community. More than a decade later, suicide and crime rates are down, and elders are
working to reconnect young people with the land. But as writer and photographer
Peter Power discovers on a hunting excursion, the problems run deep
The young men are back, and quite pleased with themselves. As well as three partridges riddled with buckshot, they carry a large black porcupine, bleeding from a single wound. The prickly creature is a delicacy, a rare fatty meal at a time of year when other animals are scarce – and for two years, the caribou, their principal prey, has been officially off-limits to the Mushuau Innu of Labrador.
Katie Pasteen takes charge of preparing the porcupine, along with her sister Edith Tshakapesh, a tribal elder. A few of the young ones watch intently, but as the entrails are pulled through a small hole in the lower abdomen, a foul odour fills the air. With hands over mouths and noses, and eyes watering, most of the youngsters soon flee.
Grinning, the man in charge of the hunt seizes a teaching opportunity. “We never held our noses,” says Chief Gregory Rich, recalling his own introduction to the traditions of his people. “We watched and we learned.”
About 40 of us have made the trip to the remote hunting ground, 135 kilometres from home by air. The outing is part of a determined attempt by what was once Canada’s most notorious native community to put its toxic past behind it. The people I am with live in Natuashish. But until 2002, they made their home in nearby Davis Inlet. In 1993, disturbing video footage from there showed children as young as 11 sniffing gas and saying life wasn’t worth living. Years later, the government decided to save Davis Inlet by abandoning it, relocating the entire community on the mainland.
Chief Rich is an ambitious and optimistic man eager to reunite fractured families and revive his people by reconnecting with their past. I am here witnessing a key part of that plan. Along with the chief, I have also met many others, including Ms. Pasteen, Christine Poker and Monique Penashue, who admire and support him. And I have met, too, the main targets of their efforts: young people such as Katie’s son Wayne who, at 27, is locked in a day-to-day struggle with substance abuse; and James Poker, 10 years his junior, who seemed to have his demons at bay.
Those on the hunt are mostly men, along with boys who have come to learn, and to escape. Here on the open ground beneath the northern sky, they have no outside pressure and no corners in which to hide – that is, nowhere secluded enough to sniff gasoline.
A FIRE'S TRAGIC AFTERMATH
It snows one afternoon, keeping everyone indoors, and Wayne Pasteen suddenly appears on a chair directly in front of me.
“What would you like to know?” he asks.
Said to be one of the few chronic gas sniffers who remain in the community, he is a constant source of worry for his mother. A few days earlier, before leaving on the hunt, Ms. Pasteen sat on a threadbare sofa in her family room, gently holding her elderly mother’s hand, and whispered, “Please, God, I don’t want my son to die this way.”
She was referring to the death of Wayne’s friend, Jimmy Pokue, who had hanged himself in his mother’s basement last September. He was 20 years old. Wayne was only an arm’s length away as his mother spoke, but remained quiet.
He would talk, he assured me, but later, when the time was right – when we’re out in “the country,” the land the Mushuau Innu have travelled for more than 6,000 years, following the great caribou herds as they migrate from Ungava Bay in Northern Quebec to the frigid waters of the Atlantic. The country made the Innu who they are, and now they look to it for salvation from the plague of troubles that have stained their community.
I had imagined our conversation there would be held in private, but Mr. Pasteen, it turned out, would want to speak in Innu, which required a translator. And there were others in the room who contributed comments and clarifications – the whole group was trying to help me understand. “Yes, it’s hurting me,” Wayne would tell me then, “but I cannot quit sniffing gas.” He started to sniff when he was eight. Eight.
There was a boy of that age with us on the hunt; he wore rubber boots with action figures on them and was learning how to split wood. He could barely wrap his hands around the axe handle.
But Wayne was 8 in Davis Inlet.
By all accounts, life there was difficult. “We were living in shacks,” Chief Rich recalls. The houses had been built in 1967 to provide the Innu with permanent shelter, but the structures lacked basements; and they were equipped with tubs, toilets and sinks even though most had neither running water nor sewage services.
As the Innu had struggled to adapt to a “modern” existence, they lost touch with their traditional way of life. For one thing, they were on an island; the caribou were on the mainland.
Life now is easier, Chief Rich says: The homes are heated and have running water. But the people have yet to address many of the social issues that he says stem from mistakes their parents made. “Back in Davis Inlet, there was a lot of drinking,” he says, with an absurd laugh. “While the adults were drinking, the young escaped by sniffing gas.”
One of the tragic stories to come from that time involved a 1992 fire that claimed the lives of six children; an estimated 25 per cent of the adult population had attempted suicide in its wake. A study conducted in 2000 showed that 154 of Davis Inlet’s 169 youths had inhaled something toxic at some point.
The Pasteen family certainly struggled. Katie says her own substance problem had begun when she was in her teens, and was compounded by that fact that her parents seemed oblivious to their children. The lack of attention left its mark.
“When my kids were young, I didn’t hug them – I didn’t tell them I loved them, because I was too busy drinking all the time,” she says. “I’m trying to do it differently now. I tell them I love them and I tell them how important they are in my life, especially my son … I want to tell him I love him every day.”
In many ways, the community has made remarkable headway. Sgt. Cal Barter of the local RCMP detachment has seen a steady decrease – “by half,” he estimates – in the crime rate during his 10 years in Natuashish.
Suicides have plummeted as well. There were once four or five every year, astonishing for a population of just 900. But Jimmy Pokue’s death last fall was the first since 2009.
Monique Penashue tells me about Jimmy while minding the phone at the Natuashish band council office. They used to date, and she says he was quiet, humble and didn’t complain – a young man who was funny, loved the outdoors and cared for his mother and grandmother.
“We used to sniff gas together,” Monique adds. She has spent a few years away – in Ontario battling addiction.
Then her tone changes as she recalls how she used to braid his beautiful long hair, which he had cut shortly before taking his life. By the time she gets to his “very gentle hands,” tears are rolling down her cheeks.
They are for Jimmy – and for the suicide victim immediately before him, too: Ponas Rich, her 23-year-old brother.
Everything in the office where Monique works is worn and tired-looking, like so much in Natuashish. Cultural clashes, isolation, an unfamiliar political system imposed from outside and an abundance of infighting have hampered development as the community struggles to let go of the past.
Chief Rich contends that his 2013 election was the product of the first band-council campaign that was “clean” – free of bribes (which can be money, drugs or alcohol). His priorities in office are to support young people, create jobs, and stop the cycle of substance abuse.
These goals are intricately related, and the road to success has many twists and turns – but it passes through the country.
ARMED WITH ENTHUSIASM
It’s grey and cold as we pile everything we will need for 10 days in the bush on the gravel tarmac of the small airstrip outside town. It will require four flights by Twin Otter to carry all of it, and us, to Mistastin, a circular lake 28 kilometres across believed to be the crater from a massive meteor strike 36 million years ago near what is now the Quebec-Labrador border. Throughout the day, sleeping bags, mattresses, cardboard boxes of food, coolers, duffle bags, wood stoves, rifles, cans of gasoline and a couple of four-wheeled, all-terrain vehicles find their way into the belly of the plane. Smiles are in abundance as each relay reaches camp. By sunset, everyone has found a corner of a cabin to call home, and the sound of children laughing and of excited conversation fills the air.
Most of those here are not seasoned hunters, although there is plenty of enthusiasm. By the time the drone from the last Twin Otter run fades into the distance, Garfield Rich, an eager 11-year-old, is showing off a makeshift spear he has fashioned from a long branch, black electrical tape and a few galvanized nails. He figures he will use it to hunt partridge.
Garfield, I later learn, has been figuring things out for himself for years. While frying eggs and bologna in a cast-iron pan one morning, he explains that he started making his own breakfast at seven. That was when a motor-vehicle accident left his father a quadriplegic (he now lives in St. John’s, where the medical support is better, but Garfield’s mother is being trained at the health centre so she can care for him at home.)
The hunting camp sits at the edge of the lake, whose water level appears to have fallen, leaving waves of beach sand in concentric semi-circles.
Aside from the herds of caribou that first brought the Innu to the area, wild game is not abundant here when winter arrives – and the caribou is supposed to be off limits. The government of Newfoundland and Labrador placed a five-year hunting moratorium on the George River herd in December, 2013, after a sharp and mysterious decline in its population.
But old habits die hard, so everyone at Mistastin Lake is constantly scanning the horizon for signs of the herd. Across the border, Quebec aboriginal people have won the right to continue hunting, while in Labrador the ban stands even though the Innu call it unjustified.
Meanwhile, there are other animals – and fish. Boys make repeated trips to the lake to try their luck, and Bryan Rich, 20, a hall monitor at the local school, casually takes on the role of youth supervisor. The son of a social worker, he is somehow always nearby, guarding against bears with his .22-calibre semi-automatic Colt AR-15 across his back.
At first, it’s not clear the fishing will yield results, but then 10-year-old Leon Rich pulls out a lake trout nearly as long as he is. Easily the largest fish he has ever caught, it flops on shore so wildly that he is afraid to grab hold. Bryan’s solution is to put a bullet in its head, needless violence that certainly solves the problem but creates an abundance of blood that Leon is even less eager to touch.
Minutes later, however, he sits and watches closely as Ms. Tshakapesh, the elder, cleans the trout before hanging it to dry. Within days, Leon’s clothing is spotted with blood as he eagerly helps to butcher the spoils of the hunt.
The porcupine turns out to be a hit. As Ms. Pasteen and Ms. Tshakapesh demonstrate the traditional Innu way of preparing it for the pot, seven-year-old Leah Takapish sits in a nearby rocker playing on her pink iPad.
Once on the fire, the pot emits a smell not unlike the one that rose from the animal’s innards. Yet, for two days, a parade of young and old alike will drop by for a taste.
Hunters also hope to shoot southbound geese, but the few that approach the lake bypass the camp, instead flying over what’s called “the rock you must not point at” – a ramp-like outcropping on the horizon. The rock has no proper name, but legend dictates that pointing at it is forbidden and will invite harsh storms for days, if not weeks.
“What rock – that one?” a young man asks me one afternoon, extending his arm toward it, grinning wickedly. “I’ve been pointing at it for years,” Amos Pijogee says confidently, “and it hasn’t blown yet.”
Mr. Pijogee has a tattoo across his throat that reads “Inuit, Innu,” a testament to his parents’ mixed marriage. He is comfortable on the land, seemingly born to hunt, and has been sober for seven months. He quit drinking because he was “tired of going to jail” – the last time for hitting a police officer while on a bender – and because of his daughter who was born in 2013.
A day after Mr. Pijogee defies the rock, the winter’s first real snowfall hits, crippling the all-terrain quads and forcing everyone to stay indoors.
THE LURE OF TOXIC FUMES
When Wayne Pasteen finally beaks his silence, he tells me that he realizes what two decades of inhaling toxic fumes have done to his body, and blames his habit for his “crooked” legs, which he displays matter-of-factly by lifting his pant legs.
Wayne seems lost. Many of his contemporaries are moving forward with their lives. And his three children (daughters, aged 6 and 3, and a nine-year-old son) are all being raised by other families – the six-year-old in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, which is 300 kilometres south by air.
He has lost count of how many friends he has lost to suicide. (For a community so young and so small, the Natuashish cemetery seems crowded, with Jimmy Pokue’s grave at the rear, its white picket fence shining against the forest backdrop).
However, out here in the country, things are different, Mr. Pasteen says. “I don’t sniff. I have friends, family. It’s calm here. I don’t want to be what I was in Natuashish.” He doesn’t know how, but insists that eventually he will follow the lead of friends such as Bert Pashteen, who have been able to quit.
Later, as he absent-mindedly strokes the scars on his leg, 15-year-old Bert explains why he stopped sniffing. Two years ago, while high and roaming the streets with friends in town, he playfully kicked at a line of gasoline they had poured and set alight, unaware that some had dripped down his leg and onto his shoe. His pants burst into flames, and his intoxicated companions could only laugh as he writhed on the ground. Fortunately, a neighbour was watching the scene unfold from his front window and rushed to his aid.
This wasn’t the turning point, though. After two months at the hospital in Goose Bay, he came home and was soon sniffing again. Then his father died. Just 42, he had repeatedly asked his son to give up the gas, but only after the man’s death was his wish granted.
“I miss him every day,” Bert says, staring down at his feet.
A LEGACY OF ABUSE
Professional help is available for substance abusers, and such help has come a long way since the community’s early days. Christine Poker has been an addiction counsellor for more than 20 years, and runs the local healing centre. She says a great deal of time and effort have gone into tailoring its treatment to better suit her people.
For example, the band met with government representatives early last year to work on strengthening the family unit rather than focusing solely on the individual.
“The community needs to come together and develop a relationship with the youth,” Chief Rich says, “because, if you develop a relationship with the youth, they’re going to come; they’re going to come to you for help.”
He found the show of support following Jimmy Pokue’s death encouraging, but says that young people can’t be helped without the involvement of their parents – and that the parents need to conquer their own demons first. The treatment centre now has programs that help do this, and that seem to be having some impact.
No stranger to addiction, Ms. Poker speaks freely of her own childhood – of abuse and alcoholic parents. She, too, became an alcoholic, sniffed gas and attempted suicide.
“When I sobered up, I felt like a new parent, learning new things. Because I always thought I was a good parent even though I wasn’t. I was drinking when my kids were growing up, too.”
She has been clean for 18 years, but says the fact that her children saw her at her worst can make it difficult to deal directly with some of their problems.
The young people of Natuashish clearly still have problems, but some statistics are encouraging. Although it is accepted that children will miss school when their families go to the country, for example, daily absenteeism is no longer tolerated.
One morning during my visit, a boy outside playing when he should have been in kindergarten is spotted by his passing father, who stops to chase him inside. Nearby, some high-school students are out for a quick smoke – there are six of them; that’s the same number as graduated last year. It was a record high for Natuashish – but should almost double this year.
As well, the official reports of gas sniffing are way down, from between 15 and 20 per month, to five or fewer. When the young sniffers began to be tracked, Ms. Poker says, there were about 60 names on the list. Now there are three.
Wayne Pasteen doesn’t deny being one of them, but claims things haven’t changed all that much. He says kids still roam the streets at night while the adults drink, and he worries that his own boy may join them. His problems are rooted in emotion, he says, especially anger.
But those listening to our conversation insist the real culprits are depression and boredom. And according to every young person I encountered, Natuashish is boring. Throughout the town, playthings sit idle, unused, including a soccer goal with no net.
The community has a relatively new arena (2005) and recreation centre (2011), yet both have been empty since the heat was mysteriously turned off last winter and the pipes froze. Chief Rich says the town is trying to bring in someone to make the necessary repairs, but the fact that two important facilities have stood dark for so long casts a shadow over the future of Natuashish.
One evening before leaving on the hunt, I wander through town with James Poker. At 17, he is well groomed, self-confident and mannerly; he has just returned after spending years out of the province living in foster homes and going to rehab. Although he did not come with us to the lake, James seems happy to talk about almost anything. “I tried suicide when I was 5 to see what it would be like,” he says. “Box cutters are sharp,” he adds, as he describes how he cut his neck and was lucky to survive.
He made his first trip out for rehab at 9, returning to Natuashish at 16 only to fall into the same routine; he was then sent to Regina for more treatment.
Now he is home again, living with an aunt and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings while finishing Grade 12. He has five siblings, but only he and a brother are still in Natuashish. The others are in treatment or foster homes, he says.
His mother now lives in Goose Bay, and still drinks, he says. His father is in Natuashish and “doing much better.”
Unlike most of the people I meet here, he seems as curious about my life as I am about his. He is intrigued with the idea of travelling and sharing people’s stories, and muses that perhaps one day he will become a journalist himself. He seems lonely, and I can’t help but wonder if he now feels out of place here.
As darkness falls, the Northern Lights appear in the inky sky, and, as I make photographs, James shares Innu lore about the phenomenon. Soon we are both yelling “Neémuuq!” – ordering the beautiful beams to dance.
He issues one warning: “Do not whistle when they are in the sky.” But this taboo seems to have been mangled as it was handed down: I later learn from Chief Rich that whistling at the right time is a good thing.
DEMONS BURIED DEEP
On the hunt, the young people are taught about their people’s traditions – and kept too busy to be bored.
They are tasked with fetching water and providing fuel for the wood stoves (their efforts supplemented by Charles Pasteen, Wayne’s father, a chopping machine). One afternoon, a baseball game breaks out, with a ball left by previous camp visitors and a broken axe handle for a bat.
But the go-to activity is the ueuepeshun – an Innu swing. It’s a brilliant concept: a stout log, liberated of its limbs, buried in the ground with a single rope tied to its top.
Also popular is a turn with a pellet gun, for those who have or can scrounge the ammunition. It’s as close as many will come to hunting on this trip. For the others, a trek into the hills surrounding camp begins with a quick stop at the chief’s cabin to be reminded of a few rules, first and foremost that guns are not to be fired unless at an animal.
The terrain rules out walking in a straight line, so the hunting parties meander through the snakelike moraines, and up and down the mossy slopes.
As I follow in their footsteps one afternoon, wet stains of crimson, red and purple, ooze up through the snow from the berries being crushed just beneath the surface. Like many of the deep-rooted issues here, nothing seems to reveal itself without some form of external pressure.
The pressure to have Natuashish confront its troubled past seems to begin with Chief Rich and his willingness to expose his own demons. As Monique Penashue bluntly puts it, “I’ve seen the chief loaded drunk, beating his woman, and now … we all look up to him.”
While we’re at Lake Mistastin, he takes me to a spot down the shore, sits atop his camo-painted quad and begins to talk about his past. “I used to sniff gas, I used to do drugs. I had to end up in the hospital to get away – no, I guess to get some relief from my hallucinations, my DTs [delirium tremens] and all that. But I have to remember that I didn’t do this on my own.”
He was able to recover, but it wasn’t without challenges and professional help. “I have to be reminded where I came from in order for me to stay sober, to stay clean, I have to go back to what my life was like … it was very rough and hard for me.”
The chief grew up watching his parents drink; his father beat his mother, sending him a message that it was okay to hit women. Only later did he realize what alcohol had done to his parents.
He still sees the community’s issues in generational terms – parents must start their healing journey on their own. “I think we need to go to therapy and deal with our problems that we encountered when we were growing up. Because if we don’t deal with our problems first, it’s going to affect the youth of this generation.”
Chief Rich also may very well be the poster child for grief among his people: The children who died in that fire on a frigid February evening in 1992 were his.
He and his wife Agathe had gone out drinking, leaving their family of five, plus a niece, between the ages of several months and nine years, at home. Desperate to stay warm, they accidentally set fire to the curtains. The chief and Agathe were accused of abandonment, charges that were stayed four years later because the case had taken too long to come to trial.
“As far as the community is concerned,” the judge ruled, “this tragedy ... is punishment beyond compare.” Evidence showed that, by then, the Riches were depressed, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and considered a high suicide risk.
The chief confirms that, when the children died, “I wanted to end my life the following day,” but he persevered with the support of his community, especially the elders. Now, he adds, “I have two beautiful foster kids and I show them compassion. I tell them daily that I love them. I give them a hug.
“I didn’t get those when I was growing up. My father never hugged me. My mom never hugged me.”
But he also insists that his upbringing wasn’t all negative – it inspired the trip we are on. His parents used to take the family into the country for three months at a time during which there was neither drinking nor fighting. “We were taught how to respect animals, and we were taught how to respect the people around us,” he recalls. “That’s what my father taught us – but only when he was sober. And when he wasn’t drinking, he would tell us stories about the land, about the legends and everything.”
That, he says, is “the difference between community life and country life.”
As the moisture in the air slowly creeps inside our clothing, Chief Rich offers some guarded optimism: his firm belief that, if the community rallies and convinces its children that they are loved, the gas-sniffing will stop: “I’m not saying it’s going to be perfect … but it’s going to be good.”
THE ECHOES CONTINUE
On paper, Natuashish is dry: In 2008, the community voted – by a majority of just two – to ban alcohol. Two years later, a vote to maintain the ban passed much more easily, and remains in force. But bootlegging and home brew are common, and the use of marijuana has increased, according to the RCMP.
Few people will admit to sniffing gasoline – for four days, I walk through town and the surrounding woods, and see no one doing it. But then, as the sun sets one evening, James Poker takes me to the very spot where he used to sniff, and it’s clear that gas is still being used. The forest floor is littered with plastic shopping bags; knotted at the top to keep their noxious contents from escaping, they sit atop the soft lichen, many tucked beneath trees by sniffers intending to come back.
And written in the ash and sand that coat the clearing is this: “Natuashish is boring.”
James looks sombre, a bit sad, in his Marilyn Monroe T-shirt. But I can see in him a sense of pride that he is doing better – perhaps even some hope.
If only that were my last memory of him.
After the hunt, having seen how productive and positive young people can become when introduced to the traditions of their people, I bump into him back at the general store in Natuashish and am jolted back to reality. The side of his head is cut, bruised and swollen. He has been in a fight with his brother, he explains hastily, and needed six stitches after being hit with a piece of pipe.
He gives me a smile, but his demeanour has changed completely. He is less sure of himself and is embarrassed to have me see him this way. There is nothing left to say.
Still, I am jolted again when, long after leaving Natuashish, I learn this week that the RCMP have confirmed the identity of a body found Feb. 25 floating on the sea ice off Davis Inlet.
It is James. He had gone missing 11 days earlier, and searchers found no sign of him until the body was spotted from a passing plane about 18 nautical miles southeast of Davis Inlet.
The cause of death was hypothermia – the chief medical examiner found no signs of foul play – but it is hard not to wonder: “What if?”
I call Chief Rich, and he speaks fondly of James, saying he is sorry that he missed the chance to accompany us to Mistastin Lake.
After our party had returned to Natuashish, he says, as the two discussed school and job opportunities, James had told the chief that he would like to go on a hunt in the spring.