August 05, 2009
DAVIS INLET IN CRISIS: WILL THE LESSONS EVER BE LEARNED?
Davis Inlet, août 1903
Sur cette photo du début du siècle, des Innus venus traiter sont réunis devant le magasin de la Compagnie de la Baie d'Hudson de Davis Inlet, au Labrador.
P.O. Box 6342, Station C
St. John's, Newfoundland
Canada, A1C 6J9
Abstract / Resume
The author reviews the history of the Mushuau Innu who now live at Davis
Inlet on the Labrador coast. He examines the policy context of the contemporary
community and looks at the challenges facing both the Innu and
governments in the future.
L'auteur réexamine l'histoire des Mushuau Innu qui habitent à présent à
Davis Inlet sur la côète de Labrador. Il étudie la politique de la communauté
contemporaine et considère les épreuves qui se présenteront aux Innu et
aux gouvernements dans l'avenir.
188 Harold Press
We have only lived in houses for twenty-five years, and we
have seldom asked ourselves, "what should an Innu community
be like? What does community mean to us as a people
whose culture is based in a nomadic past, in six thousand years
of visiting every pond and river valley in Nitassinan?
- Hearing the Voices
While the front pages of our local newspapers are replete with accounts
of violence, poverty and abuse throughout the world, not often do we
encounter cases, particularly in this country, of such unconditional destruction
that have led to the social disintegration of entire communities. One
such case was Grassy Narrows, starkly and movingly brought to our
collective attention by Shkilnyk (1985). The story of Grassy Narrows is one
of devastation, impoverishment, and ruin. Shkilnyk describes her experiences
in the small First Nation's community this way:
I could never escape the feeling that I had been parachuted
into a void - a drab and lifeless place in which the vital spark
of life had gone out. It wasn't just the poverty of the place, the
isolation, or even the lack of a decent bed that depressed me...
What struck me about Grassy Narrows was the numbness in
the human spirit. There was an indifference, a listlessness, a
total passivity that I could neither understand nor seem to do
anything about (Shkilnyk, 1985:4).
But this essay is not about Grassy Narrows; it is about Davis Inlet. Many of
the images described of events in Grassy Narrows are the same images
evident in Davis Inlet today: poverty, substandard housing, inadequate
water and sewage, pollution, government dependency, violent death, substance
abuse, sexual and physical abuse, cultural deprivation, and more.
While such images may not be uncommon in many First Nation communities,
the systemic nature of their existence in Davis Inlet is. There are few
examples of the almost total destruction of the basic cultural fabric of a
whole community. The lessons of Grassy Narrows have yet to be learned.
The purpose of this essay is threefold: to trace the events which led up
to the current state in Davis Inlet; to examine the policy context in which
this community finds itself and, finally, to serve as another part - albeit a
small one - of a much bigger effort which is needed for collective action to
take place. The Mushuau Innu (meaning people of the barrens) are most
worthy of our attention.
Davis Inlet in Crisis 189
For 6,000 years or more the Innu (Naskapi) had been nomadic hunters,
ranging throughout the entire interior region of the Labrador/Ungava Peninsula,
encompassing virtually all of Labrador and major portions of
northern and eastern Quebec above the St. Lawrence River (Nitassinan).
They organized their lives around those activities that enabled them to take
advantage of the natural resources of the area (Ryan, 1988:4).
Fitzhugh describes a migratory cycle consisting of five phases: summer
fishing and gathering, fall caribou hunting, winter trapping, winter caribou
hunting, and spring gathering (cited in Ryan, 1988:4). At the centre of the
Innu culture was the caribou. The Caribou (mukushan) served as a staple
food supply, as a source for clothing and other supplies, and as a prominent
figure in Innu religion. Often referred to disparagingly as "savage hunters"
(Speck, 1935), the Innu were indeed skilful hunters. Bruemmer (1971)
describes their hunting practices this way:
[They] snared rabbits, hunted wildfowl, caught fish, and killed
bears with ingeniously constructed deadfalls. But most important
to them was the caribou. It supplied them with food and
nearly everything else they needed: warm clothing; tent covers;
thong for snowshoe netting; sinew for thread; and bone
for utensils. They drove caribou into cleverly built ambushes;
they ran them down on snowshoes in the deep snows of winter;
and they lanced them from birch-bark canoes in lakes or rivers
The nomadic lifestyle of the Innu was far from easy. For the most part,
they lived in teepees (innutshuap) which had to be set up and taken down
several times a year. The caribou hide teepee was built around a large rock
(even in winter) on which the Innu would build a fire for cooking and heating.
Life inside the teepee was simple and ungarnished. The Innu described it
We would prepare pitshikuan when we would be staying a long
time. We would stretch out the dry meat and tie it to a pole.
Then we would pour a mixture from the caribou stomach and
blood over the meat. Anything that was hard to chew, like the
caribou ligament, that's how we would keep it and make it soft.
Fish could also be made into pimikuan in the same way caribou
meat was. We would dry the caribou meat, pound it and make
it into a powder. The pimin from Mukushan could also be mixed
with red berries. When people were in the country, we were
always healthy and strong (Innu Nation and Mushuau Innu
Band Council, 1992:12).
190 Harold Press
Survival for the Innu did not come without its price. During the 16th and
17th centuries the Innu were attacked by the Iroquois and forced to move
eastward into the Labrador peninsula (Henriksen, 1973), and later by the
Micmacs when they were forced to move even further east and north. The
Innu hunted in the interior for most of the year and visited the coast of
Labrador during the summer months.
About 1924, during a cycle when the caribou were particularly sparse,
the Mushuau Innu began to spend their summers around the shoreline near
the mainland of Davis Inlet and Voisey Bay.1 There they took advantage
of the accessibility of the site, a better supply of other food sources, and
the presence of a trading post operated by the Hudson's Bay Company. In
the years that followed, the Innu would travel inland as far as the George
River to hunt caribou during the fall and winter, and return to Davis Inlet in
the spring. There the Hudson Bay Company would supply traps, ammunition,
tobacco, butter, sugar and flour to the Innu in exchange for furs: fox,
otter, beaver, martin, weasel, squirrel and muskrat. The Innu were entering
the new cash economy of the 20th century.
Another reason for coming to the coast was the presence of a priest.
Around this time, Roman Catholic missionaries began regular visits to
Davis Inlet during the summer (Henriksen, 1973:13). Father O'Brien, the
first priest to come to the area, was helpful to the Innu and promised to
return every summer if his appointed Chief could gather all the Innu in Davis
Inlet for the event. Over the years, the priest became such an influential
figure in Innu life that he would tell them when to come to Davis Inlet and
when to return to the country (Innu Nation and Mushuau Innu Band Council,
1992:14). From 1927 on, the priest made annual summer visits to Davis
Inlet.2 Over time, the Innu became increasingly dependent on the location,
returning every year from the country to spend their summers there.
Henriksen described some of the reasons for this increasing dependency
on Davis Inlet:
Having moved their families to the coast, it was then a large
undertaking to go inland. At that time, the Naskapi had few
dogs and this meant that it took a long time to travel into the
Barrens. Very little store-bought food could be carried on the
sleds to guard against hunger. These factors, coupled with the
greater uncertainty of finding caribou after the herds had
changed their migration routes, meant that the Naskapi stayed
closer to the coast and relied on the store and its supplies
whenever necessary (1973:13).
As a result, the Innu gradually adopted a more sedentary lifestyle.
Davis Inlet in Crisis 191
The Hudson's Bay Company encouraged only the use of traps; however,
hunting and trapping at the same time proved difficult for the Innu.
Further, the company gave only limited credit, and usually only to those
who regularly got plenty of furs. The transformation of the hunting patterns
from traditional hunting methods to fur-trapping for profit made the Innu
particularly vulnerable to disease and starvation. It was also during this
period that government assistance began to be provided. Social problems
among the Innu, particularly those resulting from the use of alcohol, began
Settling along the coast brought them in periodic collision with the Inuit
(Eskimo) of coastal Labrador. In stark contrast to the Innu, the Inuit lived
in small communities along the coast and on the bleak and barren off-shore
islands from Hopedale in southern Labrador to Nain in the far north. The
sea is the predominate domain of the Inuit, who often travel great distances
to hunt seals and whales. The relationship between the two cultures has
at times been strained. Even today there are overlapping land claims
between the two groups, particularly over Voisey Bay where a new mine
has been discovered. Inuit travelling along the coast would try and avoid
Davis Inlet or, if they had to stop, would ask the parish priest to put them
up for the night (Bruemmer, 1971:97).
In 1948, an ill-conceived attempt by the government at the time was
made to relocate the Innu to Nutak, a small community on the far northern
coast of Labrador (see Map 1). The Innu were told that in their new
community they would have better opportunities for fishing, hunting and
cutting wood.3 Without any prior consultation, the Innu were transported to
Nutak in the hold of a coastal boat, the Winnifred Lee. The conditions in
Nutak were little different than those in Davis Inlet. Some Innu were taught
to fish and others were put to work cutting wood for the Inuit. They surprised
officials when, after two years,4 they showed up back in Davis Inlet, having
walked the entire distance through the interior of Labrador. In the final
analysis the decision to move the Innu to Nutak was largely driven by
economic considerations. McRae describes it this way:
[T]he decision to relocate the Innu in Nutak was a consequence
of the decision to close the government depot at Davis Inlet. It
was a decision guided by a belief that the Innu should become
economically productive and based on the administrative convenience
of the location of the government depot (1993:37).
This is not to deny that the government officials involved may
have believed that they were acting in the best interests of the
Innu. But their assumptions had nothing to do with the Innu's
192 Harold Press
Davis Inlet in Crisis 193
view of the world, nor did they attempt to understand what that
view was through discussions with Innu... No-one asked the
Innu if they wanted to change from their traditional hunting
activities to commercial fishing. No-one asked if they wished
to move away from an area with which they had been associated
for many years (1993:38).
Another priest, Father Whitehead, picked out the first Innu Chief, Joe
Rich. Prior to that, the Innu had no single leader. Whenever they travelled
into the country different people would assume leadership roles depending
on the circumstances. No one questioned the leadership; everyone respected
it (Innu Nation and Mushuau Innu Band Council, 1992:13). Father
Joseph Cyr was the first permanent priest in Davis Inlet. One of the first
things he did was to arrange for a saw mill to be brought to the area in order
for work to begin on, among other things, a new school for the children.
Two years later when Father Cyr left, so did the saw mill.
During the fifties and sixties, the idea of again moving the Innu was
discussed in detail. The idea given greatest prominence was that of moving
the Innu to North West River in an effort to combine the two Innu populations
of Labrador. In 1967 it was determined - time by the post-confederation
Smallwood government - that the old site was no longer suitable and a
decision was made to move the Innu. With the urging of Father Peters (the
next priest), Joe Rich and several government officials, 150 Innu were
moved to an Iluikoyak Island where they settled at the present site on a
year-round basis.5 There was no public consultation on whether to move
to the new island site nor any vote on the decision to move. The Innu were
simply told that the land was good for building, they would be given new
houses, there would be lots of water; a well had been dug to ensure that
there was water. Feeling the decision of government and the church would
mean better housing and living conditions, most did not question the move.
The government provided the Innu with building materials but without
the skills training for them to know how to use the materials. Many Innu
used them to build wooden walls on which they would use their tents as
roofs. To travel to their hunting grounds, they have to cross 11 kilometres
of sea ice. There are long periods in the fall and spring when the conditions
for crossing the rattle to the mainland are too dangerous. Because of the
fall freeze-up and spring break-up in the rattle, and because the Innu are
inland hunters rather than skilled boat people, drowning accidents are not
uncommon. Often, it is not until Christmas that the Innu can venture onto
the ice, and frequently late spring before the ice leaves. The result has been
the disengagement of the Innu from their traditional hunting grounds for
significant periods of the year. The nomadic lifestyle of the Innu is, for all
intents and purposes, now over.
194 Harold Press
As early as 1969, problems with the site started to surface. With fewer
opportunities to go into the country for hunting, people began to depend
more upon store bought foods. The houses were small and were not
designed for extended families.6 They had no basements, construction was
substandard at best, and no water or sewage services were installed - at
least in the Innu houses. It was soon discovered there was insufficient water
and much of it was contaminated. Garbage began accumulating and
different kinds of diseases began to appear, among them tuberculosis.
Snowmobiles replaced dogs, boats with outboard motors replaced canoes,
and government assistance replaced the traditional way of life. It was not
long until some Innu began to talk of relocation, again.
Utshimasits (the Innu name for Davis Inlet) was incorporated in 1969.
However, in 1984 the municipal council was superseded by the Mushuau
Innu Band Council of Davis Inlet which was formed under the authority of
the federal Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs. The Chief and Band
Council are now elected according to procedures set out in the federal
Indian Act, and the Band functions as an administrative unit to receive and
disperse funds. However, because the Mushuau Innu have chosen not to
register under the Indian Act, they are not entitled to receive the full range
of programs, services and other benefits available to other First Nation
peoples who are registered and resident on Reserves.
The situation in Davis Inlet today is the result of many events, conditions,
and decisions, some radiating from within the domain of the Innu
themselves and some emanating from the external environment. All have,
to some degree, exacerbated rather than alleviated the harsh living conditions
of the Innu. A number of these circumstances are described below.
According to the most recent census (Statistics Canada, 1991:326),
the population of Davis Inlet is 465, almost all of whom are Innu (93%).7
Most (87%) communicate in the traditional language of Innuaimum. While
the primary language of instruction in the school is English, it is unclear as
to how many use English as their primary language of communication. The
population of Davis Inlet exhibits many of the characteristics of a developing
country. More than half (55%) of the population, for example, is under the
age of 20 (compared with 32% for Newfoundland). More surprising is the
difference in the age structure of the population of Davis Inlet when
compared with the population of the Province of Newfoundland and LabDavis
Inlet in Crisis 195
rador (see Figure 1). On the one hand, it appears that fertility rates in Davis
Inlet are significantly higher than those found elsewhere in Newfoundland.
On the other hand, the life expectancy of the Innu is considerably shorter
than for the other citizens of Newfoundland. Fully, 80% of the Innu of Davis
Inlet are below the age of 30 years.
Housing and Health
Housing and health conditions in Davis Inlet have been described as
particularly impoverished. While, the average number of people per dwelling
is over seven, the average number of bedrooms per dwelling is 2.4, low
even by Newfoundland standards.
Over the years, the government built new houses for the Innu. However,
the houses were not large (750 square feet), were built close together,
had only a 40-watt light service, had no furniture, and, while equipped with
tubs, toilets and sinks, had no water or sewage to enable their use. The
type of soil on which the houses are constructed, combined with extreme
frost conditions, means that each year the houses shift causing considerable
frost damage: walls crack and floors warp. The houses are dangerous
to live in, develop leaks and are cold. At the very least, they are not warm
and comfortable places in which to live.
Health concerns centre around the provision of safe drinking water and
196 Harold Press
sewage disposal. Soil conditions - a thick clay soil underlying a sandy
surface - are not conducive to the installation of septic systems and
because of surface water trapped above the clay, even outhouses don't
work. Most residents simply dispose of human waste at will. There is no
garbage disposal and household waste is also scattered throughout the
community. With only two drilled wells for the entire community, drinking
water is insufficient and much of it is contaminated because of inadequate
sewage disposal. Where water and sewage services exist, for the most part
they are confined to the residences of non-Innu such as the local priest,
the White teachers and White nurses, and the RCMP.
Over the years a severe alcohol problem has developed among adults
in the community, much of it leading to neglect, family violence, and
physical and sexual abuse. When their parents are drinking, the children
are ignored, unfed, abused, or otherwise neglected. They are also vulnerable
to the same sicknesses as their parents. Many are addicted at a very
early age. To say there is also a serious solvent abuse problem amongst
young people in the community is an understatement. Young people start
gas sniffing8 at a very early age. This behaviour eventually leads to alcohol
addiction and, for many, to fighting, stealing, vandalism, sexual abuse, and
much more. It has been estimated that between 40 and 50 children - fully
one-half of the adolescent population - are at some degree of risk. Many
sniff gasoline on a daily basis. Many other children are victims of sexual
and physical abuse. Attempts at intervention have met with limited success.
About 75% of the young people placed in a group home in the Innu
community of Sheshatshit are from Davis Inlet. However, rather than a
punishment or learning exercise, many youth see their stay at the group
home as an opportunity to get new clothes, good food, and plenty of
Different groups have made claims as to the causes of such high levels
of drinking in Davis Inlet. Some claim that the transient nature of the people
is a large part of the problem. Others have suggested that the problems
are largely the result of a government which continues to tackle pieces but
not the entire problem. Others suggest it is the lack of productive work,
either in the country or within Davis Inlet, while others maintain it is the
result of generations of dependency, on the Hudson's Bay Company, on
the church, and on government.9
There is a large government store in the community. However, food is
expensive; there is little in the way of fresh fruits or vegetables, and many
perishable items are kept long past their shelf-life. A youth centre was built
Davis Inlet in Crisis 197
to provide recreation activities for young people. While the centre has a
sound system, video games and pool tables, it has little else. Most families
have snowmobiles, cable TV, and video recorders, but many children are
poorly clothed, particularly in winter. Many families no longer prepare
regular meals, and as a result, a large number of children exist on a steady
diet of potato chips, candy, soft drinks, and other foods having little or no
The first school in Davis Inlet was built in 1963 with Father Frans Peters,
a Dutch-born Oblate missionary, serving as the first teacher. The school
was destroyed by fire in 1978, after which temporary facilities were used
until a new school could be constructed and opened in 1981. Nukum Mani
Shan is an all grade school operated by the Labrador Roman Catholic
school board. Today, the school has about 180 students enroled, up from
127 students in 1986 (Department of Education, 1994). The principal, Sister
Joan Baldwin, has a staff of 14 non-Innu teachers, five Innu teacher-aides,
and an Innu vice-principal. Increasing enrolment and the extension of the
program to include a full high school program has led to overcrowding. The
school has no library, resource centre or multi-purpose area. It complements
its academic program with a nutrition program, a shower program,
an evening recreation program, and a life skills program to promote Innu
traditions. Only recently have serious efforts been made to introduce
students to formal education in their own language. Younger children are
now taught social studies and religion in their own language (Innu-eimun).
Among the most serious problems in the school are absenteeism,
fighting, gas-sniffing and alcohol use. However, most serious - particularly
from a pedagogical point of view - has been the high dropout rate. Indeed,
over the years few students have completed their schooling in the community.
In the current year, for example, the school has 18 children enroled in
kindergarten but only one student taking grade 12. Figure 2 compares the
enrolment by grade for the school in Davis Inlet with enrolment for Newfoundland.
While there is a great deal of variance in enrolment in the
elementary grades in Davis Inlet due to the small population base, there is
an obvious and significant drop in enrolment in the secondary grades. A
comparison of graduation rates - the percentage of grade 10 students to
graduates two years later - shows that, while the provincial graduation rate
for the 1992-93 school year was 70.6 percent, only one in four graduated
in Nukum Mani Shan.10
198 Harold Press
What these data do not show are the staggering levels of absenteeism
in the school. Data indicate that as much as one-third (33.1%) of the school
year is missed for various reasons.11 The total days lost per month are
shown in Table 1.
One of the biggest concerns of the Innu is a sense of alienation in their
own school. Many parents feel disenfranchised; that is, they feel that the
school is not meeting the cultural and language needs of their children; that
they do not have any say in the "real" decisions of the school, and that non-
Innu teachers don't understand the Innu and are unsympathetic. Some of
the sentiments toward the school are described by an Innu teacher in the
Some teachers complain about how the children dress. Once
a teacher I worked with complained about the smell, that the
children smelled, they had no clean clothing. I really hated it
when she said this. It hurts me too because they are my people,
my children. The White teachers can't even wash the children.
They let the Innu teachers do this. We feel that these teachers
think the children are too dirty. The teachers should understand
that there is no water and sewage in Innu homes (Innu Nation
and Mushuau Innu Band Council, 1992:35).
Davis Inlet in Crisis 199
200 Harold Press
The role of religion in Innu life is complex and self-sustaining. For many,
there is a dynamic tension between Innu spirituality on the one hand and
Catholic religion on the other. For thousands of years the Innu had their
own religion; deifying the spirits of the animals. Yet, the emergence of the
Catholic church in the community led to conflict between divergent spiritual
values. One could only hold one at the expense of the other; there was no
room for both. As a result, the Innu were forced to give up their connection
with the past and embrace something that is foreign and new.
The Roman Catholic church has had a profound impact on the Innu.
On the one hand, the church has given considerable advice and guidance
to the Innu, even when advice and guidance were not needed. On the other
hand, the church has taken away many of the valued traditions of the Innu.
Some of the comments made during the week-long Gathering Voices
describe this dynamic tension between the two:
The church made a lot of mistakes in the past. Everyone here
says that. The church damaged our culture. Instead of helping
us, the priests made us lose our traditions and spirituality by
taking control and running our lives. We listened to the priests
too much (p.29).
I respect my religion as a Catholic because I know I can never
go back to my traditional religion [Shuash] (p.29).
I was baptised and I believe in the Church, but I also believe
in our own religion, our own spiritual beliefs. I want the children
to learn our way of life. This is very important. I respect the
Church very much, but we have to go back to our old ways too.
Our children are learning the Catholic religion, but they must
learn our traditional way of life as well [Kaniuekutat] (p.30).
One of the important early influences of the church had to do with
schooling. Formal schooling, since it was first introduced by missionaries
in 1952, has presented a dilemma for the Innu. The nomadic lifestyle has
meant that attendance in school was sporadic at best. Ryan cites two
methods the church used to pressure the Innu of Sheshatshit to send their
children to school. First, when discovering that children were missing from
school, missionaries would search them out and physically - sometimes by
twisting their ears - bring them to school themselves. Second, the church
applied pressure upon the government to withhold family allowance payments
to families who neglected to send their children to school (1988:14-
Davis Inlet in Crisis 201
Many Innu have mixed feelings about the presence of the Catholic
church. While they want the church to remain part of their lives, they also
want to begin the process of relearning their own spiritual beliefs. Teaching
their children about the Katipinimitaoch (the caribou spirit which is the
supreme spirit and master of everything), about the mukushan (a special
ceremony to give thanks to the Caribou God), and to do the "drum dance",
have become critically important to the Innu.
Employment in Davis Inlet has not improved much since the early cash
economies of the fur trade. On the other hand, a number of Innu are now
employed in the service sector. Statistics Canada (1994:328,330) reports
that the unemployment rate (21.1%), while double the Canadian rate
(10.2%), is lower than the rate for Newfoundland (27.8%) and significantly
lower than many coastal Labrador communities (e.g., Charlottetown,
72.7%; and Cartwright, 63.3%). The youth unemployment rate (15-24 year
olds) exhibits some of the same differences: 40.0% for Davis Inlet, 15.5%
for Canada, and 38.2% for Newfoundland. One possible explanation is the
presence of extensive government services; 68.4% of the labour force is
employed in education, health and other government services. Another
factor is the presence of government related programs. The youth council,
for example, has been successful in securing a number of youth employment
Davis Inlet grabbed world attention in 1993 when six children were
found intoxicated from sniffing gasoline fumes in an unheated shack in the
middle of winter, some screaming they wanted to die. As a result, 18
children from the community were sent for treatment to Poundmaker's
Lodge - a Native-run addiction - treatment centre in Alberta. But this was
not the only incident in Davis Inlet in recent years. What has surfaced in
recent years is a dismal tale of poverty, widespread alcoholism, solvent
abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse of women and children, teenage
suicide, and chronic unemployment. While the world spotlight shone on this
one event, it was by no means an isolated incident. Since 1973, 50 lives in
the community have been lost to alcohol-related deaths. In February 1992,
six children died in a house fire while their parents were away drinking. The
parents are facing abandonment charges.
To some, these chilling incidents signalled a total breakdown in the
social structure of the community, while to others, they signified a clash
202 Harold Press
between two cultures, what happens when a minority culture is subsumed
by a dominant culture. Some critics have charged that government neglect
is clearly to blame. Others have accused the federal government of
reneging on its fiduciary obligation. Cites McRae:
Although the 1967 relocation was carried out by the government
of Newfoundland, the government of Canada, in accordance
with its constitutional mandate under section 91(24) and
its fiduciary responsibility to aboriginal peoples in Canada still
bears ultimate responsibility (1993:48).
On the other hand, many Innu have said they must accept some of the
responsibility. During the discussions at Gathering Voices, in an open
penetrating display of self-analysis, some Innu openly declared: "We blame
the white man for our troubles. But we are the ones to blame, not the white
man. The white man doesn't bring alcohol to us. We go to alcohol" (p.7).
Policy has been defined as "a course of action or inaction chosen by
public authorities to address a given problem or interrelated set of problems"
(Pal, 1992:2). Public policies are collections of values, goals and
instruments constructed around a particular public problem. Although this
definition speaks of both action and inaction, the policies evolving in Davis
Inlet, at least for the present, are characterised by inaction. Pal describes
the policy process in terms of three stages: the problem definition stage
where problems are first recognized and then continually reassessed, the
design stage where instruments are chosen, and the implementation stage
when policy is actually put into practice (1992:118-119). The policy process
in Davis Inlet clearly is just getting to the problem recognition stage. The
more difficult design work has yet to begin.
The importance of understanding the historical context of the policy
development process was recognized by Majone. Majone asserts that,
particularly in complex public policy issues, the importance of examining
"the historical continuity, persistence and drift of public policy" cannot be
understated (1989:42). Nowhere is the sense of history more important
than in First Nations communities such as Davis Inlet. The Innu have been
uprooted and relocated many times over the centuries, each time a result
of the policies of others. On the surface, the suicide attempts by the young
people were the precipitating event of a recent policy initiative by the Innu
to relocate their community. However, relocation has been pursued actively
by the Innu of Davis Inlet for many years. The Innu have advocated moving
to Sango Bay, a mainland site some 15 kilometres from Davis Inlet.
Davis Inlet in Crisis 203
Nutuaiashish (the Innu name for Sango Bay) is close to the traditional
hunting grounds, is a much larger site (it can accommodate over 600
houses), has a waterfall that can be harnessed for hydroelectricity, and has
a good site for an airstrip. However, to date no soil tests have been
In March 1992, the Mushuau Innu organized a community consultation
process, in which they attempted to probe some of the causes of the social
disintegration in their community. As a result, a policy document entitled:
Hearing the Voices: Government's Role in Innu Renewal, was developed.
The document contained a seven-point plan for change:
• relocation of Davis Inlet;
• sending chronic solvent abusers to a treatment lodge in Alberta;
• setting up a community resource team to deal with the abusers
when they return;
• establishing a family and cultural renewal centre;
• acknowledgment by Canada of its constitutional obligations to the
• high-level meeting between the Innu and government leaders; and
• recognition of Innu land and resource rights.
Premier Wells of Newfoundland called the document unacceptable
because it included a requirement that all points, including land claims, had
to be dealt with collectively. He said that the issues dealing with relocation
and social renewal were quite acceptable, but linking them to land claims
and an inherent right to self-government would be tantamount to blackmail.
He also suggested that other sites - such as near Goose Bay or near the
Quebec boarder where other Innu have established themselves - should
be considered before a move is made. In an interview with the Globe and
Mail newspaper Wells was quoted as saying:
The two governments and the community leaders would do the
Innu a great disservice if we didn't make sure that we create a
comfortable secure community with maximum economic viability.
If you look at the problems, what economic opportunity
is there in Nutuaishish? Really none. Isolation of the community
is probably a factor of the problem. Nutuaishish is only
slightly less isolated than Davis Inlet (Valpy, 1993:D1).
On the other hand, Peter Penashue, president of the Innu Nation, accused
Premier Wells of not dealing "holistically" with the problem. He argued that
all the issues have to be dealt with at once, including land and resource
claims. At the same time, Ovide Mercredi, of the Assembly of First Nations,
204 Harold Press
accused both governments [provincial and federal] of what he called
confrontational paternalism (Platiel, 1993:A6).
One of the obstacles perceived as being in the way of the relocation
process is that the Innu are not status Indians; that is, they are not registered
under the Indian Act. While registering would provide the Innu with access
to considerably more funds, the Innu do not feel that the benefits outweigh
the losses. Bart James of the Innu Nation referred to the Act as "outdated
and paternalistic." He argued that if the Innu were to register under the
Indian Act, government would have authority over how Band Councils are
chosen, and would be able to veto Band by-laws, pass their own regulations
on local matters, and unilaterally decide how local monies are spent
(Muscati, 1993). In a report prepared for the Canadian Human Rights
Commission, McRae argued that what is needed is a dramatic gesture of
confidence on the part of the federal government:
An acknowledgement of the constitutional responsibility of the
federal government towards the Innu and a commitment to
deal with them directly as if they were registered under the
Indian Act and on reserve. This would involve replacing the
existing Canada-Newfoundland contribution agreement in respect
of the Innu with an agreement directly between the
government of Canada and the Innu that would provide funding
to the Innu from the federal government at a level available to
Indian bands that are registered and on-reserve (1993:53).
McRae maintained that requiring the Innu to register under the Indian Act
would be "to elevate form over substance. It would be nothing more than a
"symbolic act of subordination" (Ibid.:53).
The challenges facing First Nations peoples in Canada today are no
less perilous than they were when those peoples first came in contact with
the European culture. They are framed within a context of competing
cultures, competing in the sense that there are a dominant and a minority
culture both attempting to coexist in the same house. Berger, in a penetrating
vignette in the report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, depicts the
attitudes which likely have contributed to the crises in First Nations communities
To the Europeans, the native's use of the land, based upon
hunting and gathering, was extravagant in extent and irreligious
in nature... The assumptions implicit in all this are several.
Native religion had to be replaced; native customs had to
Davis Inlet in Crisis 205
be rejected, native uses and way of living on the land could
not, once the fur trade had been superseded by the search for
minerals, oil and gas, be regarded as socially important or
economically significant (1977:85).
The history of Aboriginal relocations in Canada, indeed in North America,
has been a saga of failure. Nowhere is this more evident than with the
Innu of Davis Inlet; yet another failed relocation would be unacceptable.
Nonetheless, maintaining the status quo in Davis Inlet is equally unacceptable.
Everyone involved seems unwilling, at least for the moment, to take
that perilous first step. In discussing some of the potential alternatives for
the Innu, McRae offers a simple caveat:
A "remedy" for the Innu Nation cannot... provide a panacea for
the problems the Innu face. In this regard, the Innu are acutely
aware of the precarious position they are in as a people. They
are aware of the "lost" culture of the elders; of the fact that their
children have been inundated through television with a southern,
white culture; they are aware of the difficulty, if not impossibility,
of turning the clock back for their children; they are
aware of the impact of losing the cultural values of their
traditional ways; they are aware of the fragility, if not nonexistence,
of the economic base on which their communities
presently rest (1993:52).
The anthropologist Georg Henriksen investigated the social and economic
conditions of the Innu and the potential of Sango Bay as a relocation
site for the Newfoundland government. Henriksen concluded that, given its
better access to the hunting rounds, Sango Bay would be the preferred site.
He also concluded that such a move would help the Innu regain "their
spiritual power... social and psychological health, and... their collective
identity and self-esteem."13
The current inaction seems less an issue of economics and more a
fear of repeating the mistakes of the past. Questions about who was at fault
seem of little importance. However, facing vexing questions about why it
happened is essential if we are to fully understand why relocation failed in
the past and what must be done differently to ensure its success in the
future. These events in our past cannot be treated as parts of our history
that can now be put aside. Clearly, there is a responsibility to start letting
these people determine their own future. The central issue for non-Innu is
about mobilizing resources to enable these people to put their lives back
together and to provide them with the same dignity and self-respect as other
Canadians. This is the only issue that matters.
206 Harold Press
In the aftermath of the horrific events in Davis Inlet, little seems to have
changed. Many of the children involved in the gas-sniffing incident who
went to Poundmaker's Lodge for treatment, along with their parents,
translators and youth workers, are now back sniffing gasoline.14 While
everyone in this case appears genuinely to have the best interests of the
Innu at heart, no one seems willing to take an unqualified risk. The Innu
have made relocation conditional upon settlement of land claims and their
inherent right to self-government. The federal government has committed
$80 million to facilitate the relocation conditional upon Newfoundland's
participation. The Newfoundland government has agreed to participate
conditional upon the consideration of other locations and land claims being
separated from discussions about resettlement. Meanwhile, the Innu remain
in Davis Inlet.
1. Another Innu group began settling in Sheshatshit, located to the south
on the shore of Lake Melville.
2. There has been a permanent mission in Davis Inlet since 1952.
3. The basis of this decision is incomprehensible given that the immediate
area surrounding Nutak was barren. Not only would wood cutting
prove to be rather difficult under those conditions, but hunting would
also prove to be onerous.
4. There is some discrepancy in the precise length of stay in Nutak.
Georg Henriksen, an anthropologist who completed extensive field
work in Davis Inlet between 1966 and 1968, said that they returned
from Nutak "five months later" (1973:14). On the other hand, Donald
McRae, Dean of Common Law at the University of Ottawa, who
completed an extensive report on the complaints of the Innu for the
Canadian Human Rights Commission, said that they returned from
Nutak "at the end of their second winter" (1993:36).
5. A detailed examination of this can be found in McRae (1993:30-48).
6. At the time, one Innu, Chief Joe Rich, was provided with a two-story
7. Local estimates place the population at over 500.
8. Often using whatever solvents are available, such as Javex.
9. On careful examination, one can probably identify each of the interests
in this enigma.
Davis Inlet in Crisis 207
10. Provided from school profiles, prepared by the Division of Student
Evaluation and Statistics, Department of Education and Training,
11. This is drawn from the Innu document "Gathering Voices" and from
interviews with school board and Department of Education officials.
12. One example is a project organized by the Mushuau Innu Band
Council in collaboration with the Innu Youth Council and the Mennonite
Central Committee and funded, in part, by the Canada-Newfoundland
Cooperation Agreement for Human Resource Development. The purpose
of the project is to avail of local leadership to help young adults
acquire the skills and competencies and develop the confidence to
enable them to work with young people in the community.
13. See, Move Innu community, Nfld. urged. (1993, November 27). The
Toronto Star, p.A17.
14. Of the 18 children sent to Poundmaker's Lodge for treatment, 12 have
been reported using solvents again (Valpy, 1994:A2).
1977 Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry, Vol. 1. James
Lorimer & Co.
1971 The Naskapi of Labrador. Canadian Geographic Journal
The Globe and Mail
1993 Help Davis Inlet's Innu move, report says: Wells rejects conclusion
that relocation will ease suicide, substance problems.
1973 Hunters in the Barrens: The Naskapi on the End of the White
Man's World. St. John's: Memorial University Institute of Social
and Economic Research. Newfoundland Social and Economic
Studies No. 10.
Innu Nation and Mushuau Innu Band Council
1993 Hearing the Voices: Government's Role in Innu Renewal. Atshimasits:
Mushuau Innu Band Council.
1992 Gathering Voices: Finding Strength to Help our Children. Utshimasits:
Mushuau Innu Band Council.
208 Harold Press
1989 Evidence, Argument and Persuasion in the Policy Process.
New Haven: Yale University Press.
1992 Report on the Complaints of the Innu of Labrador to the Canadian
Human Rights Commission. Ottawa: Canadian Human
1993 Labrador Innu take Cause to Parliament Hill. Canadian University
Press News Exchange 56(8).
1992 Public Policy Analysis: An Introduction. Scarborough: Nelson
1993 Wells, Innu Lock Horns Over Crisis at Davis Inlet. The Globe
and Mail, March 13:A6.
1988 Economic Development and Innu Settlement: The Establishment
of Sheshatshit. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies
1985 A Poison Stronger Than Love: The Destruction of an Ojibwa
Community. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
1935 Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula. Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press.
1994 Profile of Census Divisions and Subdivisions in Newfoundland
- Part B. Catalogue No. 95-302, Table 1. Ottawa: Industry,
Science and Technology Canada.
1992 Profile of Census Divisions and Subdivisions in Newfoundland
- Part A. Catalogue No. 95-301, Table 1. Ottawa: Industry,
Science and Technology Canada.
1994 What They Learned at Poundmaker's Lodge. The Globe and
Mail, February 2:A2.
1993 A Day in the Death of Davis Inlet. The Globe and Mail, February
Davis Inlet in Crisis 209
1993 Where's the Action After the Innu Action? The Globe and Mail,
1994 Innu Cool to Offer of New Site: Ottawa Pledges $80 million for Davis
Inlet Move. February 27:A4.
1993 Move Innu Community, Nfld. Urged. November 27:A17.
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