Distraught Innu leader issues poignant plea for troubled youth after son's death
Residents walk in the northern Labrador community of Natuashish, N.L. on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2007. (Andrew Vaughan / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, June 7, 2017 12:04PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, June 7, 2017 4:40PM EDT
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- One of Labrador's most outspoken aboriginal leaders buried his 16-year-old son last week.
Simeon Tshakapesh, deputy grand chief of the Innu Nation, says his boy, Thunderheart, took his own life May 24 after two years of treatment for solvent abuse -- much of which took place far from his home in Natuashish.
"He was in the system and he took his life," Tshakapesh said in an interview Wednesday. "He was damaged physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. He wasn't the same. He couldn't recover."
Despite his deep sorrow and anger, Tshakapesh is now calling on the federal and provincial governments to dramatically alter the way they treat aboriginal youth with substance abuse problems.
In particular, the deputy chief says he wants funding for a multicultural youth treatment centre to be built in central Labrador.
Earlier in the day, he released an open letter that includes an intensely raw account of how the Innu of Labrador have suffered over the years. The poignant missive also makes it clear that Tshakapesh believes the province's Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development failed his son.
"The question for me now is, how did the system fail him so badly and what can be done to change this situation?" Tshakapesh asks in the letter, which offers a solution.
He say he wants to see the provincial and federal governments invest in an Innu-led project that would put an end to the removal of children and youth from their communities.
While the removal process may keep vulnerable youth safe and sober, it also destroys connections to their family, language and community, Tshakapesh says.
"Improving a child's present while not actually preparing them to return to the world from which they were taken can have very tragic consequence," the letter says. "Their reintegration into family and community is extremely difficult, if not impossible under these circumstances."
Speaking from St. John's, N.L., Tshakapesh said his son spent a great deal of time over the past two years at treatment centres in Regina and Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. where he was prescribed anti-depressant pills. He said two of his nephews followed a similar path. Both took their own lives in the past two years.
"It's time that we not allow our youth to be sent out of province ... and it's time the federal government and the provincial government provide ... care within our own territory," he said in the interview.
Tshakapesh says future treatment programs must focus on helping children and youth learn how to survive off the land in the wilder corners of Labrador, a process that would revive the proud history of the Innu as nomadic hunters.
Tshakapesh says there's plenty of evidence to suggest the Innu in general gain a sense of purpose and fulfillment when they are out on the land, doing what their ancestors did for thousands of years.
"I have been told that in town the Innu appear downcast and morose," he says. But when his people are on the land, "they come alive."
"I believe that this is because for millennia the land itself was our home and it became part of who we are. To an Innu, all of Labrador is their living room."
To explain why hunting, trapping and living in the bush is so important to the Innu, Tshakapesh opens his letter with a brief description of how his ancestors continued to hunt in Labrador's interior in the winter and fish on the coast in the summer until the 1960s, when the first permanent villages were settled.
The Innu leader said the radical change in lifestyle led to a growing dependence on social assistance, and he argues that families were harmed by sending their children away to school, where their native language was lost.
Tshakapesh also mentions the island village of Davis Inlet, which was thrust into the international spotlight in 1993 when video recordings of suicidal, gas-sniffing kids exposed a level of desperation and squalor that few Canadians knew existed in their own country.
He would later become chief of the village, and in 2001 he was behind an emergency plan that saw 35 Innu youth sent to St. John's for addictions treatment.
"It was a big mistake, but our hands were tied at that time," he said. "We had no resources. We had no facilities."
In 2002, the federal government relocated the residents of Davis Inlet to new homes in nearby Natuashish, but Tshakapesh said alcohol continues to flow in the officially "dry" community. He also described a range of street drugs from pot to cocaine.
Last month, Tshakapesh went public about the return of gas sniffing, with kids as young as 11 inhaling the noxious fumes to get high, after two boys were injured in a fire.
In a statement Wednesday, Health Canada said it was "deeply concerned" about recent suicides and solvent misuse in Natuashish, and has offered help.
"Health Canada has also been actively collaborating in partnership with the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador and the community on an action plan to provide immediate assessment and addiction treatment services to those in need. Health Canada will facilitate transportation as individuals are identified," said spokesman Eric Morrissette.
Sherry Gambin-Walsh, the minister of Children, Seniors and Social Development for Newfoundland and Labrador, said in a statement Wednesday governments are undertaking multiple programs to help Innu communities.
"The health and well-being of children and youth depends upon a safe, secure and nurturing environment at home and in the community, which is best achieved by the cooperation of all parties. We are committed to continuing our efforts to collectively find solutions to these complex and critically important issues," said Gambin-Walsh.