ST. JOHN’S, Nfld. (CUP) — The Mushuau Innu suffer the world’s highest suicide rate. In the past four months alone, the newly built community of Natuashish in Labrador, where they currently reside, has seen four young men take their lives. “These suicides are a direct result of failed government policies and a dismissive attitude towards the Innu people,” said Ed Martin, a local filmmaker who explores these issues and more in his documentary The Mushuau Innu: Surviving Canada.
Martin was inspired to capture the story of the Innu on film when travelling through Labrador in 2001. He saw Davis Inlet as resembling a Third World country. The documentary focuses on this theme while criticizing the federal government for not responding adequately to the problems of the Innu. Before the construction of Natuashish, the Innu resided in Davis Inlet. In 1993, social problems and a lack of running water prompted the Canadian Human Rights Commission to produce a report claiming the federal government had violated the Innu’s constitutional rights. It was recommended they be moved to a new community with adequate housing and services.
Natuashish was completed in December 2002 at a cost of $152 million to the federal government. However, the continuing alcoholism, solvent abuse and string of suicides have critics demanding more federal aid. “I called (former Chief Simeon Tshakapesh) and asked him if he would like to have his story told, and he said yes, as long as it was truthful. I spent two years putting it together,” said Martin. “Like most people, I was unaware of why these things were happening. Many people were like me, simply unaware of the tragedy unfolding in their backyard.”
Featured in the movie is commentary from Natuashish leaders and residents; sociologists, anthropologists and lawyers from Carleton University and Memorial University of Newfoundland; representatives of the provincial child and youth advocacy program; representatives from Health Canada; teachers and missionaries who worked in Natuashish; and authors. The film begins with an historical overview of the Innu and their nomadic life in northern Labrador before European settlement. It also explores the relocation of the Innu to the island of Davis Inlet in 1967. Martin claims the Innu were coerced into settling there by the provincial government and the Catholic Church with promises of a better life.
However, according to the documentary, these promises were broken. The homes built lacked running water or heat. The schools and churches harmfully tried to assimilate the Innu into white culture. Numerous incidents of sexual and physical assault by members of the schools and church were unveiled. As a result, over 90 per cent of the Mushuau Innu suffered from alcoholism; 71 per cent of all deaths in the community were related to drinking. The video shows footage of children sniffing gas and drinking alcohol.
Martin believes the federal government is to blame for the social problems in Natuashish. His film blames the white-centred school system, lack of access to health care and lack of government co-operation with the Innu. Things would change in a day if the premier or the prime minister said to the bureaucrats, ‘I don’t want to hear another complaint again.’ Once they are told to take the problems of the Innu seriously, it will change. It needs to be initiated by the politicians,” said Martin.
Chief Tshakapesh is the uncle of one of the boys who committed suicide recently. In the film, he says the government has a racist policy towards the Innu, and he would like to see a treatment centre with trained physicians and counsellors in the community. “I think the treatment centre would be a symbol of respect for the Innu. They have felt disrespected in the past and they still do today,” said Martin.
When questioned by CBC News, Premier Danny Williams suggested the provincial youth and child advocate, Lloyd Wicks, relocate to Labrador for part of the year to get an in-depth perspective on what could be done. “We certainly need a branch of the youth services in Labrador with a qualified staff,” said Martin. Both he and Tshakapesh agree that more needs to be done with the combined efforts of the Innu and the government. “A change must be made, and that change must be made by listening to the Innu, and providing them with the means to control their own life. They want nothing more than you and I-to control their own destiny,” Martin said.
The Mushuau Innu: Surviving Canada will air on the Biography Channel throughout the day and night on Nov. 10, Dec. 5 and Dec. 8.