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Innu inquiry hears how rapid lifestyle change sparked social and health problems

Mary Pia Benuen is Sheshatshiu's health director. She's lived in Sheshatshiu almost all of her life, only leaving to complete school and study nursing.  (Heidi Atter/CBC - image credit)
Mary Pia Benuen is Sheshatshiu's health director. She's lived in Sheshatshiu almost all of her life, only leaving to complete school and study nursing. (Heidi Atter/CBC - image credit)
Mary Pia Benuen is Sheshatshiu's health director. She's lived in Sheshatshiu almost all of her life, only leaving to complete school and study nursing.
Mary Pia Benuen is Sheshatshiu's health director. She's lived in Sheshatshiu almost all of her life, only leaving to complete school and study nursing.

Mary Pia Benuen spent nearly two full days addressing the commissioners for the Inquiry Respecting the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Sheshatshiu's director of health has told a public inquiry into the treatment of Innu children in care that a stunning change in lifestyle helped drive a cascade of serious health and social problems, including abuse of drugs.

Mary Pia Benuen, who was also the first Innu nurse in Labrador, told the Inquiry Respecting the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System on Tuesday that she witnessed mistreatment of Innu in the health-care system.

"I know Innu people don't get proper treatment up at the hospital," said Benuen, who for years worked at the Melville Hospital before landing the role of Sheshatshui's public health nurse.

She told the inquiry that lives were hurt by that treatment.

Benuen recalled a personal story, when one of her relatives — a cancer survivor — had been going back and forth to the hospital with complaints for two or three years, always being sent home and told nothing was wrong, and that her cancer had not returned.

"We went on a trip to Quebec. She got really, really sick while on our trip. I took her to hospital in Quebec City… when we got to the hospital she got admitted right away because she was very sick. The doctor came and talked to her and said, 'You're full of cancer.'"

That news came too late. Benuen testified her aunt died within weeks.

Trauma 'runs in the family'

Inquiry lawyer Peter Ralph questioned Benuen on the transformation of the Innu, when in the 1960s they were forced to halt being nomadic hunters and become sedentary residents of Sheshatshiu, suggesting that was the generation where most of the community's social problems and health issues began.

"It was so rapid… the change was just so fast," Benuen said. "The elders felt it, and said, 'What is happening to our children? What is happening to our people?'"

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Social issues and addictions have particularly attacked young Innu in the community, and Benuen fears what's now a crisis could eventually become a disaster.

"At one point, back in our day, when it first started, I think it was just an experiment. People wanted to be high and wanted to know what it felt like," she said.

"Then addiction took over. There's no stopping it anymore, unless you get intense therapy or intense treatment."

Benuen said members of her father's generation drank alcohol.

"As we were getting older we also drank," Benuen said. "That's how it is with families, it runs in the family. When your parents are drinking, you're drinking, too. When your parents are smoking, you're smoking, too."

Benuen said her parents' drinking often led to abuse and neglect, causing a lot of sadness in her own life.

I think it had to do with all the social changes that's happening to our people, to our parents, that are passed on to the children.  - Mary Pia Benuen

"I came out of that OK, that era where everything seems to be going bad my way… but it's not forgettable. I have to overcome it and accept it," Benuen said.

Benuen has had her own struggles with alcohol abuse in the past, and said that she used it as a way of self-medicating, to cover up her sadness.

"I think it had to do with all the social changes that's happening to our people, to our parents, that are passed on to the children," she said.

"I believe that's why we live in a very sad and unhappy community."

The inquiry is continuing through this week.

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