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Inquiry into child protection system in Labrador hears from Innu health-care leader

SHESHATSHIU, N.L. — An inquiry into the treatment of Innu youth in Labrador’s child protection system is hearing today from an Innu woman who says her parents lost control of their lives when they moved to Sheshatshiu in 1960.

Mary Pia Benuen is now the primary health director in Sheshatshiu, an Innu community in central Labrador that is home to about 1,200 people.

Benuen told the inquiry her parents and their 11 children lived in a tent when they first moved to the community from Davis Inlet in northern Labrador, but she said the family became more fragmented after they moved into a house that had a wood stove but no running water.

The 63-year-old woman says her parents eventually became abusive alcoholics, but she recalled how the family seemed to flourish when they made extended trips into the bush, where they lived off the land in the spring and the fall.

By contrast, Benuen says life in Sheshatshiu was a struggle because her parents’ heavy drinking prompted interventions from the province’s Social Services Department, which attempted to take some of her siblings into provincial care.

Benuen says her father repeatedly fought the department’s attempts to take his children away, and she recalled how other families in Sheshatshiu were pulled apart by government agents.

“My dad fought for us,” the registered nurse and health-care manager told the inquiry, which is hearing this week from experts and practitioners who are part of the child protection system.

“He showed how he wanted to stand up for his children. My dad told me, ‘Never give up or give in to the white people because if you let them do what they want to you, then you’ll be there to be stepped on all through your life.'”

The inquiry was promised in 2017, when the province signed an agreement with the Innu Nation to examine how Innu children were treated in provincial care. But the process seemed to go nowhere until 2020, when 15-year-old Wally Rich, an Innu boy, took his own life while living in a group home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, N.L. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2024.

The Canadian Press

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