Welcome to Pauingassi First Nation, located on the edge of nowhere. Half the kids here are gasoline sniffers. Their one hope is a social worker who’s fighting to save them. He needs help because he’s losing the battle
PAUINGASSI — Eric Kennedy sits on the sofa in his living room wringing his hands. Down the hall, a 10-year-old boy is sleeping off the after-effects of a night sniffing gasoline in the woods. Curled on the bed in a fetal position, the child’s baby face is peeking out of a black, hooded sweatshirt, a pale-yellow froth collecting in the corners of his mouth.
His eyes flutter open briefly, exposing yellow-tinted irises that are likely the first sign of liver damage, says Kennedy, a social worker and supervisor of the Southeast Child and Family Services office in Pauingassi.
The child was brought to Kennedy at 1 a.m. by the community night patrollers who walk the rough streets of Pauingassi looking for signs of trouble. In Pauingassi, a remote fly-in community located 280 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, trouble is easy to find.
Most nights it comes from the inside of a gas can. Kennedy says more than half of school-age kids here are addicted to sniffing gasoline, as well as more than two dozen adults, mostly just out of their teens. Of the 450 people who call Pauingassi home, one in every five is considered a chronic solvent addict.
When they’re high, they’re violent, destructive and dangerous — especially to themselves.
Every night, patrols walk or drive the bumpy, gravel roads, and search the bushes and abandoned homes for kids who have passed out to take them home to their parents. If their homes aren’t suitable because the parents are high or drunk, they take the kids to Kennedy.
“We end up with truckloads of kids almost every night,” says Michael Owens, who volunteers with the patrols and works for the band council managing a Health Canada program.
Owens has lived here all his life, and he says sniffing began as a problem more than a decade ago, and it keeps getting worse.
Kennedy estimates he is woken up at least three times a week by the patrols needing a bed for a child who has been sniffing gas.
Kennedy was hired by Southeast Child and Family Services in June to supervise the Pauingassi First Nation CFS office. He knew there were problems in Pauingassi, but he wasn’t prepared for what he found.
Kennedy was even less prepared for the response he got when he asked for help to set up a cultural camp program on a nearby island to give the kids a sense of their culture.
“I’m reaching out for help and I’m not getting anywhere,” he says.
So far, he says, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada has told him there is no more money for new treatment programs, and the provincial government’s response was to fax him a letter suggesting he attend a workshop on addictions.
“That’s not what I need,” says Kennedy, frustration spilling over his face.
Kennedy knows speaking out could land him in trouble, or even get him thrown off the reserve. But he said he can’t stay silent any longer. Next week, Pauingassi has an election for chief and council, and Kennedy feels maybe now is a good time to let the outside world know what is happening.
He wants to find a way to deal with the problem in the community because taking kids out for treatment isn’t working. Thirty kids came back this summer after undergoing treatment, and one by one they’re falling back into sniffing.
It also costs Pauingassi $219 a day per child in treatment. One month recently there were nine kids in a treatment centre and the bill was almost $60,000. Kennedy says giving the kids a culture, a home and a future would be easier and longer lasting.
Solvent abuse on First Nations is not a new problem. Canadians were appalled in 1993 when a tribal police officer in Davis Inlet, Nfld., made public a video of six Innu children getting high on gasoline in an unheated shack, shouting they wanted to die.
The video prompted action in Davis Inlet, not much bigger than Pauingassi. Ottawa spent more than $200 million to move the entire community to a newly built town, hoping running water and heated homes would help rekindle the town and eradicate the social problems. Kids were sent out by the dozen to treatment programs in Ontario and Alberta, but many returned and began sniffing again immediately. Ottawa is continuing to work with the community.
Davis Inlet’s problems seem to mirror those in Pauingassi.
In Pauingassi, 62 of the 120 school-age kids are chronically addicted, and Kennedy estimates most if not all of the kids have been exposed to gasoline at least once. This week, Kennedy came upon a six-year-old with his head in a garbage bag containing gas, and it made him cry.
“The teenagers I can handle, but when I saw that six-year-old, it did something to me,” he says, adding it made him more determined to get help from the outside.
“I think the outside shouldn’t look at it as complaints, but should see it as crying out for help,” says Kennedy.
Dr. Shannon McDonald, program medical officer with Health Canada’s First Nation and Inuit Health Branch, says the government is aware of the situation in Pauingassi and is providing funds for numerous programs within and outside the community. But she says government can’t solve the problem.
“Healing comes from within,” says McDonald. “We can support it as much as possible, but the community has to do it from within.”
The problem, says Kennedy, is that the community has become indifferent to the situation. He says many parents seem not to care that their kids are addicted. And many of the parents are addicted to solvents or alcohol themselves. He says it shocked him the first time he saw an adult watch a child walking by with his head in a garbage bag without going over and taking it away.
“They say it takes a whole community to raise a child, but I don’t see that happening here,” he says. “The parents need to take control. But they just don’t seem to see it.”
Solvent abuse has become a vicious cycle of addiction, passed on through generations of people.
“The kids I grew up with are still sniffing,” says Owens, the night patrol volunteer. “The trouble is they’re not kids anymore. The younger kids see them and then they do it.”
Owens tried sniffing when he was a teenager, but didn’t like it. So he turned to alcohol instead and dropped out of school.
“I tried it, I think almost everybody here does,” he says. “They may not tell you that, but they have.”
The kids use gas because it is the easiest to come by. They siphon it out of gas tanks, or steal jerry cans from garages.
The kids pour a few litres into the bottom of a green garbage bag, and then breathe it in. It takes just a few seconds to develop a high, producing an immediate euphoria. Timed inhales of the fumes can maintain the high for hours before the kids pass out.
Like Davis Inlet, Pauingassi is remote, poor and desolate. Small float-planes and boats are the only ways in and out, because the community has no airstrip.
During spring thaw and fall freeze-up, getting in and out is even harder — residents must take a helicopter 20 kilometres away to Little Grand Rapids, which has a gravel runway for planes.
Built onto the shores of Fishing Lake, it is in the middle of a rustic paradise with tall fir trees and high rock cliffs, crystal-clear water lapping against the sandy shores. But one needn’t move far from the tree-lined shore to realize this is no paradise.
Most of the ramshackle homes have plywood on several windows, and graffiti mars most buildings. All over town, the remnants of homes lie in piles of shredded insulation and broken wood. They were torn down because kids had turned them into sniff dens and destroyed the interior.
The community thought if it got rid of the houses, the kids wouldn’t have any place to get high. But now they go out into the bush. Behind one house, destroyed by kids but not yet torn down, a trail of gasoline-filled garbage bags and litter leads to a mattress where kids are usually found sleeping off their high.
Kennedy says the only blessing is that so far nobody has died. But he knows it’s not long until that happens. Last year, a teenage boy accidentally lit himself on fire while sniffing. He’s been in Winnipeg ever since, being treated for the third-degree burns he suffered all over his body.
Fifteen-year-old Danny is off sniff for the first time in two years. He managed to get clean after spending six months in Winnipeg at a treatment centre. Now Danny, chain-smoking in the back of a car, remembers partying in the woods with his friends every weekend. He was so high he doesn’t remember the night he was found by the night patrol and taken into care.
Since coming back from treatment, he says he won’t do it again.
Kennedy is hopeful Danny will make it, but isn’t optimistic about the chances. He said all of Danny’s friends still sniff and it will be hard for him to resist it.
Like most kids here, Danny isn’t sure what his future holds. He lists math as his favourite subject, but has no idea what he wants to do with his life. And in Pauingassi, there are very few options.
Kids here grow up in extreme poverty, many with alcoholic parents, and they have no sense of self, no sense of a future. Sniffing gasoline and drinking become their escape and their means of entertainment.
Unemployment exceeds 90 per cent, and the $235 per month in social assistance each adult receives doesn’t last long. The remoteness of the community is stifling for kids who haven’t been taught how to live off the land, says Kennedy. Kids can’t even finish high school in Pauingassi. The school goes only to Grade 10. Kids have to go to Winnipeg to graduate.
There is no recreation centre, and few activities outside school. A new school building will open next month to replace the one that burned down a few years ago, and it has a new gym and outdoor ice rink, which some hope will keep kids from sniffing gas.
And Kennedy also set up a recreation program this summer with his daughter’s help, hoping to provide kids with some interesting activities.
“These are the future users if nothing is done,” he says, looking out at more than a dozen kids who are happily sorting through a box of old baseball gloves, preparing to play a game.
Owens says two weekends ago, Pauingassi organized a baseball tournament, invited teams from other reserves, and everyone had fun.
“That weekend there was hardly anyone drunk, and the older kids were playing ball instead of sniffing,” says Owens. “More like that needs to happen.”
- INHALANTS are absorbed into the body through the lungs, and it takes mere seconds to travel through the bloodstream into the heart and brain, producing an immediate and brief intoxication.
- Ron Linklater of the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba said the longer one inhales solvents, the more it takes to generate a noticeable high. And the more one uses the inhalant, the more addicted a person will become.
- The effects of inhaling solvents include hallucinations, euphoria, lethargy, appetite loss, slurred speech and blurred vision.
- The effects can last several hours, but the toxins take up to 10 days to leave the body, causing longer-term effects, such as low energy, headaches, vomiting, mouth and nose sores, nosebleeds, and throat and ear infections. Long-term exposure can damage the liver, kidneys, eyes, bone marrow, heart and blood vessels.
- Some organs will heal if the user stops inhaling, but brain damage is usually permanent, and can bring tremors and hearing loss, and in the worst cases, a shrinking of the brain causing mental defects, memory loss and loss of motor control.
- Inhaling solvents is so dangerous people can die using it just once from a syndrome known as sudden sniffing death, which causes extreme stress on the heart.