09/20/2012 02:17 EDT | Updated 11/20/2012 05:12 EST

RCMP warn of violence, injury as gas-sniffing escalates in Natuashish

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Almost 10 years after the Innu people of Davis Inlet were moved to Natuashish following a gas-sniffing crisis, police say a spike in solvent abuse involves kids as young as seven.

It has been a problem off and on since Ottawa spent more than $155 million to relocate 600 residents from squalid shacks to modern housing in December 2002. But local and provincial officials met this week in the northern Labrador community to discuss what the Mounties say is a dangerous escalation.

"It's one thing to take a bag of gas and go up in the woods and sniff it," RCMP Sgt. Faron Harnum said Thursday from Natuashish.

"That's bad enough in itself, but when you start operating vehicles and factoring firearms into it, it ups the ante and someone is bound to get hurt sooner than later."

Harnum said estimates from community services are that a total of about 40 children are sniffing gas at different times.

On Monday, police said a 21-year-old man was arrested in Natuashish after speeding at more than 100 km/h in a stolen truck while sniffing gas.

"A week before that, we had three people that were sniffing gas and they were carrying rifles around in the community," Harnum said.

The voice mailbox for Natuashish Chief Simeon Tshakapesh was full Thursday and he could not be immediately reached at home for comment.

Former Davis Inlet chief and longtime resident Katie Rich says it's heart-breaking that many children have had to leave the province for addiction treatment. The province's first residential youth addictions facility is under construction in Grand Falls-Windsor, about a four-hour drive from the capital of St. John's.

Rich and Harnum said groups of children and young teenagers gather well into the night sniffing gas and then sleep during the day.

"There are more children than adults here," Rich said in an interview. "It's sad for me to say that children, the young people, are overpowering the adults of this community."

Most of the 700 people now living in the remote enclave are under the age of 18, she said. Natuashish is officially a dry community under a liquor ban that was upheld by most residents in a vote in 2010, but booze and drug smuggling persist, Rich stressed.

She said a 40-ounce bottle will fetch hundreds of dollars as drinking continues despite the alcohol ban first introduced in 2008.

"I think the community has lost its focus," Rich said.

Hopes were high after the move that life in Natuashish would be different.

"As a community back then we had everybody involved, including the parents, in how we were going to help the children of Davis Inlet and Natuashish. But right now, that's not what's happening. Everybody has their own agenda and, in the meantime, the needs of the children are simply forgotten."

Rich said there are few organized activities at the community gym or arena and that a program to teach kids traditional Innu skills on the land was cancelled for lack of funds.

Charlene Johnson, the provincial minister for child, youth and family services, said her officials have consistently worked on gas-sniffing and other issues in Natuashish.

"This is a very difficult situation," she said Thursday in an interview. "The severity varies, but we've seen really extreme behaviours for children that are participating in solvent abuse. So we're there to support the parents, to assist them and engage them for whatever the cause of this may be."

Johnson said the most recent statistics as of July 31 show that 43 children across Newfoundland and Labrador were in foster care outside the province for various reasons, including 22 from the Innu communities of Natuashish and Sheshatshiu.

She said that 36 children in provincial care from Natuashish include 12 who have solvent abuse issues. Another 76 children still living with their parents in the community, including 13 who sniff gas or other solvents, are part of an intervention program aimed at keeping families united as they get help to deal with a range of problems.

"If we're going to make headway with this situation — and there have been some success stories — this really needs to be a united effort," Johnson said.

"It isn't going to be solved by individuals getting treatment or just at the community level. This requires a co-ordinated and sustained effort and government is certainly committed to this approach. But we all really need to work together for the children and for the parents as well."

In response to an interview request, federal Aboriginal Affairs spokeswoman Michelle Perron sent an emailed statement.

"The Government of Canada continues to work with the Innu leadership and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador to find long-lasting strategies to maintain health and stability for the Innu people," it said.

Ottawa also supports the establishment of a youth centre and the continuation of community healing plans that will guide future decisions, it said.