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Modern programs to combat addictions are taking Labrador Innu back to their roots, inquiry hears

Helen Aster, left, Sheshatshiu's director of social health told the Inquiry Respecting the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System it's impossible to pinpoint the biggest issue the community is facing.  (Heidi Atter/CBC - image credit)
Helen Aster, left, Sheshatshiu's director of social health told the Inquiry Respecting the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System it's impossible to pinpoint the biggest issue the community is facing. (Heidi Atter/CBC - image credit)

The social and health issues that exist in Sheshatshiu today began when the Innu were settled into two communities in Labrador, the community's social health director said Wednesday at the Inquiry Respecting the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System on Wednesday.

Helen Aster — who spent years working at the Sheshatshiu Family Resource Centre, helping people dealing with social issues like domestic violence, child abuse and poverty — told the Inquiry it's impossible to identify the biggest difficulty the community is facing.

"You can't focus on one topic. You have to focus on the whole thing," Aster said.

"You have to go through trauma, all grief and addiction, some isolation. I can't say there's only one main problem. There's a whole lot."

Before settling, Aster said, the Innu lived and travelled on the land — a healthy lifestyle — but within a single generation their lives were turned upside down, and they were left with a plague of addictions, mental health issues and trauma

Formal hearings for the Inquiry Respecting the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System began Monday and will continue throughout the week in Sheshatshiu.
Formal hearings for the Inquiry Respecting the Treatment, Experiences and Outcomes of Innu in the Child Protection System began Monday and will continue throughout the week in Sheshatshiu.

The inquiry's formal hearings began Monday and are scheduled to continue throughout the week in Sheshatshiu. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Nutshimit: a place for healing  

Aster works closely with her cousin, Mary Pia Benuen — Sheshatshiu's primary health director. A few years ago, they started a retreat program for women and youth that Aster said has been an enormous resource in community healing.

They travel to nutshimit — or inland, in the country — spend time together and connect in the way their families did before settlement.

"I really believe the land is really helping the people," Aster said. "It makes you feel like you're refreshed, you're recharged.… You're enjoying the outdoors and you feel so healthy up there."

A few years ago, Aster took a group of youths who were having behavioural issues and suffering from addictions and abuse to nutshimit.

"The first two days, there were complaints," Aster said. "But after two days, we saw their behaviour change. They were helping out. They were talking. They obeyed the rules. They didn't give us a hard time for the next 10 days we were there."

Unpredictable funding

Aster said the team at the Family Resource Centre works hard to provide a number of programs necessary for the people of Sheshatshiu, including the food bank, mother and child play groups and parenting support.

It's a trusted asset in the community — a place where people can go for help and healing — she said, but funding is always an issue.

"We get core funding for the Family Resource Centre and the Parents' Support. It's been there for so long," she said. "The amount has never changed."

Costs have inflated over the years, Aster said, but they do the best they can with that set amount of funding.

She's constantly writing reports to ensure funding is renewed, and on top of that she applies for at least 10 program grants a year, she said.

Aster said the grants are not always approved, and even when they are they come with strict guidelines. The funds cannot be reallocated to other valuable programs, which Aster said isn't always in the best interest of the community's social health.

"If you're given the money, you have to follow the criteria," she said.

Formal hearings in Sheshatshiu are scheduled to continue through the end of the week. The inquiry's final report is due Sept. 30.

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