inlet is impossible to exaggerate. There are about 100 houses there that are little more than shacks, their doors torn from the hinges and windows smashed. Several snowmobiles, from which children often steal gas, appear to have been set on fire, and outside of every house are mountains of garbage that have been tossed out of windows. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police office, at the foot of the village, is home to three officers, who, because of the stress of being here, work two-week rotations and then fly out for two weeks.
The R.C.M.P. officers told me I wouldn't have to go far to find children sniffing gas. They're easy to spot, one of them said, because they don't put their arms in the sleeves of their coats. They hug the bags close to their chests and draw the fumes up through the collars of their jackets. The officers also said that sniffing gas is not illegal in Davis Inlet, so they are not allowed to take the bags away from the children. "All we can do is put them out when they set themselves on fire," one officer added.
Outside, about 200 yards from the police office, the road was full of armless zombies. Their sleeves swung loosely at their sides, and their chins were tucked tight to their chests. No one looked to be more than 10 years old. I expected they would run away from a stranger, but they approached me eagerly. When I asked the smallest boy if he was sniffing gas, he laughed and said, "Yeah." The air was saturated with the smell of gasoline, and the children shuffled along in large groups and in lonely pairs. When they spotted the photographer who was traveling with me, they laughed and pushed one another aside to get into the frame, shrieking: "Take my picture, I sniff gas. Take my picture, I sniff gas."
In mid-December, the federal government reached an agreement with the Innu of Davis Inlet. In return for the construction of a detox center in Labrador and a continued commitment to restoring Innu culture, social workers could fly in before the end of the month to assess the situation, and the government could take the gas-addicted children to a facility in St. John's, Newfoundland, at the beginning of the new year.
On Jan. 9, 16 of the community's most seriously gas-addicted children, ranging in age from 10 to 18, were flown to St. John's.
To date, 40 children have been removed from the town and put into treatment. Of the addicted children still in Davis Inlet, it's unclear what, if anything, will be done for them. At the time I write this, the temperature has dipped to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and there are five feet of snow on the ground. The police officers are taking turns patrolling all day and night, trying to keep the gas-sniffing children from freezing to death.
Mary Rogan is a writer who lives in Toronto.
That kind of gas.
Well, that's just precious, isn't it? They trace their problems to government relocations, so now they're asking the government to come and take their children away?
They also attribute their current state to the chronic physical and sexual abuse their children suffered when they were forced to attend Christian residential schools from the 1950's through the 1970's. Today, more than half the 300 children in Sheshatshiu between the ages of 5 and 14 have sniffed gasoline, and at least 20 percent are regular users.
Interesting chain of logic. A child who is between the ages of 5 and 14 today was born between 1988 and 1997.
I guess that's better than letting them freeze to death.
That's what we've been promised here, where the situation is just as bad, amongst desert aboriginal children.
Well, there is still a possible link there but the NY Times is afraid to actually go there. Abused children tend to be abusers. So the past abuse is being passed on to each generation. But for the Times to say that might imply that homosexuality is taught/learned through early experiences. They'd rather just leave it as an indictment of Christianity.
Presumably about the same as sniffing glue, although probably a lot more toxic.
When I lived in the SW about 15 years ago, this was just becoming popular among the Navajo kids. A dozen of them could stay high all day on a quart of gas. Got to admit it's a lot cheaper and more available than most drugs.
Yes, if you have ever attended a pow-wow you can witness first hand what goes on at the reservation. There is a lot of addiction. A few Indians are brain damaged beyond repair and continue to sniff glue and paint. At no less a pow-wow or celebration of self, they celebrate by slowly killing themselves. Socialism at work.