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Innu children play on a small hill in Davis Inlet, Nfld. on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2002.

The Canadian Press

Leaders of Labrador’s Innu Nation say they hope an upcoming inquiry into Innu kids placed in foster homes will help break the cycle that has led to the over-representation of Indigenous children in institutional provincial care.

Premier Andrew Furey on Thursday named the three commissioners who will lead the inquiry, which was first promised nearly four years ago. Calls to get on with the process ramped up last year after 15-year-old Wally Rich, an Innu boy, died by suicide while living in a group home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L.

Furey said the inquiry will examine the “treatment, experienced and care that Innu children have received in the current system,” adding that the inquiry will also recommend ways to improve the foster-care system.

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The premier announced the appointment of retired provincial court Judge James Igloliorte as chief commissioner. Igloliorte will be backed by commissioners Anastasia Qupee, former Innu Nation grand chief, and Mike Devine, a retired associate professor of social work at Memorial University.

Igloliorte said the scope of the inquiry includes the investigation of at least three deaths of Innu kids in the provincial government’s care.

Innu leaders told reporters Thursday there are deep connections between the residential school system and the child protection system. Mary Ann Nui, the Innu Nation’s deputy grand chief, broke down as she recalled how she ran to hold her three grandchildren upon hearing about the preliminary findings of the remains of 215 children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on May 27.

The intergenerational trauma wrought by Newfoundland and Labrador’s five former residential schools, as well as by its current foster care system, is something Innu Nation members grapple with every day, she said.

“We’ve all been through that,” Nui said. “With this inquiry, it’ll bring safety for all the children, not only for my grandchildren, but it will bring safety and protection for the children of Sheshatshiu and Natuashish.”

The Innu Nation’s website says there are around 3,200 members of the Innu in Labrador, most of whom live in Sheshatshiu, about 40 kilometres north of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and in Natuashish, which sits along Labrador’s north coast.

Dwight Ball’s Liberal government first announced a memorandum of understanding with the Innu Nation in 2017 to pursue an inquiry into the experience and outcomes of Innu children in provincial care. The province has also carried out an inquiry into Inuit children in provincial care, and the final report from that investigation was released in 2019.

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Though there is no data specific to Innu children, a government report indicates that as of December 2019, 230 of the 985 children in the province’s care were from Labrador. A spokesperson for the government told The Canadian Press in April that 155 Indigenous children and youth in Labrador were placed in provincial care between April 1, 2018, and March 31, 2021.

Grand Chief Etienne Rich said the residential school system and the child welfare system have caused similar intergenerational traumas. “In the past four years, too many youth have died by suicide,” he said Thursday. And although there have been improvements, he said, the foster system continues to impact Innu communities and leads to children being unnecessarily removed from their homes.

“The system has failed us, and it’s been happening for so many years,” he said.

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