Innu inquiry hears how rapid lifestyle change has fueled social and health problems

Innu inquiry hears how rapid lifestyle change has fueled social and health problems

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

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

Mary Pia Benuen is Sheshatshiu's health director.  She lived in Sheshatshiu almost all her life, leaving only to finish school and study nursing. Mary Pia Benuen is Sheshatshiu's health director.  She lived in Sheshatshiu almost all her life, leaving only to finish school and study nursing.

Mary Pia Benuen is Sheshatshiu’s health director. She lived in Sheshatshiu almost all her life, leaving only to finish school and study nursing.

Mary Pia Benuen spent almost two full days addressing the commissioners on the inquiry respecting the treatment, experiences and outcomes of the Innu in the Child Protection System. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Sheshatshiu’s health director told a public inquiry into the treatment of Innu children in their care that a dramatic change in lifestyle had helped lead to a range of serious health and social problems, including drug abuse.

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 the mistreatment of Innu in the health care system.

“I know the Innu people are not getting proper treatment at the hospital,” said Benuen, who for years worked at Melville Hospital before taking on the role of Sheshatshui’s public health nurse.

He told the inquest that lives were damaged by this treatment.

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

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

This news came too late. Benouen testified that her aunt died within weeks.

Trauma ‘runs in the family’

Investigating lawyer Peter Ralph asked the Benuen about the transformation of the Innu when in the 1960s they were forced to stop being nomadic hunters and become sedentary Sheshatshiu residents, suggesting that this was the generation where most social problems and health issues began of the community.

“It was so fast … the change was so fast,” Benuen said. “The adults felt it and said, ‘What is happening to our children? What is happening to our people?’

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

“At one point, back in the day, when it first started, I think it was just an experiment. People wanted to be high and they wanted to know what it was like,” he said.

“That’s when the addiction took over. You don’t stop it anymore, unless you get intensive treatment or intensive treatment.”

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

“As we grew older, we also drank,” Benuen said. “That’s the way it is with families, it runs in the family. When your parents drink, you drink. When your parents smoke, you smoke.”

Benuen said her parents’ drinking often led to abuse and neglect, causing much sadness in her life.

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

“I came out of that okay, that time where everything seems to be going badly my way… but it can’t be forgotten. I have to get over it and accept it,” Benuen said.

Benouen has had her own struggles with alcohol abuse in the past and said she used it as a way to self-medicate, to cover up her grief.

“I think it had to do with all the social changes that happen to our people, to our parents, that are passed down to the children,” he said.

“I think that’s why we live in a very sad and unhappy community.”

The investigation continues this week.

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