The news footage was horrifying: Innu children standing like trees in a forest, oblivious to the cold, holding green plastic bags filled with gasoline to their faces, sucking in the fumes.
There was a public outcry. Media flocked to Sheshatshiu, Labrador, to get more footage and interview everybody in sight about the addictions.
Promises of help rained down on the community, yet a week later, nothing had been done. The children still sniffed gasoline, and many of their parents were still drunk.
The federal government made promises and did nothing. Local social services had insisted all along that they could do nothing.
By the seventh day, Rev. Pam Stevenson, a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer working with the Sheshatshiu Innu, had reached her limit.
Heartsick and frustrated over the lack of action, she went to find the children at one of their local hangouts – an old shack. She discovered one girl with “feet like hamburger” who had wandered for days through the forest in shoes with holes in them, stoned on fumes.
“They don’t sleep when they get like this,” Mrs. Stevenson said. “So she had just walked and walked.” The girl was huddled in a corner, no longer able to move much. Another boy was passed out on a filthy mattress.
“That’s it,” Mrs. Stevenson said to the Innu leaders. “Enough is enough. Tell the government I will be on a hunger strike, and I’ll do it on camera, until these children get some help.” She called an ambulance for the girl and then sat down, thinking “Oh, oh, what have I done.” Mrs. Stevenson said she had never been hungrier in her life than she was at that moment. Or angrier.
That night, the first buses moved in to take the children to a shelter to begin treatment. Pam Stevenson, 50, ate again.
Mrs. Stevenson is an Anglican priest on leave from the diocese of Huron. Her husband Bill, 58, is a retired elementary school principal. They have lived in Goose Bay, Labrador, a half hour drive from Sheshatshiu, in the Mennonite Central Committee house for the past two years.
The couple was counselling death-row inmates in Georgia when they were asked to come home to work with indigenous communities.
Volunteers for Mennonite mission work are paid room and board, and usually make a two-year commitment, although placements can last from six months to four years. Despite experience counselling female drug addicts in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and the time with condemned men in Georgia, Mrs. Stevenson said she was completely unprepared for what she found in Labrador.
Two years later, she says the couple’s relationship with the Innu has become a love affair.
“The spirit of God is so powerful in those places of darkness. I don’t believe for one minute God has deserted them. There are so many beautiful things to learn about this race of people.”
The Stevensons are parishioners at the nearby Anglican church of St. Andrews, in a hamlet named Happy Valley.
It was Mrs. Stevenson who turned to Innu leaders, after weeks of fruitless meetings about the gas sniffing with social service bureaucrats, and uttered the prophetic words: “The people of Canada will not accept this.”
Chief Paul Richards took her seriously and invited news media to come and see the unfolding tragedy and then show it to the rest of Canada.
Since the publicity, offers of help have poured in, creating different problems. Mr. Stevenson fields all the calls.
“Many clearly see this as an opportunity to make money,” Mrs. Stevenson noted. U.S. doctors have called on cell phones, offering to fix the problem for $30,000 (U.S.) per child.
The evangelical television program, 100 Huntley Street, flew in to do a show. A Mohawk Pentecostal preacher from Ontario showed up at the local Pentecostal church and in the middle of a service, loudly denounced the preacher and the local people for mishandling the situation.
The Stevensons, meanwhile, started a “kitchen table ministry.” Mr. Stevenson baked bread and Mrs. Stevenson made soup and stews. Their door was open, and before long they began making friends. Now they do drug and alcohol counselling, lead healing circles, and do community liaison work at the local jail.
Shortly after they arrived, one family who had come to their kitchen table lost a son to suicide, and his 15-year-old cousin hung himself.
“It was the beginning of a very difficult year,” said Mrs. Stevenson. “We mourned with those people. And they did us the honour of allowing us to be with them.”
The Stevensons believe they came to Sheshatshiu at a critical time in the life of the Innu.
“The leaders are fighting for their children and their culture and the traditions of the Innu. I do believe that native issues will be the burning issues in Canada for the next decade,” Mrs. Stevenson said.
The image of a community where nobody is sober is wrong. “Many in the community have beat alcohol and are leading sacrificial lives for the sake of the next generations.”
By the time the Journal interviewed Mrs. Stevenson, all 39 children who had been identified as actively gas sniffing, were getting treatment. Some had been taken “in country” by elders. The rest were in a treatment center, participating in a treatment plan designed by Innu leaders working with provincial and federal health officials.
The Stevensons have no plans to leave after their four-year commitment. “We plan to move right in among the Innu and stay with them forever,” Mrs. Stevenson said.