Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The Innu Nation Main Office in Sheshatshiu, N.L., is pictured in May, 2023. Statistics show Indigenous children are overrepresented in the province's foster-care system.Sarah Smellie/The Canadian Press

An inquiry into the treatment of Innu youth in Labrador’s child protection system heard Monday from an Innu woman who said her parents lost control of their lives when they moved to Sheshatshiu in 1960.

Mary Pia Benuen is now the primary health director in Sheshatshiu, a small Innu community in central Labrador, a 30-minute drive northeast of Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Benuen told the inquiry her parents and their 11 children lived in a tent when they first moved to the community from isolated Davis Inlet in northern Labrador, but she said the family became more fragmented after they moved into a house that had a wood stove but no running water.

“It wasn’t the life we were used to,” said Benuen, an expert in public health nursing with 33 years of experience in Labrador.

The 63-year-old woman said her parents eventually became neglectful, abusive alcoholics, but she recalled how the family seemed to flourish when they made extended trips into the bush, where they lived off the land in the spring and the fall.

By contrast, Benuen said life in Sheshatshiu was a struggle. Her parents’ heavy drinking prompted interventions from the province’s Social Services Department, which attempted to take some of her siblings into provincial care.

Benuen said her father repeatedly fought the department’s attempts to take his children away, and she recalled how other families in Sheshatshiu were pulled apart by government agents.

“My dad fought for us,” the registered nurse and health-care manager told the inquiry, which is hearing this week from experts and practitioners who are part of the health and child protection system in Labrador.

“My dad told me, ’Never give up or give in to the white people because if you let them do what they want to you, then you'll … be stepped on all through your life.’”

Benuen recalled how children who failed to go to school were dragged to their classes by local priests. And she described how a public health nurse inspecting students for lice used a pair of scissors to cut off Benuen’s long braids. She was 10 years old at the time.

In particular, Benuen recalled how some young friends who had also moved from Davis Inlet to Sheshatshiu in the 1960s were often sent to live in St. John's, where they would stay until they turned 18.

“They did come home, but they were lost in the community,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “They turned to alcohol and drugs. They were never the same.”

She said three of those friends have died in the past 15 years.

As for the family trips to the Labrador wilderness, Benuen said that stopped in 1973 when the government decided to suspend family allowance payments to parents who failed to send their children to school.

Benuen helped establish Sheshatshiu’s first health clinic in 1997. Since then, she said she has witnessed the decline in the community’s overall health, mainly because of lack of exercise and the consumption of unhealthy foods.

“People are not looking after themselves as they used to,” she said. “Back in the 1970s, people … were doing things in the community and eating healthy.”

To drive home that point, commission lawyer Peter Ralph read from a document called The Innu Healing Strategy, drafted in 2014 by the Innu of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish.

“There is consensus that the forced transformation of the Innu from nomadic hunters into sedentary residents of communities within one generation is the starting point for most of the social and health ills of the Innu,” the strategy says.

“This sudden shift in how Innu lived brought profound change, whereby Innu self-sufficiency was replaced with dependency on government services, (wild) food by the grocery store and activity by lethargy.”

The inquiry was promised in 2017, when the province signed an agreement with the Innu Nation to examine how Innu children have been treated in provincial care. But the process seemed to go nowhere until 2020, when 15-year-old Wally Rich, an Innu boy, took his own life while living in a group home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L.

Statistics show Indigenous children are overrepresented in Newfoundland and Labrador’s foster-care system, as is the case in the rest of Canada. More than one-third of children in foster care in the province were Indigenous in 2021, while just nine per cent of the province’s population was Indigenous.

The province allocated $4 million to establish the commission of inquiry, which was launched in April 2022. Formal hearings began on Monday, but the inquiry has already heard informal testimony from 51 people in Sheshatshiu, and another 36 Innu residents in Natuashish, which is in northern Labrador.

“We learned about how resilient the Innu have been over all of these years,” chief commissioner James Igloliorte, a retired provincial court judge, told the hearing Monday.

Commissioner Anastasia Qupee, a former grand chief of the Innu Nation, said the Innu of Labrador called for the inquiry “to help us understand what has happened with our children.”

“For many years, Innu have not had control over what happens with our children and many have been taken out of the communities,” Qupee told the inquiry.

The latest round of hearings will continue at the Sheshatshiu Youth Centre until the end of the week.

The inquiry’s final report must be delivered by Sept. 30.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe