Fwd: Canada's village of screams quietly empties

From: Wade T. Smith (wade.t.smith@verizon.net)
Date: Sun 22 Dec 2002 - 17:58:06 GMT

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    Canada's village of screams quietly empties

    Desperate families moved from island

    By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff, 12/22/2002

    DAVIS INLET, Newfoundland - There was little display of emotion as the families lucky enough to be the first to leave loaded their life's possessions onto wooden sleds called komatiks.

    A few elders fretted, a few children wailed. But most people went about the packing and lashing as if the momentous departure was simple routine. Then, to the rev and pop of straining snowmobile engines, they headed out singly or in convoys across the frozen wastes toward a new life.

    They were turning their backs, forever, on Canada's village of screams.

    In an extraordinary exodus, the Mushuau Innu last week started abandoning this grim island settlement to take up residence in a custom-built community nine miles away on the mainland. By late March, before the ice breakup makes the channel crossing impossible, all 685 members of the Mushuau band will move to big, pastel-painted houses in the new community - and government bulldozers will close on Davis Inlet, razing the place that a decade ago became a symbol of aboriginal poverty, squalor, and despair.

    In 1992, six small children perished in a fire that swept through their family's plywood shanty while their parents caroused drunkenly at a neighbor's house. The tragedy made international headlines. But Davis Inlet didn't truly acquire its reputation as North America's most hellish native community until the next year, on the night that Simeon Tshakapesh, an Innu constable, followed tormented screams through the darkness to an unheated shack on the village's edge.

    There he found a group of half-frozen youngsters sniffing gasoline from plastic bags while shrieking, ''I want to die!''

    To document their agony, he recorded the scene on videotape. The images, shown on hundreds of newscasts, horrified the world, embarrassed Canada, and - according to Tshakapesh - forced Ottawa to address the appalling living conditions of his people.

    ''It brought attention to all the hopelessness and anger,'' said Tshakapesh, now chief of Davis Inlet band. ''It made the federal government finally listen and understand that human beings are not supposed to survive this way.''

    Now work is nearing completion on a modern community for the Mushuau Innu, a project whose cost has doubled from original estimates - to $103 million and climbing - because of the difficulties of construction on the wind-blasted northeastern shore.

    No roads lead to this region; heavy supplies arrive by cargo ship during the short summer while planes bring in food and other sustenance from the outside world during the rest of the year.

    The new settlement of Natuashish - the Innu word simply describes its location on Little Sango Pond - boasts 133 suburban-style homes, a water treatment system, street lights, a well-equipped medical clinic, a gleaming school, and a Royal Canadian Mounted Police outpost that features bulletproof windows.

    The fully furnished houses will have water faucets and flush toilets, a first for most of the natives from Davis Inlet. The government has committed to building even more houses this coming summer.

    But many doubt that indoor plumbing, plush sofas, electric ranges, and full basements will cure or even relieve the myriad ills that afflict the battered community - including astronomical levels of alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and suicide.

    The Innu of Labrador kill themselves at a rate more than five times the Canadian average of 12 per 100,000 residents.

    Teenage pregnancy is rampant here, with many unwed girls giving birth before age 15. At least 70 percent of Davis Inlet's adults and teenagers are chronic alcoholics, gasoline sniffers, or heavy users of marijuana and harder drugs, according to the Innu Health Commission.

    ''The kids are so angry because their parents are drunks,'' said an Innu who gave his name only as Ed. ''So they sniff gas and stay stoned and paint dirty words on every wall. They see the future as one big empty hole.''

    Compounding the woes, joblessness is 80 percent. Although the budding village of Natuashish may superficially resemble a healthy little
    ''Anytown, Canada,'' it offers little in the way of fresh economic opportunity - a few jobs at the water treatment plant, a few janitor posts at the new school.

    Although some Innu, mostly elders, still follow traditional patterns of hunting and trapping, the rest will continue to subsist on welfare and other government largesse, their lives devoid of the dignity of work or the self-sufficient sense of an earned income. There is talk of promoting ecotourism, but that is unlikely to yield more than a handful of jobs.

    ''A lot of people believe a new house means healing,'' said Mark Nui, a former chief. ''But it isn't going to be as easy as that. A new house means people will have heat and running water and their lives may seem less difficult. But a house doesn't mean that all the social ills are fixed.''

    Until only a generation or so ago, the Mushuau Innu were nomads, following caribou and other game across one of the continent's least hospitable terrains, the rocky barrens of Labrador, the mainland portion of the province of Newfoundland. In 1967, they started settling at Davis Inlet, which the older folk still caustically refer to as Utshimassits - meaning ''Place of the Boss.''

    The Indians say they were coerced into settling on the forlorn island by the Canadian government and Roman Catholic missionaries. Canada denies that the natives had been pressured to give up their nomadic traditions; officials say that services - such as a school, a clinic, an RCMP outpost - were provided to the community only after the Innu started living on the spot year-round.

    Whatever the truth of its origins, Davis Inlet quickly became a wilderness slum, a cluster of reeking ramshackle cabins wedged between the brilliant blue of the Labrador Sea and the pristine beauty of the Torngat Mountains. Most shacks lack not only plumbing but even a proper outhouse - plastic receptacles known as ''honey pots'' serve the purpose, their contents flung from windows and doors. The stench of human waste permeates the community even in the dead of winter. Feral dogs snarl and snap over mounds of rotting garbage.

    Water comes from a common pump, hauled in buckets for drinking, heated on woodstoves for sponge baths.

    All of the shacks are woefully overcrowded; in the worst, people sleep 20 to a room.

    ''There's no future in Davis Inlet, the bad living conditions make problems worse,'' said Katie Rich, a community leader who helped negotiate the creation of Natuashish. ''So people are excited about new homes. There's some feeling of optimism, like we've seen the worst.''

    All of the Mushuau Innu were supposed to move to Natuashish over last weekend. But construction fell behind, so only 22 families of roughly 150 have been given new keys; other families will relocate to the new town as the houses become ready. Some families are so worried that their prospective dwellings will be vandalized by rampaging youths - as has already happened on a small scale - that they have taken up residence in tents and board huts on an edge of the new community, to keep an eye on the unfinished buildings.

    John Olthuis, a longtime lawyer for the Innu, told the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper that he thinks the resettlement represents a crucial first step toward restoring pride and dignity to the Mushuau.

    ''While physical relocation isn't going to automatically result in social change, it's certainly the foundation for it,'' he said. ''They are committed to change. It doesn't happen all at once, but they are headed that way.''

    This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/22/2002.
    Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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