Roxanne Rich has been a community services worker in Sheshatshiu, a community of 1,200 Innu, for almost seven years. She is well acquainted with her community?s gas-sniffing problem. That and associated social problems consume most of her time, as Rich encourages people who need to talk to contact her at home. Two weeks before Christmas she was in the office alone; one co-worker was absent for medical reasons and another was on holiday.
She stays with the job at Child, Youth and Family Services because she cares about the people of Sheshatshiu.
?I enjoy it. I enjoy working with children. There?s so much you can do, that?s how I feel sometimes. I get so emotional, really emotional when I look at them.?
As with many in her profession, Rich knows from personal experience the hard road to addiction recovery and how essential it is to have support. The hardest thing for youths struggling with an addiction to gas sniffing is that ?there is no after-care in the community.?
There?s no provision for healthy recreation either. Rich said the gym is not open every night for sports and the outdoor rink is outside of the community and it is often too cold to go there. The one youth recreation worker they have takes care of hockey, ?but . . . he can only take care of so much.
?The youth centre they have here is really disgusting. It?s a hang-out place for the kids. So all they have is a pool table.?
She said the children who left nearby Davis Inlet in 1993 for gas-sniffing treatment at Poundmaker?s Lodge in Alberta and other centres were helped, but it didn?t last because ?everything was still the same when they got home.? Most started sniffing again soon after returning to their community. Some youth say it?s because their parents are still drinking. Some parents say they started drinking again because their children sniff gas.
Rich sees the same future for Sheshatshiu?s 19 children and the 18- and 19-year-old adults who were apprehended for treatment at the request of the community in November, unless a comprehensive after-care plan is put in place to involve entire families in the recovery process.
?I personally think there should have been an effort made (with the Davis Inlet youth) to change the home too, for the parents to straighten up their act, like their alcohol abuse and that kind of stuff. I don?t think a child should go alone for treatment. I think the parents should make that step too, because the kids are not going to stop if things are still the same in the home.?
Nineteen-year-old Irene Penunsi can attest to that. She is trying to overcome her addiction to gas sniffing and for now is staying in the women?s shelter with a paid community member accompanying her 24-hours-a-day to encourage her.
Penunsi has tried treatment centres three times in Quebec, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia. In Quebec, ?it didn?t help me. I stayed there two months and 25 days. I think three years, four years ago.? She is not sure if it was 1995 or 1996 when she went to Saskatchewan for six months. She said that didn?t help either. Finally she went to an adult treatment centre in Sydney, N.S. She was not able to say how long ago that was or when she returned home. Asked if she was doing good now, Penunsi said, ?just a little bit. I?m not thinking about sniffing gas no more. I?m just thinking about good things.? But at another point she said, ?as soon as I get home and I smell gas on them I want to start sniffing too.? She said her last stay outside Sheshatshiu was only 35 days and although she initially started sniffing upon her return she stopped because she knows she needs to take care of her grandmother.
?I had a new friend the first time when I tried it, Penunsi said about sniffing. ?And I tried it and I didn?t want to give it up. I was 14 when I started it. And I started smoking too.? She said most of her friends sniff, but she has one good friend who quit.
What keeps them going back to sniffing?
?I see thingslike killing yourself, that?s what I see all the time. But I don?t believe it when I see it and I don?t want to listen to it, but I don?t want to say yes to it and I didn?t want to kill myself, but I never tried it.? She said other youth see the same torturing images, ?but they don?t want to do it too.? Penunsi said there was no counsellor she trusted to talk to, to help her sort things out.
Asked how she feels about treatment programs, Penunsi said ?I don?t know. I didn?t think about it.? She also has no dreams or plans for her future she said. ?I don?t feel like I?m 19; I feel like I?m 16.? But in the next breath she said ?I would like to get a job or something. I could be busy all the time, not sniff gas no more.?
She had a ready answer about why youth start sniffing.
?I think the kids are having a problem about their parents and all the family. I?ve been hearing my friends crying all the time and talking to me about what happened. But I?m worried about them all the time.?
She said in the kind of community she would like to live in ?I would like it if the parents would stay home all the time with their kids to spend time with them. I would like that and to talk to them, like how they feel?the parents. Like I know they care about their kids all the time, but they keep going to the gambling . . . and the kids are staying home.? She added, ?I seen the . . . mothers were going out all the time, going to the bingo, and the kids were crying outside for their mommy.
?Like they?re spending their money all the time. They can?t give anything to the kids.? She said some adults sniff too.
Penunsi sees change starting with small steps, such as parents accompanying their children for a meal in a restaurant. When kids are lonely they sniff, she said.
Penunsi and Rich?s feelings have been heard by some in the Innu community including the leaders, who agree spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to separate families for months at a time has not worked. They wat a home-based solution.
Currently, some of the apprehended Sheshatshiu youth are being treated at home; some are in more secure temporary facilities in the armed forces base in Goose Bay, Labrador and some are at the White Swan Treatment Centres in northern Alberta.
?Right now they are talking about in our little community here, they?re going to have a family treatment,? said Rich on Dec. 12. Six hundred kilometres from Sheshatshiu, a place called Lobstick Lodge that Rich said she believes the federal government and the Mennonite Central Committee have paid for, is slated to open the second week of January. She said she has just learned the Innu people own the lodge, ?which I really think is a good way to go.?
Chief Paul Rich was in Ottawa seeking federal assistance for the Sheshatshiu Innu in mid-December, along with Chief Simeon Tshakapesh of Davis Inlet, Chief Mark Nui of the Mushuau Innu and Innu Nation president, Peter Penashue. Because of the crisis they were dealing with no leaders were available to confirm details of any community-based solutions at the time.
It is uncertain whether Penunsi knows about Lobstick Lodge or understands the concepts of family treatment. She said it was a good idea, though, ?because we can talk about our feelings, how we feel about our families and parents. Some of the parents drinking all the time. And some of the parents are going to the gambling, like bingo. . .?
Rich pointed out with some sadness that in the couple of weeks since the young people who sniff gas have been removed from the community ?you see good kids now . . . come out to play now. They go outside now and they go on the ice. You never used to see that before; you only used to see the kids that were sniffing all the time.?
Rich added ?I have a five-year-old son and I don?t know what I would do if I saw him sniffing.
?The gas sniffers will fight other kids, and some kids get afraid with them. Like they get afraid that they?ll throw gas at themand light them or something like that, so the good kids won?t really go out for a walk or play outdoors. . . . I?m really afraid of them too, when they?re sniffing.?
But at the present time, Rich said, the children in Goose Bay, 30 kilometres away, ?are doing really, really good.?
She expects they?ll be away six months. They?re living in apartments with around-the-clock supervision by counsellors. Rich?s organization, which is provincially funded, pays for family members? transportation to visit.
Since last year, Rich said, her own agency, the clinic, the school, the alcohol centre, youth director, the RCMP and other concerned people have been seeking community-based solutions. In addition to aftercare and recreation, Rich believes they need other resources such as a crisis team and training for community support workers. She herself took Nechi training once a month for a year in Davis Inlet from trainers who came from Edmonton.
?I really, really enjoyed it, and I was really glad they gave me that opportunity.?
Rich said she is ?glad action was taken? and that they approached the provincial government about removing gas sniffing youth from the community. ?It was getting cold here, and the kids were out all night sniffing away. All day in their tree house, and it was really bad for the kids.?