11/19/2013 04:03 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Gregory Rich, Natuashish chief, wants to give back

Gregory Rich, the newly-elected chief of Natuashish, says the support he received in battling his own demons has convinced him that it is time to give back to his community and address the Innu reserve's deep social problems. 

"February 14th, 1992. That's when it hit me. That's when I lost my children," said Rich.  

Rich was the father of five children who died in a house fire in the Innu community of Davis Inlet 21 years ago. 

Rich and his wife, Agathe, were out drinking at the time. Their five children and a friend died alone.   

"I can still picture it in my mind, I see smoke, flames, flames, a lot of flames, a lot of flames," recalled Rich. 

The tragedy brought international attention to the grim conditions and social problems in Davis Inlet, and eventually led to the relocation of that community to Natuashish in 2002.

Rich battles suicidal thoughts, addictions

However, Rich almost did not survive the death of his children himself. 

"There was a feeling of shame, guilt and I believe I failed as a parent to look after my kids. I decided to commit suicide the following day." 

Rich has credited an Innu elder for talking him out of it, but he still had huge personal problems to tackle.  

He had grown up in Davis Inlet, where he started sniffing gas as a child, then graduated to alcohol and drug abuse, and started having children of his own when he was just a teenager.

It took Rich years to quit drinking for good and rebuild his life.

"I've taken steps to heal myself and I'm doing that on a daily basis." 

Giving back

Now, he has promised to rebuild Natuashish. 

Fractious band politics and infighting have divided Natuashish, and the old problems of gas sniffing and alcohol abuse have made a comeback. 

Rich said he believes group counselling and frank dialogue is the way to help Natuashish to begin to heal.

"That's the vision I have for my people, is to get better," said Rich. "To get better and to make this community alive again, instead of a stand still."

Supporters of Rich in Natuashish said they admire him for his calm demeanour, his ability to reflect, and his devotion to his family, especially his two foster children. 

"Innu hardly say 'I love you.' I don't know why is that," said Rich.  "But I use it daily with my kids."

Rich said he and his wife want to thank their community for its support during their darkest days. Now, he says it's his turn to give back to Natuashish in his new role as chief and help the community heal. 

"In order for us to get better, we need to share our own experience, not by someone's experience, but your own experience," said Rich. 

"That's why I'm sharing this with you. I want them to know that I, I'm human, I'm only human. I have feelings, you know?"