A teen suicide underscores the despair among the Innu of Labrador and northern Quebec
The Tragedy of Andrew Rich
A teen suicide underscores the despair among the Innu of Labrador and northern Quebec
By John DeMont in Sheshatshiu
Upstairs, the house overflows with mourners. But the spacious basement is quiet as JeanPierre Ashini rolls a cue back and forth across the green felt top of the pool table and remembers the last time he saw his son, Andrew Rich. Ashini, known as Napess throughout the Innu community of Sheshatshiu in Labrador, is a composed, dignified man who has always tried
to set an example for his five children. Only around his dark eyes does the sadness, anger and fatigue show as he recalls how Andrew accompanied him to the airport in nearby Goose Bay on Nov. 5.
Ashini, 39, was leaving for London to address a high-profile news conference about the suicide epidemic among Canada’s Innu. He wanted to be present when Survival for Tribal Peoples, a charity that works with indigenous people
around the world, issued its report comparing the plight of his people to the lot of Tibetans oppressed by China. But he worried about his son, a shy 15-year-old who went by the nickname of “Mr. T” Andrew spoke little English and had always seemed most comfortable camping and hunting in Nitassinan, the name the Innu gave to their homeland in the Labrador wilderness.
But in Sheshatshiu, 32 km north of Goose Bay, he had, like so many Innu youths, fallen into despair.
He drank, did drugs and inhaled gasoline fumes when nothing else was available to dull the pain of his life. Sometimes, he talked about suicide. Preparing to board the plane, Ashini, a teetotalling shrimp fisherman, urged his son to stay clean and behave himself while he was away. Once on the plane, he recalls, “I mouthed the words ‘don’t drink’ through the glass of the window. I saw him nod yes, and I felt good when I left.”
But 45 minutes after landing in London, Ashini received news from home that shattered his
world. Sometime in the early-morning hours of Nov. 6, Andrew had swallowed a vial of pills. He then walked into his bedroom and shot himself in the head while his 13-year-old girlfriend sat a few rooms away—the third youth in the past year to commit suicide in the community of 1,500.
The Innu of Sheshatshiu are mainly Roman Catholics, with an abiding faith in a hereafter. But there was little comfort to be found
when they arrived in the gym at the setdement s only school last week. Incense wafted towards the ceiling as a pair of white clerics, one of them wearing robes made from animal hide, administered communion. A row of female elders chanted Christian hymns in the Innu language. Yet all the ritual in the world could not silence the sobbing among the disconsolate men, women and children who poured into the room. And it could not bring back Juliana Rich, a two-year-old who had accidentally suffocated in her sleep and now lay in an open white coffin, or her cousin Andrew, whose remains rested inside a closed blue casket adorned with flowers.
True to his nature, Andrew had told no one of his plans. Before his suicide, he had secredy slipped a farewell letter—“I love you. I miss you. Goodbye, Andrew Rich”—into the pocket of his best friend, who did not find the note until afterwards. Andrews death gave flesh-and-blood reality to the alarming message in the Survival report: focusing on one community, it said that the Innu of Davis Inlet, 200 km north of Sheshatshiu, had the highest suicide rate in the world—178 per 100,000 people. Titled Canadas Tibet: the killing of the Innu, the report put the country in an unsavory spodight by blaming the problem on Canadian government resettlement policies that, among other things, deprived the Innu of their nomadic lifestyle. And it drew a testy response from Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, himself a former Indian affairs minister, who said during his African tour that Canada has been generous with its aboriginal peoples. But there is no denying the depth of the tragedy, the magnitude of which became widely known to Canadians in 1993 when six gasoline-sniffing children in Davis Inlet were pulled from an unheated shack on a frigid night, screaming that they wanted to die. Both communities are pockets of almost unimaginable grimness—where a people who roamed the Labrador barrens for thousands of years now suffer from rampant drug abuse, alcoholism, sexual abuse and domestic violence. “This is a wounded community,” points out Lynne Gregory, a longtime addictions counsellor in Sheshatshiu. “A nightmare place where no one seems to have any hope.”
This is a wounded community,
a nightmare place where no one seems to have any hope’
With snowcapped mountains in the distance, Sheshatshiu, which sits on the edge of clear lake, seems hardly different from so many rural Canadian setdements. The bungalows— built with government money—generally look tidy and new. In the afternoon sunlight, shiny trucks drive along the roads, avoiding laughing kids playing road hockey. But there is nothing normal about a community where, according to a government report, some 40 per cent of youths wander the frozen nights looking for unlocked gas tanks from which they can siphon gas into a plastic bag and get high inhaling the frimes. Or a place where it is hard to encounter anyone—
adult or youth—who does not claim to have been physically or sexually abused, either by a family member, neighbour, priest or teacher.
Sheshatshiu seems to careen from tragedy to tragedy: last week, even as the village buried its latest suicide, support workers and Innu leaders had to deal with mmours that young people there and in Davis Inlet had signed a pact to commit suicide with the advent of the new millennium. And there were also concerns that the Nov. 16 election of officers for the Innu Nation, the political body based in Sheshatshiu, could lead to more violence and death as a result of free liquor traditionally distributed as ballot-box bribes.
Death does seem to lurk everywhere. In the small church cemetery, an inordinate number of the simple white crosses and headstones commemorate dead newborn, infants and teenagers. On the outside wall of the building that houses the community’s alcohol and drug awareness program, a sibling of Sebastian Riche, a youth who hanged himself last summer, has scribbled in black marker: “I miss you. You are the best brother I ever had.” Sometimes, the litany of loss seems almost beyond comprehension: Paul Rich, the setdements 32-year-old chief, lost his father, who died while under the influence of alcohol. His mother died after falling off a wharf while drunk. One of his brothers was just 10 when he was run over by a tractor while left alone by his alcoholic parents. Another reached adulthood but died in a car accident in which alcohol was also thought to be involved. “Everyone here knows about loss,” Rich says.
For most there seems to be no way out. Mary May Osmond, 48, grew up neglected and suffering physical and sexual abuse. Later, she repeated the whole ghastly cycle—turning to booze, physically abusing her six kids when she was home at all. Eventually, she got sober, entered a 12-step addiction program and became a counsellor at the Innu drug program.
But sitting at her kitchen table last week, she was too numb to feel pride in her accomplishment. Andrew Rich’s suicide, a terrible thing in its own right, also brought back the events of July 20—when her 27-year-old son Clarence, who had also been sexually abused by a white teacher in the community,
went to the basement of his parents’ house and shot himself. “Everything that is wrong here is passed on from generation to generation,” says Osmond as she holds Clarences threeyear-old daughter Shania, a bubbly toddler whom she and her husband, also named Clarence, have now adopted.
Innu youth talk openly about their pain and sense of hopelessness. They acknowledge that they drink, take drugs and sniff gasoline to forget the boredom, the beatings, the abuse. And it is particularly chilling to hear Audrey Snow, the 15-year-old daughter of Francesca Snow, the community’s Innu school principal, or Theresa Grégoire, the 17-year-old daughter of Rose Grégoire, who runs the setdement’s women’s shelter, calmly admit that they have considered suicide.
So many do not stop there. “It just gets to be too much,” stresses Paul Pone. He is a squarely built 22-year-old
whose arms are adorned with tattoos (one says “Love hurts”) and whose stomach bears a livid scar—a memento of the night seven years ago when he almost reached the end of the line. At the time, he was drinking heavily, trying, he says, to forget his miserable home life, and the sexual abuse he suffered from one of his teachers. One night, he grabbed his father’s rifle, went outside, and raised the gun to shoot himself in the head. A friend ran out of the darkness to stop him. Determined to end his life, Pone managed to shoot himself in the abdomen. “When you are living in hell, you’ll do anything to get away from it,” he says by way of explanation.
How did it come to this? The Innu had been hunters, but by the 1930s a cyclical dip in the caribou population, combined with a sharp drop in fur prices, made their way of life increasingly difficult to sustain. The Newfoundland government, which retained control over Labrador’s Innu when it entered Confederation in 1949, wanted them to settle in one place and give up hunting and trapping for traditional wage
jobs. So did the Catholic Church, anxious for Innu converts.
At first, the Innu resisted the pressure to live in permanent setdements. But by 1964, they had increasingly begun to give up their tents and wandering lifestyle. With age-old traditions disappearing, the cycle of alcoholism, abuse and neglect was under way. “My people are suffering from posttraumatic syndrome,” says Peter Penashue, a programs co-ordinator for the Sheshatshiu band and former Innu Nation president. He says his people must help themselves—“but we need the tools.”
So far, the federal government has been balking. Last week, Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin received a blunt no from a federal bureaucrat when he asked Ottawa to grant the Innu the equivalency of First Nations status, which would give them greater control over such things as policing, edu-
cation, health and capital spending (currently, the Newfoundland government is responsible for the Innu). And the Innu’s land claims negotiations with the province and Ottawa, already nine years old, continue with no end in sight.
The prospect of a future without change is too much for some to bear. In his basement, Napess Ashini points to a motorcycle underneath the stairs, a weight machine in the corner, a punching bag hanging from the ceiling. “I gave Mr. T. all these things to try to keep him away from the drinking and drugs,” he says. “But it didn’t work. He was weak in this community. But in the country where he could camp, hunt and trap, he was strong.” Ashini says he is going to give the exercise equipment, the pool table and motorcycle to his son’s friends—maybe it will keep them from tragedy. He walks to the far wall and takes down the frame of a snowshoe he and Andrew had been working on. “We will never have a chance to finish it together,” Ashini says. Then, he hangs it back up and walks upstairs where his son’s mourners await. ES]
i mouthed the words “don’t drink” through the window I saw him nod yes, and I felt good when I left’
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