From: Wade T. Smith (email@example.com)
Date: Sun 22 Dec 2002 - 17:58:06 GMT
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
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
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
''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
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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