THE solvent-abuse crisis gripping a Manitoba reserve will be thrown in the laps of Prime Minister Paul Martin and his top cabinet ministers when they meet in Winnipeg on Friday.
Two grand chiefs vow to give Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott a strong message about the solvent crisis on Pauingassi First Nation.
An exclusive Free Press story Sunday revealed that 20 per cent of the reserve’s 450 residents, including half the children, are addicted to solvents such as gasoline or glue.
“I’m going to hand him (Scott) a copy of the article,” pledged Chris Henderson, grand chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization.
“There clearly seems to be a lack of any sense of urgency on the part of the federal government,” Henderson said.
Ron Evans, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said he too will discuss the issue with Scott and drive home the argument that natives need self-government to solve their problems.
Officials said yesterday the problem on Pauingassi has been developing over the past 15 years, but it was made public when social worker Eric Kennedy invited the Free Press to the reserve for a first-hand look at the problem.
Kennedy, a social worker and supervisor of the Southeast Child and Family Services office in Pauingassi, said the problem has completely overwhelmed the agency and other social and health services.
The addiction rate is highest among teenagers, with 62 of the community’s 120 children under 18 addicted, he said.
The solution is complex and long-term, but Kennedy complained he’s received little help in his effort to establish a cultural camp program to help reconnect the addicts with themselves and their traditions.
He said he believed that developing their self-respect as aboriginals was the only effective way to get them to go straight and walk proudly with their people.
Kennedy said some neighbouring reserves offered to send elders to Pauingassi to help, and a resident of The Pas also wanted to know what she could do.
He said Indian and Northern Affairs has told him there is no more money for new treatment programs and the province’s response was noncommittal.
Evans, the former chief of Norway House First Nation, said the problem of solvent abuse is not uncommon on reserves, but it tends to be the most severe on isolated fly-in communities such as Pauingassi.
However, he rejected any suggestion that remote reserves be consolidated and relocated closer to roads and urban life to enhance economic development opportunities.
“They tried that in Davis Inlet and it didn’t work,” Evans said.
Davis Inlet was an Innu community with rampant alcohol abuse and one of the highest suicide rates in the world when Ottawa decided three years ago to solve the problem by relocating the residents to new homes in Labrador.
The experiment cost $200 million, but it failed to reverse the chronic social problems.
Evans said he believes the problems at Pauingassi reinforce the view that aboriginals must solve their own problems and they can do that only through self-government.
But critics say aboriginal leaders have to heal themselves before they can fix their societies.
Don Sandberg, an aboriginal policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Policy Alternatives, an independent think-tank, said corruption is as rampant as alcoholism on reserves and much money earmarked for the people is being redirected.
Sandberg said some reserves have used money intended for social programs to pay down debt or for other purposes.
The federal government must improve the governing models for reserves and introduce transparency and accountability, he said.
Former prime minister Jean Chrétien planned to do just that through the Governance Act, but it was shelved by Martin after he assumed power.
MP Pat Martin (NDP– Winnipeg Centre) said he believed the addiction epidemic on Pauingassi was “a manifestation of government policy gone wrong.”
Martin said the historic injustices suffered by aboriginals virtually ensured they would become dysfunctional, struggling on the fringe of society.
The government’s attempts to turn aboriginals into whites through residential schools and by other means failed miserably “and left us with a wasteland of broken lives.”
Pauingassi Chief Harold Crow was unavailable for comment yesterday.
Nelson Keeper, vice-chief of Little Grand Rapids First Nation, said his reserve tried to tackle the problem of solvent abuse by passing a bylaw declaring solvents illegal.
Keeper said the RCMP enforced the bylaw with arrests, but the federal government wouldn’t prosecute.
He said the band tried other means of solving the problem, but came to the conclusion it was necessary to arrest offenders and force them to get help.