PAUINGASSI First Nation has asked the provincial and federal governments for money to develop a cultural survival camp in the hopes of ending an addictions epidemic among young people on the reserve.
More than 60 kids under 18 are addicted to sniffing gasoline, accounting for more than half the school-age kids who live on the reserve, according to Eric Kennedy, supervisor of the Southeast Child and Family Services office in Pauingassi.
Kennedy believes if the kids in Pauingassi are taught by the elders how to connect with their cultural roots, it will give them something to do, something to be proud of and a reason to stop sniffing.
“They need to learn from the elders how to appreciate life itself, how to appreciate what’s around you, and how to survive.”
The owner of a fishing lodge on an island just next to the community has offered the lodge facilities during the off-season months, but Kennedy needs funding to get the camp going.
“If we can get them away from the community and away from the influences, it might just work,” says Kennedy.
Elder David Owen, believed to be in his late 90s, says he fears Pauingassi will not survive if someone can’t help the kids.
“This has been happening for many years,” says Owen in Ojibway. “It’s not the first time someone is trying to reach out.”
He says another elder used to run a program teaching kids about the effects of solvents, but gave up because he never got any funding.
Many kids have gone through treatment programs away from Pauingassi, but Kennedy prefers to try to solve the problem without sending the kids out of the community.
“When we send our children to treatment in Winnipeg, it’s not ideal. They don’t understand English and they’re not able to get what they need.”
And Kennedy says it’s expensive and it doesn’t work. Thirty kids came back from programs this summer and one by one, they are going back to sniffing, he says.
But Dr. Shannon McDonald, program medical officer with Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, says treatment programs are a start.
“Any period of time of sobriety is a positive thing and is money well spent,” says McDonald.
She adds that community involvement would be good.
“There is a community responsibility here for when the kids get home,” she says.
She says the $70,000 spent in Pauingassi every year on the Building Health Community programs could be used by the community to develop an outreach program, as other First Nations have done.
Jim Mair, director of programs, transition and self-governance with the aboriginal health branch, says solvent addictions plague many First Nations, but, anecdotally, the problem in Pauingassi is probably worse than in most other Manitoba First Nations.
“For that small population, it probably is a higher number,” says Mair. “It’s hard. It’s isolated. It doesn’t have a lot going for it. We’re working with Pauingassi as best we can with the funds we have available.”
In July, Kennedy sent a proposal to the provincial and federal governments seeking assistance for the outreach program. Mair says he hasn’t seen the proposal yet, but will try to get a copy.
The region’s MLA, Eric Robinson, says he and three cabinet departments are looking at Kennedy’s proposal.
“I regret that it’s going to take a lot of time to fix,” says Robinson. “When you have a community that doesn’t have an economy, and no hope for the future, you’re going to end up with a situation like this.”
Robinson says Pauingassi’s cultural camp may work even better than in other First Nations because it is one of the only places to retain the language.