A community leader in the remote First Nation reserve of Natuashish, N.L., says it’s time to get tough on bootleggers and drug dealers to eradicate substance abuse in a community that has seen two suicides this spring, along with reports of free-flowing booze and gas sniffing.
“We need to put them out, kick them out of the community, so they don’t keep bringing in the stuff, they don’t keep selling the stuff that’s hurting our children,” said Mary Jane Edmonds, a former band councillor.
Alcohol was banned in 2008 after a vote by residents of the Innu community, which is nearly 300 kilometres north of Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Two years later, people there voted again to stay dry.
But Edmonds said the local bylaw has been rendered useless since RCMP officers stopped searching all airline passengers coming into Natuashish.
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The only way to get into the northern Labrador reserve in winter is by air. Summer travel involves a days-long ferry ride.
Bootlegged booze goes for upwards of $300 for a 750-millilitre bottle. Drugs, mainly marijuana and cocaine, are also easy to find.
Young people who can’t afford either often turn to gas sniffing.
This spring, the community of 936 people has seen two young people take their own lives, including 16-year-old Thunderheart Tshakapesh, son of the deputy grand chief of the Innu Nation.
There have also been two fires in abandoned houses known locally as gas-sniffing hangouts. Two young people were badly burned; an 11-year-old is being treated in a Toronto hospital.
Edmonds said the drugs, alcohol and gas go hand in hand in hand, triggering social problems for which she says bootleggers and drug dealers are ultimately to blame.
“That’s what’s really killing our youth and killing our culture and killing everything that we hold precious.”
RCMP won’t explain changes
It’s a concern echoed by band council Chief John Nui, who in May told CBC News the scaled-back searches by police have led to more alcohol abuse.
“It’s visible in our community,” Nui said. “I’m not going to deny it or anything … alcohol is freely flowing around in our community again.”
RCMP said they are still conducting regular inspections, but band council officials and other residents of Natuashish said while officers used to search every piece of luggage, now they only search sporadically.
When CBC News visited Natuashish in early June, there were no officers at the airport to check bags. Reporters also visited the local detachment but the door was locked while officers were out on patrol.
In an emailed response to CBC questions, Cpl. Trevor O’Keefe wrote, “Police use various investigative techniques to obtain the necessary legal grounds to search luggage. Searches have recently been conducted which have resulted in the seizure of drugs and alcohol.”
Relatives fear retribution
Edmonds said many people are afraid of speaking out about drug dealing and bootlegging because the community is so small and often the dealers are relatives.
“A lot of the people that are selling drugs to young people and other adults are people we know. They could be our cousin, our uncle, our aunt,” she said.
Not only are relatives reluctant to betray their loved ones, they’re also worried about retribution.
“Because we know for a fact that when we try to deal with it, their property gets attacked. Somebody gets their tires slashed or their windows broken.”
‘A lot of the people that are selling drugs to young people and other adults are people we know. They could be our cousin, our uncle, our aunt.’– Mary Jane Edmonds
There’s a lot of healing to do, Edmonds said — getting rid of alcohol and drugs is just the first step.
Many residents are living with trauma: deaths, fires, separation from parents.
The Mushuau Innu have lived in Natuashish for only 15 years or so. Up until 2002, they lived in Davis Inlet, on an island off the coast of Labrador, a place chosen for them by provincial officials back in the 1960s.
Davis Inlet made international headlines in 1993 with images of gas-sniffing children who said they wanted to die. The town was notorious for its substandard housing and contaminated water.
Back to the land
The infrastructure in Natuashish — 18 kilometres up the coast, on the mainland of Labrador — is better, but Edmonds says the community has not healed emotionally.
She wants to see fellow Innu embrace traditional practices — getting back to the land, spending more time in tents instead of houses.
“There are very few secrets going on in a tent because we are all sharing. We share with everybody and there’s not much privacy, which is good,” she said. “There’s nothing bad happening in a tent because it’s so open.”
Edmonds is also planning a 100-kilometre walk for women and girls of Natuashish at the end of June. She said those kinds of activities get the community energized.
“This is where I want to do my teachings with the young girls,” she said.
“You can be clean and sober and enjoy being out on the land rather than looking for artificial fun in the community. When I say ‘artificial’ I mean drinking and doing drugs and sniffing gas.”
Before her vision of healthy children and a healthy community can happen, Edmonds said dealing and bootlegging need to end.
“We need to do something about it,” she said. “The community has to come together.”