ate last fall, in a remote village in the north of
Labrador, native leaders took the extraordinary step of asking the
government to take their children away. "The safety of these
children is the paramount issue," explained Paul Rich, Innu tribal
chief, in a statement to the provincial government requesting the
removal of nearly two dozen of the village's children. "The ongoing
situation is drastic, and we need to take drastic measures," the
plea continued. "We insist that these children be taken into care
The children, residents of the village of Sheshatshiu, where
1,200 of the 2,000 members of Labrador's Innu Nation live, are
addicted to sniffing gasoline. On most days before Rich's plea, they
would stagger along the desolate gravel roads, beginning at dusk,
sniffing gas from garbage bags and making their way to a camp deep
in the woods outside of town. There, in groups as large as 40 or 50,
they'd sniff gas until dawn. As the light broke through the trees,
they'd shuffle through subzero temperatures toward home or the detox
center in town, where they'd sleep off the effects of the gas. Some
would vomit or pass out, and according to local health workers,
several had become brain-damaged from the gas. In the past year, one
11-year-old boy died after setting himself on fire, and half a dozen
others were severely burned after accidentally going up in flames.
The Innu trace their problems with poverty and substance abuse to
government relocations that forced them to give up their nomadic way
of life. They also attribute their current state to the chronic
physical and sexual abuse their children suffered when they were
forced to attend Christian residential schools from the 1950's
through the 1970's. Today, more than half the 300 children in
Sheshatshiu between the ages of 5 and 14 have sniffed gasoline, and
at least 20 percent are regular users. It is a community where half
of the adults are addicted to alcohol, 42 percent have thought
actively about killing themselves and 28 percent have attempted
In Davis Inlet, the other Innu community in Labrador, more than
200 miles north of Sheshatshiu, the statistics are even grimmer.
Ninety of the 154 Innu children there are chronic gas sniffers, and
children as young as 6 have sniffed gas at least once. The
London-based human rights group Survival International calls the
Innu, whose suicide rate is 13 times as high as that of the rest of
Canada, "the most suicide-ridden people in the world."
The provincial government of Newfoundland, which governs
Labrador, responded swiftly to Rich's request. Three days after the
plea, on Nov. 20, government social workers were flown in to
Sheshatshiu to assess the gas-addicted kids. With help from Innu
community workers, social workers went door to door talking to
parents about the plan to take their children from them and assuring
them they would be taken to a place where they would be cared for.
"Most of the parents understood what was happening and agreed with
our decision," explained Paul Rich. "There were a few who didn't.
But there was nothing else we could do. If the parents can't take
care of these kids, we can't leave them in the cold to sniff and
die." On Nov. 21, anxious parents huddled in the dark outside the
town's alcohol-treatment center, waiting for a bus that would take
21 of the most seriously addicted children to a military base in
Goose Bay, 25 miles down the road. Inside, the children were
distracted with treats of soda and chips and the promise of pizza
once they got to Goose Bay. Peter Penashue, the president of the
Innu Nation, was there, talking with parents and telling them that
everything was going to be O.K. "I looked at the kids and thought,
We've come a long way in 50 years to fall this far," he would tell
me later. "The sadness overwhelmed me."
When the bus arrived around 7 p.m., the children were taken out
one at a time so that they wouldn't run off. As it pulled away, they
smiled and waved out the windows like Fresh Air Fund kids leaving
the city for a summer in the Catskills.
In Goose Bay, they were held in a barracks where half a dozen
social workers cared for them. But beyond helping the children
detoxify, the government has made it clear it has no long-term
solution for them if they return to their ravaged community. Marilyn
McCormack, the provincial director for Child, Youth and Family
Services, says that in her 23 years as a social worker, the plight
of the children of Sheshatshiu is among the worst she has ever seen.
At first, the children were agitated and nauseated coming off the
gas, and social workers could do little beyond providing the basics
for them: food, clothing, lots of juice to satisfy the intense
thirst that was a symptom of their detoxing. When they began to
talk, what they said was hair-raising. They described beatings and
sexual abuse at the hands of their relatives. They talked about
wondering each day whether they would get dinner at night, about
seeing their parents get drunk and beat each other, about witnessing
suicides and friends setting themselves on fire. They spoke in
monotones, and it's this deadness that McCormack found especially
horrifying. "My children couldn't survive what these children have
survived," she said. "I don't know if I could survive. And yet they
have so little expectation that anything will change."
Of the 21 children taken from Sheshatshiu in late November, 19
are still in the care of the government, and they are expected to be
moved into foster homes or alternate living arrangements. Two of
them have returned to Sheshatshiu.
n Davis Inlet, the transfer of gas-addicted children to
the authorities has been considerably more difficult. Unlike Paul
Rich in Sheshatshiu, Simeon Tshakapesh, the chief in Davis Inlet,
has insisted on negotiating with the government before handing over
the children. Tshakapesh has been accused by individuals in the
government and in the Innu community of holding the children hostage
to larger Innu demands -- requesting more money for Innu social
services and demanding that treatment programs be run by Innu
counselors who will emphasize native culture. One government
official who insisted on anonymity said that the Innu in Davis Inlet
also requested a guarantee that if doctors discovered the children
had been sexually abused, no charges would be brought against the
The degradation of the lives in Davis Inlet is impossible to
exaggerate. There are about 100 houses there that are little more
than shacks, their doors torn from the hinges and windows smashed.
Several snowmobiles, from which children often steal gas, appear to
have been set on fire, and outside of every house are mountains of
garbage that have been tossed out of windows. The Royal Canadian
Mounted Police office, at the foot of the village, is home to three
officers, who, because of the stress of being here, work two-week
rotations and then fly out for two weeks.
The R.C.M.P. officers told me I wouldn't have to go far to find
children sniffing gas. They're easy to spot, one of them said,
because they don't put their arms in the sleeves of their coats.
They hug the bags close to their chests and draw the fumes up
through the collars of their jackets. The officers also said that
sniffing gas is not illegal in Davis Inlet, so they are not allowed
to take the bags away from the children. "All we can do is put them
out when they set themselves on fire," one officer added.
Outside, about 200 yards from the police office, the road was
full of armless zombies. Their sleeves swung loosely at their sides,
and their chins were tucked tight to their chests. No one looked to
be more than 10 years old. I expected they would run away from a
stranger, but they approached me eagerly. When I asked the smallest
boy if he was sniffing gas, he laughed and said, "Yeah." The air was
saturated with the smell of gasoline, and the children shuffled
along in large groups and in lonely pairs. When they spotted the
photographer who was traveling with me, they laughed and pushed one
another aside to get into the frame, shrieking: "Take my picture, I
sniff gas. Take my picture, I sniff gas."
In mid-December, the federal government reached an agreement with
the Innu of Davis Inlet. In return for the construction of a detox
center in Labrador and a continued commitment to restoring Innu
culture, social workers could fly in before the end of the month to
assess the situation, and the government could take the gas-addicted
children to a facility in St. John's, Newfoundland, at the beginning
of the new year.
On Jan. 9, 16 of the community's most seriously gas-addicted
children, ranging in age from 10 to 18, were flown to St. John's.
To date, 40 children have been removed from the town and put into
treatment. Of the addicted children still in Davis Inlet, it's
unclear what, if anything, will be done for them. At the time I
write this, the temperature has dipped to minus 50 degrees
Fahrenheit, and there are five feet of snow on the ground. The
police officers are taking turns patrolling all day and night,
trying to keep the gas-sniffing children from freezing to death.
Mary Rogan is a writer who lives in Toronto.