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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 15:37 GMT
Canada's Innu: Between two worlds
As Canada's prime minister, provincial leaders and native groups hold an unprecedented summit to agree on a programme to fight poverty in aboriginal groups, the BBC's Sarah Shenker reports on the situation of the Innu community.

George Rich's first wife, the mother of his two children, committed suicide.

A house under construction in Natuashish (photograph: Dominick Tyler)
Hopes were high when a town was built for the community
One of his brothers died of hypothermia after binge-drinking. His other brother had a history of drug-taking and died young, of a heart attack.

Mr Rich is Innu, a native people from the Quebec-Labrador peninsula in the province of Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada.

His tragic personal history is not unique in his community, he says.

"I was sexually and psychologically abused," he says. "Stop somebody on the street, he will tell you about family violence, spousal violence - it is the norm."

Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant, even among teenagers. Many also say that physical and sexual abuse is widespread.

Suicide rates among the Innu are thought to be among some of the highest in the world - four young people killed themselves over the summer of 2004, in a village of just 700.

It is a statistic repeated across Canada's indigenous groups, who have higher suicide rates than other Canadians.

It is just one of the inequalities - including lower life expectancy and school graduation rates - that the government says it is trying to address with plans for C$4bn ($3.4bn; 1.9bn) worth of programmes for the country's native population, to be announced on Friday.

'No progress'

Nomadic hunters by tradition, the Innu moved to the purpose-built village of Utshimassits - known as Davis Inlet - in 1967, after the government decided they should have the opportunity to settle.

Government promises to make Davis Inlet into a fully working village never materialised - the houses lacked heating and internal plumbing.

An empty house in Davis Inlet. Photograph: Dominick Tyler

Encouraged to stay in town to send their children to school, and a lack of employment opportunities because of their geographical isolation, meant many became reliant on social security.

The Innu's traditional lifestyle quickly began to erode. Rates of alcoholism and drug abuse grew. Many children become hooked on sniffing petrol.

Aware of the problems, the government offered to move the troubled community to the new town of Natuashish, 15km (9 miles) inland. The hope was that life in a town with the modern amenities and services most North Americans take for granted might contribute to solving the community's problems.

Residents jumped at the chance of a fresh start and made the transition in 2002-2003.

Around the same time, the federal government set up the Labrador Innu Healing Strategy programme to help solve the community's social problems.

More than two years on, however, many Innu say little has changed.

In February, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) obtained government documents suggesting alcoholism, suicide and incidents of child abuse had grown since the relocation.

Population of about 16,000 in Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador
Traditional hunting grounds known as Nitassinan
Not related to northern neighbours, the Inuit, but closely related to Cree Indians
Called Montagnais and Naskapi Indians by Western settlers
Innu in Labrador speak Innu-aimun
Innu in Natuashish call themselves Mushuau Innu, or Innu of the barren lands

Despite spending C$350m on the move, "virtually no progress was made in programmes and services" to tackle social problems, one of the documents said.

"It's getting out of hand," Mr Rich, a former Innu council leader, said.

"There's lots more drugs going on here because of the high rate of unemployment. People have nothing to do, they bootleg alcohol and sell drugs to their own people."

Newspaper editorials have suggested the Innu should just leave Natuashish to settle into larger towns with better amenities and more jobs.

"People tell us to go to towns where we can get jobs," says Mr Rich, "but we have to find a balance between our two worlds."

Land rights

Wilf Attwood, a regional adviser for the Canadian Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, says the move to Natuashish was a "huge step forward" for the troubled community.

"The Innu have homes, schools. They have much more than they used to have."

The provincial government is also trying to provide better services - it recently pledged to fund another social worker for the community.

Young children in a home in Natuashish (photograph: Dominick Tyler)
Conditions in Natuashish are less cramped

Mr Attwood admits that there is still a long way to go to improve life in Natuashish, but believes the government is doing all it can.

"Social change takes a lot longer and is harder to quantify, it is a mindset. The problems are the result of 50 years of... I wouldn't say neglect, because that's too strong a word. A solution is not going to be found overnight."

The new deal being outlined by the Canadian government at an unprecedented meeting with provincial leaders and aboriginal representatives could also go some way to help the Innu and other communities like them.

Some say a key piece of the puzzle to improving life for the Innu is land rights - unlike other native communities in North America, the Innu's rights to the land on which they have traditionally hunted have not been officially recognised.

By having to enter a negotiation process with the Canadian government over their rights, "the Innu are being asked to participate in their own dispossession", said Colin Sampson, a professor of American studies at the University of Essex, who has been working with the Innu for more than a decade.

He believes this has had a profound and deeply demoralising impact.

"There is a torpor in the villages, there is a lethargy and inertia that sets in," he says.

Faced with the prospect of losing more of their land, "the older generation will say why not drink? They think it is hopeless, they think everything is lost."

Back to land

Mr Rich believes the Innu need to reconnect with their traditional lifestyle.

"People need to go back to the country to hunting grounds. That is where people used to spend more of their lives and where the healing begins," he says.

A boy tends to his locker in school in Natuashish (photograph: Dominick Tyler)
Truancy rates are high in the village's new school

However, Mr Rich also says the lack of progress in improving life in Natuashish is down to the need for better services and a greater say for the community in running its affairs.

"For example, we need to teach our children Innu culture and values - none of that is taught in class. English is a foreign language for us, but we are not allowed to influence the curriculum," he says.

Despite his experiences of hardship, Mr Rich has a hopeful outlook.

"I have my children here and they are not doing drugs. They are working part-time, the first is still at university and the daughter is at college.

"If you can steer them in the right direction, then there is hope, but it is a struggle."

Map of eastern Canada showing location of Davis Inlet and Natuashish

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