Obscure and neglected, the native community of Davis Inlet, Nfld., suddenly rocketed to international notoriety last Jan. 26 with reports that six Innu children aged 12 to 14 had tried to commit suicide by sniffing gasoline fumes. In the aftermath of that tragedy, the povertyridden community of 500 people became a symbol of the problems facing Canada’s natives. Last week, 16 Innu youths arrived at Alberta’s Poundmaker’s Lodge, a rehabilitation clinic near Edmonton run by natives for natives, for three months of substance abuse treatment and counselling. Another 20 Davis Inlet children are also scheduled to undergo therapy at the clinic—all at Ottawa’s expense. Maclean’s Calgary Bureau Chief John Howse recently visited Poundmaker’s. His report:
A parking lot sign with the message, “Hot New Country Beginner Dance Lessons,” greets visitors to Poundmaker’s Lodge in St. Albert, a bedroom community on the northern outskirts of Edmonton, The dance lessons supplement the work that tí goes on in the sprawling, one-storey alcohol and drug rehabilitation centre. For 19 years, staff at Poundmaker’s and its sister organization, the Nechi Institute on Alcohol and Drug Education—both financed in part by Ottawa and the Alberta government—have been developing and implementing a program to help natives overcome abuse of alcohol, drugs and other substances. Poundmaker’s provides the treatment, while Nechi trains the counsellors that work in reserves across Canada as well as at the centre. Those efforts, says Nechi executive director Maggie Hodgson, have been guided by one clear philosophy. “Our experience tells us Indian people can best help Indian people,” she says.
At Poundmaker’s, named after the Cree chief who took part in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, reminders of demons both past and present are always close at hand. Down the road from the clinic are the headquarters and warehouses of the Alberta Liquor Control Board. Next to the lodge stands a boardedup brick schoolhouse. Built in 1925, the school was once part of the residential school system under which federal authorities uprooted native children from their homes and placed them in church-administered schools where they were forbidden to speak their native languages. At Poundmaker’s, one cornerstone of the treatment program consists of helping patients overcome the trauma of abuse and poverty—and once again take pride in their native heritage. But in the case of the Davis Inlet Innu, removed by Ottawa from their traditional hunting grounds in 1967 and resettled on an island off the remote northern coast of Labrador, clinic staff members ac-
knowledge that they face a special challenge. “Twenty five years need to be reversed,” Hodgson says.
The clinic offers a 28-day adult treatment program and a three-month regimen, including education, for adolescent patients. After the daily 7 a.m. wake-up call and breakfast, patients convene in the lodge’s rock-walled, roofless ceremonial room for the traditional Plains Indian sweetgrass ceremony, a purification ritual. Following that, residents face a busy schedule of classes and counselling patterned after techniques developed by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
One primary aim of the program is to build self-esteem among patients. Native traditions are also strongly emphasized. Adolescent patients take part in a wilderness camp—even in the winter—in order to boost their self-confidence. The clinic also features sweatlodge rituals that patients can ask to attend. “It’s our challenge to get them smelling the sweetgrass rather than sniffing gas,” says Albert Bonaise, Poundmaker’s cultural director, of the Innu children. Added the 57-year-old Saskatchewan Cree, who was himself a patient at the clinic in the 1980s: “I can relate to them because I was on skid row in Edmonton myself in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Poundmaker’s requires that all staff members abstain from alcohol—on and off duty. That is also an integral part of the clinic’s philosophy: an alcohol-free environment helps natives to recover from substance abuse. Says Hodgson: “It is imperative not to take drugs or drink alcohol—at any time.” But while the clinic can provide a wholesome setting, the reserves to which patients return remain unchanged. “Poundmaker’s was a lovely place to be,” says Sheila Wolf, 44, a native of Morley, Alta. Wolf, who now lives in Calgary, completed the Poundmaker program in the mid-1980s, but says that “it did not work.” She explains: “When I went back to the reserve I was surrounded by unhealthy alcoholic people. I was drinking again in days.” Notes Bonaise: “Those who fail don’t search for support, or go to Alcoholics Anonymous. They often refuse to link up with other sober people or find a nonalcohol environment.”
In an attempt to ensure that the same fate does not befall the Innu children, Nechi trainers are currently in Davis Inlet to establish a support group that will help the youths upon their return. “We must build support back home for the people in their recovery stage now,” says Hodgson. Adds Bonaise: “These kids have been through a lot. Many have been sexually abused. It takes time to get rid of all the garbage.”
For her part, Hodgson says that the battle against alcohol and drug abuse is a matter of “life and death” for native communities. That fact was underscored last week by the suicide of a young Micmac in the impoverished New Brunswick reserve of Big Cove—the seventh such suicide in nine months. According to band officials, the six previous deaths were alcoholrelated, while another 75 people on the 2,000member reserve have tried to commit suicide—including children as young as eight. Chief Albert Levi complained that Ottawa has done little to help Big Cove. Levi said that the band has asked for emergency assistance. But, in a direct reference to Davis Inlet, he added: “We don’t receive the same kind of consideration as our neighbors. I guess that’s the way the government departments function. I guess for us to lose young fellows every month, they seem to think that’s for the best.” His bitter words were a sad reminder of the challenges facing Canada’s natives and those who, like the staff at Poundmaker’s and Nechi, try to help them. □
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